Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Vintage Dinosaur Art: Dinosaurs of the Southwest

Among followers of the palaeo arts, John McLoughlin is probably best known for his astonishing 1979 opus, Archosauria: A New Look at the Old Dinosaur. Strikingly ahead of its time in some places and eyebrow-raisingly wacky in others, it showcased McLoughlin's unique, monochrome art style and forward-thinking approach to dinosaur science. However, Archosauria wasn't McLoughlin's first foray into palaeo-illustration - three years earlier, he helped bring to life Ronald Paul Ratkevich's Dinosaurs of the Southwest, a book all about the prehistoric denizens of the more south-westerly parts of the USA. It's a fascinating mishmash of the old, the (then) new, and the slightly eccentric.

Firstly, I'd like to thank Andrew Stück and Max Peranteaux for sending me scans and other tidbits; much appreciated. Secondly, I'd like to talk about this cover, which probably wasn't the strongest choice artistically (sounds familiar). Rearing sauropods would still have seemed startlingly energetic back in 1976, but there are some...serious perspective issues afoot with those allosaurs. The fellow at the back boasts the less-than-fetching combination of an anthropmorphic, man-in-suit posture and brachycephalic noggin. You won't find anything that weird outside of Crufts.

Happily, most of the art inside the book is of a much better standard. These Coelophysis are a decent effort for the time, boasting horizontal postures and careful details such as vestigial digits, while their stripy skins are very dashing. This is a noteworthy McLoughlin effort in that it places the animals in a fairly detailed forest setting, complete with fallen tree and low-lying fern cover; as in Archosauria, most of McLoughlin's backdrops are a little sparse, where he bothers with them at all. Of course, those trees in the background do still have a rather flat, picture book feel about them. The book features animals in chronological order, so Coelophysis pops up near the start - however, there are some otherprehistoricanimals that appear first, which I might include in a future post if there's any call for that sort of thing.

On to the Jurassic, and quite possibly my favourite illustration in the book, featuring a fuzzy, grasping coelurosaur that presages the wonderful Ornitholestes in Archosauria. The ominous giant footprint (complete with rather isolated trampled plant - maybe it got stuck to the animal's foot for a while, like a piece of gum) nicely hints at the great diversity of theropods. What the fuzzy fellow is reaching for is unseen. I'll bet you anything it's a bird.

Here are those bully allosaurs again; this is the complete version, with an extra individual to the left making it clear that yes, those forelimbs are really, really far apart. Also, shouldn't at least a part of Diplodocus' tail be visible?

While McLoughlin's illustrations are often very Dinosaur Renaissance, Ratkevich's text is often curiously retro and occasionally outright strange. He presents a view of sauropods as aquatic animals as if overturning the common view that they were land animals. To wit:

"Once thought to have been the largest of land vertebrates, species of sauropods like Brachiosaurus, Diplodocus and Brontosaurus (recently renamed Apatosaurus), are now considered to have been completely, or almost completely, water animals."

It all rather reminds me of toy-dipping crank Brian Ford, who popped up a few years ago to declare that not just sauropods, but all dinosaurs lived exclusively aquatic lives. It didn't make any more sense then that it did back in 1976. Happily, McLoughlin's more forward-thinking approach results in an illustration of Diplodocus very competently roaming terra firma (above), alongside wading Brontos, complete with mismatched heads. 

Given Ratkevich's views on sauropod lifestyles, Brachiosaurus inevitably ends up snorkelling, but McLoughlin notably avoids depicting it standing upright in a lake of convenient depth, as if its legs were made of concrete. Instead, it's floating while punting itself along the bottom with its forelimbs, as sauropods are actually known to have done based on trackway evidence. Of course, because of their air sac system, it's likely that brachiosaurs would have floated higher in the water than shown here, but one can only imagine that McLoughlin was given a brief and worked with it as best he could.

The Jurassic isn't all pug-faced allosaurs and snorkelling sauropods, so here's McLoughlin's take on Ceratosaurus, painfully puncturing some poor unfortunate ornithischian. Oddly, although the horns are present and correct...sort of...there's no sight of the animal's dermal studs. This is a particularly good illustration of McLoughlin's approach to theropod mouths, in that they appear to be quite 'cheeky', with the jaw muscles completely concealed by tissue, contrasting with the more typical crocodilian-style look. It's an approach recently seen in RJ Palmer's latest T. rex.

Of course, not all herbivorous dinosaurs were going to just lie down and take it. Here, a group of stegosaurs have taken over an Escher print and are happily ruining the illusion by removing all the tall plants, only for yet another pesky pug-faced allosaur to appear! Immediately the lead animal, er, flops down on its side, for as the caption states, this was the only effective way to defend itself. Oh yes. The text makes a great deal of the stegosaurs' tiny brains, noting that "reptilian brain matter, unlike that of mammals, is incapable of complex thought processes and rapid interpretation of environmental stimuli". If you espouse that sort of thing these days you'll be thoroughly ridiculed, be allowed to give a talk at the Dinosaur Society's Dinosaur Days in London, or both. McLoughlin fans will note that this slightly silly stegosaur posture would be re-used by the artist in Archosauria, as would another infamous idea...which we'll get to shortly.

Onwards to the Cretaceous, and stegosaurs are superseded by ankylosaurs, with armour like chainmail, backs like a dining table, and clubs more lethal than that one you went to while at university where the toilets broke all manner of environmental health regulations. You know the one. In spite of the baffling caption, the lower animal here appears to be Scolosaurus (with typical squatting posture and spiked tail club), while the upper animal appears to be "Palaeoscincus", a dubious genus often restored as a mishmash of Ankylosaurus and Edmontonia parts. While the overly stubby legs and short tails are typical of the period, McLoughlin pays far more attention to the head than most artists.

Here's that other strange idea that Archosauria is infamous for; ceratopsian frills being embedded in their necks. Ratkevich asserts that the frill
"...was not a kind of protective armour, but rather a single, great connection for the muscles needed to support a head which may have weighed as much as two tons, and to operate the animal's lower jaw during feeding. If this is indeed the case, none of the frill would have protruded."
As I mentioned in my Archosauria post on the subject, this makes absolutely no sense from a biomechanical standpoint, especially as so many ceratopsians' frills curve strongly upwards. Still, it's interesting to see the idea illustrated again here - I'm not aware of it being featured anywhere else other than Archosauria (but please correct me if you know better). While McLoughlin's Triceratops here are less alarming than the stitched-together Frankendinos in Archosauria (epoccipitals? What epoccipitals?), the gangly tyrannosaurs in the distance are quite uncanny.

When tyrannosaurs are featured as the main subjects in illustrations their proportions aren't half as weird, although other aspects of their anatomy are a litle strange; this Gorgosaurus' arms are jutting out in a most peculiar way. All the same, it's commendable that McLoughlin gave us a relatively svelte, horizontal, dynamic-looking restoration in 1976, a time when most artists were content to copy tail-dragging, lizardy restorations from decades before. Note also the lips, although those were pretty much the norm back then. Oh, and the leopard-like spotted hide. Lovely.

And's Rexy, a weighty, reptilian tyrant with tiny hands. Reminds me of someone. This illustration is remarkably less weird-looking that McLoughlin's later effort in Archosauria, which somewhat suffered from having an undersized head (on an animal famous for having a yooge head). The animal in the above piece is much more recognisably Rexy, its slightly undermuscled frame and overly long tail being merely typical of restorations at the time (note that McLoughlin sticks with a horizontal posture for this bigliest of theropods). While some authors at the time had proposed that T. rex was a feckless scavenger with teeth made of fine china and all the mighty predatory strength of a guinea pig, Ratkevich remarks that "no other animal, living or extinct, has ever matched the awesome power and ferocity of this species". Yer dern right.

Next time: something else! Unless you'd like to see more from Dinosaurs of the Southwest, in which case, you know where to comment...


  1. It struck me that those distant tyrannosaurs in the bizarro-world Triceratops artwork seemed familiar. Then it hit me. They remind me of the eponymous Tripods from the 1980s TV series, based on John Christopher's books. I think it's the needle legs.

    I know it's VDA and not VPLA (Prehistoric Life) ... but consider this a vote (if that's not a dirty word) for more from DotS! :)

    1. Oddly enough, I thought of the exact same thing--they're so tall, and so weirdly remote.

  2. I keep expecting to see these in that Coelophysis forest:

    "This is a particularly good illustration of McLoughlin's approach to theropod mouths, in that they appear to be quite 'cheeky', with the jaw muscles completely concealed by tissue, contrasting with the more typical crocodilian-style look. It's an approach recently seen in RJ Palmer's latest T. rex."

    Byootiful tyrannosaur. I like the monitor-like lips and gums too.
    The croc-mouth in theropods is something I've also thought about. I used to be all for it, running all the way to the back (and up to the ear) with a little flap of skin standing in for the pterygoideus and adductor mandibulae; mostly through Graham Rosewarne's GSP-style illustrations in the old Orbis magazine. But looking at living theropods, the fleshy corner of the mouth doesn't seem to go far past the midpoint of the jugal or orbit. (not that I've made an extensive study, mind you) For that particular little feature, crocodylian and squamate references start to look... not inadequate, but too far at the wrong end of the phylogenetic bracket. But maybe I'm wrong, especially with recent discussion about those monitor-like lips...

    And I'd quite like to see some andotherprehistoricanimals, too.

  3. Nostalgia rush! Thanks for these, more please!

  4. Count another vote for the andotherprehistoricanimals.

    Given the airsacs, could a sauropod submerge at all?

  5. Glad I could contribute! I have another couple books I think you'll like that I need to scan...

  6. Aww! Aren't those ankylosaurs cute! I want a puppy ankylosaurus for Christmas.

  7. If I'm not mistaken this is the book Greg Paul refers to as "one of the worst dinosaur books ever written" in Predatory Dinosaurs of the World. Is the text as wacky as he implied?

    1. It certainly is. Dinosaurs could regrow entire limbs, apparently...

  8. Though not strictly dinosaurs, McLoughlin's illustrations for "Syanapsida" are fun, too.

    1. Synapses are very far from dinosaurs genetically speaking, but it would be a good book to look at regardless.

  9. I am glad that I could finally help contribute, although these don't look like the exact photos I took hopefully the fact that I was at least trying to help should make it clear that all of us here love you… Well the vast majority of people here love you, because you do amazing things.

    1. I love this book because of how zany it is at times, otherwise I don't think I would've recommended it, I mean really of course the sauropod would've felt something if you cut its tail off.

  10. I had this one but didn't love the art style and especially hated the idea of Triceratops frills embedded in their necks. Probably one of my least favorite dinosaur books as a kid.


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