Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Vintage Dinosaur Art: How to Draw Dinosaurs

How to Draw Dinosaurs (by John Raymond, who appears to have been both author and illustrator; first published in 1977 and my copy from 1985) is an intriguing book that I picked up at a thrift shop several years ago. Part of “The Working Artist Series”, it’s a fairly large-format learn-to-draw book with the typical step-by-step instructions for how to replicate the finished drawing, although the steps are at times somewhat inscrutable to my eye. A major bonus, though, is the inclusion several sheets of tracing paper bound in front of the ‘finished’ drawings. The first part of the book also includes about 30 pages of drawing instruction and tips, including notes about materials, shading, lines, perspective, and how to break down complex forms into simple shapes. It’s a great start and I had high hopes for what I’d find inside, especially given the attractive (if retro) Stegosaurus on the cover.

The early pages of the book include dinosaurs with some frankly questionable anatomy, with a definite old-school aesthetic – this Tyrannosaurus clearly draws inspiration from the Sinclair World’s Fair Tyrannosaurus, chunky legs and all.

The drawings nevertheless were appealing to whoever owned this book before me, since this one and many others were lovingly traced and shaded.

Ankylosaurs rarely fare well in these kinds of books, and this Ankylosaurus comes complete with lego-brick osteoderms, mammalian pinnae, some sort of developmental issue on its face, and feet that are best not thought about in great detail. Notably missing is the iconic tail club, unusual for a book published in the 1980s! (What is even the point, my friends, of including Ankylosaurus if there is no tail club?) This guy is a good example of the drawing quality at the beginning of the book, where the illustrations have a quick, sketchy feel and the linework and perspective are at times a bit dodgy. We can perhaps forgive the level of rigour in these drawings as a concession towards simpler shapes for the purposes of beginner artists and tracers.

Towards the middle of the book the art has a noticeable uptick in quality, with smoother lines and more finished shading. The anatomy is a bit more on track, but something has gone terribly wrong with this artist’s understanding of tail anatomy in dinosaurs. I like how muscular this Pachycephalosaurus looks, as though it’s ready to just wallop the snot out of anything that looks at it the wrong way. This and the next few illustrations have a unique style and personality that is hard not to find charming, even if the reconstructions themselves are dated or a bit off.

I rather like this Acrocanthosaurus if for no other reason than it is a very uncommon taxon to find in popular dinosaur books, and because I really like how this dude is jabbing its claws just straight into that poor hadrosaur. The tall neural spines that give Acrocanthosaurus its name probably weren’t as visibly pronounced in life as they are restored here, but it’s a cool take on an unusual dinosaur and I have to admit I kind of like it. It is best to ignore the backwards feet on the hadrosaur. 

 And as a final excerpt from the middle of the book, I present a sort of alright Corythosaurus but also with some palaeo-horses in the foreground, an inscrutable choice indeed. I like the stripes on this Corythosaurus as well as the interesting texture on the nasal crest, which, while incorrect, is seemingly drawn from actual specimens since the Corythosaurus mummy at the AMNH has a similar texture on its crest.

The end of the book becomes abruptly unhinged and the drawing style changes once again to a loose, sketchy, unfinished appearance. Here we get our first feathered dinosaur, Archaeopteryx, with a particularly interesting flowing mane.

Unfortunately, everything goes completely off the rails in the final image in the book. I can only imagine what was happening in the illustrator or editor’s room at the time this particular piece was in progress. Do hadrosaurs swim with ichthyosaurs? Do they have flippers? Do they even have bilaterally symmetrical limb adaptations? What’s going on with the perspective on that ichthyosaur? So many questions, all of which will remain unanswered.

I’m always a bit disappointed when ‘learn to draw’ books have shabby art inside them, since these represent a really cool opportunity to teach people about dinosaur anatomy and evolution. I use sketching projects in the palaeontology lab courses I’ve taught, since sketching makes you slow down and really look at the anatomy in front of you. When I’m doing my own research in museums, I draw every specimen I examine. Drawing is an important and sometimes overlooked skill in science, and dinosaurs + art are an obvious and fun combination. Sadly, How to Draw Dinosaurs is a missed opportunity for this kind of close observation and slow reading, and is particularly a shame given the extensive art instruction pages that make up the first half of the book and the neat features like the tracing pages. Nevertheless, there is a charm to some of the nicer illustrations in the middle of the book, and I'm interested to know if Raymond has other palaeo-art floating around out there. Until next time!


  1. I have to aay, Victoria, you're a lot more generous towards the book than I would be! That said, it looks like they're - perhaps ironically - constructing a good, chunky caudofemoralis on that tyrannosaur.

    (Sounds like an idea for an investigation that I'm far too lazy to do. Before the 'shrink-wrapped' era of palaeoart, how were palaeoartists reconstructing dinosaur tails and musculature? Maybe not so much the genericosaurs in this kind of book, but I would've given a penny for Charles Knight's or Zdeněk Burian's thoughts.)

    The skin texture on the better drawings still looks quite strange to me, almost like comic-style burn scars. As if we're looking at a mesozoic populated by dinosaurian Harvey Dents. But compared to the worse drawings -blimey! I've seen some bad, cash-in how-to-draw books. (Heck, I've seen Chris Hart how-to-draw books) But this is something else...

  2. As these posts often do, nostalgia alarms start ringing!!

    That Acrocanthosaurus looks especially familiar - I believe there's a very similar pose in this book "Dinosaurs of North America" by Sattler/illustrated by Anthony Rao. ( I'll try to find the book at home and point out what I mean!


  3. Ah yes - thank you internet for allowing me to read an eBook of this book with just a little detective works!

    Anyhow - check out some of the comparisons here to Anthony Rao's dinosaurs, from a book published in 1981:

    Acrocanthosaurus: almost an identical "mini-sail" in both images, plus the muscular, semi-human arm and long triple fingers, short fat tail, and impossibly shaped feet and toes!

    Allosaurus with kill seems to borrow a pose - this is likely what triggered my memory as being somewhat similar!

    anyhow - love how the brain works! SO COOOL.

    1. Very interesting - so the anatomy was taken from Rao's illustrations but posed uniquely (or at least blended with an existing pose). So often I think we just see straight up copies of the original pose.

  4. I knew I've seen that exact Corythosaurus before. Here you go, it's Zallinger: (third picture)

    1. Great catch! Still so weird to see that single flipper in there, though!


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