Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Paleoart Addendum: An Interview with Mark Witton

I recently got the chance to write a piece for The Atlantic about the history of dinosaur illustration, jumping off of Zoe Lescaze's Paleoart and Steve White's Dinosaur Art 2, which our own Marc gave a stellar review. (I liked it quite a bit myself.)

 In discussing modern paleoart, I did what anybody would do and talked to Dr. Mark Witton about theories and best practices. Only a little bit of that conversation made it into the piece--it's a thing that happens, what with editors and such--but I liked the conversation enough I asked Mark if we could run it here, to which he graciously assented. He's got very interesting stuff to say after the jump!

Scaly Tyrannosaurus, Copyright Mark Witton

What is paleoart, as distinct from art that happens to have extinct species or landscapes in it?  

Palaeoart is probably best identified by having three essential components: 1, an extinct subject species; 2, a restorative component (we're not just drawing fossils, but trying to rebuild the entire organism) and 3, an honest attempt to incorporate contemporary scientific understanding into the artwork, not just restoring the subject according to whims or personal preferences. The latter is especially important because there is a lot of art out there - including most toys, books and movies featuring fossil animals - that only hits the first two criteria. Palaeoart isn't just inspired by extinct subjects, but is an attempt to recreate extinct life as credibly as we can using available data. To my mind, we have to view products like Jurassic World as not really being palaeoart because their dinosaurs are produced in defiance of scientific data. Such works are inspired by palaeontology, but at some point in their reconstruction process non-scientific factors become dominant and they ceased being works of actual palaeoart.

What are some of the artistic and scientific tensions in paleoart? (I've been thinking of paleoart-as-aesthetic vs paleoart-as-education a lot recently, but I'm curious if you can think of any others.) 

Particularly for PR or educational work there is, as you indicate, some push and pull about illustrating an organism in a very matter of fact, unambiguous way and making a more artistically interesting piece of work. These things aren't incompatible, but aspects that make for a clear picture (e.g. high key lighting, uncluttered settings, simple posing and so on) do restrict the creative aspects of palaeoart. Animals in shadow or hidden by vegetation look cool, but aren't that great for showing their appearance.

There's also the struggle between giving people what they expect or like vs. giving them our best guess of reality. This is especially a problem as we continually 'ground' the past against more elaborate ideas of previous decades. It's increasingly apparent that predatory dinosaurs weren't indestructible murder locomotives and that many ferocious-looking animals were actually covered in soft, huggable anatomy, but we still get asked to restore things in line with older ideas because they're more familiar or marketable. 

Shingleback Triceratops, Copyright Mark Witton
Much of the current mode of paleoart seems to tilt toward extremely detailed naturalism or photo-realism. One of the things I find interesting about your style is how impressionistic and classically composed it often feels. What are some artistic styles or movements you think it would be interesting to see paleoart move into?  

I must admit to enjoying palaeoartworks which don't go crazy with detail or photorealism. Not that there's anything wrong with hyperrealism, but it seems to be considered the sole zenith of the modern genre and most artists push towards it as a goal. This wasn't always the case. Plucking a few well-known names from across 20th century palaeoart: the work of Knight and Burian is very painterly, with bold (not always realistic) uses of colour, shadow and sometimes borderline impressionism (particularly for Knight); Neave Parker used a bizarre, near-monochrome colour palate with harsh lighting regimes; and William Stout's work has a pulpy, comic-book vibe. These guys are miles apart stylistically, but are have been at the top of the field at one time or another. 

Nowadays however, our greatest artists are stylistically more similar, and there's relatively few people experimenting with alternative approaches. Of those that do, only a fraction work with scientists, educators and so on. This is a shame, because our media are increasingly diverse and we could - with different art styles - be taking palaeoart into new formats, adapting it for different technologies, reaching new audiences and so on. Perhaps this conservatism is because our evaluation of palaeoart artistry is mostly clinical and scientific: our community mostly praises detail, photorealism and clarity of anatomy over composition, mood, and creativity. 

I would like to see some more creative approaches to palaeoart being explored and rewarded in the community, but this goes beyond which sorts of paints or software we might use. There's an interesting question about how far from realism palaeoart can get before it stops being palaeoart. Certain styles distort reality by necessity, so if we simplify the form of our subjects into basic geometries, produce palaeoart caricatures, or apply surreal colour palates, are we still making palaeoart? This is clearly a subjective matter but, for me, so long as the artwork shows evidence of scientific homework, and the important, characterising aspects of the subjects remain clear, then yes, I think we're still in the palaeoart genre. There are several people experimenting with these approaches nowadays - David Orr, Johan Egerkrans, Raven Amos and Rebecca Groom - and they show that you produce stylised artwork of extinct animals without losing sight of the subject species. An Egerkranian Allosaurus is stylised, but you can tell it's an Allosaurus, not just a generic cartoon theropod. I'd like to see us exploring this sort of thing more - we're still scratching the surface of palaeoart's potential diversity.

It feels like there's a growing anti-conservative mood in paleoart these days. Can you talk a little bit about the All Yesterdays movement, and what scientific and artistic ideas that's playing off of? How much of it comes from internalizing the idea that all paleoart is probably going to be eventually obsolete? 

The All Yesterdays movement is really a complex of ideas. Very succinctly summarised, it embraces the need for reasoned speculation to make convincing looking life reconstructions, encourages less conservative approaches to soft-tissue anatomy and behaviour, and calls for less tropey subject matter. We are definitely living in a world impacted by the All Yesterdays book and associated movement. The success of All Yesterdays isn't that surprising because, as the authors admit, they captured ideas that were already emerging among artists and commenters, but articulated them better than anyone else. Partly this was because their knowledge and respect for palaeontology and palaeoart meant they could put these ideas into a historic and scientific context, as well as synthesise these disparate threads into a logical message. They saw the way the wind was blowing and accelerated us in that direction, creating a new palaeoart philosophy along the way.

There is a nihilistic aspect to All Yesterdays, a devil-may-care philosophy that says we don't really know what's right or wrong about our reconstructions, so we might as well be as bold with them as our science will allow. But I don't think this is is cynical or defeatist, or reflective of the impending obsolescence of artwork (predicting which palaeoart will be superseded is a tricky business - some has maintained credibility for decades or centuries). It's more just about being honest, and exploring many possible truths rather than one tried-and-tested take on a subject species. If we assume that recreating the true reality of our past is a palaeoart goal, then exploring many options for life appearance is going to bring us closer to that than sticking to one reconstruction variant. 

Centrosaurus reconstruction, Copyright Mark Witton

Paleoart is also one of the few forms of illustration/fine art that is often binned for scientific obsolescence. Does that lead to a sense of disposability or unseriousness? What is the value of Knight, Burian, or other "outdated" artists? And how do you proceed when you know you're probably going to be wrong? 

Personally, I don't worry about obsolescence. It's always a risk, but if you dwell on it too much then you'd never do any palaeoart - why create something which could be invalidated by a new discovery next week? Our work will always have value as a record of contemporary scientific thinking, and that's fine with me. This is certainly how we now regard the likes of Knight or Burian - they're not lousy artists for getting it wrong, but guys who did the best the could with the data and advice they had at the time. All palaeoart is basically just a lavishly produced placeholder - "here's a painting of what we think today". All this said, the fact that our work is falsifiable reinforces the fact that we should check our interpretations are scientifically watertight before creating an artwork. I don't mind being shown wrong by new discoveries, but I don't want to be wrong before I even start a piece of work. 

Building of of that further: One bit of friction in the paleoart world often seems to be that various scientists treat it as an afterthought or inherently unserious. Why is that? What are some of the darker sides of paleoart as a discipline, and why are things like art-theft, issues of credit, and such consistently issues? How do we get more scientists to take art seriously? 

There are probably lots of causes for flippancy from scientists. One might be that palaeoartistry is the application of a very specialised science - the science of extinct animal life appearance - and most folks are not experts on this matter. That's worth unpacking. Someone can be an expert in finding fossils and describing bones, producing FEA analyses of skulls or making PCA plots of character data, and this means they might know a fossil species inside out. But that doesn't mean that they know what their data means for the appearance of their subject species. Indeed, the simple question of life appearance is not a hot topic among researchers - it's rare to go to a conference and see a talk where life appearance attributes are discussed simply because it's cool to know what fossil animals looked like. This means that life appearance might only be considered when the time comes to publicise a study, where we end up cobbling things together at the last minute instead of making thorough studies.

This brings us to another issue: time. Palaeoart is often sought close to the time it's needed, such as immediately before the publication date of a scientific paper, or when a magazine or book publisher realises that they need an artwork that can't be bought off the shelf. Magazines and TV companies are especially bad for this, often working to deadlines which are, to normal people, completely insane. Again, the consequence is art produced under duress where just the goal is just to have the artwork, and quality is secondary.

A lack of time and money probably play into the plagiarist sides of palaeoart. The fact is that producing good original palaeoart is not a quick process and, if you're employed into a job where you have no time to spare, or are being paid so little that you want to do a job quickly, it can be easier to copy than it is to create. That said, some palaeoartists just seem to think it's OK to copy the work of others, regardless of who they're working for or the nature of the job. We shouldn't pretend that this is OK - serial plagiarists within our own community should not be getting work.

An increased appreciation for the scientific basis for palaeoart would probably increase respect for the medium. Palaeoart is not a science, but it is based on a science with real depth. The number of studies with insight into extinct animal life appearance is growing and we - as a community of scientists and artists - need to get on board with these new data. There's a heck of a lot of information waiting to be incorporated into our artwork, some of which is of interest to palaeobiological theory, too. There are fewer and fewer parts of palaeoart that we approach completely blind, and in all likelihood scientists would learn a lot about their subjects from more sustained and developed relationships with palaeoartists.

Zuul, Copyright Mark Witton

Memes and tropes are common in paleontological art. What are some of your favorites or least favorites? Why is copying so common, and why do you think some memes are everywhere and others don't seem to catch on?

I don't know that I have strong positive or negative feelings to any particular memes. Spotting them in vintage art is fun, especially some of the more unusual ones, as is putting them together in sequence to identify the progression over time. Some palaeoart tropes or memes go back decades, and are replicated in dozens of images, and it can be fascinating seeing the whim of one artist become canonised across generations. Seeing them in modern palaeoart is a little more tedious, though: "another roaring dinosaur, eh? Not seen that before."

I think a lot of memeification stems from lack of information about certain animals. Jobbing illustrators and amateur palaeoartists often reference existing artwork rather than attempt their own ground-up reconstruction so, if there's only one or two images of a species dominates (either through popularity or availability), subsequent works are going to look similar. Similarly, if there's only a few well-known factoids about a given subject, they tend to be replicated over and over in art. Overriding all this is marketability: when working for commercial clients, artists are encouraged to show the same behaviours or anatomy that are known to help shift merchandise, no matter how stereotyped that depiction has become. It is very difficult trying to get more nuanced depictions adopted into mass-media products because anything outside the norm is a commercial risk.

You're working on an artist's how-to manual for paleoart. Can you talk a little bit about your goals for that project, and some of the techniques and best-practices you'd like to see used more? 

The Palaeoart Handbook is being finished right now - the manuscript will be submitted before the end of the year, so it'll be in the shops in 2018. It's not a typical 'how to draw prehistoric animals' book with guides on how to block out a mammoth, what geometry informs a Tyrannosaurus or whatever, but attempts to synthesize palaeoart theory into a format that everyone can understand. It's more about palaeoart methods and philosophy than it is restoring any specific group. The goal is to emphasise that palaeoart has a strong scientific and methodological backbone and that, if you're involved in restoring fossil animals, then there's process, there's data, and there's knowledge that you should be aware of. To that end, it covers palaeoart history and development, suggestions of where to find good reference material (and what to avoid), detailed discussion of reconstruction processes and philosophy (things like anatomical speculation, detailing, style choices and so on) as well as some practical guidelines for scientist-artists collaborations.

I don't think there's ever been such a detailed analysis of the medium before. Hopefully, it'll be useful to artists of all levels, scientists who collaborate with artists, and of interest to anyone who's ever wondered about the palaeoart process.

Garjaina, Copyright Mark Witton

Finally, can you talk a bit about Life Through the Ages 2, and what inspired you to revisit Knight?

Life Through the Ages II is another book that will be out next year - over eight decades after Knight's original Life Through the Ages. The idea for this sequel book came from being a fan of Knight's work (isn't everyone?) and wondering how to tackle the same project 80 years on.

There is a odd contradiction to Knight's work in that it's artistically timeless but scientifically dated, and writing a sequel to his work is an opportunity to explore that. I guess there are lots of similarly themed 'walk-through-time' narratives that I could have followed up but Knight's work is so historically entrenched within palaeoart that it's clearly the act to follow. His shadow is over the project, of course, but I hope that's a positive - it's good to be spurred on to achieve bigger and better things. I'm certainly trying to push my artwork as far as I can so it doesn't look so bad when the inevitable comparisons are made (I know what the outcome will be - I'm playing to close the gap, not win).

This book should have the broadest appeal of any of my projects to date. The bulk is aimed at a general audience, just like Knight's was, but there's a discussion of Knight's work and the ephemeral nature of palaeoart that gives it a scholarly edge. There is a lot of new artwork in there that most people haven't seen yet, and lots of topics that I've never tackled before. But it's also very referential to Knight's original. Nods to the first Life Through The Ages include new takes on some Knight's original compositions, tribute elements in painting backgrounds or simply updated takes on species he once illustrated. I hoping the result is something that's respectful without being derivative, and shows an influence from Knight without trying to copy him.


  1. Will LTA2 contain original Knight artwork so that one can compare it side by side with Witton's takes?

  2. And so the word "Egerkranian" officially enters the English language.

    Thanks for the shout out and for a great read!


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