Dinosaur Art: A Feast For The Mind, Senses, And Imagination
September 3, 2012

Dinosaur Art: A Feast For The Mind, Senses, And Imagination

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Although almost every college or university has an Arts and Sciences department, combining everything from theater and studio art to biology and geology under one roof, most of us consider these two disciplines as being not only separate but polar opposites.

Artists are freethinking, creative creatures who entertain and amaze us with what never was and never could be. They create illusions. Scientists are solid, empirical thinkers who show us exactly what is and what was with no padding or fluff. They dispel illusions with the hard light of truth.

It seems like these two worlds would never collide, and if they did it would be explosive. But think about it for a bit, scientists are regularly inspired by science fiction authors, and botanists and biologists are required to create precise and lifelike drawings. Where would this marriage of creativity and rigorous scientific inquiry better meet than in the world of dinosaurs?

Dr. Philip J. Currie, Canada Research Chair in Dinosaur Paleobiology at the University of Alberta explains, "There are many reasons for this. First and foremost is that dinosaurs and other animals preserved only as fossils need to be interpreted. [...] A good piece of art looks realistic, and when it really works, it brings the fossils to life, even for the scientist!"

Dr. Scott Sampson, Research Curator at the Natural History Museum of Utah, says that paleoart is a time machine, "craft[ing] the lens through which we gaze upon bygone worlds."

With a short, witty introduction to the Dinosaur Renaissance, editor Steve White opens the discussion of art and science that continues throughout the book. White describes the evolution of the genre of paleoart from Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins in the mid 1800's to the digital media and CGI artists of today.

"Paleoart is a rather unique scientific discipline in that many scientists are pretty solid artists while a number of artists have acquired serious scholarly reputations."

White's assessment of the popular growth of paleoart is both informative and frank — he doesn't pull any punches as he lays out both the positive and negative elements.

This beautiful coffee table book introduces us to ten of the world's most influential paleoartists. You have probably seen their work if you have ever been to a museum of natural history, or read a book about dinosaurs, or watched the movie, Jurassic Park. They are scientists, artists, explorers with credentials ranging from "self taught" to PhD's in microbiology.

The format is that of a personal interview with each of the ten artists — creating a deep and immediate connection between the art, the artist and the reader.

The ten artists; Mauricio Anton, John Conway, Julius Csotonyi, Douglas Henderson, Todd Marshall, Raul Martin, Robert Nicholls, Gregory S. Paul, Luis Rey, and John Sibbick; give thoughtful and insightful answers to questions that range from technicalities about coloration and musculature, to major influences, to "What came first, dinosaurs or art?"

The only distracting element to these interviews, and indeed the whole book, is that sometimes they are interrupted mid-answer for a short discussion of a particular dinosaur with all the pertinent scientific information and illustrations. The problem is that these are presented in exactly the same typeface and style as the interviews, so it throws the reader out of this intimate discussion with the artist without warning.

All of the artists display amazing works that overwhelm the senses. Every media is represented; pencils, pastels, oil and acrylic paints, and digital creations. To say much more would give away too much, I think, but I do have my own personal favorites.

Doug Henderson is a self taught artist whose work ranges from photography to pastels, from Disney animation to Jurassic Park. The most fascinating aspect of Henderson's work, however, is that he isn't a dinosaur artist. As White says, Henderson is "a landscape artist whose images just happen to feature prehistoric animals." Henderson sticks with traditional media, so far, saying for him something essential is absent from digital art, though he would like to learn more.

Henderson represents the artistic dream. He had a "real job" as a nurse back in 1977 when he decided to give it all up and hike the Great Divide Trail from Canada to Gardiner, Montana (which he describes as the "Pleistocene with pickup trucks") where he stopped for the winter. He decided to take up drawing that winter, and the rest, as they say is history. He has become one of the premiere paleoartists in the world.

My other favorite is Luis Rey. Of Spanish-Mexican heritage, Rey is known for his challenging and flamboyant style that even he admits had him blacklisted in academia for a while. Though Rey is a denizen of London, his use of vibrant colors seems to draw from his Latin heritage.

As the illustrator of what is currently the most popular book on dinosaurs available, Rey has a unique position in the world of paleoart. He says that though he was once considered revolutionary, today he is almost conservative because of his absolute devotion to realism. He lays into artists who don't do their anatomical homework. He's also rather firm in his belief that the paleoartist should teach editors, curators and others and not be led or pushed by them into creating something inaccurate. "I have refused to do artwork that implied inaccuracies (like doing a Velociraptor without feathers)."

No discussion of this book could be complete without mentioning Gregory Paul. Paul's work in paleoart is seminal, nearly every other artist in the book lists Paul as a major influence. Paul is an artist who has become a scientist by osmosis, almost. He has renamed several dinosaurs and even has two named after him. Paul has written and illustrated a plethora of books and had a hand in Jurassic Park and several TV shows.

Paul's answers, while short and almost terse at times, give insight into what drives his art, and his science. He seems to agree with Rey that the biggest failing of paleoartists is inaccuracy, citing poor skeletal restorations with sloppy renditions of soft tissues. Paul's work can be found in books, movies, museums and private collections around the world. He is inarguably one of the most influential paleoartists today.

Overall, Dinosaur Art and the artists whose work is displayed within its pages are a feast for the mind, the senses, and the imagination. It strives to illustrate not only the dinosaurs, but the art and science that bring them alive for us all.

Dinosaur Art: The World's Greatest Paleoart edited by Steve White. London: Titan Books, 2012. 188pp. $34.95. ISBN:9780857685841