September 27, 2013 | 34
Last year, John Conway, Memo Kosemen and myself published All Yesterdays (it also features skeletal reconstructions by the brilliant Scott Hartman), a book that focused specifically on the more speculative aspects of palaeoart: follow the links below for more on this project. If you liked All Yesterdays, you’ll be pleased to hear that there’s a sequel, now online and available to download here. It’s called All Your Yesterdays and it’s essentially a crowdsourced book: we invited people to send in their own, All Yesterdays-style illustrations and the best and most interesting (in the purely subjective sense, of course) are the ones that feature in the book. Memo put the whole thing together and wrote the entries; I wrote an Introduction but my contribution was otherwise minimal. And because I don’t have time to generate anything new, here’s a slightly edited version of said Introduction…
When C. M. “Memo” Kosemen told me and John of his plans to invite people to send in their own All Yesterdays style illustrations for an All Yesterdays-themed competition, I thought it was a tremendously bad idea. I expected a few poor to mediocre bits of art that would most likely be silly and outlandishly speculative. How wrong and stupid I was. The actual results – included in the volume now available here to download – are nothing short of spectacular; I’m blown away by the quantity and quality of the work the invitation attracted.
Those interested in palaeoart – wherever they find themselves in the world of science and art – will, I think, relish this book and the quality of its illustrations. Already I can’t stop thinking about some of my favourite images and I’m secretly afraid that some of them will stay in my mind whenever I look at, or think about, the creatures concerned. The project that Memo decided to title All Your Yesterdays has, in short, been an outstanding success. All Your Yesterdays is a thing of great beauty.
There are so many personal highlights in the volume that it’s difficult to know which pieces to honourably mention in a summary. The invitation attracted professionals and semi-professionals as well as interested amateurs; it’s thrilling to see several pieces by the brilliant and increasingly well known Emily Willoughby, I love Jaime Headden’s Dixon-inspired ‘Giraffapteryx’, and Raven Amos’s ‘Bowertyrants’ piece is wonderful. Other highlights that make the book appear way more professional in appearance than I ever expected include the contributions of All Yesterdays triumvirate member John Conway, and the brilliantly innovative and imaginative works of Joschua Knuppe and Oscar Mendez. The invitation attracted contributions from several household names in the palaeoart ubernerd community: Mike Hanson, Mike Keesey, Julio Lacerda and Simon Roy among them. Seriously: wow. Just… wow!
Remember also that the contributions included in All Your Yesterdays were essentially done for fun, sent in by people purely because they wanted to, not because they were seeking financial gain. It’s probably best here that we don’t get into the whole issue of how palaeoartists (and, indeed, artists in general) can make a living from their work (for the record, the deal isn’t any different for writers and some scientists, either). The point worth making here is that the internet has changed everything: long gone are the days where an artist had to strive to get work published in a mainstream published outlet (like a magazine or book) before their work was noticed or considered worthy. While – given the hardships – we wouldn’t necessarily recommend that anyone try to get into palaeoart or even writing as a possible career path, we sincerely hope that our promotion of the work included in All Your Yesterdays helps its creators in some way.
Does the world need more speculation in palaeoart? It’s complicated
Are we wise in encouraging people to speculate when it comes to palaeoart? This is a complex subject. Scientists tend to think that palaeoart ‘belongs’ in some way to Science, and that people who produce reconstructions of extinct animals can only do so when they portray ancient animals and environments in rigorously accurate fashion, paying attention to the most up-to-date knowledge. Scientifically rigorous art of this sort certainly has its place: we would expect to see it, for example, accompanying a press release on a newly announced fossil animal, or adjacent to a fossil specimen in a museum: for palaeoart of this sort we very much recommend William Stout’s 2009 Prehistoric Life Murals (Stout 2009) and Steve White’s 2012 Dinosaur Art: the World’s Greatest Paleoart (White 2012).
However, the fact that palaeoart combines an element of artistry and speculation – be honest, even the most rigorous, most conservative piece of palaeoart still involves an amount of speculation – means that it is sometimes unclear where the ‘facts’ end and the speculations begin. Remember that animals are often shown eating, standing or resting in certain postures, frequenting specific environments, and are decorated in a given livery. Those are speculations, and even when they appear conservative, they aren’t necessarily correct or worthy.
One of the criticisms levelled at All Yesterdays is that the entire project seemingly made it ok for people to speculate away and do whatever the hell they liked, evidence, conservatism and critical thinking be damned. By inviting people to speculate away and produce even more artwork of the same sort, maybe we’re exacerbating things, arguably opening the floodgates to an endless torrent of evidence-free arm-waving.
There are several responses that need to be made to this claim. As we tried to make clear in All Yesterdays (look at p. 10 in the Introduction), scientific reconstructions of fossil animals should indeed incorporate whatever hard data we have on ancient animals and their environments (Conway et al. 2012). We typically have detailed information on the bony anatomy and thus the proportions and basic shape of a given animal, for example; we can infer a lot about its musculature and integument based on what we know about its living relatives; and we should try to incorporate whatever data we have on environments, climates and the local vegetation. The scientific palaeoart that I and many of my colleagues would consider ‘good’ ticks all of these boxes (though, at the risk of sounding like a stuck record, I will repeat a point I often have: that some of the palaeontologists who advise palaeoartists aren’t aware of the required technical data, or honestly don’t care about the way ancient animals are depicted. These two problems explain the many terrible illustrations we still see in some mainstream books).
However, when it comes to soft tissue anatomy and behaviour, many of the cherished ideas and themes of conventional palaeoart are not always obviously less speculative than the sorts of images we explored in All Yesterdays: they frequently represent historical tropes that were arrived at by accident, they represent assumptions and conventions, and they are even, arguably, reflective of cultural and societal expectations. Sure, there are some illustrations in All Yesterdays that might be a tad unlikely (example: a stegosaur with a giant flexible penis, a plesiosaur that camouflages itself by lying on the seafloor), but there aren’t any that are obviously more unlikely than many of the other illustrations that have been endorsed elsewhere (for example, stegosaurs with hyper-mobile plates, skim-feeding pterosaurs, ceratopsians that form defensive circles, theropods that roar at their prey, and so on).
In short, speculation in palaeoart should be seen as a sliding scale. At which point does a speculation render itself too extreme? And is it even possible to reach said extreme given the ridiculous soft tissue structures and absurd behaviours present in the modern world? It is, in fact, surprisingly difficult to come up with a speculative piece of palaeoart that is unconditionally ridiculous (at least, so long as the basic rules of anatomy, biology and physics are applied, as they are in science-based reconstructions). Critics and detractors would do well to remember this when criticising speculative palaeoart, especially when the art concerned is clearly labelled – as it is – as an exercise in speculation. Remember that, if we’ve learnt anything about living animals and about palaeobiology, it’s that things are more complex, stranger, and more wonderful than we have typically assumed.
It should also be accepted that depictions of ancient animals do not ‘belong’ wholly to science. Images of living animals are frequently incorporated into abstract, fantastical and surrealist works of art: nobody ever said that every image of an animal, ever, has to be an anatomically correct study that faithfully depicts the creature in its natural environment. Art depicting extinct animals can obviously play the same game. Speculative, fun, and even deliberately ‘wrong’ depictions of extinct animals are therefore ‘allowed’ in cases where the artist is not claiming to produce a rigorous scientific reconstruction. Some of the art included in All Your Yesterdays can be seen in this vein. It is not necessarily offered as a scientific bit of palaeoart, but as a stylized image that features a fossil animal.
On that note, much of the palaeoart of the past is now regarded as woefully wrong. The animals have the wrong body shapes, the wrong postures, they are shown engaging in unlikely or absurd behaviours, they are in the wrong environments, the wrong climates, and so on. This does not stop them being worthy, and even beautiful, pieces of art. A few people that admire and love the style created by Knight, Burian, Parker and many of the other great artists of the past are depicting ‘retro’ palaeoart that does not pretend to be scientifically accurate – rather, it is a homage to a specific style. Again, this is ‘allowed’ as an artistic convention; it doesn’t mean that the artist is necessarily trying to portray an imagined reality.
The human experience is rich. We should love what we do; we are passionate, we enjoy thinking about and depicting scenes from the world, from the past, from our lives and from our minds. Art can be driven by science, but it can be divorced from it entirely. Speculative art, ‘retro’ palaeoart, and accurate, high-fidelity reconstructions all have their place in the way we choose to portray the animals of the past. We hope you enjoy the remarkable selection of images we include in All Your Yesterdays. And well done and thank you to everyone that contributed.
All Your Yesterdays can be downloaded here at Irregular Books.
For previous articles on the All Yesterdays project, and our next one – the Cryptozoologicon – go here…
Refs – -
Conway, J., Kosemen, C. M. & Naish, D. 2012. All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals. Irregular Books.
Stout, W. 2009. Prehistoric Life Murals. Flesk, Santa Cruz.
White, S. 2012. Dinosaur Art: the World’s Greatest Paleoart. Titan Books, London.