Tyler Keillor (pronounced "KEEL-er") is a soft-spoken, understated paleoartist whose work is anything but. He works at the University of Chicago as a paleoartist, reconstructing creatures that paleontologist Paul Sereno excavates on his expeditions around the world. When I met Tyler eleven years ago, he was working in a cavernous, three-story high cinderblock warehouse, with no heat and no ventilation (Sereno has since turned the space into a world-class dinosaur prep lab). The walls were lined with industrial shelves stacked to the ceiling with massive plaster-encased boulders. On any given day, you could walk into the lab and see Tyler and the other fossil preparators scratching away at the rock to uncover the dinosaur bones contained within. But his work doesn't end when the skeletons are exposed and put back together. For him, this is just the starting point for creating life-like reconstructions of animals like Sarcosuchus, Nigersaurus, and Rugops. The detail and craftsmanship that goes into these pieces has always astonished me. I interviewed Tyler over email on Sept. 25, 2011. Enjoy!
Interview with Tyler Keillor, Paleoartist
How long have you been a paleoartist?
I’d been drawing dinosaurs and attempting to sculpt them even as a little kid. My early attempts were always frustrating, because I didn’t have the skills to create details, or knowledge of anatomy. But I had a workshop in my parents’ basement starting in about 7th grade, and they encouraged my experimentation with molding, casting, creating. Over my college years I developed more of the skills that I use today, in the pursuit of a special effects makeup career in film. But my experiences in the entertainment industry weren’t all I hoped for, so I came back to my earliest love of dinosaurs. I began honing my skills on personal paleoart projects, and reacquainting myself with the latest in paleontology in the mid-nineties. I guess you could say that one of my first official jobs as a paleoartist came in 1999 when I was working for the Field Museum of Natural History, in the Exhibition Department: I sculpted a maquette of Sue’s skeleton, as a conceptualization tool for planning the full size T-rex display. I created a few paleo-related models and exhibit pieces for the Field, but then moved on to working in Paul Sereno’s Fossil Laboratory at the University of Chicago in 2001. This is where I have had a chance to flourish as a paleoartist.
What’s your background?
My initial training was all mad scientist type experiments, trial and error as a kid in my basement workshop at my folks’ house. I loved any kind of dinosaur or monster movie back then – any film with a stop-motion dinosaur, man-in-suit monster, or a puppet creature of some kind (way before CGI). I tried to replicate the creations I saw in movies and learn how to make things following Dick Smith’s Monster Makeup Handbook and Tom Savini’s Bizzaro. Those formative years gave me a feel for working with clay and plaster, liquid latex, glue guns, fake fur and plastic eyes, etc. I had a basement full of rubber monsters and zombies sitting in lawn chairs – always a hit at Halloween!
While attending Columbia College in Chicago, I pursued special effects more seriously, and was accepted into Dick Smith’s Advanced Professional Correspondence Course. I also began assisting Chicago area makeup artists, and working on film, theater, and TV projects. This might not seem relevant, however many of the same skills and techniques that I learned then help me even today. In particular, I remember a really big goal in creating any given prosthetic makeup was for it to look “real”. My peers and I would study the makeup effects in any film and look for bad edges (a sign of poor molding and casting); we’d critique the design or sculpting, and analyze the coloration. The goal was always to create as lifelike a character as possible, creating an illusion within the confines of the materials available (for example, foam latex prosthetic pieces are not translucent like real flesh, so skillful coloration is necessary to convey life to rubber). That mission to create as lifelike a character, creature, or sculpture is the same that motivates me today in creating paleosculptures.
My varied portfolio and background also held weight with Paul Sereno when I eventually came to work for him, because he too has an art background. Since working for him, I’ve had the opportunity to continue experimentation with new and different materials and techniques for molding, casting, and sculpting. The fossil preparation that is a part of my job description is a skill that I learned “on the job” from lab manager Bob Masek – and it is something that I still learn more about all the time. While this isn’t really a part of the paleoart that I create, it nevertheless gives my artwork the authenticity and accuracy I’m interested in, as I become intimately familiar with the fossil specimens that I go on to recreate in the flesh.
When was the first time you realized you could combine science and art into a career? Was that always a goal of yours or was it a more organic evolution?
My path has had many twists and turns, so I did not have an initial goal of combining science and art. But these have always been twin interests of mine, and I loved both subjects throughout my schooling. My first attempts at paleoart (the personal projects) were much more art than science, because I really didn’t know enough about my subject matter. My work since 2001, after starting in Paul Sereno’s lab, has really demonstrated for me that I can indeed combine science and art into a career, and that there is a need for this type of artwork. Often a new discovery is incomplete, crushed, or otherwise visually difficult for the layman to understand at a glance. I’ve been able to help create models – both skeletal and flesh – to more readily convey the significance of discoveries to the public. And based upon several of the high profile projects I have worked on for Paul, I have started to get reconstruction assignments from other researchers and institutions, to help unveil their new discoveries as well.
Do you have a favorite project you’ve worked on? (pics, please!!)
The majority of my projects so far have represented new species, so each one has had its own very special set of challenges – artistic and technical – and so in their own ways each project became my favorite at the time I was working on it.
For example, Nigersaurus was a great project because that started with a very challenging skull reconstruction and then proceeded to a flesh head and neck. This sauropod skull is so alien compared to most other sauropods, that it took a great deal of time just to figure out how the disarticulated skull bones went back together, much less how they ever could have functioned. To top it off, most were so thin and delicate that the molding process would have pulverized them; instead we had to prototype casts from the CT data obtained from scans of these bones. Restoring the teeth was another challenge, because no other dinosaur has teeth packed in stacks growing out of a trough like that. There was some speculation involved in that skull reconstruction, but it was really constrained by the surrounding anatomy and other more completely known sauropod skulls, so in the end it is a very accurate model. One could not even attempt to sketch what the head of this dinosaur would have looked like until this skull model was completed first, because it really is such a strange species.
The flesh model was also full of challenges, like trying to figure out what was happening at the oral margins behind that anterior tooth row. The skull was not much of a guide, because it is built of such thin struts and doesn’t really adequately suggest an outline of the flesh-head. I looked at a lot of extant species for inspiration and reference, trying to make every millimeter of the flesh model based in part upon something that can be found in nature. After months and months of work, I think the skull and flesh models turned out great, and serve to well illustrate this very strange species.
Describe the roles of researcher and paleoartist in creating a flesh reconstruction. What does each bring to the table in your experience?
Part of the joy for me, in being a paleoartist, is to get to know and work with the specimens I’m “resurrecting”. In that regard, I try to inform myself as much as possible about the relevant literature, related species, attempts by other artists at similar dinosaurs, etc., so that I come to the table prepared to create a well-referenced and original work, and that I’m able to communicate with and understand the researcher. It’s great to have a plan, too, but one that is flexible, because of course the paleontologists have final say over how their specimens should be depicted. Sometimes I’ve worked with researchers who like a sketch, maquette, prototypes, lots of input and opportunity for corrections throughout the process. Others have given me general directions, and then let me have a bit more artistic freedom. I enjoy both types of collaborations. On the Tiktaalik project, I remember getting some very specific and detailed guidance from Ted Daeschler about how the series of bones behind the head should look, how much soft tissue should be obscuring them from view, etc., which was great and made the model more accurate.
Any artists/illustrators/sculptors inspire you?
I was most certainly first inspired by the Charles Knight murals I gazed upon at the Field Museum as a boy. I’m still inspired by the works of many of the film artists I both studied in my past and still admire today, like Ray Harryhausen, Rick Baker, the artists of Stan Winston Studio, Weta Workshop, ADI, there are too many to name! Similarly, I’ve been inspired by so many of the living legends of paleoart, like Mike Skrepnick, Mark Hallet, Greg Paul, John Sibbick, Douglas Henderson, Stephen Czerkas…there are so many that really have inspired me and continue to do so. An artist I’d like to mention in more detail is David Krentz, who among many other things (such as designing, producing and directing Discovery’s recent Dinosaur Revolution miniseries), is known for creating some beautiful bronze 1/18 scale dinosaur sculptures. David also works with the digital sculpting tool Zbrush, which he has used now to create some fantastically detailed and wonderfully evocative 1/72 scale dinosaur models, and some even smaller 1/144 scale – essentially prototyped in the real world from his digital sculpture, at a minute yet detail-rich scale that no human could ever create by hand using traditional methods. A few years ago David encouraged me to adopt Zbrush myself, and seeing his work and use of new technologies like this truly does inspire me!
What’s the most indispensable tool in your studio?
I’d say my computer is the most indispensable tool! Even though I work with my hands, having a vast store of images and articles at my fingertips during the research stage of a project is so important. And while I’m working, I can snap a quick photo of a clay sculpture and do color mockups in Photoshop, get a sense of how the model will appear when printed as a photo, create a quick mirror-image view of the piece by flipping a photo left-for-right, etc. Also as a means of staying in touch with researchers, to show progress of a sculpture, to keep abreast of new discoveries, that kind of thing really is vital.
In your experience, did art school prepare you for the business end of making a career as an artist?
My experience in college didn’t really prepare me for the business of making a career as an artist. I’m very fortunate that I found full time employment at the University of Chicago, where I’m using my skills and interests as an artist. I’ve also made some good friends with other veteran paleoartists, and have received great advice from them on the business end of things, when it comes to my freelance work. The handbook “Copyrights, Contracts, Pricing & Ethical Guidelines for Dinosaur Artists and Paleontologists”
by Tess Kissinger is still a good guide for an artist looking for info on the business end of things.
If you could travel in time to any point in the universe’s history - forward or back - where would you go and what would you see/do?
As a lifelong dinosaur nut, I’d have to take a trip to the Mesozoic (just about anytime would be OK with me) to see for myself what these animals were like. I dream about dinosaurs sometimes, and it’s always with great longing that I awake and can’t quite remember what they really looked like, only to realize that we’ll never really know… in a way that motivates my work: to try to honor these magnificent creatures and give them a face once again.
Anything you'd like to plug?
I've also created the reconstructions for a few new creatures, for papers that should be coming out soon from Paul Sereno at the University of Chicago, so stay tuned!
I’m also contributing photos of my work and process to a trade book that will explore paleoart…I’ll keep you posted!
Finally, I’d like to mention a special thanks to my wife Kari for her support, encouragement, and patience as I’ve followed my paleo-passion – I couldn’t be doing any of this without her!