One of the most popular fields of science with children and adults alike is paleontology. And there's a very good reason for this. Since the first fossil was recognized and found, it inspired imaginations to envision what the animal was like when it was alive. From the myths of giant cyclops to sinewy dragons, fossils have shaped much of our collective fable and imaginations.

Here on Symbiartic, I've advocated for other sciences to begin to embrace artistic licence to blossom in the fuzzy areas of their disciplines. And there's a lot that the sciences can learn from the modern world of paleontology illustration. Want to draw people in, inspire them, have children compelled to ask questions? Time to learn from a modern paleoart rockstar: Julius Csotonyi.

I sat down over coffee with Julius and his wife, researcher Alexandra Lefort while they were visiting Toronto for the opening of the innovative Royal Ontario Museum show, Ultimate Dinosaurs - Giants of Gondwana. We've exchanged emails and I'm proud to present this interview to our Scientific American readers just a couple of short days after Julius has won the prestigious 2D paleoart Lanzendorf Prize for the second time!

~Glendon Mellow

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Just days ago, you won the Lanzendorf Prize for 2-Dimensional Paleoart by the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. My congratulations! You're one of only a very few who have ever won this award more than once. How does it feel?

Thank you! It's an enormous honour to be presented with this award, and I am stoked! Because a central aim of my work is to achieve scientifically accurate reconstruction of prehistoric environments and organisms, this kind of recognition from members of such a scientifically rigorous paleontological society is the greatest compliment that I can hope to receive. The image that garnered the award depicts a humid forested upland scene in the early Permian and focuses on a trio of pelycosaurs, including Edaphosaurus. It's one of the pieces that I was commissioned by Gondwana Studios to illustrate for a travelling exhibit on the bizarre life forms of the Permian period, entitled Permian Monsters: Life Before the Dinosaurs. Having received the award in 2010 for my work on a mummified Brachylophosaurus for the Houston Museum of Natural Science , the award this year came as an especially big and pleasant surprise to me.

It's well-deserved, and underscores how you've quickly established yourself as a solid, go-to paleoart rockstar for museums - what's that transition like for a biologist who's studied everything from trampled moss to hydrothermal vents?

Well, that's certainly the first time I've been referred to by that colorful descriptor -- thank you for the compliment, but it certainly feels over-the-top to me! Actually the transition from biologist to paleoartist was a gradual one, and I was fortunate enough to be able to make the baby steps from one profession to the other during the completion of my PhD in microbiology. Although the juggling of such different disciplines led to many sleepless nights, it allowed me to explore a new career without having to go too far out on a limb in terms of financial security during the process.

Both scientific research and mural illustration entail hard work, although the kinds of pressures that one experiences in each type of work are very different (and I wouldn't even dare generalize about the nature of pressures and responsibilities held by scientists in different fields). Illustration commissions have keep me up nearly all night for months at a time, often working more than 15 hours a day, but I still feel that overall, scientific research is at least as demanding and is certainly a more strategically complicated kind of work. In my experience, once the initial design elements and issues of the scientific accuracy of an image have been squared away, the production of the image usually proceeds rather smoothly.

However, what finally convinced me to step from scientific research into a field of scientific illustration was not the level of complexity of the work, but rather the temporal distribution of a feeling of satisfaction. Truth be told, little compares with the excitement of making a major discovery in the course of a scientific investigation -- I've experienced it several times and it's pure exultation. This is probably best appreciated by other researchers, but I'll never forget the adrenaline rush I experienced upon determining experimentally that a strain of purple nonsulfur bacteria that I isolated from a hypersaline spring was the first known organism to be able to perform both aerobic and anaerobic anoxygenic photosynthesis. However, something of this magnitude is a relatively rare thing. Completing a challenging set of experiments and then publishing the results is a long process. Although it is highly rewarding in the end, pumping one's brain full of 'accomplishment endorphins', it's a long-term type of reward, and the lab work itself, between discoveries, is often felt a little tedious to me. By contrast, I have always found that the act of painting itself -- not simply the completion of a mural project, but actually applying pigment to a surface -- was relaxing and therapeutic. Even during the grey-hair-generating last week before a deadline, the activity of creating the artwork fills me with enjoyment. To me, this was a large, bright sign of where my career path ought to lie. I will always be a scientist at heart, and I continue to keep a foot in that camp by writing scientific papers on my recent research, as well as maintaining a science blog, Evolutionary Routes, but I have found that paleoart currently provides a more consistent enjoyment.

Describe a little of how you create an image.

Let me answer this question by using a piece that I created for this interview, featuring Sinocalliopteryx, its Sinornithosaurus meal and a breeding pair of Confuciusornis. I begin by consulting scientific literature on the subject. What inspired this image was the recently published discovery of the feathered dinosaurian gut contents (Sinornithosaurus and Confuciusornis) of two marvelously preserved skeletons of Sinocalliopteryx (Xing et al. 2012; PLoS ONE 7(8): e44012). This find elucidates some of the ecological interactions of a prehistoric ecosystem, which is especially exciting because it helps scientists to fill in our knowledge of not only the appearance but also the behaviour of long-gone creatures. In this case, it helps us to draw lines of trophic interaction between several members of an extinct food web. This initial stage of image preparation is where open access journal articles are so very much appreciated!

I then plan the composition and intended atmosphere of the image. In my opinion, scientific accuracy is the most important quality of paleoart, since it is a genre of art that has specifically grown to fill the niche of providing visual support to a field of scientific investigation. However, my personal objective is to create visually compelling windows on extinct ecosystems that we can never photograph directly, and a really successful illustration of this type benefits from composition that draws the viewer into the image, and from an engaging atmosphere that helps the viewer to suspend disbelief. In this illustration, I wished to depict all three species, but I did not want to capture a moment during the hunt itself. A complaint about paleoart that I sometimes encounter is that we see too much of the toothy moment just before a predatory strike. I was after a more serene scene in this case.

I also wished to call attention to the filamentous integumentary structures of Sinocalliopteryx and the pennate feathers of the two other taxa. To accomplish this, I established a scene backlit by the morning sun, allowing the golden light to illuminate the rim of 'protofeathers' around the body of the compsognathid and to be transmitted through the flight feathers of the other species. The lakeshore setting was chosen to contribute interesting reflective light from the water surface, light-scattering mist, and to make the point that the wonderfully preserved Yixian Formation organisms were closely associated with the lacustrine habitat responsible for the exceptional preservation condition of their remains.

Based on photos of the fossil, I then sketched the Sinocalliopteryx skeleton in the intended posture -- head raised from its prey at the sound of the pair of Confuciusornis taking flight. The next phase is the application of soft tissues and surface textures. The technique depends on the type of image that I am creating, whether it is to be photorealistic -- incorporating photographic material -- or a deliberate intent to achieve the look of a particular medium, such as oils or watercolors. I began scientific illustration using non-digital media such as watercolors, acrylics, pastels, pen and pencil, and I still enjoy those media a lot. However, in the interests of revisability and speed, I currently work almost exclusively digitally, customizing virtual brush characteristics to approximate the appearance of a range of non-digital media. The result is certainly an approximation of the real thing, but the sophistication of modern art software allows an arguably very close approach to the targeted effect. And because the actual application of colors and lines requires precisely the same skills as for real paints and pencils, the amount of effort that goes into a digital painting is essentially the same as that which goes into a piece completed using non-digital techniques.

In this case, I parameterized a brush to achieve an oil-like appearance, and completed the painting in a more traditional style, without photographic compositing. Examples of my work of this digital painting technique include the murals on the walls of the new Dinosaur Hall at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History, the Alberta Unearthed exhibit at the Royal Tyrrell Museum and the Pachyrhinosaurus collector quarter coin that I designed and illustrated for the Royal Canadian Mint earlier this year. The coin made quite a splash, owing to the glow-in-the-dark nature of the skeletal overlay on the animal.

The photomanipulation technique is somewhat more complicated than digital painting, and usually results in many more graphic layers, as I assemble the image from dozens of photos. Examples of the results of this photomanipulative technique are the murals for the recently opened Hall of Paleontology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science (May, 2012), the restoration of a mummified Brachylophosaurus for a 2008 exhibit at the HMNS, which won the 2010 Lanzendorf Prize for Two-Dimensional Art and the Royal Ontario Museum's exhibit entitled Ultimate Dinosaurs: Giants from Gondwana (June, 2012).

In an exception to my digital technique, I recently participated in a live-illustration event at the Pipestone Creek Dinosaur Initiative's "Dino Country Ball 2012" this past July in Grande Prairie, Alberta. I used dry pastels to draw a hatchling tyrannosaur during the dinner course of two hours. The image was donated to the fundraiser auction for the upcoming Philip J. Currie Dinosaur Museum. The live and highly time-limited nature of the event introduced a lot of pressure to get the image right the first time, so I practiced drawing the form of the animal in a series of preliminary rough sketches before proceeding with the final draft on pastel paper.

The versatility of your techniques is amazing, Julius. Awesome that you keep experimenting instead of relying on one method.

When we met, you mentioned your massive collection of landscape photo references - has it become an obsession?

Very nearly so. It is especially challenging to maintain the scientific accuracy of the photorealistic class of images that I produce, because I need to make creative use of the contents of my existing photographs instead of painting from scratch. I can't just use background photographs containing anachronistic plants (e.g. grassy fields in a Jurassic scene). Therefore, I need to photograph a wide range of natural environments, requiring me to visit many different biomes. Over the course of the last six years, I have taken about 200,000 photographs of landscapes, animals, plants, skies, etc. for this purpose. National Park signs instruct us to "take nothing but photos; leave nothing but footprints", but the rate at which I siphon photons out of these delicate environments through my camera lens should probably be considered a felony too. I am very fortunate to have a wife who has the patience to put up with my obsessive 'visual harvesting'. In fact, she is a much more skilled photographer than am I. 

How photo-realistic is okay?

My goal is to depict prehistoric scenes that suspend viewers' disbelief to the greatest extent possible. I feel that I achieve this objective most successfully with photographic composite images, so I don't think that there's a point at which the image can be 'too photo-realistic'. Having said that, simply incorporating some photographic background material into a scene does not automatically make it more realistic. A successful image owes less to the proportional amount of photographic material that it contains than to the care with which the elements are merged and matched.

I do worry that creating images solely by photographic compositing would sap me of my skill as a traditional artist using non-digital media. Working with photographic layers requires a very different skill set than applying pigment with a brush or pastel stick. Therefore, I make a point of practicing with a brush (digital or traditional, so long as the technique of applying strokes is similar) in between projects that require a more genuinely photographic quality. I also think that non-photographic paintings achieve a kind of visual appeal that photographic work will never attain, no matter how perfectly realistic it looks. Every artist has a unique style of painting, like a signature, and it's that personal touch of style that many people are drawn to in art. Successful photographic compositing requires a formidable amount of work, but I think that it is easier for people to comprehend and appreciate the amount of work that goes into a traditionally painted piece. Even in this age of computer facilitated rendering of two- and three-dimensional representations, I doubt that traditional paintings will ever lose their appeal.

Do you worry about losing your paleo street-cred if you make the dinosaurs too colourful?

Absolutely...with some conditions. I love using brilliant color, but my academic training in ecology has taught me to temper this artistic urge with knowledge of the ways in which animals use color to communicate. Prehistoric ecosystems may have had radically different looking animals and plants than many of their modern counterparts, but there is no reason to suspect that ecological principles applied in substantially different ways than in modern ecosystems. Within the constraints of the color processing ability of prehistoric fauna, this reasoning should apply equally well to the role of color in interspecific and intraspecific communication.

The color patterns and palettes of species are driven by selection pressures to avoid predators or effectively sneak up on prey. This frequently results in cryptic coloration. For example, vertical stripes break up a long animal's outline against forest or grassland, optimally in colors that approximate those of the background vegetation and substratum. Countershading helps hide aquatic animals from predators (or prey) both above and below them; countershading also minimizes the visibility of land animals by cancelling out shadows. It is also important to realize that natural selection works to tighten energy budgets. Animals tend not to expend unnecessary energy. Because pigments are biochemically expensive, their production is tightly regulated in nutrient-stressed environments. (Just look at how pale are most cave-dwelling animals.) Therefore, if an animal possesses defenses against predation (such as large size or formidable weaponry) that preclude the need to employ cryptic coloration, it is often rather drably colored. Consider some of the largest African mammals as examples.

However, we must keep in mind that there are exceptions to such generalizations. Courtship displays involve perhaps the most gaudy use of color. Sexual selection has rendered many birds and small reptiles seemingly counterintuitively too colorful in the context of hiding from their enemies. It all comes down to a cost/benefit analysis tabulated at the level of reproductive success: if the cost of employing brilliant color (i.e. the risk of being spotted and eaten) is outweighed by the number or quality of mates that a colorful individual can secure (which translates into the number of offspring it can successfully bring to sexual maturity), then natural selection will favour brighter coloration. The lesson here is that it is OK to depict colorful dinosaurs so long as one can propose a plausible role for the colors chosen, within the bounds set by what scientific investigation of their relevant environments has revealed. There are some pretty whacky examples of color in the animal kingdom. I recall staring in bafflement through aquarium glass at a big fish with pink polka-dotted blue lips and thinking that this living creature looked so ridiculous that I should henceforth be very careful indeed when doling out judgement on the color choices that paleoartists make for dinosaurs.

In any case, squabbles over the colors that dinosaurs sported in life is slowly being relegated to the past. At least in the case of feathered dinosaurs preserved well enough for scientists to study the microscopic structure of their feathers, several teams of paleontologists have demonstrated that some of the feather color (the component governed by the pigment melanin) can be inferred from the shape and distribution of pigment-bearing melanosomes. As a result of this ingenious research, it is now apparent that Microraptor was irridescent black (Li et al., 2012; Science 335:1215), Sinosauropteryx had a cinnamon-and-white striped tail (Zhang et al., 2010; Nature 463:1075), Anchiornis was grey with black-and-white barred wings, a russet crest and russet cheek spots (Li et al., 2010;Science 327:1369) (prompting me to recolor my originally red-feathered illustration), and Confuciusornis had a dark body with lighter wings (Wogelius et al., 2011; Science 333:1622) (which I needed to take into consideration in the Sinocalliopteryx illustration that I completed for this interview). Slowly but surely, those pesky paleontologists are taking away our artistic license in assigning colors to dinosaurs.

You recently completed some work for a massive exhibit called Ultimate Dinosaurs here in Toronto at the Royal Ontario Museum. Tell us about that.

Ultimate Dinosaurs: Giants from Gondwana (June 2012 - March 2013) is a very ambitious exhibition of the evolution of some of the bizarre dinosaurs from the southern hemisphere. I was commissioned to create 17 dinosaur vignette illustrations for information panels and five giant murals showing dinosaurs in their ecosystems, all created under close supervision by distinguished ROM paleontologists and curators.

The exhibit is a mile marker for me in that the murals I created for it are displayed at the largest size of any that I had yet completed. The largest one is 5 m (15 feet) tall and 50 m (150 feet) long. The dinosaurs in these murals end up being life sized (or sometimes slightly larger than life). This display size really helps to convey the immensity of some of these creatures. When you walk through one section of hall, you are flanked by a full sized Giganotosaurus in its semiarid Cretaceous Gondwana environment on the left and an equally imposing Tyrannosaurus in the humid Hell Creek environment on the right. This is a favourite part of the exhibit because you feel like you are completely immersed in a reconstruction of the prehistoric past. The discontinuity between the two sides is intended, to juxtapose the environments: the murals, skeletons and interactive motion-sensing animated viewers are arranged to allow people to compare point-by-point how the two ecosystems resembled and differed from each other in terms of the plant community and animals that filled certain niches. The interactive viewers are a nice touch; animated graphics take the mural content and, with the talented work of Vlad Konstantinov, Andrey Atuchin and Meld Media, transform it into a 3-D rendering whose elements express a range of behavioural responses to viewers standing at different distances from the display.

The production of Ultimate Dinosaurs was my biggest undertaking yet, not only because of the enormous size of the images but also because the exhibit team was especially populous, requiring advertising, exhibit design, scientific curatorial and administrative department members to accommodate each other's schedules to make the exhibit come together under a hair-singingly tight deadline. Everybody did a spectacular job under enormous pressure, making it a pleasure to work with them. Having visited the fully installed exhibit I am extremely pleased with how it looks.

Do you find the role for the illustrator in modern museums is changing? I notice less dioramas in the displays and more interactivity.

Indeed, even the manner of diorama or mural illustration is changing. We now have much more digital image creation rather than painting directly onto walls, because it is easier to install, can be more readily repaired and can be commissioned remotely. But of course, it doesn't stop there. The interactive viewers that I mentioned above for the Royal Ontario Museum exhibit on southern dinosaurs are a great example of the direction in which museums are increasingly moving. People nowadays are immersed in novel interactive technologies in their daily lives (e-book readers, data phones, GPS units), and museum exhibits are having to compete with such devices to maintain the attention of an ever more technologically engaged audience.

I think there will always be an appreciation for paintings as backdrops, and not all museums can even afford digital technologies to the extent that some utilize it, such as the Manitoba Museum, with its beautiful Ordovician display, Ancient Seas . However, I am equipping and training myself to become proficient in 3-D rendering and animation techniques in order to keep up with the exciting developments in exhibit technology.

As the cost of display technology descends to affordability for more museums, I think that we'll soon be met with some qualitatively different and jaw-dropping museum visit experiences. I look forward to the day when three-dimensionally rendered or even holographic dinosaurs will leap out at us from holographic forests on an interactive educational stroll through a Jurassic forest, or when we can walk into a virtual petting zoo of the Cambrian and use force feedback gloves to handle the holographic Burgess Shale fauna at whatever magnification we desire.

A lot of natural history and scientific illustrators shy away from controversy. At times to me it seems almost obsessive, in an attempt not to burn any possible bridges for work. But I notice on your Facebook page, you're pretty comfortable sharing atheist content. How do you feel about getting work in a world of social media, where everything about a person can be checked?

I have no problem with people seeing me for who who I am, and I don't feel that I am burning any reasonable bridges in the process. First and foremost, I am a scientist at heart. My agnostic atheistic position on religious belief is incidental, and simply arises from my intention of placing confidence in ideas to an extent that is proportional to the quantity and quality of evidence that is presented in their favour. I base my world view on what can be demonstrated by investigating our universe by objective and repeatable means. I see no positive evidence for a creator, no way to test for the presence of one (therefore placing it outside the purvue of science, except in cases where specific claims of the supernatural are demonstrably refuted by observations of the natural world), and I cannot accept that one exists until and unless careful investigation demonstrates the need to include such an agent in scientific models.

However, I have no malice for people who can compartmentalize their theistic belief system separately from what scientific investigation reveals about our universe. I have great relationships with theistic people, and I even greatly enjoy pleasant and civil discussions with them about their beliefs. What matters to me is honest science, unbiased by untestable tenets of theistic belief. I have met some brilliant scientists who believe in a deity for personal reasons but who perform top-notch investigation in the physical sciences or evolutionary biology, and I admire their demonstration of objectivity in their work.

The one thing to which I strongly object is the creationist movement, especially young earth creationism, regardless of the religious belief system that promotes it. My vociferous opposition to it is not simply because there is no reliable evidence for a young earth or against the theory of evolution, nor only because there is ample evidence against creationist claims. Rather, it is because this movement starts from the presupposition of the correctness of a religious belief and allows this theistic bias to strongly govern the presentation of observations of our universe while purporting to be objective. Thus, it is anti-scientific at its core, and that does not sit well with my responsibility to the current and next generation of fellow earthlings to convey as objectively accurate an understanding of the natural world as is possible. This holds true for my research, my scientific writing and my scientific illustration, including paleoart.

Naturally, therefore, I necessarily burn precisely one bridge for illustration work: image production for projects that promote creationism. I do not regret the potential small loss of work that this incurs, because I see such collaboration as a strong conflict of interest at the level of the integrity of science.

What's your dream project?

Oh, so many possibilities! Well, since you have not limited me, I will list a couple. It is always rewarding to work with museum teams to create large-scale graphics, but something that I have not yet done is to work extensively with a film production company on a motion picture about prehistoric life, either in the form of a science fiction movie or a documentary. I can be terrible to watch movies with, because I pick them to death on their points of scientific inaccuracy. I would love to contribute artistically to an accurate portrayal of prehistoric life in a motion piture production.

A second project that would excite my interest in both paleoart and science is the preparation of a book (and/or museum exhibit) that chronicles the evolution of life on earth -- not only dinosaurs, but the entire gamut of life. I have illustrated not only dinosaurs, but also prehistoric and extant mammals, invertebrates, aquatic vertebrates, hominins and more, but rarely all for the same project. Probably the closest I've come to this objective is the HMNS Hall of Paleontology in Houston, but those murals only touched on a few thin slices of natural history.

This dream project would involve not only a relatively exhaustive photorealistic guide to the prehistoric denizens of our planet, but also a conceptual explanation of the evolutionary, biogeochemical, ecological and geological processes that have shaped life on earth, from the emergence of life to our present day. An exciting direction for such a project would be a richly and accurately illustrated children's book on evolution, because this field of science is woefully misunderstood today by the general public. Let's face it, if children can pronounce Micropachycephalosaurus with perfect annunciation at the drop of a hat at the age of six, then I think they're ready for an illustration-rich introduction to more science than the amount to which they are often exposed at this age.

What's your favourite colour?

This one's easy: a deep, rich metallic red. I really don't know why it is, and I have no clue what's with that metallic requirement. Maybe I'm a vampire; the hypothesis is certainly consistent with my waking schedule during deadline crunch weeks.

Thank you Julius for sharing with Symbiartic!

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Find more about Julius Csotonyi and his paleoart at the following links:

Gallery Portfolio

Evolutionary Routes - Blog

List of Selected Publications

Wikipedia Entry

Shop for Prints