People have always wanted to know what extinct animals might have looked like when alive. Combine the science of anatomical and palaeoenvironmental reconstruction with the liberal amount of speculation involved in the imagining of animal soft tissues, behaviour and lifestyle, and you have the vibrant and ever popular field known as palaeoart (or paleoart).

September saw the release of a large, visually spectacular, beautifully produced volume devoted entirely to palaeoart. I am of course referring to Dinosaur Art: the World’s Greatest Paleoart, edited by Steve White and published by Titan Books (White 2012).

Somewhat late to the party due to other commitments (apologies for all those promises in which I said that my take on this book was “coming soon”), I want here to discuss both the book’s contents and theme as well as the public events that accompanied its release. The disclaimer here is that I was personally involved in the putting-together and production of this volume (I was the scientific consultant); furthermore, I’m a close personal friend of the editor as well as of several of the contributors.

Coincident with the release of the book, Steve and myself hosted a special evening at the Natural History Museum, London, titled ‘Dino Art: the Art of Drawing Dinosaurs’. Based as it was in the southern UK, we couldn’t fly in Doug Henderson, Greg Paul, Mauricio Antón, Julius Csotonyi, Todd Marshall or Raúl Martín, but we did have John Conway, Bob Nicholls, Luis Rey and John Sibbick for the duration. We had each artist on stage, in turn, and chatted with them about their work, their inspirations, and their thoughts on the past, present and future of palaeoart. It was great fun and everyone seemed to enjoy it. The event was punctuated by a lot of book signing.

The day after, we attended another signing at Forbidden Planet in Soho. John Sibbick couldn’t join us, but we were graced with the presence of designer Barry Spiers. We signed hundreds of books and also drew tens of little dinosaurs and other fossil animals. I started off with the best of intentions but ended up doing some really terrible drawings; apologies to anyone whose book I defaced. Over those two days we met and spoke with innumerable people interested in palaeoart and prehistoric wildlife, though I’ll resist the urge to drop names. I will say thanks, however, to Palaeosam for the dropgorgon art. Most recently, another signing event was held at the Chapters book store in Edmonton. Funnily enough, I couldn’t make it for this one, and in fact it was a solo effort featuring the one and only Julius Csotonyi.

Dinosaur Art: the contents

Already Dinosaur Art has been reviewed an enormous number of times online. In fact it looks likely that it might end up being the most-reviewed dinosaur book of the decade. If you have written a review (you know who you are), rest assured that I’ve read it. Some of these reviews have been thorough, insightful and interesting, but some are – if I may – a little dumb in making the same mistake. This is that they criticise the selection of included artists, typically noting that several major names in the field are conspicuous by their absence.

Furthermore, the inclusion of other, newer artists has been noted as odd in view of those absent ‘grand masters’. While I obviously have privileged insider info, I like to think that – even if I didn’t have this special information – I’d still be able to work out for myself that some people are absent for obvious reasons. Remember that putting together a book like this is not simply the assembling of a dream team. Rather, it’s a complex and tortuous process involving deals, battles, alliances and promises, especially when the project is essentially a giant gamble. I’ll say no more, but I hope you can read between the lines.

Anyway, Dinosaur Art features an outstanding selection of popular, classic and even brand-new artwork produced by ten leading illustrators of prehistoric life. Rule Number One when producing a book that contains dinosaurs is that the word ‘dinosaur’ must get included in the title, even when other kinds of animals are included too. Mauricio Antón’s section is – bar one illustration showing Permian non-mammalian therapsids – devoted entirely to fossil mammals, and illustrations of squamates (including Cretaceous snakes and mosasaurs), pterosaurs, crocodyliforms, Mesozoic marine reptiles and assorted other fossil animals are included in various of the other sections. Hell, the main character on the cover is a crocodyliform (albeit one that’s lunging towards a surprised tyrannosaur). More on that crocodyliform a little later.

The production values of Dinosaur Art are really high: the reproduction is outstanding, the colours are crisp and vibrant, and the book’s large size (31 x 28 cm) means that the pictures are shown appropriately large, often taking up much or all of a page, or even being spread over two pages. Several gatefolds allow full advantage to be made of the panoramic scenes produced by Julius Csotonyi and Raúl Martín. Each section of the book (each one devoted to a different artist) is 16 pages long and each includes anywhere between 15 and 25 illustrations – this number of course depends on how many small pictures are included.

The accompanying texts are arranged as interviews in a question and answer format. Artists were asked questions about their inspirations, the techniques they use, and how and where their work has been informed by the science. There’s some great backstory stuff here. However, it should be stressed that knowing what to include in a book like this – text-wise – is difficult, since you will definitely never please everybody. People interested in art and in how the reconstructions are done want to hear about styles, techniques and opinions on the ‘digital transition’, while palaeo-nerd types want to know about the anatomical nitty-gritty and the specimens the artists were looking at when crafting their reconstructions. I definitely tend toward the latter camp and I do feel that some sections of the text focus too much on artistic styles, techniques and media. Having said that, this is a book devoted to palaeoart, and it isn’t as if we really get this information anywhere else.

An unavoidable observation I have to make is that palaeoart has to be considered a very much male-dominated field, since female artists are conspicuously absent here. While I’m sure we can all think of great female palaeoartists, they are few in number and we can but hope that things will become more balanced in time.

Csotonyi, Paul and Henderson

The volume starts with an introductory review of the history of palaeoart by volume editor Steve White. For those who don’t know, Steve is a brilliant artist himself (you’ll know his work if you’re at all familiar with the 3D centre-folds featured in the famous Orbis part-work Dinosaurs!), and he’s big in the world of comics. We then get into the ‘meat’ of the book with Julius Csotonyi’s section. His mostly Cretaceous-themed pieces blend digitally illustrated animals with photographic backgrounds. The astonishing details and thoughtful patterns and hues applied to the animals look great and pleasingly naturalistic. I especially like the Heloderma- and Varanus-inspired skin patterns on his mosasaurs.

The anatomically accurate school of which Julius is a part owes much to Greg Paul, arguably the most influential and important palaeoartist of recent decades. To quote myself: “A new, anatomically rigorous movement in dinosaur art was initiated during the 1980s by American artist Greg Paul. Paul argued that artists should produce their own accurately scaled and posed skeletal reconstructions before attempting to ‘bring a dinosaur to life’. Many good palaeo-artists have followed his lead” (Naish 2009, p. 138).

I fully appreciate that many working palaeontologists disagree with Greg’s contentions and proposals as goes systematics, palaeobiology and functional morphology (as well as being a world-class artist, Greg is an independent researcher who publishes in the technical literature). However, his role in the depiction of dinosaurs and other fossil archosaurs should never be understated. As I’ve said before (Naish 2012), his 1987 ‘The science and art of restoring the life appearance of dinosaurs and their relatives - a rigorous how-to guide’ (Paul 1987) really is a not-yet-bettered classic; it’s much in the same vein as Charles Knight’s Animal Drawing: Anatomy and Action for Artists (Knight 1959).

Most of Greg’s pieces will be familiar to fans, but there’s a drawing of Heterodontosaurus that I don’t think I’ve seen before, he’s modified his Quetzalcoatlus pair (the one where they’re fending off a small tyrannosaur) and his hypothetical post-Cretaceous dinosaur scene might be new to some. A drawing that shows a Troodon chasing an Orodromeus has also been tweaked: the Troodon now has feathers sprouting from the upper surfaces of its second fingers. We now think that all non-avialan maniraptorans were like this – that is, they were bird-like as goes finger-feathering – but it hasn’t yet been universally adopted in palaeoart (as you can see from work included elsewhere in this very book).

I understand that Greg has a new book out. My previous thoughts on Greg and his work can be seen in my review of his Dinosaurs: A Field Guide.

In my opinion the volume is made a real ‘must have’ thanks to the inclusion of Doug Henderson’s section. His beautiful vistas, landscapes and seascapes definitely benefit from large-scale treatment; his animals look great, but it’s the breathtaking and wholly believable scenery he creates that really sells these pictures. I can spend ages looking at them, admiring the way the plants, the texture of bark and the interplay of light and shade mimic the scenes of the real world. Unsurprisingly, the ‘landscape-led’ angle of his art forms the focus of part of the interview text and I find it wholly appropriate that some of his sketches and photos of modern-day scenes are included.

Reconstructions of past animals and past environments are often more than random speculations – they frequently depict specific hypotheses. With that in mind, here’s a question inspired by the Henderson piece shown below: would a near-Earth asteroid ever look like this? Wouldn’t it obviously be moving quickly, and hence have a tail? These are honest questions and I’d like to hear your thoughts. Nit-pick: that asteroid can’t be the one that hit Earth during the late Maastrichtian, since those aren’t late Maastrichtian dinosaurs!

John Conway: magnolias and the ‘anti-shrinkwrapping’ movement

Moving on, another personal highlight is the John Conway section. The full-page versions of his tarbosaur vs ornithomimid scene, Anthracosaurus pair and, most striking of all, a blooming Cretaceous magnolia, troodontids standing beneath its boughs, are breathtaking.

That incredible magnolia came up in discussion at the NHM event. Firstly, there’s the whole issue of how palaeoartists get hold of palaeobotanical information: there just aren’t any accessible reference sources out there, meaning that artists either have to (1) guess and/or fabricate things and hope for the best, (2) rely on data provided by consultants and collaborators, or (3) go to the trouble of getting hold of the primary technical literature. Were I to produce the Ultimate Hand Book to the Reconstruction of Ancient Life (something I’d really like to do, by the way), I’d be sure to include a major section on fossil plants. I still think that Robert Long and Sam Welles’s 1978 children’s book All New Dinosaurs and Their Friends is one of the most useful sources on the life appearances of fossil plants, and that’s a pretty sorry state of affairs.

Secondly, the idea behind John’s magnolia is - - let’s do this right. Palaeoartists have frequently made nods to the Cretaceousness of magnolias, but, all too often, those magnolias are tucked away in a corner, or shown as little shrubs in the background. By making a giant pink flowering magnolia tree the centre-piece of the art, John has produced a startling and thought-provoking – yet apparently wholly reasonable and accurate – rendition of a Cretaceous scene.

I’m not alone in regarding John’s work as real game-changer stuff. Let’s start with the whole ‘anti-shrinkwrapping’ thing. John is one of several modern artists who have decided to go the whole hog and give dinosaurs (and other fossil animals) the integumentary coverings and other soft tissues that they really deserve. The ‘problem’ with this approach – and perhaps the reason it hasn’t been more widely embraced – is that it often means obscuring the underlying musculoskeletal anatomy of the animal concerned, the very stuff that Greg Paul has been saying we need to get right. At the extreme end of this trend we have the near-skeletal dinosaurs produced by William Stout during the 1980s, where every bone is visible and but a thin veneer of skin clothes the bones. Note how, in Greg Paul’s dinosaurs, the edges of cranial openings and bones around the back of the skull are clearly visible; Stout’s contemporary dinosaurs aren’t so zombie-ish anymore, but their heads still have that sunken, skeletal look (Stout 2009). ‘Anti-shrinkwrapping’ is one of the main themes that John, Cevdet Kosemen and myself focus on in our new book All Yesterdays, due out early next month. You may also know the theme from the expositions given at SV-POW! (check out this SV-POW! article, among others) and Lord Geekington. Cough cough cough.

There’s often a beauty to John’s art that involves lighting and subdued, naturalistic shading and colouring. These features of John’s art have led to it being sometimes described as looking oriental, or as recalling the oils and watercolours of people like John Constable. Those troodontids beneath the magnolia are perhaps not obvious at first. You know, like real animals.

Nicholls, Marshall, Sibbick and more…

The Bob Nicholls section is also a joy. Whether by chance or design, it’s somewhat ‘marine-heavy’, featuring brilliant and innovative renditions of ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, chondrichthyans and two reconstructions of the gigantic pachycormiform fish Bonnerichthys. A mosasaur dumped by a water spout, hanging from trees, will raise eyebrows, as will the remarkable ‘Double death’. Two carcharodontosaurs momentarily hoist a juvenile sauropod clear off the ground, the setting sun in the far distance. Predictably enough, the physics involved formed the focus of part of the NHM event. Bob explained how Don Henderson sent extensive sets of calculations on the probability or not of this scene. It may or may not be possible for two big theropods to lift a heavy animal like this; as Bob and I both said, given that a piece of art captures a snapshot in time, we have the possibility that the image shows that fraction of a second where inertia has made the improbable possible.

Like many other contemporary artists, Bob has moved from traditional to mixed media in recent years. He has also established himself as a major name in the installation of museum displays.

To get back to anti-shrinkwrapping, it could be said that Todd Marshall – who also has a very nice section in the book – has developed his very own way of trying to make Mesozoic animals look real, this time by decorating them with dewlaps, soft spikes, spines and other bits of integumentary decoration. Skin impressions show that dinosaurs did have soft frills and spines and such, but I think Todd often overdoes it quite a bit. In one of his most ‘extreme’ animals – a Spinosaurus shown leaning down towards a body of shallow water (it’s not included in Dinosaur Art) – there are tall dermal spines on the neck, along the top of the sail and tail and along the edges of a large dewlap, while feather-like papillae line the lower arm and metatarsus. Keratinous hornlets surround the eyes as well. The result is rather more dragonesque than realistic. But don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Todd’s work and his section looks great and fits well into the book.

One topic that gets appropriate coverage in the text of Dinosaur Art is Todd’s collaboration with Paul Sereno. We get to see preliminary sketches and final pieces that focus on the dinosaurs Nigersaurus, Aerosteon, Rugops and Raptorex as well as the crocodyliforms Kaprosuchus and Araripesuchus. Sereno’s recently named African heterodontosaurid, Pegomastax africana (Sereno 2012a, b), sneakily debuted in this volume thanks to one of Todd’s illustrations (that is, the name appeared in the book before the technical publication appeared).

Getting John Sibbick to contribute to the book was also a major coup. Dinosaur Art features a selection of newer pieces, some published here for the first time. They include scenes depicting the animals and environments of Cretaceous Liaoning, reconstructions of the amazing new super-spiky Scelidosaurus specimen (see above), and the Jurassic marine scene ‘Ammonite Graveyard’.

I’m fascinated by the massive role John has had in the recent history of palaeoart. Thanks to David Norman’s hugely popular 1986 Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs and to the use of John’s art in the dinosaur display at the NHM, Sibbickian dinosaurs have shaped the views of numerous non-specialist artists, scientists and laypeople. Those 1986 dinosaurs are heavy-set, possess shapeless limbs, and have a peculiar lumpy skin texture that doesn’t resemble real dinosaur skin; compared to the dinosaurs being illustrated earlier, or contemporaneously, by Bakker, Paul, Hallett, Peter Zallinger and many others they look decidedly anachronistic for a book published in 1986. Arguably, Sibbickian dinosaurs helped keep old, ‘traditional’ dinosaurs in the mainstream for longer than was appropriate. John is acutely aware of this and was almost apologetic about it at the NHM event.

And, yes, I do appreciate the irony here given that one of my own books – 2009’s The Great Dinosaur Discoveries – includes some decidedly old-school, 1980s dinosaurs (those produced by Steve Kirk for the 1988 Macmillan Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals). What can I say? Constraints of budget.

There are good consultants, but there are downright useless consultants

On that note, why have inaccurate, anachronistic dinosaurs persisted in parts of the literature for so long? And, on a related point, why are there so many god-awful CG dinosaurs around these days? I have to say that palaeontologists are the main cause of these problems. Ok, many palaeontologists work very hard to ensure that artwork is accurate. Many make sure that artists are as well-informed as they can be. And many understand and care about anatomy enough to know what to look for, what to criticise, and what to regard as accurate or otherwise. A long list of dinosaur-focused palaeontologists have worked closely with artists to produce outstanding, super-accurate work: due respect here to Paul Sereno, Mark Norell, everyone associated with the Witmer Lab, Matt Wedel, Luis Chiappe, Andrew McDonald and many others.

A number, however, are not interested at all in the life appearance of fossil animals, are not concerned about the portrayal of fossil species in art, and are simply uninterested, or untrained, in soft tissue anatomy. I’m not speculating, but writing from experience. A few years ago I asked a colleague why he’d given the ok to some appalling artwork that couldn’t be considered at all acceptable. He told me that he wasn’t that bothered about artwork; that only the text of a children’s dinosaur book was important. On another occasion I asked another colleague why he was giving the ok to dinosaurs that lacked a realistic hindlimb musculature. He told me that he didn’t know about muscles and only cared about bones.

While I again want to make it clear that I’m not talking about all dinosaur-focused palaeontologists, what's obvious from this sort of information is that some palaeontologists are simply not that useful when it comes to providing advice on palaeoart. If anything, they’re the opposite of useful. When a dinosaur book published in 2011 features scaly-skinned, completely un-feathered dromaeosaurs with down-facing palms, and yet was supposedly checked by one of the world’s most famous and respected vertebrate palaeontologists, we know we have a problem. And this really happened, by the way. It’s not a hypothetical.

At the risk of making myself even more unpopular amongst my palaeontologist colleagues, I also think that artists are often ‘more right’ about the stuff they’re most interested in – life appearance and possible renditions of behaviour – than are the palaeontologists I have in mind. A stronger interest in soft tissues, in the portrayal of skin texture and behaviour, and an intuitive feel for what seems reasonable definitely gives informed palaeoartists the edge when pitted against technical experts who have no real interest in, or experience with, those areas. A few years ago, an author produced a rather stinging book review in which he accused Mauricio Antón of making numerous anatomical errors and of not making fossil mammals look weird enough, or big enough. In a lengthy and thorough response, Antón went through every one of the criticisms (Antón 2003). He showed how, time and time again, he had actually been accurate, had used specimens and sources unknown to the reviewer, and had found in his own research that the ‘weird’ and ‘big’ reconstructions expected by the reviewer were the product of tradition, not evidence (Antón 2003). And, maybe my memory is selective, but my over-riding recollection of the ‘feathered dinosaur’ issue during the 1980s is that renditions of feathered non-birds were considered crazy and speculative, and that artists should definitely keep those dinosaurs scaly. While nobody ever discusses it much, it’s important to note that, in the end, the palaeoartists were right.

Rey, Martín, and that cover image

To get back on track… from John Sibbick we jump to the wholly different look of Luis Rey. Luis’s work is synonymous with bright colours and flamboyant, dramatic scenes. Appropriately enough, his section opens with a bristly pinkish-blue Triceratops piling on top of a vanquished tyrannosaur amid a spray of liquid mud and panic and rage. Classics like his ‘Cretaceous rodeo’ and head-butting Carnotaurus scene are featured, as are newer scenes that depict Gigantoraptor and Sinusonasus.

I will be brutally honest and say that I am not especially fond of Luis’s digitally composited scenes, but the drama, vibrancy and sheer audacity of his work always makes it fun to look at. Despite the credit I’ve given John Conway above as goes the anti-shrinkwrapping movement, we should be fair and note that Luis was headed in this direction quite a few years earlier. His elaborately adorned dromaeosaurs (like the Deinonychus shown here; from here on Luis’s blog) look odd and perhaps ridiculous, but no more so than many modern birds and other animals.

The volume ends with the anatomically detailed, nicely lit dinosaurs of Raúl Martín. Oh, and a few proboscideans and a selection of animals from the Eocene forests of Messel get a look-in as well, as does Effigia… and Deinosuchus. Yes, it’s Deinosuchus that makes the cover, as mentioned earlier.

That Deinosuchus illustration is moody, interesting and appealing (especially to those who think that theropods are over-rated), and I know that everybody wants to see Deinosuchus reconstructed in all its glory. However, I have to note that we might be being led astray here. You see, nobody is really all that sure what Deinosuchus looked like and reconstructions that make it look like a gigantic crocodile (by which I mean – as always – a member of Crocodylus) are likely far off the mark. Martín’s illustration actually gives the animal several unique, diagnostic features of the living Saltwater crocodile C. porosus so, from a technical point of view, the picture is problematic. In cases such as this, I’m reminded of something Mark Hallett once said about a wholly different animal (you might like to guess which one): “When it was proposed as an illustration for a recent book, my consultant, Robert A. Long of the University of California, Berkeley, and I decided that a painting of this animal would be an exercise in pure fantasy and should not be attempted until more complete remains are described” (Hallett 1987, p. 99). Wise words indeed, yet we also have to recognise the fact that palaeoartists often don’t have the luxury of choosing not to illustrate something.

Anyway, Martín’s section includes some striking scenes that feature the likes of Guanlong, Concavenator and a selection of giant sauropods. Like several other artists whose work features in the book, the style and scale of his work means that it looks ideally suited for such things as museum murals.

I certainly didn’t start writing this article thinking that I’d be commenting on the work of all of the book’s contributors. I hope it’s clear, however, that all of the artists whose work is included are world-class and that there are angles to the work of all the featured artists that are relevant to palaeoart as a whole. Part of the reason that art is so fascinating is because it isn’t ‘just’ art; it’s history as well. Just as photographs capture a snapshot of a particular time, pieces of art relate to a time, and a ‘place’ in history. Imagine how enthralled we would be if the palaeoartists of decades past had produced a sumptuously illustrated, semi-biographical volume detailing the back-stories to their work and ideas. As a snapshot of where we are right now, Dinosaur Art should be seen as a fascinating and valuable work, both for scholarly and historic reasons as well as aesthetic ones. Let’s try and remember I said that in 20 or 30 years.

Finally, I should note that Phil Currie and Scott Sampson both provided brief, introductory sections of text. For a book of such size and quality, Dinosaur Art is highly affordable and already it’s been hugely successful in terms of sales. It’s available here on amazon and here on (the book’s title is spelled incorrectly on the latter page: can someone correct it please?). A brief movie featuring myself and Steve talking about the background to the book is viewable here.

Thanks and well done to Steve, and everyone else at Titan, for organising the events and for pulling it all off. Thanks to Tom Green for help with the images, to Jenny Taylor and Julius Csotonyi for taking various of the photos. I want to finish by bringing your attention to the websites of the various artists featured in the volume...

Refs - -

Antón, M. 2003. Reconstructing fossils mammals: strengths and limitations of a methodology. The Palaeontological Association Newsletter 53, 55-65.

Hallett, M. 1987. Bringing dinosaurs to life. In Czerkas, S. J. & Olson, E. C. (eds) Dinosaurs Past and Present, Volume I. Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County/University of Washington Press (Seattle and Washington), pp. 96-113.

Knight, C. R. 1959. Animal Drawing: Anatomy and Action for Artists. Dover Publications, New York.

Naish, D. 2009. The Great Dinosaur Discoveries. A&C Black, London.

- . 2012. [Review of] Dinosaurs: a field guide/The Princeton field guide to dinosaurs. Historical Biology DOI:10.1080/08912963.2012.670534

Paul, G. S. 1987. The science and art of restoring the life appearance of dinosaurs and their relatives - a rigorous how-to guide. In Czerkas, S. J. & Olson, E. C. (eds) Dinosaurs Past and Present Vol. II. Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County/University of Washington Press (Seattle and London), pp. 4-49.

Sereno, P. C. 2012. Taxonomy, morphology, masticatory function and phylogeny of heterodontosaurid dinosaurs. ZooKeys 226, 1-225. doi:10.3897/zookeys.226.2840

- . 2012. Corrigenda: Taxonomy, morphology, masticatory function and phylogeny of heterodontosaurid dinosaurs. ZooKeys 226: 1-225. ZooKeys 227, 101.

Stout, W. 2009. William Stout: Prehistoric Life Murals. Flesk Publications, Santa Cruz.

White, S. 2012. Dinosaur Art: the World’s Greatest Paleoart. Titan Books, London.