Just released in bookstores, Dinosaur Art: The World’s Greatest Paleoart is a look back at the incredible works created, and inspired by the giant lizards of yesteryear. But rather than having us yap on about how cool dinosaurs look, we got the inside scoop from the book’s editor, Steve White. White is no stranger to the genre, as he illustrated Dinosaurs: A Celebration for Marvel Comics in 1997. So sit back, relax, and enjoy a journey through time – and a sneak look at Dinosaur Art courtesy of White and Titan Books:
There’s something about dinosaurs. No one is really sure what it is but ever since they were first recognised as a distinct new group of animals in 1842, they have thunder-struck us. Charles Dickens, never one to miss a marketing opportunity, made perhaps the first use of dinosaurs as a pop culture icon when he mentioned Megalosaurus – the first dinosaur to be named (in 1824) – on the opening page of Bleak House at around the same time dinosaurs were making a big splash at the Crystal Palace exhibition. Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins had constructed a series of life-size models of these ancient denizens and they had caused a sensation. You can still see them at their home in South London, but now they look antiquated, having fallen foul of the massive advances in our knowledge of dinosaurs.
This has always dogged the portrayal of these wonderful beasts. Up until the early ‘70s, they were always ‘the great reptile’. Little was known of their behaviour and there was little interest in their anatomy. They looked magnificent but they were plodders in Life’s race – dim, unreconstructed; to be a ‘dinosaur’ was to be a tragic loser on the slow train to extinction – ironically, a very slow train considering it took 250 million years… Yet they still had a child-like allure, a wonder perhaps best ignited by Ray Harryhausen’s marvellous stop-motion movie monsters. The Valley of Gwangi and 1 Million Years B.C. are two brilliant examples of his incredible and meticulous craft. Bikini-clad Raquel Welch aside, they are also two of the finest ‘dinosaur’ movies you’ll ever see, the kind where you’re inclined just to skip through to the good bits – the amazing battle between the Gwangi cowboys, a Styracosaurus and an Allosaurus, for instance. Taken as a whole, these movies look dated. The dinosaurs drag their tails and lumber about – and not just as a result of the stop-motion. That was actually how they were perceived. But for all it’s jerky, single camera simplicity, there is a certain panache to Harryhausen’s movies – knowing he did it all by hand with miniatures. In these days of slick CGI, you can’t help but admire such craftsmanship.
Most of the current generation of paleoartists – those artists who specialise in the reconstruction of ancient life and worlds – grew up and were inspired by watching the likes of I Million Years B.C. They read Edgar Rice Burroughs’ dinosaur-infested pulp adventures, made the wonderful series of snap-together Aurora model kits and watched the Valley of the Dinosaurs cartoon series on Saturday mornings. But they had the advantage of their formative years occurring slap bang at the start of the Dinosaur Renaissance. This was the moment, in the mid-Seventies, when dinosaurs became the Sex Pistols of science, those heady days when new research and discoveries – from nesting colonies to Haversian canals in their bones – changed the way dinosaurs were to look forever.
Fortunately, art and science blended at the nexus point of this Renaissance. Both were on hand to drive the other. The new generation of artists were unique in that they were not just brilliant artists; they embraced the world of the dinosaurs in the way Caravaggio embraced the human form. Their knowledge extended to not just the animals themselves but the environment they occupied and in doing so they marked the turning point in how dinosaurs were perceived. Gone were the ‘great reptiles’; instead we had the ’10-ton Roadrunners’. Dinosaurs became good parents; smart, high-metabolism dynamos.
The Dinosaur Renaissance arrived more of less hand-in-hand with another revolution: the electronic one, so, with the benefit of hindsight, you can see Jurassic Park as almost inevitable. That said, even this movie – the one event that more or less put dinosaurs back on the cultural map – is not immune to the advances in science. Greg Paul, the one paleoartist whose revolutionary and massively influential artwork earned him the right to be called an enfant terrible, was ‘dinosaur consultant’ on Jurassic Park and had Spielberg been listening, he’d have almost certainly had the Velociraptors clad in feathers. As it is, for all the wonders of CGI, they have now been left behind while science – the true measure of paleoartistic worth – marches ever on…
1. UINTATHERIUM by Mauricio Anton
A fantastically weird animal brilliantly portrayed by prehistoric mammal specialist, Mauricio Anton. OK, so it’s not a dinosaur but it could very well be! Uintatherium was actually one of the earliest large mammals to evolve after the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago.
2. PTERANODONS & PLESIOSAURS by Douglas Henderson
Possibly my favourite picture in the book. The scene is the Cretaceous Inland Seaways – a shallow sea that cut North America in half during the Late Cretaceous period about 80-75 million years ago. A squadron of the famous Pterosaur (flying reptiles), Pteranodon, glide over a curling wave. The low sun colours the clouds and silhouettes long-necked Plesiosaurs cavorting in the sea. Just beautiful…
3. HESPERONYCHUS & CHASMOSAURUS by Raul Martin
Raul is perhaps the finest exponent of paleoart around (sorry, guys…) He has also made a seamless transition from traditional to digital art as this image shows. The little Hesperonychus is unusual in that its fossil remains are detailed enough to show it had a ringed tail (not unlike the lemur of the same name).
4. TROODON & MAGNOLIA by John Conway
I just love this one. The magnolia adds a real Oriental flavour to this picture and the pastel tones of the colours are gorgeous. Magnolias are considered ‘living fossils’, the earliest members of the family appearing about 95 million years ago!
5. LEAPING TYLOSAUR by Douglas Henderson
This image highlights one of the most significant moments in dinosaur evolution: their extinction; the moment when a astral body the size of Manhattan Island crashed into the sea near what is now Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula and triggered the famous of all Mass Extinctions. Amazing image.
6. POLACANTHUS by John Sibbick
A classic dinosaur image done with amazing skill and in incredible detail by John. Polacanthus is one of a number of armoured dinosaurs called Nodosaurs from Southern England.
7. BAITBALL by Robert Nicholls
The colour palette on this one is wonderful; all those blues. Robert’s composition is great, using sunlight and shadow to great effect, highlighting a pod of the dolphin-like marine reptile, Opthalmosaurus, driving a shoal of fish into a protective ball.
8. KAPROSUCHUS by Todd Marshall
I like this one because it shows how things have changed over the eons. Again, not a dinosaur but a terrestrial crocodile from Niger, West Africa, beautifully rendered in pencil by Todd. Chances are the only time this crocodile went near water was to drink.
9. KT EVENT by Julius Csotonyi
I wanted to include this one not only because it’s a wonderfully dynamic piece of artwork, but also because it highlights how different artists approach the same problem. This one could be a snapshot from seconds after Doug Henderson’s image of the same moment (known as the Cretaceous/Tertiary or KT Event). I love the split-level look to this one.
Dinosaur Art: The World’s Greatest Paleoart is currently in bookstores from Titan Books. All artwork is copyright © the respective artist.