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Action man! Steve White on Dinosaurs!

Illustration Interview

Any dinosaur-loving child in the UK in the early 1990s simply had to have a Dinosaurs! magazine collection. I’ve looked at the series on a number of occasions previously, mostly because it’s a treasure trove of 1990s palaeoart (of widely varying quality), but also because it’s hugely nostalgic for me personally, easily as much as Jurassic Park. My parents placed a subscription with our (now long-defunct) local newsagent, so I had every copy delivered to my door. Mostly thanks to its sheer length – 103 issues (plus the index, for 104) – its content went far, far beyond any kids’ dinosaur book at the time, with illustrations of a mind-boggling number of different species (dinosaurs and otherprehistoricanimals alike).

The centre of each issue featured two double-page spreads that formed an ‘artwork showcase’ of sorts, which was especially exciting to me as a child. The first of these, ‘Giants of the Past’, featured whichever animal had been profiled at the front of the issue in a richly-illustrated action scene. The second, simply titled ‘3-D Gallery’, was a red-and-green 3D scene that initially featured a range of photographs of very dated-looking models, which after a while gave way to commonly available dinosaur toys. It was a bit rubbish.

Enter Steve White – the action man! Outfits, vehicles and pens sold separately.

Steve White - Action Man

The publisher of Dinosaurs!, Orbis, commissioned Steve to produce original monochromatic illustrations that could be given the 3D treatment. Needless to say, and as is quite evident from the spread above, these were a huge improvement over photographs of Carnegie Collection dinosaur toys. Furthermore, and in spite of being spoiled by the conversion to dichromatic 3D, Steve’s illustrations were among the very best to appear in the series. They were dynamic, exciting and featured up-to-the-minute restorations of the animals concerned; even the less dramatic pieces featured dinosaurs behaving in an unusually believable, naturalistic fashion. In issue 93, Steve finally received an interview in the magazine, as seen above. This was also the only time we got see any of his work without ugly red, green and brown lines slathered all over the place. It was very rare for the magazine to profile any of its illustrators, which surely speaks volumes.

I spoke to Steve at TetZooCon last year, where he signed a copy of Dinosaur Art II for me (complete with beautiful off-the-cuff illustration) – Steve’s edited both books in the series so far. We’ve since been in contact on social media, and I asked him whether he’d be happy to provide an insight into his involvement with Dinosaurs! back in the day. Fortunately, he was more than happy to oblige. Without further ado, then…

Steve at TetZooCon last year, signing a little something that I gave away…
“My involvement with the Orbis partwork began in 1993 (as is so often the way) through a series of happenstances but at its heart was the release of Jurassic Park. The film obviously created a huge dinosaur bandwagon that many publishers were keen to jump on, including Orbis. When it went on sale, I was not a huge fan of the actual mag – this was before I was involved; the art looked a bit ropey and the 3D stuff was material I’d had when I was a kid!

However, Orbis had only a limited number of those 3D pieces and were quickly faced with running out of them; they were also looking around for anyone who could draw dinosaurs. At that point, a friend of mine, Una Fricker, who was a very good natural history artist, had gone in to see Orbis and had picked up some work.

At this point, about mid-1993, I had just left the comics company I was working for in the hope of going freelance. I’d picked up some colouring work (for Sonic the Comic) and some writing for 2000AD. It wasn’t very much but it was a start, but then Una mentioned to me that Orbis was looking for an artist to take over drawing the 3D section. I cobbled a portfolio together and went to see them. They weren’t a big fan of my colour art but did like my black and white material. They said they were about to run out of the old 3D stuff so asked me if I thought I could draw something. I’ll be honest and say at the time I was not massively confident in my art (hence the colouring and writing) but I did know a lot about dinosaurs. I offered to do the piece on spec. I even – which is pretty indicative of how I saw myself – offered to do it at reduced rate; they offered £500 (which in 1993 was pretty big money). I said I’d do it for £350 just to secure the gig. I did the sample and to my amazement, they loved it.

Steve White piece 1
Steve does still have a few of the originals, and kindly photographed them for me to include here. This scene appeared in the very last issue.

However, self-deprecation aside, the art was weekly so it seemed like a pretty sweet deal. I had been told (as I recall) there would be about 14 pieces so I figured that that would be a good start to my freelance career. I also thought it would help develop my artwork – and it really did, particularly with my inking.

The process for producing the art began with a list of dinosaurs from Orbis; I’d then do a pencil breakdown. They would be pretty loose, very simple. I’d take the art to Orbis who’d send a copy to Dr David Norman (who was consultant on the series) for comments (of which there were usually few…). Once the pencils were approved I’d crack on with the inks. That was the real area of development for me. My biggest influences were and remain Berni Wrightson, NC Wyeth and Frank Frazetta, as well as a number of the classic 2000AD artists such as Kev O’Neill, Brian Bolland and Mick McMahon; I’d also been influenced as a colourist by French bande dessinee comic art, which has a style all its own. From a paleoart perspective, I was very much in the thrall of the classics of the Dinosaur Renaissance; Doug Henderson really drove my landscapes especially his use of Chiariscuro; it was really pure art but my dinosaurs were largely dictated by Greg Paul and Bob Bakker. I think Bakker’s work was amazing; his sense of dynamism was incredible – it’s a real shame that it’s never been collected.

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I guess all artists have a style that is a melange of styles but my inks were largely motivated by Berni Wrightson (since then I’ve discovered Franklin Booth and Hermann Vogel). Looking back on my art I was busy trying to emulate his style but was also following the work of many of the artists I had worked with at Marvel. And the thing about doing something weekly is that you have a very steep learning curve. At the time I was sharing a studio with three comic artists in Brixton and one of them was nice enough to comment that my art had really improved within a couple of weeks of starting.

Things then went from good to great when the partwork proved a massive hit; it was being picked up by various European publishers and I was offered on-going work on the series. What started out as 14 pieces became dozens and then hundreds. Literally hundreds. It gave me a chance to experiment with different styles but I did have to keep a fairly standard approach – each piece had to be designed along the lines of a theatre stage, with various levels of foreground, mid-ground and background so that the people who converted the art into 3D could arrange it into the various levels.

In terms on composition, again I was very much driven by my comics background but also Bakker’s art, which had been very dynamic. I think that’s what drew me to it. Up until then, most paleoart was in keeping with the perception of dinosaurs – slow, dull, plodding, no matter how well executed it was. Bakker’s pencil drawings had amazing life in them. Either way, I wanted to apply as much power as I could to my illustrations so it was often a case of things crashing into other things or being thrown around. The general rule of thumb for me was make the angle on the animal as acute as you could and have as few legs (if any) on the ground.

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I also developed a reputation for brutality. I remember being called a babykiller by my editor because of my habit of having young dinosaurs being chased or killed by predators. I guess I’m very much of the ‘red in tooth and claw’ view of natural history. But, again, I suspect it’s because I never saw that sort of thing drawn and it used to annoy me; I guess this was largely because up until the ’80s very little was known about young dinosaurs and nesting behaviour but by the time I was working on the partwork, there had been the discoveries in Montana that led to the Maiasaura nesting colony that totally changed our perceptions of dinosaur behaviour. That said, I know that most large animals spend most of their time relaxing, sleeping or doing other equally uninspiring behaviours but drawing these weekly you need to keep it interesting. I’m fairly certain I did do a few that were more ‘relaxed’ in their composition but generally I was a bit more, er, brisk.

The downside to that was that this before the internet. Getting references to produce dynamic postures was hard. Predatory Dinosaurs of the World was like a bible to me, especially because it had multiple views of many of the dinosaurs – even overheads, which I was particularly fond of. Also, Greg Paul’s essay in Dinosaurs Past & Present was of great use – I guess this is why I was still very much part of the ‘shrink-wrapped’ school at this point. But a lot of species had only very limited material available so a lot of the time I was winging it.

Not that that mattered too much to Orbis. I had lovely editors but they weren’t massively familiar with dinosaurs so I could have drawn any old piece of crap and they would have been pretty much none the wiser. One time I got into an argument with them because they wanted an Iguanodon fighting a theropod that I knew for sure was not contemporaneous. They actually checked and realised I was correct and I ended up doing Becklespinax even though I pointed out it was known from just a couple of vertebrae. On another occasion I was doing Pentaceratops; this was just after a paper had come out revealing the dip at the top edge of the animal’s frill. I drew it as such but was made to change it because a previous illustration in the series didn’t have the dip and they wanted to keep things in continuity – even if it was incorrect. I remember being in a pub in Brixton with Luis Rey, who was not happy that I buckled and drawn in a deliberate error but my view was that it was their money and considering some of the sins committed in that mag, this was nothing.

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At some point, the Japanese started an edition of the partwork and wanted not one but two 3D spreads (the second was to go on a fold-out inside front cover). At that point, I was very busy and I just didn’t have the time to do both so I compromised by doing one complete and just pencilling the second. The inks were done by a friend of mine (and now award-winning comic creator) Nick Abadzis.

Around this time I’d been doing the 3Ds for over two years (I think) and I was really running out of steam. I’d reached a point I never thought I’d reach – I was actually tired of drawing dinosaurs. I was finding it hard to keep the concepts fresh and was worried about being a one-trick pony, just drawing dinosaurs (that would come back to haunt me later). Then, that became a moot point when Orbis decided to wrap the series up. As I recall I was offered another set of about 14 but had only completed one when it was decided to cancel the series completely.

As it was, an addendum to the Orbis partwork was that shortly after, another company, Marshall Cavendish, approached me to do colour illustrations for a dinosaur A-Z partwork. I think I did about 80 of them, alongside Jim Robbins and other Orbis veterans. This was for a series of encyclopaedias that would only be available in schools; we were never given finished editions, just proofs. As such the only time I ever saw them was once at the London Book Fair in the later 90s. [Watch this space – M]

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About this time, Walking With Dinosaurs arrived on the scene and publishers were only interested in computer-generated art. I was constantly being asked if I could do CGI which I couldn’t, although I could scan it on to a computer and do a bit of manipulated but that wasn’t what they wanted.

So began that dreadful period of terrible computer art that dominated dinosaur publishing for years after. I ran out of work and ended up working in a bookshop before lucking out and ending up at Titan Publishing, where I had the opportunity to work on the Dinosaur Art series; since then, the whirligig of nostalgia has come round and fans of the Orbis partwork now remember it fondly. Which means I remember that I was dumb enough to throw out a lot of that artwork because it was just gathering dust in a portfolio. I have about half a dozen or so left out of the couple of hundred I did. Such an idiot.”

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If it’s any consolation to Steve, I’m quite sure he helped inspire a generation of palaeoartists, and while naturally dated in places, his work for Dinosaurs! still stands up as excellent palaeoart even today. I’d like to thank him again for taking the time to provide such a fascinating insight into his work on Dinosaurs!, and for providing photographs of the work without all the red-and-green crap obscuring it. If you happen to have any of Steve’s work, or just want to share your thoughts on both it and Dinosaurs! generally, please leave a comment!

3 thoughts on “Action man! Steve White on Dinosaurs!

  1. OH WOW, I still remember getting Dinosaurs! in the mail when I was very very young..Must have been 4-5 at the time. I remember drooling (literally, again age 5 here) over the images, waiting as my Dad assembled them into those binders they came with, collecting all the parts for that T. rex, but most of all those 3D spreads! it is nice to seen them in their original form here. I actually still have them all in a giant bin under my drafting table, I half forget what’s in there most of the time but after seeing this i want to crack it open and take a stroll down memory lane.

  2. Oh wow! I loved these as a kid! I still remember getting them in the mail when I was very young, must have been 4 or 5 at the time. They’d come with bug binders you could store them in and I’d pace around anxiously as my dad tried to assemble them in correct order. I actually have a big green bin filled with them under my drafting table and most of the time i’ve half forgotten whats inside, but after reading this I think i’ll crack it open and take a nice hit of nostalgia.

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