So, do you think you can palaeoart? As a reader of this blog, it’s quite likely that you’ve had a pop at restoring a prehistoric animal on paper (or, these days, on a screen – damn kids) at some point in your life. Even if it was just a silly doodle in order to enter one of our superb competitions. But if you want to get serious about your palaeoart, there’s an awful lot to consider – both scientific details considering your chosen animal’s skeletal anatomy, soft tissues, integument, behaviour, and environment – and artistic concerns surrounding mood, method, and avoiding plagiarism and clichés. Fortunately, palaeontologist and artist Mark Witton has gone and produced a comprehensive guide, ambitious in scope and truly impressive in detail, that is essential reading for anyone who fancies themselves a True Palaeoartist. More than that, it’s a fascinating tour through the science and art of restoring prehistoric animals even for those of us whose interest extends merely to writing rambling blog posts on an occasional basis. And on that note, let’s take a closer look at Dr Witton’s 2018 magnum opus – The Palaeoartist’s Handbook.
Before anything else, I must compliment Mark on the cover image. It’s a thoroughly modern reconstruction of Triceratops horridus, based on careful analysis of preserved skin, hummocky skull textures and horn growth in extant animals, which nevertheless manages to have a timeless, quite Knightian feel in terms of composition, technique and overall presentation, in spite of being digital. It’s one of Mark’s finest pieces, and perfectly encapsulates what much of this book is about. While the underlying science has been carefully considered, Mark has also paid close attention to producing a pleasing work of art, and one that honours palaeoart’s centuries-old history. Likewise, the book introduces the concept of palaeoart (often rather nebulous in itself) and provides a concise history of it, before delving into the scientific nitty-gritty. Mark tracks the development of palaeoart from its earliest days, through the Victorian pioneers of scientific fidelity, to Charles Knight, Zdenek Burian and the Dinosaur Renaissance. In doing so, he also discusses the issues of copying (if not outright plagiarism) and memes that have dogged palaeoart throughout the decades. On the latter, Mark notes that
“Owing partly to growing collections of vintage palaeoart online, the limited scope of palaeoart compositions and replication of specific themes across generations of palaeoartists has become increasingly apparent…The long-running blogs Tetrapod Zoology (authored by Darren Naish) and Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs (various authors, but especially David Orr and Marc Vincent) provide numerous articles on this theme.”
Yes, it was very important that I mention that.
The importance of originality in palaeoart, and the dangers inherent in perpetuating the same old tropes over and over, are themes that Mark returns to repeatedly in TPH. And rightly so. But of course, readers of the second blog that Mark mentioned in the above quote (right after Naish!) will be very familiar with that. Although discussions of palaeoart memes are always – always – entertaining, the meat of Mark’s book is in his thorough examination of what goes into a good palaeoart. In fact, the sheer breadth and depth of what Mark outlines in terms of the scientific considerations behind a work of palaeoart – never mind the artistic aspects – can appear quite intimidating. Mark does limit himself to tetrapods, which is a broad enough scope for a book that can be lifted without a forklift. Even so, what an amateur might imagine to be a sound basis for some palaeoart – a half-decent skeletal reference and a decent enough understanding of tetrapod musculature – is only the embryonic beginning.
While providing the requisite anatomy lessons on the tetrapod skeleton, Mark is also careful to detail a number of pitfalls that palaeoartists commonly fall into. An especially pertinent one is the misreading of an animal’s three-dimensional appearance from a two-dimensional skeletal diagram. A diagrammatic view of an animal’s skeleton in lateral view is, of course, an invaluable resource. However, relying on this alone, perhaps with a little knowledge of a related animal’s museum reconstruction thrown in, can result in significant errors being made. Apparently similar animals can vary hugely in girth; Mark demonstrates that this is as true of extant crocodylians (which are often imagined has having basically the same body shape) as weird and exotic sauropods. This leads to a discussion on articulating skeletons, with attention paid to the often-forgotten role the cartilage would have played, and then on to a chapter on soft tissues.
Here Mark notes that the existing popular literature on this subject is virtually non-existent. As such, Mark’s guidance in the middle section of the book would be invaluable anyway, but his approach is nevertheless superb in combining anatomical rigour with a keen eye for a naturalistic, realistic and aesthetically pleasing reconstruction. There are the expected muscle diagrams (as above), but Mark goes to great lengths to get us to consider how an animal’s likely lifestyle would impact on its appearance, a notable example being the large gut regions of many herbivores. Based purely on the skeleton alone, it’s tempting to produce overly-svelte herbivores that in reality would have required a huge vegetation-processing plant located in front of their hind limbs. (One’s reminded of the ‘super sleek cow’ in All Yesterdays.) When restoring an animal with such a gut, it’s then important to consider how that would impact its movement, and the way its weight would have shifted around. Mark notes of the Crystal Palace Iguanodon models that they “remain masterclasses in portraying realistic distortion of animal soft tissues” – another reminder that even where the science has moved on, palaeoart of the past can still have plenty to teach us.
I have no doubt that the most contentious chapters of this book will be those surrounding the life appearance of animals’ faces – especially those of charismatic, large theropods. And their lips. For some reason. Much as he has done on his blog in the past, Mark compares bone textures on the skulls of extant animals with those of extinct animals, and draws conclusions based on the appearance of rugosity, grooves, pitting, vascular channels and so on. It’s all very convincing in its rigour, but shouldn’t be taken as gospel; still, Mark readily admits this, and as with so much in palaeoart, attempts at rigour are always preferable, and will yield something closer to reality, than slapping on any old thing and calling it a day. Mark rightly takes time to call out the way that other artists have, for example, ignored the extremely fine scales on hadrosaurs’ skin, even when it had already been well known for decades. That isn’t to say that informed speculation isn’t very much encouraged, and Mark includes a number of examples of artworks where striking and original reconstructions have resulted from a re-examination of the fossil evidence – with some artistic flair thrown in. For example, there’s an excellent page detailing the rationale behind Mark’s ‘whirling horns’ Triceratops, as featured on the cover.
In fact, Mark overtly warns of the dangers of being overly conservative in one’s approach. He provides numerous examples of fossil animals, from disparate clades, with preserved soft tissue outlines that clearly demonstrate the folly of ‘shrink-wrapping’. Everything from fat, to fur, to eyes, lips, ears, horns and more is considered. Mark even goes further in providing analyses of specific popular groups of fossil animals, including prehistoric ‘amphibians’, plesiosaurs, pterosaurs and feathered dinosaurs, examining important aspects of their anatomy and outlining common pitfalls. Unless an artist has been tasked with restoring a tetrapod that’s quite unbelievably obscure, I can’t imagine them not gleaning important information and insight from Mark’s work. The rest of us can enjoy an entertaining and utterly fascinating anatomy and art lesson; many of Mark’s observations on animals living and extinct have been shared by others before, but very rarely in print like this.
And then there’s that whole section on prehistoric landscapes.
Because dumping your elephant-skinned JP-looking sauropod into a dustbowl with a smattering of sad-looking ferns just isn’t going to cut it anymore, chum. Here, the book even extends to geography and geology lessons. Mark really has thought of everything, or damn well near enough. Once your creature has been placed into its meticulously-researched landscape, Mark is ready to offer pointers on “Composition, Mood and Purpose,” again drawing inspiration from both extant animals and wildlife photography, along with the works of past masters and the importance of considering an artwork’s intent. Much of this has been said before by Mark, Darren Naish and others online, but always bears repeating. Some may consider it to be at odds with the more ‘how to manual’ style of some of the rest of the book, but really the two sections compliment each other very well. After all, great palaeoart is inevitably great art in its own right – long-lasting and memorable even after its scientific relevance has faded. On the subject of style, Mark presents work from artists like Rebecca Groom, Raven Amos and Johan Egerkrans that pushes the envelope stylistically, again encouraging readers to break free from the stifling conservatism that has troubled palaeoart in the past.
Towards the end of the book, Mark combines his scientific and artistic sides on the professional front, and offers advice to artists and palaeontologists alike on working constructively together. This is immensely helpful, and I really hope that those palaeontologists who are called upon to offer advice on books, movies and other media read this part of the book, if nothing else. In typically Wittonian fashion, the author is game enough to offer an example of ‘constructive criticism’ of his own past work (see above). While I don’t feel remotely qualified (a bit rich after all these years, I know) to comment on the professional advice Mark gives to artists, it all seems like very sound stuff; I’d be intrigued to hear from any artists who’ve read the book as to how they felt about it.
It’s good, then. Very good. In fact, it’s definitely one of the most important books on the subject of palaeoart in years; there’s nothing else out there that comes close in being extremely thorough, meticulously detailed, well-argued, informative, educational and often beautiful to look at, to boot. That it’s almost entirely dedicated to tetrapods may be seen as a limitation to some, but hey, a line has to be drawn somewhere. If there’s ever a second edition, I wouldn’t mind seeing a little more in the way of 3D palaeoart, both the good and, even better, the bad. (This may be a reflection of my own slightly idiosyncratic interests, mind.) But really, as one scientist/artist’s take on the science and art of reconstructing prehistoric animals, it’s hard to imagine a better book than this.