In the Windy City, there are extinct creatures being brought back to life…sort of.
Liam Elward is an aspiring paleoartist from Chicago, Illinois. His portfolio ranges a whole manner of extinct lineages and geologic periods, from the Carboniferous edaphosaurids to Cenozoic megafauna like early cetaceans and proboscideans. His work has been lauded by paleontologists and fellow paleoartists alike, including: Jim Kirkland, Darren Naish, Keenan Taylor, and Jaime Headden.
Elward is currently pursuing an education in art, and in his spare time away from the drawing desk, he’s doing volunteer fossil preparation at the Field Museum. With a keen eye for detail, color, and a great taste in memes, he is an artist worth keeping an eye on in the near future. I recently got the chance to interview him about his budding career in paleoart, including his influences, his creative process, and why we must encourage even more paleo memes.
How long have you been doing paleoart?
I drew constantly as a kid, but I took a sort of hiatus around age ten as things like school and sports became a bigger part of my life. I eventually got back into it, and began doing paleoart in earnest January 2017. So, I’ve been at it for about two years now, but I didn’t begin to post my work on the Internet or social media until about March 2018. That was a big turning point that led to actually joining the larger paleoart community.
What got you into it?
Paleoart is the most easily-accessible medium for understanding extinct life, and I think as a kid it’s only natural to be drawn to it (no pun intended). I spent a lot of time at the Field Museum in Chicago as a kid, and I think the huge, iconic murals by Charles Knight left a strong impact on me. I’m also incredibly thankful to have supportive parents who guided and nourished my interests at every turn. Not many dinosaur-obsessed six-year-olds went to talks by Paul Sereno I think, but I am beyond lucky to have had those experiences.
Are there any particular paleoartists you look up to/admire?
Almost too many to name!
I think reading All Yesterdays by Darren Naish, John Conway & C.M. Kosemen was a pivotal moment that changed how I view extinct animals, the practice of paleoart, and paleontology as a whole. Their work was unlike anything I had ever seen or read before, and I still apply those principles to reconstructions I do today.
I love artists who take novel and exciting approaches. Take, for example, the dream-like, ethereal paintings of Mark Witton. His work both evokes the greatest qualities of legends like Charles Knight and applies the latest ideas on animal life and behavior. The result is something truly magical.
Gabriel Ugueto is perhaps one of my biggest stylistic influences. He really captures that crucial essence of a real animal–that dinosaurs were not roaring, bloodthirsty movie monsters. When I first looked at his pieces, I had this moment of ‘Oh my god, this is as close to a photo of a Drepanosaurus as possible!’
Brian Engh’s work is a constant reminder that these extinct animals were in many ways unlike anything alive today, and that we take for granted just how bizarre living animals are in their own right. I often strive to capture what he does so beautifully, the textures and life appearance of ancient beasts that would probably look quite different to what we know.
Another one of my greatest stylistic influences is Joschua Knüppe, who blows me away with his superhuman creativity when it comes to light, composition, and overall environments.
Perhaps what’s most exciting to me is the people that are newer to the game that also bring in something so unique and special. From the crisp serenity of Julio Lacerda’s scenes and the colorful radiance of Franz Anthony’s invertebrates, to the painterly styles of Tom Björklund and Ville Sinkkonen, I am just blown away by everything that’s happening in paleoart these days. Especially by those younger than me, like Henry Sharpe, Lucas Attwell, and Jack Wood. They almost motivate me even more, because I’m fairly new to paleoart and have some catching up to do.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
I’m endlessly inspired by the work of other paleoartists. I strive to make my art a combination of all the elements I love about the artists I admire, so I end up looking at their work for hours. Often times their unique take on a particular organism or geologic era can make me want to delve into it myself.
I also find wildlife photography and nature documentaries like the BBC’s Blue Planet and Planet Earth series incredibly inspiring when it comes to visualizing animal behavior and ecology. The oddities of modern animals continually make me reexamine how we view their extinct counterparts and push my own speculation to its limit.
What’s your process for working on a new project?
Wikipedia is a great jumping off point, especially if you’re new to paleoart/paleontology in general. I don’t lean on it as heavily as I used to, but often their sources can lead you in the right direction for relevant information on the subject in question. I tend to go to different places for different organisms, but try to find as much as possible from across the Internet. For dinosaur reconstructions, I rely on resources such as the work of Scott Hartman, and the blogs of experts like Darren Naish and Mark Witton.
Witton’s blog, in particular, is a great source of inspiration; his writing shines a light on both his paleontological background as well as his artistic process, which has helped me to hone my own methods. Often times his writing on an extinct animal directly inspires me to reconstruct it. His work on the giant azhdarchid pterosaurs in particular has made me fall in love with the group, and I will definitely return to them again.
Once I have a subject in mind, I can spend hours looking at living animals that have a similar integument and ecology. For example, when I’m drawing an ammonite, I look at photos of as many species of cuttlefish, octopus and squid that I can find. This gives me a good idea of the “conventions” of cephalopod skin texture and color patterns, and allows me to create something new, yet believable.
What’s been your favorite piece to work on so far?
This might sound cliché, but a lot of the time the next piece that I’m planning is the one that is most exciting. I love to think about the possibilities and try to improve as much as possible along the way.
Of the works that I’ve completed however, I think my series on Proboscidea stands out. That has been the most in-depth project I’ve undertaken towards one group of animals, and it really gave me an insight into a group I had never really thought about before. It was uniquely challenging to capture the diversity of such an expansive group, and I had a blast learning things along the way. It was also very rewarding for me to contribute some artistic flair to the depiction of these animals.
I was inspired to tackle them by Mark Witton’s observation that extinct proboscideans are almost always reconstructed as African elephants with odd-shaped tusks, when in reality they probably looked much different from their grey, wrinkled relatives.
What are your career and education goals?
I had always planned to go to school for paleontology itself, but as I began to take college courses I struggled tremendously with even the most basic aspects of the hard science in subjects like chemistry, math and physics. While my passion for paleontology is as strong as ever, I realized that putting myself through hell for the eventual reward was almost like entering a triathlon while hating swimming and biking. I have now begun to look for art schools around the Chicago area to hone my skills, and will probably pursue a degree related to graphic design.
I would love to one day create a blog or website that delves more into my artistic process and what interests me about the organisms I reconstruct. Every paleoartist has a few “bucket list items”, like working with a museum or producing artwork of a species new to science. Honestly, if I could make any sort of living doing paleoart, I’ll be grateful. It’s not exactly a lucrative field, and there’s more artists emerging every day. To get there though, I need to expand my artistic versatility beyond the simple lateral views, and hone my skills significantly.
I also would love to publish a book (or rather, books) about prehistoric life and paleoart, but looking at those currently in the process like Ugueto and Naish I can see just how time-consuming and intense it can be. There’s still a lot I need to learn as I move forward, and I believe getting an art degree would be a lifesaver in this regard.
What do you think it is about extinct ecosystems that draws the attention and curiosity of so many artists?
Prehistory has all the exciting opportunities for creativity and artistic experimentation, and the fact that it’s all based on fossil evidence and the Earth’s past gives it a certain weight. We all know the centuries-old image of a fire-breathing dragon tearing up a castle, but how cool is it that there were literal dragons in the form of small, bat-winged dinosaurs gliding through the trees of Jurassic China? The fact that we base our work on skeletons, trace fossils and other forms of scientific evidence means there’s just enough of a foundation where you aren’t starting from scratch, although it can be a challenge to find new ways to tackle well-known, extinct animals.
Is there anyone in particular you’d like to work with—paleontologist, other paleoartists, etc.?
It would be the ultimate privilege to work with a paleontologist at the Field Museum, for obvious reasons. Of course, this early in my career I’d be humbled to work with any paleontologists, whether for the publication of new fossils or for a museum exhibit. That also goes with collaborating with another paleoartist. That sort of work seems rather rare, but even meeting other paleoartists would be an honor.
I think some sort of collaborative book with other paleoartists of my generation is an intriguing idea, especially because there is an interesting spectrum of style, composition, and subject matter amongst us. There’s also a unique perspective such a project could bring, as the younger paleoartists are emerging in an era that probably began with the speculative All Yesterdays movement.
You’ve done some work with the Field Museum already as a volunteer doing fossil preparation. How did you land that gig?
That’s an interesting story. When I was about thirteen years old, I decided that before highschool was the ideal time to get a jump-start in pursuing my passion for paleontology beyond just reading books. I wrote letters to every paleontologist I remembered from said books or television documentaries, asking them for advice in advancing my career in high school and eventually college.
As luck would have it, Dr. Phil Manning received my letter a day before he left England for Chicago. He was filming a series for National Geographic on fossils around the world (I believe it’s called “Jurassic CSI”, and was released in 2011), and part of the program would be investigating Sue the Tyrannosaurus at the Field Museum. You can imagine how excited my parents and I were when we got a voicemail from a producer for Nat Geo asking if I would like to come down and watch Dr. Manning film behind the scenes at the museum. I jumped at the opportunity, and prepared as best I could for the most nerve-wracking moment of my young life.
I got to meet Dr. Manning and see photos from some of his travels to digs and museums, and talked with him for quite a bit. I also met the paleontologists who work at the Field Museum, including Dr. Pete Makovicky and Akiko Shinya, a fossil preparator. I watched Dr. Manning and Dr. Makovicky as they were filmed talking about the damage Sue had faced throughout its extraordinary life, soaking up every word like a sponge. It was an incredible experience, and when I had the opportunity to do a school internship of my choice, I jumped at the opportunity to reach out to Dr. Makovicky to volunteer.
I spent a brief period with Dr. Bill Simpson in the fossil mammal collections, and wound up working closely with my mentor Akiko doing fossil preparation for a couple years. While I eventually had to stop to focus on school and college applications, I have since returned to fossil preparation at the Field Museum with Akiko this last fall (September 2018). She is an incredible teacher and a dedicated professional, and her experience and knowledge are unmatched.
On a lighter note: you engage with the memetic subculture of paleoart often–what’s the draw there?
I didn’t have any plans to make paleontology-themed memes, but it was bound to happen if I’m drawing, reading about, or thinking about extinct organisms all the time. Often the most niche meme circles arise from groups that share such a passion where there are these communal experiences and knowledge. All of that is acknowledged through memes.
I also think memes can be an incredible promotional tool, something that is invaluable for an aspiring freelancer in any field. If memes weren’t so effective for spreading a message or brand, corporate Twitter accounts wouldn’t be tripping over themselves to create relatable content.
Finally, what does your paleoart future look like?
Hopefully, in the next few years, I will be a much busier and more versatile artist. It’s been difficult, but I’m trying to push myself to work more on environments and scenes. Composition and lighting can be such a challenge, and for someone that works in detail that makes things all the more complicated.
I would really love to get some formal education in art/graphic design, but if my past has taught me anything it’s never easy or simple to pursue such a lofty goal. While these past couple years have mainly been about entering the field of paleoart and learning the ins and outs of scicomm, I’m hoping over the next several years I can make a bigger impact on the community and really make a name for myself.
Seeing where some of my favorite artists were at five years ago, I have some pretty high expectations for improving my own style and artistic abilities. I also hope my portfolio will expand significantly to alleviate my worries about not being able to reconstruct every extinct organism ever. There are just so many groups of weird and wonderful animals that seem to pile up in my “wish list”, and it’d be great to give some of them a much-needed increase in attention and interest. No matter what happens, so long as I’m still making paleoart I’ll be happy.