Today I’m excited to bring you an interview with one of the most prominent paleoartists working today, Gabriel Ugueto. If you are on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram and follow paleoart at all, you are likely well aware of the astonishing scope and quality of art flowing out of Gabriel’s studio. From field guide-style lateral view restorations to fully fleshed-out, full color environments to evocative pieces rendered with the minimal color of ink, Gabriel’s body of work has attracted masses of devotees. And let’s not even mention his “sketches” and “speedpaints” that look absolutely ready for primetime. In my chat with him, we discussed his past, process, and thoughts on the practice of paleoart.
You seemed to hit the paleoart scene with a well-developed voice and style. How did your experience as a herpetologist and illustrator prepare you for the unique challenges of restoring extinct fauna?
My experience as a herpetologist has helped me tremendously as a paleoartist. Being familiar with the biology, morphology and general habits of animals has been fundamental in informing the way I reconstruct extinct tetrapods. My interest and love for reptiles (including birds) and amphibians was largely sparked by my fascination with dinosaurs and other extinct tetrapods as a kid. In many ways, I think for me it was a natural progression to get into the world of paleoart.
Additionally, my experience as an illustrator, and more specifically as a scientific illustrator, meant that I stepped into the world of paleoart with an already largely developed style. However, as it happens with every other artist, I consider that both my style and my artistic skills are always in a never-ending process of honing and refinement.
With the amount of consistently excellent work you are able to produce, in addition to the morning sketches you share, I feel like you must have a pretty set routine. Is that the case? On a daily (or longer) basis, how do you set yourself to the task of producing the sheer volume of restorations you complete?
I try to organize myself as best as I can. I do not think that I am an organized person by nature, so I have learned to force myself to follow a structured set of tasks and goals on a daily basis. That has helped tremendously to improve my productivity. It also keeps me focused and interested in what I am doing. I still cannot help but often bend or twist the structure I have set for myself, leaving room for it not to feel too rigid or I would not be able to adhere to it. I do have all sorts of lists with benchmarks I must complete on a daily and monthly basis. That way I feel I can be more efficient and I can handle several projects at the same time.
Have you had feedback from the general public (i.e. not fellow paleoartists and paleontologists) that has influenced your thinking on what is effective in paleoart?
Once your work is out there, in front of people’s eyes, it is inevitable that you will have a lot of feedback from the general public. However, I do not think that I have allowed that to influence my art. In fact, I do not think that is a good idea. Often, our work as paleoartists is to communicate the latest scientific discoveries, research or hypotheses to a general public who has not been exposed to those ideas before. Allowing for too much influence from the general public into your work defeats that purpose. Additionally, there is your unique vision as an artist. Allowing others to influence your style or how you approach your art will dilute your vision and you run the risk of it becoming uninteresting and soulless. I think that is the case for every type of artistic expression.
Something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is what actually works in reaching and educating the non-expert, non-geek audience. What do you think makes for effective paleoart, besides of course working to express anatomy as accurately as possible?
For me, I think it is important to make the viewer feel that they are looking at an actual animal that could be alive today; to walk that line between something that could look very alien, but at the same time familiar. It is important for me to convey in my art that these extinct creatures were animals, not one-dimensional movie monsters. Personally, I think that is one of the priorities of my art, and I would like to think that it’s effective at reaching people and engaging them. I think there is an overabundance of “monsterized” depictions of extinct animals. I do not have hard data to know if it’s effective, but anecdotally I’ve had good feedback from non-expert/non-geek audiences.
I imagine that your approach to a scene rather than a lateral-view, field guide style illustration is rather different. What inspires you when you paint scenes of fauna in their environment?
Different things inspire me, depending on the scene or animals I am depicting. My art tends to be very animal-centric, so I tend to get inspired primarily by the main subject animal in the scene. However, When I am depicting a scene that gives me the opportunity to show the viewer what that animal’s environment looked like, based on the available evidence. Going back to the last question, it is important for me to give the viewer a window where they can see how familiar, and, at the same time, unfamiliar, these creatures and their environments were.
What pieces of paleoart (whether 2D, 3D, animation, any other media) made a strong impression on you and influenced your development in this field? Specifically, are there pieces that made you see something in a different light or taught you something new?
Some of my first memories of paleoart are the illustrations of dinosaurs by Peter Zallinger that were in several books I read when I was a kid. Additionally, the reconstructions from various artists that were included in the book The Macmillan Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs and Prehistoric Animals were some of the first pieces of paleoart that left an impression in my brain. Of course, I also grew up seeing the illustrations of Bob Bakker and Greg Paul, and that definitely influenced. More recently, I’ve been inspired by the amazing reconstructions by John Conway, Emily Willoughby and Matthew Martyniuk. I do not think I can narrow it to a specific piece that has made a particular impression on me but rather their entire body of work.
You have been sharing work towards your in-progress book for a while, and it’s clear that many people are excited to see how it all comes together. I’m impressed that you’re bringing together skills as scientist, illustrator, and designer to see the project through. Has the project evolved as you’ve learned new things during its creation?
Oh yes, very much so. I started my in-progress book Journey To The Mesozoic about three years ago and it has been one of the hardest but most interesting projects I have ever taken on. Since I started illustrating and writing the book, I have tweaked or completely redone several reconstructions numerous times. I have also rewritten portions of the text in light of new research published in the last three years. This has slowed me down considerably and has delayed the publishing date for my book (originally I hoped it would have been completed in 2019) but I feel that is the price to pay to put out the best book I can.
What are the common challenges you encounter while researching for your paleoart?
One of the biggest challenges I often come across is that many of the scientific publications that I need to read are pay-walled. It takes a considerable amount of time to write to authors or friends who have access to these publications and ask them to send me a PDF. There are also the challenges that come with reconstructing species known from very limited, fragmentary or taphonomically distorted remains. In those cases phylogenetic bracketing is your friend.
Another challenge I often encounter is finding information about extinct flora when trying to reconstruct Paleozoic or Mesozoic scenes. There are very few accurate reconstructions of extinct plants in comparison to depictions of extinct animals, and finding open-access to paleobotany literature is quite difficult. I found that out when I was commissioned to do a series of drawings of extinct plants for the Burke Museum. Several taxa were known from extremely fragmentary fossils (a piece or bark, a bit of a leaf) and I could not find information about them. Thankfully, I worked closely with the paleobotany curators of the Burke Museum who provided me with a lot of publications and suggestions that were instrumental for me to be able to reconstruct these plants. I learnt tremendously through that process.
Deepest thanks to Gabriel for taking the time to do this interview and share his insights. For more of Gabriel’s work and thoughts, check out his interview with Dave Hone from just about a year ago, and visit his website and Redbubble shop. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter to see works-in progress and be apprised of original art up for sale. Gabriel is also one of the members of the SquaMates podcast team, so if you are a fancier of things herpetological, check it out.