Steve Kirk’s an underappreciated talent in the world of palaeoart, so I’m happy to say that we’ve featured his work a few times before, both here and over at our old home. Previously featured Kirk works have predominantly been from the 1990s, so imagine my delight when one John Conway thrust The Big Book of Dinosaurs into my hands – a Kirk-illustrated book from 1989! It’s fascinating to see just how much Kirk’s dinosaur art evolved in really quite a short space of time. Generally, the creatures appearing here are less sleek and Paulian, and a little more obviously retro-looking, as one might well expect. Of course, they’re still beautifully painted and frequently possessed of more artistic flair than any illustrations from a Dougal Dixon-authored popular dinosaur book from ’89 has any right to be. It seems like Dixon knocked out three dinosaur books every day over breakfast during the ’80s and ’90s (until he eventually went mad and we ended up with If Dinosaurs Were Alive Today), but one never gets a similar impression from Kirk’s art. In short: I like it, and John does too, don’t you know.
Sadly, the dust jacket was missing from the copy John gave me, but it probably looked something like this. Yes, there are hadrosaurs in this book but, as usual, I’ve just got to do the theropods first. So here’s Ceratosaurus.
Yes, the pose is a little awkward (I guess it’s rearing) and the skin does threaten to turn into Normanpedia-era Sibbick-style ‘wrinkly leathery hide’ in places. But it’s still lovely. Note the careful attention to detail on the head, which conforms well with the animal’s actual skull; that might sound like faint praise, but so many artists of the era were content to slap a comically conical nose horn on a fudged theropod head and call it a day. I’m also particularly fond of the creature’s neck, which boasts some superbly painted scaly skin folds and expertly applied shiny highlights. Overall, it is perhaps closer in style to an ’80s Sibbick piece than we might expect from Kirk, but hey, those were the times, man. I’d argue that Kirk’s colour choices for his dinosaurs were almost always rather more interesting than Sibbick’s – the subtle camouflage on this Ceratosaurus is a more subdued example, but still well executed, and other animals sport altogether snazzier colour schemes…
…Like these Deinonychus. I know many people quite justifiably deride tiger-striped dromaeosaurs as being a cliché – or perhaps ‘meme’ would be the better word – but damn it, I just can’t resist them. That’s why I still prefer the repaint of the original Jurassic Park Velociraptor toy (released to tie in with The Lost World) over the original. That, and because its gums weren’t shocking pink. But I digress. As ever, Kirk doesn’t make this scene half as brutal as I’d like, but I could imagine publishers balking at something a bit more full-on Red In Tooth And Claw. At least the Deinonychus don’t look preposterously weedy next to their prey, and Tenontosaurus is shown actively fighting back with its hefty tail, which is something I can imagine quite a lot of ‘defenseless’ dinosaurs doing. The dust cloud adds extra movement and energy to the scene, although it does make me ponder on the fact that these animals were always shown fighting in a dust bowl. (I suspect it’s ‘cos background detail would distract the viewer from what’s going on.) A bit of a dead trope now, but this is surely one of the better examples of it.
By the way, I had to photograph this one, as it wouldn’t fit into my scanner. This really is a BIG book, and I have a tiny, rubbish scanner. Sorry about that. This does mean that it looks rather better on the page than indicated here.
Never mind scaly dromaeosaurs stabbing Tenontosaurus in the face, though – nothing quite dates a dinosaur book to a certain era like a ‘carnosaur’ Spinosaurus. This is the stuff of which childhood nostalgia is made, and I love every scientifically obsolete square centimetre of it. Naturally, it helps that the thing is really quite beautiful to look at, with absolutely superb lighting in particular. Look closely, and you’ll also notice that this beast doesn’t quite have a generic ‘carnosaur’ head – rather, the lower jaw bulges upwards at the tip, a feature known from the (destroyed) specimen described by Stromer, and now known to support the characteristic spinosaur tooth ‘rosette’. Elsewhere, the stumpy arms with their ever-so-delicate and neat little hands, the sort of hands evolved for daintily folding napkins, are, granted, very odd. However, it was common practice to slap arms like this on Spinosaurus back in the ’70s and ’80s, so we’ll let it slide; where the trope originated, I’m not sure. There are shades of Neave Parker’s wee-fingered Megalosaurus. Can we blame Parker for this as well? Yeah, why not. Moving on…
Kirk’s take on Coelophysis for this book is another creature with natty, stripy patterning. I’m very fond of the layering of the animals in this one, which is not only effective in terms of composition and visual interest, but tells us much of what we need to know about these dinosaurs – they were long, lithe, flexible, alert and moved together in groups. It also allows for a suitably sinister-looking detailed close-up of the animal’s head to appear in the bottom left (partially cut off here by my scanner). The vegetation is wonderful, too. In case you were wondering, yes, that is intended to be a depiction of cannibalism, based on the old interpretation of small bones in the stomach region of a Coelophysis specimen as having belonged to a smaller Coelophysis. That may no longer be regarded as correct but, on the other hand, why not depict Coelophysis – and a huge range of other theropod dinosaurs, for that matter – as occasional cannibals? It seems entirely plausible, even if the fossil evidence is lacking so far.
In contrast with his illustration of Coelophysis, Kirk chooses to depict Stenonychosaurus standing alone on what appears to be the shore of a parched lake, with very minimal low-lying vegetation. Far from being an excuse to avoid painting period-appropriate foliage, though, Kirk has made this piece a highly striking and atmospheric portrait of a clearly birdlike animal – even without the feathers. In fact, Dixon compares this illustration with a photo of a secretary bird, noting how the two look alike. Even moreso on the page than is shown above (that tiny scanner again), the piece is dominated by an absolutely gorgeous orange sky, effective in making the animal look small even without any obvious point of reference. Its overall form is very reminiscent of Sibbick’s take in the Normanpedia, along with other ’80s reconstructions like the Invicta toy, although unlike the latter, this one at least has sickle claws (and unlike the former, they aren’t turned backwards). Its gaze is almost confrontational – or is it just startled? Is this an animal ready to fight for its prize, or preparing to scurry off into the night? I’m not sure, but there’s a surprising amount of character there.
If Kirk missed one opportunity in his Stenonychosaurus illustration, it was in not giving the animal more interesting patterning. Happily, he makes up for it with this suitable funky (and very ’80s) Oviraptor, complete with slightly shapeless limbs and nose horn. I’d hazard a guess that this piece is slightly older than some of the others, based both on the appearance of the dinosaur, and the slightly more painterly artistic technique employed. Kirk’s never one to attempt strict realism, but this one appears more stylised than most. I do like the composition, which firmly establishes the dinosaur as just a small component of its (arid) ecosystem. As for the Oviraptor, well, it’s pretty much par for the course.
Kirk may be good at making small dinosaurs look appropriately diminutive, but he also doesn’t shy away from making the big ones look, well, really freakin’ big. Like Allosaurus, here, seemingly painted from the perspective of one of the spotted Coelurus stealing scraps from a carcass. From this low down, the animal’s huge claws and bulky frame look especially terrifying, and it appears to have just noticed us, to boot – its beady yellow eye seems to have fixed on the viewer. Kirk must be congratulated for the unusual perspective, and for the 1980s, this is a good Allosaurus. It does have a slightly truncated and overly wide-looking head, which although sporting two horns in front of the eyes as it should, is missing the distinctive twin ridges along the snout. I’ll wager that it’s based on the mounted skeleton in the AMNH (AMNH 5753), which has a heavily reconstructed skull no longer regarded as being accurate. Nevertheless, that does mean that this is a strikingly different perspective on a scene that’s been reconstructed by dozens of palaeoartists, including the likes of Knight and Zallinger.
And so, eventually, Rexy turns up. Now, this is a perfectly serviceable 1980s Rexy depicted against a stunning backdrop that, while rather barren, at least helps keep the emphasis on the mighty King of the Tyrant Whatevers (with apologies for the slightly poor photo). There are one or two things a bit off about it, mostly where the head joins the neck (it’s a bit lacking in the jaw muscle department, and the sagittal crest probably shouldn’t be sticking out like a horn), but it’s nitpicky stuff. At least it’s striding along with its tail proudly in the air, looking suitably dynamic and modern like. Kirk’s depictions of Rexy would greatly improve in the 1990s, especially when he gave it a stripy hide and had it leering out of book covers at us. (That’s still one of my favourite ever covers.)
On a related note, this book notably features a full colour photograph of the old half-a-Rexy mount at the Natural History Museum in London, long consigned to history. Darren Naish memorably blogged about this mount back in 2008(!), although sadly the images on that post have also been relegated to memory. Like Darren, I sorely wish I’d been able to see this mount in person. All that remains on display today is the partially reconstructed lower jaw, although no doubt the rest of it has been stashed away somewhere.
And finally…possibly the best Baryonyx illustration to come out of the 1980s. Nuff said.
Seriously though, just look at it. Having the animal entirely surrounded by water (again, the whole image extends beyond what I could scan) is quite a daring choice for a book like this, and really helps make the piece all the more memorable. The animal itself is reconstructed especially well for the period, and correctly sports its crocodile-like jaws, fishing hook claws, and single midline skull crest. It’s not a quadruped and it doesn’t have a single freakishly large finger in the centre of its hand that’s surrounded by smaller vestigial fingers (yes, that happened), and as a result it’s aged very well. It’s certainly miles better than whatever that thing was in the last Jurassic World movie.
But don’t take a bow just yet, Steve. There’s more to come!