There’s no one way to do paleoart.
No one is proving that more than Mary Sanche. Based in Drumheller, Alberta, Sanche is a graphic designer for the famed Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology. As a science & editorial illustrator, she creates not only paleoart, but work that spans across many different genres. Her work sometimes blends styles and genres together, creating unique works of art that draw audiences in. Her list of publications and exhibitions include Canadian Geographic, the Nature Conservancy of Canada, the Fan Art Exhibit at the Pumphouse Theatre Art Gallery in Calgary, and much more.
I recently had the opportunity to interview Sanche about her work, her favorite prehistoric animals, Praeternatural History Co.–a papergoods initiative she started with Finnegan Matthews–and the benefits of reimagining the past.
How long have you been doing paleoart? What got you into it?
I started actively studying paleoart in 2014. Before then, I had an interest in dinosaurs, and I’m sure there are a lot of kiddy crayon drawings of hadrosaurs lost to the sands of time. But it was really art college that spurred me on to taking an active interest in animal anatomy and reconstruction. I had some brilliant instructors—Karl Geist and Dennis Budgen—that taught me so much and encouraged me to get nerdy with it. There was a particular assignment for which I was waffling on what to do and Karl just gave me this intense stare and said “Mary, just do Jurassic Park. Obviously that’s what you want to do.”
He was right.
So, you work at the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology. How did you land that gig?
I romanced them. (Ha ha.)
In truth, being local enough was a big help. The RTMP prefers to hire local artists for their contract work. I was on the short list for a project that eventually went to my partner, Finnegan Matthews, when they were designing their Foundations exhibit. So they knew about me somehow, and ever since that point, I made sure to attend openings and send them postcards just to keep myself in their field of view. I waited for an opening for a permanent position in the design studio, I applied, and they hired me!
One of my final projects at the Alberta College of Art + Design (now the Alberta University of the Arts) was a book on hadrosaurs that I illustrated and typeset myself. They actually had that book on hand during my interview, so I think there’s something very powerful to be said about the strength of physical, old-school print media.
What does a typical day on the job look like for you?
A lot of mucking around in Adobe Illustrator and Adobe InDesign, honestly. Although I do get to illustrate for my day job at the Museum, a lot of what I do is more on the pure graphic design end of things—making documents legible and suited to their audiences. I have a hand in education materials both for teachers and children, as well as in marketing and product design.
It’s a very diverse job and it keeps me on my toes. We have to make sure everything is up to snuff with the researchers and curators, but also accessible to the Museum visitors. I do get to handle fossils from time to time, whenever I need them for design projects. Going down to collections is always a highlight of a workday.
What’s your process for creating a new piece of paleoart?
Everything starts with gathering references. I always collect skeletal and skull references first, doing my best to get images of original fossils where possible, rather than casts (but obviously a lot of specimens are fragmentary). From there, I branch out into references of extant species that I want to draw inspiration from. Usually it’s the closest extant relative, but sometimes I want a little flare from outside of their direct evolutionary families, so I’ll pull from animals that occupy similar ecological niches. (Reference predators for other predators, and so on.)
Depending on the piece, I’ll either launch into the final (if it’s something just for fun or for small products like stickers), or for more complex, accurate pieces, I’ll draft the skeleton first, then the muscles, then the fascia. If a pose is giving me trouble, I’ll break out the modeling clay and make a maquette to use for reference photos.
Are there any paleoartists you look up to or admire?
Charles R. Knight and Zdeněk Burian will always be my main men. I love the sensibilities of vintage palaeoart, with all of the pomp and circumstance and whimsical drama. I’ll admit that I certainly romanticise that period a lot, too, when artists were out physically painting murals for dioramas late into the night. There is a movement towards more digital production, which I understand because it’s easier to replace and reproduce artwork as time eats away at it—but nothing beats a good, brilliant, physical painting.
I also love the work of William Stout and Donna Sloan—masters of pen and ink! Terryl Whitlatch does my favourite drawings of active poses, too. Her art has such dynamism and fantasy and I can’t wait to see what she publishes next.
James Gurney puts up wonderful videos on Youtube. He’s so generous with what he’s learned and I highly recommend his longer, paid videos too. He’s definitely the reason I started posting on Youtube in the first place.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
Always nature, and always vintage natural history illustration. The actual physical fossils are always a wealth of inspiration. Anything you can do, nature’s done better—and working at the Museum, I’m lucky enough to be able to visit specimens when I need them to fuel my work.
Birdwatching also inspires me, because it’s so easy (and so fun) to imagine their behaviours patterned onto their extinct relatives.
I keep a lot of toys and scale models around, too—including pieces from Primordial Profiles and Beasts of the Mesozoic. I also have a horrific leather toy T. rex that my mother got for me at a flea market. I’m pretty sure it’s cursed.
What’s been your favorite piece to work on so far?
I had such a blast making my medieval tapestry homage ‘The Dinosaur is in Captivity and No Longer Extinct.’ I just spent ages noodling around on the foliage in Procreate, laying on my bed/couch like a kid. Very enjoyable process, and I was so glad that it received so much attention.
The tagline for your Praeternatural History Co.–your paper goods initiative with Finnegan Matthews–is “Natural History Reimagined.” What does that mean to you, and what’s the benefit of reimagining the past?
Finn and I adopted that tagline as a way of giving ourselves artistic flexibility and imaginative freedom. Obviously there’s a place for very realistic, very grounded reconstructions. There’s a place for the legacy of Audubon and Haeckel and the like. But there’s also this spin-off of natural history illustration where things get funky and whimsical (think Dinotopia or Valley of Gwangi) and that’s the sort of avenue Finn and I want to inhabit.
We want to draw some dinosaurs with armour, or dinosaurs as the pets of medieval ladies (we’ll leave the Victorian ladies to Natee, of course). We want to start with informed, scientific reconstructions, and from there, blast off into realms of imagination and alternate histories, basically just to have fun and inject a little joy into every-day things like bookmarks and notepads.
You mention on your website that your favorite dinosaur is Parasaurolophus. Why is it your favorite? And do you have any other favorite extinct creatures?
I think, like anyone in the field, I have way more favourites than I could possibly list. Parasaurolophus tops the list just because it’s been a staple since I was a kid, and the rarity of Parasaurolophus in my location (Oldman and Dinosaur Park Formations) makes it almost mythical. It’s got such a lovely silhouette with the big swooping crest—plus, I get to use my own height as a way to explain the length of its skull. (Even Dr. Donald Henderson agreed with me on that.)
I have a soft spot for hadrosaurs in general, and I’d like nothing more than to pet the smooth curvy jaw of a Brachylophosaurus. I also really like early horses, gorgonopsids, the baffling fellow that is Andrewsarchus, and everyone’s favourite primitive chordate boy, Pikaia.
What was the inspiration behind your Dinosaur Tapestry print, and why do you think it resonated with folks in the paleo community?
The Dinosaur Tapestry is based off of the Unicorn Tapestries, which are a set of narrative works created in the middle ages. I love them. They’re lush, detailed, and also quite macabre. The unicorn is hunted and wounded, and has a collar put on it to reattach its injured neck and bring it back to life. From there the idea of resurrecting a dinosaur (a la Jurassic Park, of course) spun into replacing the unicorn with a white maniraptoran. (It’s loosely based on Dromaeosaurus because D. albertensis plays for my home team.)
I think it’s the element of fantasy that resonates with people. Bridging the gap between art history, natural history, and present scientific reconstruction fills a niche that’s just begging to be filled a little fuller, I think. It’s just a fun image, I had fun creating it, and I hope people get enjoyment out of looking at it.
Are there any paleoartists, paleontologists, museums, etc. in particular you’d like to work with?
Anyone! Everyone! I am excited to continue working at the Royal Tyrrell Museum alongside our researchers, preparators, curators, and communicators. In the future, I’d love to start exploring the possibilities of stocking nerdy paleo papergoods (once Praeternatural History Co. is on its feet) in the shops of other institutions.
Do you have any advice for younger paleoartists looking to improve and expand their work?
On the study side, anatomy is key. Start reading up on skeletal and muscular structures. Start getting acquainted with the terminology and how animals move. When you’re getting feedback from scientists and you already know what a ‘squamosal’ is, you’ve already streamlined your process that much further because your mind can translate the palaeo-jargon into images.
In terms of expanding horizons, too—just keep making things. Just keep posting them online, or mailing them to people you want to work with, or producing it yourself. Getting a foot in the professional door can be frustrating, because in terms of working with research institutions, they have a limited amount of funding and budget for art sometimes falls by the wayside. You just have to keep working, keep being present, and keep pursuing what few opportunities there are.
Finally, what does your paleoart future look like?
There is a divide between the three avenues I work in—those being the work I do for the exhibits and education at the Tyrrell, the work I do for the Museum Shop at the Tyrrell, and the work I do in my free time. I think my palaeoart future looks like those three avenues combining a little more often, bringing more of the silly stuff I do on the side into the serious, and bringing the serious into the silly. I’m just over here trying to have fun with dinosaurs (and palaeozoic squishies, and cenozoic mammals, and marine and flying reptiles).