Vintage Dinosaur Art: The Great Dinosaur Atlas – Part 1

Vintage Dinosaur Art

Back in the early 1990s, John Sibbick’s artwork for the Normanpedia (that is, 1985’s The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs, authored by David Norman) was simply everywhere. There was no escaping it. Pick up a magazine – Sibbick. Box of chocolate-coated biscuits – Sibbick. Breakfast cereal – Sibbick. Naturally, the ubiquity of Sibbick’s gorgeously painted, but rather idiosyncratic, illustrations from the mid-’80s resulted in a huge number of imitators and outright copycats – there was even a mysterious company apparently named ‘UKRD’ that produced a range of heavily Sibbick-inspired dinosaur toys. Which brings us to today’s title, one of the most brazen examples of Sibbick-copying that one could care to mention. Behold: The Great Dinosaur Atlas, published in 1991 by Dorling Kindersley and illustrated by Giuliano Fornari.

The Great Dinosaur Atlas cover
Apologies for the photos – wouldn’t fit in my scanner.

Fornari was a prolific illustrator in the 1980s and ’90s, producing lavish and quite beautifully executed artwork for a wide range of non-fiction books for children. Although by no means a ‘palaeoartist’, he has a number of dinosaur books to his name, one of which I covered on this very blog some years back. The Great Dinosaur Atlas, as a large, shiny DK hardback, is perhaps the most memorable. As a non-specialist, it’s understandable that he’d lean on the artwork of more dedicated palaeoartists when producing dinosaur-themed art. However, much of the art here is less heavily inspired by, and more an outright slavish reproduction, of Sibbick’s work.

Just have a look at the cover. I love it – I think it’s a wonderful, striking, vibrant composition. I would defy any dinosaur-loving child to pass this by. It also features a number of creatures borrowed from the Normanpedia, either wholesale (the Styracosaurus) or partially (the cheerful Brachiosaurus and the various heads at the top of the page).

John Sibbick copies by Giuliano Fornari

This Normanpedia-nabbing continues inside, with a page full of faces that will be instantly recognised by anyone familiar with Sibbick’s work (which is probably just about everyone reading this). You’ll note that, in this book, Styracosaurus is always shown head-on, exactly as Sibbick painted it in ’85. In fact, most of the animals here are virtual Sibbick tracings, including oddities like the skull-faced Dromaeosaurus. Even colour schemes are copied. I can’t help but wonder if the publisher just pointed to the Normanpedia and demanded, “do this”. While reproducing Sibbick to such a fine degree is nevertheless technically impressive, the animals frequently lack the character and subtle realism of the originals (compare Fornari’s rather blank-faced Saurornithoides with Sibbick’s madly staring, highly birdlike original).

It’s not all Sibbick copies, all the time, mind you. Being an atlas, there are naturally a number of maps, including a world map of dinosaur finds (above) and globes depicting the lay of the land throughout the Mesozoic. What’s really striking about the above map is just how empty it now looks, almost 30 years later. I know I’ve said this dozens of times, but the pace at which the science has progressed in the last few decades really is incredible. One could even argue that there are too many damn dinosaurs. (Not that I would.)

When it’s not being an atlas, the book does also include a few nicely painted panoramas – such as this one, depicting life in the Late Jurassic of North America. As I noted when I livestreamed this book over on Facebook (oh yes – in glorious wobbly-phone-o-vision), there’s a tendency for sauropods to be relegated to the background in scenes like this, at which point they become a little indistinct, like the boring grey Diplodocus here. It’s also a little odd that Diplodocus is the only sauropod present (as Joschua Knüppe noted, “who needs sauropods in the Morrison anyway?“). Elsewhere, while a few animals are clearly Sibbick-inspired (Ornitholestes, Dryosaurus, the middle Stegosaurus, Camptosaurus), they at least aren’t outright copies.

As an aside, a tendency to copy Sibbick’s ’80s work does result in some rather odd skin textures, as exemplified by the Allosaurus and Ceratosaurus here. As someone who grew up with illustrations like this, I do have to take something of a step back to appreciate how strange the animals’ skins really are. Such uniformly huge, rectangular scales, covering the entire body, aren’t really known from fossils, and remind me a great deal of dinosaur toys. That said, such large knobbly bobbly scales are a great opportunity for the artist to show off their skills, as is the case here – I really feel like I could reach out and touch some of these creatures.

The plants look nice too, but I can’t comment on their accuracy. Someone go and grab Julian Kiely!

For truly Sibbickian crazy-paving skin, though, you’ve got to check out the Iguanodon in this lovely Cretaceous scene. Other lightly modified Sibbick-o-saurs include Polacanthus and Hylaeosaurus in the centre, and even (believe it or not) Altispinax out there in the background, which resembles a mirrored version of Sibbick’s 1985 take on Spinosaurus. Still, it’s nice to see such an obscure theropod make an appearance. Whoever hears of Altispinax these days? Fragmentary theropods of England, unite! Nowadays they’d probably just shove Neovenator back there.

Altispinax

Naturally, Baryonyx is the foregrounded theropod in this scene, and it’s depicted going fishing. I do feel some pity for the old crocodile-snouted beast, for batter and tartare sauce would not be invented for tens of millions of years hence. We’re also treated to a range of non-dinosaurian fauna, which is nice, although Joschua Knüppe (him again) did have a problem with the turtle, as I recall. Someone will have to explain that to me.

There are skeletals in this book, too, and they are mostly very well done; Camarasaurus here, even with its awkward neck, is a decent effort (a similarly posed skeletal appears in the Normanpedia, unsurprisingly). Having a sauropod skeleton split over multiple spreads would appear to have been something of a trend in DK books, seemingly originating in Eyewitness (although the Diplodocus featured there has a morphology more suited to this treatment). A small life reconstruction is also included, clearly based on Sibbick’s, but with an even shorter neck. At least the comparison with a cyclist makes it clear that this “small” sauropod was pretty bloody big by modern standards. We’re also treated to our first glimpse of retro-Mamenchisaurus, an extremely low-slung, tail-dragging beast that is definitely a copy, even if it didn’t feature in the Normanpedia. If anyone happens to know where it originated, please let me know.

Camarasaurus‘ rear end occupies the next spread, surrounded by a variety of sauropod dinosaurs. The rearing “Camarasaurus” (almost certainly mislabeled, given Fornari’s consistent portrayal of the animal here) is based on a Sibbick Apatosaurus, while the elephant-bothering individual underneath it is based on his Vulcanodon. As in a number of other books from the period, sauropods are peculiar in continuing to be depicted as tail-dragging dullards here; part of that’s no doubt down to the Normanpedia influence, but it also seems that it was generally still more accepted for animals that were obviously so big and lumbering. That said, a slightly ironic caption does note that “Diplodocus‘ long, thin whip of a tail…was often carried off the ground,” nestled among a range of dragging sauropod tails.

Diplodocus (now with a slightly elongated torso) pops up again on a spread detailing dinosaur discoveries in North America. These include a range of Sibbick-aping hadrosaur heads and silhouettes alongside a pretty good T. rex skeleton (again, much like the one in the Normanpedia) and a Deinonychus that I just love. Unlike other Deinonychus illustrations in this book, it’s one of those peculiar 1980s-style examples with an extremely highly-positioned eye and teeth that go back way too far. It reminds me of the gloriously goofy and unique robots in Paradise Park, which now feel like important palaeo-kitsch artifacts in their own right. But I digress. Isn’t it strange that Triceratops is barely mentioned here? Ah, but you see…

…They’re saving it for its own spread! I do love a confrontational Triceratops, horns thrusting forward out of the page, threatening to take your eye out. Sibbick influences abound, but there’s no denying that this is a striking, skillfully executed spread, even if it does disappear into the fold a bit. (Also, does Torosaurus have a brick wall for a frill?) Again, the scaly skin is superbly painted, and I especially like the large tubercle-like scales on the upper forelimbs (the square scales further down, less so). There’s no denying Fornari’s skill as an illustrator, and I only wish his work here had been more original; it feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.

That’s all for now, but the chunky atlas will return…

5 thoughts on “Vintage Dinosaur Art: The Great Dinosaur Atlas – Part 1”

  1. I read this book as a kid and still vividly remember the faces of the dinosaurs from one of the pages of this book, namely image of Ankylosaurus and Euoplocephalus. This book accurately depicts life in southern England during the Valanginian-Barremian, unlike the one part in the book “Dinosaurs and How They Lived” (part of the See and Explore Library) where Megalosaurus is inaccurately depicted living with Baryonyx, Polacanthus, Hypsilophodon, and Iguanodon.

  2. The way they’re posed, it looks like the Ceratosaurus is riding piggy-back on the Allosaurus’ shoulders

  3. I wondered if this would show up eventually! Probably my favorite dino book growing up, I think partly because of those big scenes.

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