Vintage Dinosaur Art: The Horned Dinosaurs

Vintage Dinosaur Art

Theropods this, theropods that. It’s always them good-for-nothing toothy chickens what are hogging all the spotlights around here. Let’s give the noble ceratopsians some love! The Horned Dinosaurs is the kind of dinosaur book we need more of: A highly specialized scientific deep dive into one limited clade of animals, written by a respected palaeontologist (Peter Dodson) and bringing the reader fully up to speed on current research. “Up to speed” is relative, of course. The book is from 1996, so it can’t help but be a little dated (though it’s not half as dated as a contemporaneous book on theropods would have been!).

What drew me to this book is that it features some original artwork by the legendary Wayne Barlowe. Barlowe is mostly known for his fantasy artwork; throughout his long career he dabbled in palaeoart (a discipline that runs in the family) only on occasion, but the results were always spectacular. His most well-known palaeoart appears in An Alphabet of Dinosaurs, also written by Dodson and reviewed by Marc here and here.

The book is heavy on text and light on illustration; the Barlowe gold is concentrated on just a few full-colour pages in the middle. But, quality over quantity, as they say. These Styracosaurus are immediately striking, black and sombre against the vibrancy of their backdrop, with some tastefully placed stripes to break up their colouring. The clever thing about this one is that you don’t see the sky, except reflected in the river. It’s a peaceful scene, but these aren’t your father’s gentle herbivores; they completely dwarf the nearby crocodlile, and with their gigantic horns they don’t half look like creatures not to be messed with!

Pachyrhinosaurus – a brand-new discovery at the time – is featured in the book’s most dynamic piece. These are supposed to be two fighting bulls, and you can almost hear the snorting sounds they make, feel how powerful these animals must have been. The skin is especially fantastic here, clearly informed by actual ceratopsian skin impressions we have. I wonder if Barlowe used tropical fish as reference for his colour schemes?

This is why we love Barlowe: the bold uses of colour, the striking compositions, the dynamic dinosaurs, it’s all so gorgeous, almost idyllic. And yet, there is a palpable tension in the air… The Chasmosaurus is spooked by something that’s already sent the heron flying. Note that Barlowe’s given it horizontal pupils, an idea resurrected twenty years later by Mark Witton. It’s been said about Barlowe before: What goes around comes around.

This piece, wonderful though it is, has aged less well. Ever since Bob Nicholls showed us all what Psittacosaurus really looked like (brown, potato-shaped and quite, quite adorable), these chaps in fancy blue-and-yellow striped jammies look impossibly extra, not to mention the troodontids running around in their birthday suits. Scandalous! But when Barlowe erred, he consistently erred on the progressive side, which means that if you turn out to be wrong you at least turn out interesting.

Barlowe isn’t the only artist who contributed to this book. Elsewhere, there are black-and-white illustrations by Robert Walters. These are not as spectacular as the full-colour Barlowe paintings, of course, but he’s a fine illustrator in his own right and most of his artwork is quite good. I love the pebbly skin texture on this Centrosaurus.

And here’s a very handsome Triceratops! Love in the time of Chasmosaurs, indeed. I’m gonna steal this for my dating profile. Walters has a fine eye for detail. I sense some Greg Paul influences here, though Walters uses softer lines.

Most of Walters’ contributions are functional, lateral reconstructions of ceratopsians, meant to highlight their diversity. Only occasionally does he draw a full scene, like these Protoceratops staring down a Velociraptor. Needles to say, it doesn’t hold up too well, but you do get a good sense of drama from the illustration (which appears quite tiny in the book).

Another more dynamic Walters piece is this standoff between a chasmosaur, the rarely-seen Anchiceratops, and a quite servicable, Paulian Albertosaurus. They look pretty evenly matched, I wonder who’s gonna win?

Of corse, we all secretly know how the fight between a ceratopsid and a tyrannosaur would really play out, and leave it to Wayne Barlowe to illustrate the result:

Yes! JUSTICE! Take that, Schmexy Rexy! I don’t know about you, but when I was a kid playing with toys, I always let Triceratops win. I can’t be the only one, right? I just love the look of pure “I’m SO done with this” on Triceratops‘ face. Here’s the real tragedy: I think I like this dead T. rex quite a bit more than the awkward green and pink live ones from the Alphabet of Dinosaurs

And that’s The Horned Dinosaurs, a day in the limelight for our fine frilled friends of the Cretaceous. There’s a few modern, similar specialist books out there on specific groups of dinosaurs (Wedel & Hallett’s The Sauropod Dinosaurs comes to mind) but really all subcategories of dinosaurs should have their own book, illustrated by a top artist. I’m glad that at least the ceratopsians have gotten their due!

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  • Reply
    George Starr
    June 26, 2020 at 12:30 pm

    This is an amazing book (which I’ll need to track down), and Barlowe’s art is stunning as always.
    For what it’s worth, I too made my ceratopsian toys win most of their battles against their over-exposed/media-darling toothy chicken adversaries.

  • Reply
    Andreas Johansson
    June 26, 2020 at 3:53 pm

    As a kid, I had the impression Triceratops *always* won in this sort of illustrations, and thought the poor theropod deserved better.

    Of course, my impression of “always” was probably based on an N in the low single digits.

    • Reply
      November 9, 2020 at 1:36 am

      I did a casual survey a few years ago on that. In the sources I was able to use, theropod vs ceratopsian, when there was a definite winner stated, it was usually the theropod- something like 75% of the time in text or illustration. About half the illustrations were indeterminates, such as Knight’s two versions- one an approach, the other’s mid-confrontation. In visual media (movies, tv), if there was a winner, it was almost ALWAYS the theropod.

  • Reply
    Timur Sivgin
    June 26, 2020 at 5:54 pm

    There‘s another book by Barlowe called The Alien Life of Wayne Barlowe, which serves as a sort of making-of of most of his artistic endeavours. There‘s a chapter about his paleoart and what influences he had, what methods he used and it has a lot of sketches which were not used in Horned Dinosaurs or Alphabet of Dinosaurs. It might be worth checking out for here.

  • Reply
    John Daniel Federico
    July 2, 2020 at 3:44 am

    The wide, horse-like nares Barlowe gave his ceratopsians are pretty interesting.

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