Vintage Dinosaur Art: Dinosaurs and Other Archosaurs – Part 1

Vintage Dinosaur Art

Following on from Ranger Rick’s, here’s another more detailed look at a book that received some very brief attention long, long ago (2010). Why, it’s Dinosaurs and Other Archosaurs, written and illustrated by Peter Zallinger and published by Random House in 1986 (the year before I was born, incidentally). Once again, you can thank/blame Herman Diaz, who sent this book all the way over from the US. Cheers, Herman!

Dinosaurs and Other Archosaurs cover

Ten years ago, David noted that Zallinger’s work here “reflect[s] the ideas of the dinosaur renaissance in general while staying away from radical conjectures”. Which is about right, although I will add that the reconstructions are very Dino Renaissance, in that they reflect a more modern and rigorous approach to anatomy, but also often go a little far in making dinosaurs leaner, meaner, leaner and leaner. While not reaching Kishian (or even Stoutian) levels of distressing emaciated skininess, these are creatures that still often look under-muscled, underweight and lacking in the seemingly superfluous flappy and wobbly bits that make modern animals such a delight to behold.

And yet, this remains exceptional work for 1986. This book was published just a year after the Normanpedia, with its fantastically realised and memorable, but also instantly dated illustrations. When compared with that – and much else around at the time – the palaeoart here is far closer to what we’d expect to see today.

Before I go any further, I’d just like to wish Ashley a happy 35th birthday for the 25th.

Dinosaurs and Other Archosaurs cover

And now, some theropods! The best dinosaurs. (I’ll be getting back to the cover.)

Procompsognathus, Coelophysis, Teratosaurus by Peter Zallinger

Traditionally, theropods had been filed under Coelurosauria if they were small, and Carnosauria if they were large. There was some suspicion by 1986 that this was perhaps a little too convenient, but the idea persists here. We’re also on the very cusp of Teratosaurus definitively being shown to have been a rauisuchid; this book must be one of the very last examples of it being depicted as a dinosaur. Otherwise, both the Coelophysis and Procompsognathus are great for the time, if rather under-muscled, with a wonderful birdlike poise and glassy eyeballs. I also really like the lush vegetation behind them, although it’s strange than seemingly every animal in this environment has evolved the same tan-with-green-stripes skin pattern…

Composite Jurassic scene by Peter Zallinger

Zallinger takes a pleasingly chronological approach in this book, and so soon we’re up to the Late Jurassic, and the image that stretches over the book’s covers. Here, a pair of Allosaurus menace Camptosaurus while Stegosaurus looks on disapprovingly, and the foreground features European animals (don’t worry, the caption mentions this). The allosaurs are suitably dynamic, although their heads are a little shrink-wrapped, while Stegosaurus‘ beak resembles a drooping upper lip that unfortunately reminds me of Michael Gove (for the benefit of non-British readers, he’s the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster). Still, credit where it’s due for drawing Stegosaurus from such a tricky angle, and in a very forward-thinking fashion for 1986.

For my money, Archaeopteryx is where it’s at. Zallinger reconstructs the animal in a radically different fashion to that which was typical at the time – for one thing, it’s resolutely not depicted perching in a tree (or on a fern) with its rainbow sparkling wings outstretched. Instead, it’s shown with its (brown) wings folded, standing around (and running) on the ground. Remarkable! I mean, how are we supposed to know it’s a bird unless it sits screaming at us with its wings outstretched, as birds are routinely known to do? Think it through, Zallinger, man.

Seriously, though, I think Zallinger’s reconstructions of Archaeopteryx in this book are quite wonderful for the time – they really resemble modern depictions of feathered dinosaurs. They’re also the only dinosaurs here that aren’t tan with green stripes. I’m starting to see a trend…

Ornitholestes and Compsognathus by Peter Zallinger

Ornitholestes (tan with green stripes) pops up too, and wouldn’t you know it, it’s not after Archaeopteryx for once! Rather, it’s Compsognathus‘ (green with tan stripes) turn to panic. A few things to note: while the animals again appear rather thin, there’s enough life in their eyes alone to make them convincing as living creatures. Zallinger once again pulls off some tricky perspectives, and the animals’ anatomy shows off careful attention to various details, not least the specific form of the animals’ hands. You can really see the results of John Ostrom’s involvement, and no, not just because Compsognathus has two fingers on each hand.

Archaeopteryx by Peter Zallinger

That said, a more idiosyncratic Ostrom idea is hinted at here, namely that Archaeopteryx used its wings as a net to ensnare insects, running them down and flapping away like a maniacal Animal Crossing villager. I believe Ostrom ditched the idea at some stage, and it isn’t explicitly portrayed here, but this illustration certainly looks like an allusion to it. Whatever the case, this is another uncommonly good Archaeopteryx from Zallinger that manages to avoid all the usual tropes associated with the animal in art (including ‘wings with hands’). There’s also an excellent sense of scale in this piece, not only in the fantastic detailing on both Archaeopteryx and the insects, but in the impressionistic ‘out of focus’ background. And Archaeopteryx doesn’t have a lizard face! Hooray.

Late Cretaceous scene by Peter Zallinger

To the Cretaceous now, and possibly the only depiction of short-tailed, spike-clubbed Scolosaurus I’ve ever seen that isn’t flattened to the ground! (That life-sized model that pops up in attractions around the world doesn’t help.) What’s more, the other animals depicted here lived in about the same time and place; Rexy isn’t shoehorned in because, well, you’ve got to have him. Rather, Gorgosaurus appears instead, doing a high kick and smiling winningly as forgotten ’80s staple Monoclonius prepares to stab it in the belly. All the creatures in this forest clearing are good looking in a green-stripes-on-tan sort of way, with well-referenced anatomy and lively, active postures. I can’t decide if the backdrop is pleasingly Raymond Briggsish, or a little too flat, like a theatre background. Let me know what you think.

Deinonychus by Peter Zallinger

Although Dromaeosaurus appears in a couple of scenes, it’s Deinonychus that gets a spread to itself; unsurprising given Ostrom’s involvement, and quite right, too. Curiously, while Zallinger gives the animal huge thighs, its drumsticks are rather weedy-looking. You’d feel short-changed if these things were marinaded and served up to you in a bowl. Still, very good overall. The best dromaeosaurs from the ’80s and ’90s look distinctly ‘plucked’ (Greg Paul’s aside, which were actually feathered), and that’s definitely the case here. They’re even depicted attacking an animal that they stand a decent chance of bringing down.

Struthiomimus and Dromaeosaurus by Peter Zallinger

Now, while dromaeosaurs are very cool, ornithomimosaurs are mostly a bit dull. Just take an ostrich, add a long tail, remove the feathers, stick the feathers back on again some decades later, and there you go. There’s Deinocheirus, of course, but if ever an exception proved a rule, then Megaterrible Gigahands is it. I already skipped a Struthiomimus earlier in this book, but thought I’d better include this pair. They’re perfectly good, green-on-tan ornithimomisaurs with well-proportioned arms and hands (not always a given) and a suitably alert look. Yes yes, very nice. Lovely foliage as ever, too.

Saurornithoides by Peter Zallinger

There was an occasional tendency in the ’80s and ’90s to make troodontids appear utterly terrifying, like dromaeosaurs’ bug-eyed, super-smart cousins, threatening to evolve into a humanoid reptilo-man at any moment. This was typically achieved by giving them the aforementioned bulging eyes, often with gecko-like slit pupils, alongside long, probing fingers. This Saurornithoides is actually significantly less freakish than many, and reflects the birdlike anatomy of troodontids quite accurately. There’s something very, very off-putting about those exaggeratedly huge eyes, though.

I think it’s literally a matter of perspective. We’re essentially given a Zalambdalestes-eye view, from which the relatively small dinosaur towers above us, its saucer-like red eyes piercing through the gloom as its spear-like clawed fingers are thrust towards us. The rest of the animal is dark. One gets the impression that there’s no escaping the dinosaur’s unblinking, ever-present, entirely indifferent gaze. You can run, but you can’t hide. Really, it’s very effective.

Tyrannosaurus by Peter Zallinger

So scary is the Sauronithoides image, Rexy (the grand prize fighter of antiquity and all that) actually looks rather friendly by comparison. I suppose the flat, bright lighting and rather diagrammatic lateral view help. Although the neck and legs are, predictably, a bit weedy, there’s plenty to like here – the animal is shown horizontal-backed, with well-proportioned and positioned limbs, a muscular tail and a decent head that doesn’t exaggerate anything. As I’ve gone all this time without mentioning it, I will say that the scalation is very well executed, too – the scales are tiny and only really visible on close inspection, which is how it should be (mostly). And, oh look, there’s Deinocheirus (just the arms, obviously).

Hesperornis and Ichthyornis by Peter Zallinger

And finally…birds! Oh yes – Ostrom famously resurrected the bird-dinosaur link, and Zallinger even includes Cenozoic birds in this book. But more on those another time. I hadn’t heard of the ‘odontognathae’ before this, although I suspected it was a long-discarded paraphyletic grouping, which would appear to be the case. Hesperornis sports rather dandy plumage here, which appears to be based on one or two living birds, although I can’t quite place them (help please!). Ichthynornis has gull-like colours but, you know, that’s fine. That fish looks terrified.

Dinosaurs and Other Archosaurs will return!

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  • Reply
    Dr. Werewolf, PhD (@EvilViergacht)
    July 13, 2020 at 2:15 pm

    This was one of my all-time favorite dinosaur books as a kid, because the illustrations looked so assured and lifelike. Zallinger also illustrated a book aimed at younger kids which, oddly, had a lot of blue and orange striped dinosaurs – it’s probably why I still like that color scheme.

  • Reply
    Cody Chasen Burkett
    July 13, 2020 at 2:21 pm

    Definitely a Loon-Merganser combo for that Hesperornis there.

  • Reply
    Z. Mustafa Ahmed
    July 13, 2020 at 9:03 pm

    What Cody Burkett said, but certainly based on loons.

  • Reply
    July 15, 2020 at 4:34 am


  • Reply
    D Kalcoff
    November 25, 2020 at 1:04 pm

    I have been looking for this book on and off for years and years but I couldn’t remember the name and only had the memory of the front cover to go by. Today I thought about it again and starting searching hardcover dinosaur books for each year from 1980 and going through all the google images until I got to 1986 and found this page! I use to borrow it from my primary school library here in Australia constantly in the late 80s and early 90s as I loved the illustrations. So happy to have found this page, now I’m on the hunt for a copy.

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