From paleoart to spec evo and biologically plausible fantasy creatures, Mette Aumala’s artwork spans genres and embraces a dizzying diversity of aesthetic approaches. Through all of this diversity, there is a strong through-line, a clear fascination with evolution and a curiosity that seems to demand so many varying approaches to manifest. I’m happy to bring you this interview, in which we discuss her artistic journey and her practice.
What are your earliest memories as an enthusiast of prehistoric life? Was it always something that was entwined with your art?
As far as I can tell, I have always been drawing dinosaurs. In one of the earliest surviving photographs of me drawing you can see that I’ve produced a sauropod with altogether too many feet. You probably wouldn’t even be able to tell it’s a sauropod at all but I can still remember that’s what I was trying to draw. I also made a quadrupedal Iguanodon in the early 80s, although honestly I was just a little kid and as far as I remember I just randomly assigned the animal a dinosaur name I happened to know. So really, art and paleo have been intertwined for me since the beginning.
What is your background in art?
When it came time in my youth to choose between paleontology and art, I chose the latter and got a BA degree in graphic design. My goal was to get a career in illustration, and my thesis work was writing and illustrating an informative storybook about feathered dinosaurs. It’s there where I got my “real” start with paleoart.
What kind of reaction did your thesis project receive from your peers and teachers? I’m always interested in how outsiders or laypeople react to paleoart.
As far as I can remember, everyone was quite impressed with it. It earned me the highest possible mark and even a stipend. If I remember it correctly they had a hard time finding a good reviewer for my work though, because the usual thesis project was about designing a new graphic charter for a small business, an album cover and leaflet for a CD or an ad campaign. I imagine my project was the first introduction to any sort of rigorous paleoart for most of my teachers and fellow students. Honestly I had expected to face a lot more skepticism for venturing so far into the field of natural science. Then again an illustrator should always try to learn everything possible about the subject of their work, and there was always of course the design of the whole layout, typography and other basics of book design, so it’s not like it was completely out of left field.
What is your process for creating an illustration or design?
Practically always it starts with the bones. If I’m drawing something very familiar or highly speculative I can sketch some very stick-figure like simplified skeletons straight away, but when I’m working with anything new I start by searching for photos of fossil specimens, mounts and skeletal drawings. I then try to apply muscles to the skeleton to get a feel of the general proportions of the living animal. This usually involves looking at references a lot because I struggle to keep the entire muscular anatomy of a dinosaur in my head. Fortunately it’s easy to find papers and up to date digarams on archosaur anatomy online nowadays. When I arrive at something that looks about right, I sketch the final piece and then repeat the process either in 2D or 3D: bones, muscles, integument. For the colouration and general life appearance I like to reference living animals a lot, from large reptiles to birds to sometimes fish and even insects.
What are some of the big lessons you’ve learned as you’ve grown as a paleoartist?
Maybe the biggest lesson I’ve learned so far is to never trust paleoart. I’m sure most people start doing paleoart by more or less copying their favorites. I know I certainly did. This may make sense when your knowledge of the anatomy of your subjects is very limited, but you run the risk of learning habits you’d be better off without. I’m talking more in the sense of scientific reconstruction than artistic choices and techniques, though it can be true for the latter as well.
I think we’ve become more aware of paleoart memes these days, but it’s not always easy to see what is and isn’t just a meme until you really start looking into the nitty-gritty of bony anatomy. For instance it’s common to see all ornithishcians reconstructed with toothless beaks, even though many of them had toothed upper jaw tips with no signs of a beak, or to give all herbivorous dinosaurs cheeks, or depict every non-mammalian synapsid with the teeth showing for no good reason. Things get even muddier when you get to such non-obvious detail such as foot pads, walking gaits and leg posture that you need to study track fossils to get right.
The way out of this trap is to study the original fossils whenever possible, which in my case means using photos and scans as I live in a very fossil poor country myself. You also need to develop a good understanding of animal anatomy from contemporary taxa, even get a hands-on approach if you can. There’s a good reason why badly reconstructed modern animals became a meme again recently. Skeletons, skulls especially, often have all kinds of weird protrusions and gaps that are hidden in life by cartilage, muscle and other soft tissue. Once you learn about these things you start to see similar details in extinct taxa, and realize that they are often – for no apparent reason – reconstructed as if they were clearly visible in life. This is why when you are reconstructing a new taxon you should rely on the fossils first and life reconstructions third of fourth.
However, no matter how hard you try, your paleoart will also be unreliable. Nobody really has enough data to accurately reproduce the life appearance of a long gone taxon. It’s hard enough to figure out what animals that went extinct in historical times really looked like. What this means is paleoart is by its nature always speculative. No matter how conservative a reconstruction, there are always gaps in our knowledge that have to be filled, even in skeletal diagrams. And I’m really happy to see that a new generation of paleoartists is embracing this speculative side, boldly depicting plausible but unprovable ideas and interpretations. All paleoart becomes outdated eventually anyway, so why not?
Tell us about the ludosaurs project you’re working on. It’s really intriguing to me, based on the peeks you’ve shared on social media!
The Ludosaur project is about taking old inaccurate or entirely unidentifiable dinosaur toys from the 70’s and 80’s and reimagining them as undiscovered members of known dinosaurian clades. The idea has been brewing for years, you could even argue since my childhood. In Finland in the 80’s it was really hard to find accurate dinosaur toys and the market was dominated by weird unnamed dinosaurian monsters dreamed up by Chinese toymakers. A particular favorite of mine was a theropod produced by Dor Mei with a prominent crest that has been varyingly identified as Allosaurus, Cryolophosaurus or Corythosaurus, which gives you an idea of how far it is from any real taxon. It’s the first toy dinosaur I “reconstructed” as a unique previously unknown genus that I gave a proper scientific name, “Ludolophosaurus.”
Moving my Ludolophosaurus sketches to the realm of digital sculpting really kickstarted the Ludosaur project in earnest. I began searching the web for pictures of other weird Dor Mei dinosaur toys some of which I had never even seen as a child and adding them to the roster. I have now sculpted rough versions of five more theropods, three ceratopsians and a basal archosauromorph, and there are many more to come. Some are from Dor Mei, some from other toy companies, one is even from the famous bag of dinosaurs that inspired Gary Gygax to invent many of the classic D&D monsters. The ultimate goal is to give the ludosaurs a new life as physical objects through 3D printing. The absolute dream would be to mass produce plastic toy figures but whether that will ever be realistic remains to be seen.
We seem to have a similar urge to pursue projects even if they might be extremely niche. Do you think a lot about audience when you’re creating an illustration or project like the Ludosaurs? Or are you mainly working to satisfy something within yourself?
The impetus for projects like the Ludosaurs naturally always comes from within. You need that inner fire if you’re going to work on something for months for free. That said, audience reactions and feedback is also important in keeping me going. It lets me know I’m not just crazy but I’ve come up with something that resonates with others as well. I also make compromises, such as when interpreting a toy dinosaur as a realistic animal I would be tempted to remove certain details to achieve maximal realism, but others might prefer that detail to be present, so I challenge myself to find a way to work it in. Every artistic creation is a dialogue between the artist and their audience, so it’s not something you ever want to ignore completely.