Vintage Dinosaur Art: The Great Dinosaurs – Part 1

Vintage Dinosaur Art

I can’t believe my luck: in the ten years LITC has been running, nobody has ever talked about what might be my favourite dinosaur book of all time! Get ready, everybody, this is gonna be a treat.

The Great Dinosaurs was originally published in 1994 and translated for my neck of the woods in 1998, under the simple name Dinosauriërs. I got this gem of a book around the tail end of my childhood dinosaur obsession in the late nineties, one of the first books I had that was written with a mostly adult audience in mind, and it really felt like a sort of culmination, the best possible overview of where dinosaur palaeontology was at by that point.

The book’s authors should be well known to our readers: Zdeněk Špinar – of Life Before Man fame – and superstar Canadian palaeontologist Philip J. Currie. Of course, having worked with the late, great Burian before, Špinar wasn’t going to let what turned out to be his final book be illustrated by just anyone. Our artist is the supremely talented Czech-born Canadian painter Jan Sovák. I have the feeling he’s not much of a household name around here. It’s time to change that, because I honestly think Sovák is responsible for some of the very best palaeoart of the 1990s.

Sovák’s art does not seem to appear in many serious books apart from this one (he made a lot of colouring books and dinosaur stickers though, gotta pay those bills somehow). At the same time, the man must have had a ridiculously productive period in the early nineties: this book is absolutely filled to the brim with artwork. There must be over a hundred full-colour illustrations in here, and nearly all of them are very good. This will absolutely be a multi-part series, so let’s take it from the top…

…with what was at the time the earliest known dinosaur: Eoraptor. A Triassic dinosaur piece will have trouble blowing anyone’s mind, but Sovák is going to ruddy well try. He makes the beautiful environment as much the focus as the dinosaur itself. The plucky little, ahem, “thecodont” that could spots a big, juicy cockroach that might just be a little more than it can chew. Should it go for it? I love it when palaeoart depicts those moments of tension before the fight breaks loose, before the predator lunges, before the defender charges. How it plays out is left up to the viewer’s imagination.

Here’s another absolutely gorgeous Triassic scene. Look at all that foliage! The animals are identified as Syntarsus – without mohawks this time, score! – but should probably be called Coelophysis or Megapnosaurus. Of course, coelophysids running through a lush forest (complete with mossy, stumpy trees) immediately brings Douglas Henderson to mind, but Sovák’s approach is distinct enough to stand on its own. The anatomy of the animals – the limbs, especially – reminds me more of vintage Greg Paul.

Dilophosaurus under the stars! It’s touches like that that make Sovák so distinct – there’s never “just” a dinosaur, there’s always something to make the composition stand out (even if the reconstruction itself is unremarkable). No two of his paintings look alike, and yet he does have a recognizable style that is just a little more painterly, a little more Burianesque if you will, than your standard realist nineties fare. There’s also a narrative element at play; I wonder what the relationship between the one in the foreground and the silhouetted one in the back is, and why one is walking away from the other? I love the use of colour here – oranges and blues always go so wonderfully together.

In this piece, the relationship between the two animals is quite clear. My apologies for the scan – the placement of the fold in this two-page spread isn’t doing this piece any favours. These are two unnamed theropods fighting, and it’s again a brilliant, creative piece that may or may not borrow some inspiration from Knight’s classic Laelaps. The shininess of the animals is not an artifact of my scanner; they are deliberately depicted as smooth and shiny. The bumpiness on the heads is a similarly odd choice.

Wow. What a piece. I could easily point out dozens of things that are outdated or flat out wrong with these reconstructions of Compsognathus and Archaeopteryx from Jurassic Germany, but oh my, would you look at that composition. The poses. The colours. The water. All those details. And so much action! More than almost any painting in the book, this one tells a story, using only visual means. Yes, showing Archaeopteryx from the back with wings unfolded is a trope. But the usage is justified this time: the urvogel uses its brilliant blue wings as a threat display to scare off a rival; some interesting speculation on dinosaur behaviour going on here. This is a stunning piece of palaeoart, an all time classic from the early nineties.

Every Spinosaurus reconstruction is a time capsule, even today. The authors of this one were quicker on the uptake than most by giving this animal a Baryonyx-like skull, while other artists working at the same time were still giving Spinosaurus the old-fashioned “carnosaur” head. Other than that, it’s still very much of its time; especially the neck seems oddly short. The result is a curious chimaera of new and old Spinosaurus tropes, something that could only have been created at a very specific point in time. It’s a more sedate piece compared to the high action of some of the others, but looking pretty regal and impressive with it.

Okay, more tropes. A pack of hungry (and quite naked) Deinonychus ganging up on poor old defenseless Tenontosaurus is, of course, one of the great palaeoart clichés. Again, though, have you ever seen it done as well as this? I’m especially impressed with the way Sovák plays with light and shadow, bathing the herbivore in sunlight as the predators look dark and sinister in the giant’s shadow. Dare I say “the Rembrandt of Palaeoart”?

Here’s another one of my favourites. Daspletosaurus is resting peacefully in an almost impossibly pretty environment. John Conway, eat your heart out: Jan Sovák was drawing sleepy tyrannosaurs two decades before All Yesterdays. Of course, the flavour text can’t resist speculating that the tyrant is probably digesting some big meal – it’s still the nineties, after all. The contrast between the toothy monster and the idyllic environment, complete with pretty flowers and flowing brook, might have been intended as surprising, even slightly ironic. Now, it simply reads as a beautiful soft, naturalistic portrait of a mighty animal just going about its business. There really is no contrast between the animal and the environment; the animal is part of nature. There is something strangely dreamlike about this piece in all its softness.

Not all tyrannosaurs in this book are depicted in such a gentle way. This brilliant piece shows Albertosaurus from the perspective of a mesozoic mammal, looking positively brobdingnagian as a result. It’s an extremely tense, terrifying scene; the implication is clearly that the monster could easily devour the poor mammal (it’s got babies to make it look even more vulnerable and sympathetic) and one can only hope that it isn’t interested in so small a morsel. Sovák can do so many different moods: scary like this one, peaceful like the one above, or action-packed and dynamic, like the next one…

This is one of Sovák’s most well-known works, and for good reason: it’s awesome. It’s Albertosaurus again, chasing an unnamed ankylosaur. The tyrannosaur absolutely dominates this piece, but the stoic-looking herbivore looks anything but defenseless! Look at all that dust being kicked up, conveying so much motion and adding so much drama. Albertosaurus occupies a strange place in dinosaur pop culture, doesn’t it? It shows up everywhere while probably being no-one’s favourite dinosaur; I suppose most people see just it as “discount T. rex“. Albertosaurus gets an all-around strong showing in this book, though: perhaps it is due to the Canadian pride of Currie (who studied Albertosaurus extensively) and the immigrant Sovák.

I’ve been three for three with Sovák’s tyrannosaur-centric works so far. Unfortunately, another LITC cliché is when an otherwise great artist draws up a somewhat underwhelming T. rex. This piece, with Tyrannosaurus and Torosaurus facing off, simply lacks the charisma and dynamic action of the Albertosaurus above. The T. rex is competently rendered but it’s missing something. Maybe it’s the look in its eye, staring absently into the distance instead of looking at the ceratopsid with intent. Also, whereas Albertosaurus looked towering, I feel Sovák is slightly underselling the sheer bulk and size of these two gigantic animals.

This is a group shot of some famous theropods, and it’s quite strange, to say the least. The T. rex and the Baryonyx look pretty cool even today, the coelurosaur quartet at the bottom have aged like milk in the Sahara. Props to Sovák for attempting to do a full-frontal shot of Carnotaurus… but the result is mostly incredibly weird. That’s not to be down on it, theropods look weird anyway in frontal view; just look at any bird! The long-snouted theropod in the center left is Alioramus, a tyrannosaur given much attention in the book: it even appears on the cover!

That’s some of the theropod-centered artworks in the book. Pretty great, huh? Well, we’re just getting started. In fact, I think Sovák’s herbivore paintings are superior to most of the stuff I’ve shown you so far. The Great Dinosaurs will return!

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  • Reply
    September 16, 2020 at 7:06 am

    I ordered a copy of this book a few months ago and I was really surprised with the scope and quality of the material. I’d overlooked it a few times assuming it’d be a generic middling effort like so many other dinosaur books of the time but this is definitely among the best. Sovak and Currie seem to have partnered up for a bunch of books in the 90’s and early 2000’s. “Scholastic Dinosaur A to Z” was the one I had as a kid. A lot of the art from this book is recycled but there’s a good bit of new stuff too. I’d highly recommend it for some mid 2000’s palaeontology nostalgia.

  • Reply
    September 18, 2020 at 7:18 am

    You’ve brought back some memories here, I’ve got the same book (Dutch translation too) but had forgotten most of its platework. Back when I first received it for a birthday, it included some new and radical information for internet-deprived pre-teen me: tyrannosaurs as coelurosaurs, for starters. That being said, it quickly proved to be dated itself once I actually got reliable internet access. I think I never quite realised just how good a lot of this artwork is, I remembered mostly the ones that were off or rather weird.

  • Reply
    Tyler Greenfield
    September 20, 2020 at 2:50 pm

    Jan Sovak is truly Burian’s successor and it’s nice to see his art featured here. I would recommend checking out Don Lessem’s “Dinosaurs A to Z” (2003) which similarly has over a hundred of Sovak’s illustrations, but that are different from the ones in “The Great Dinosaurs” and (in my opinion) are artistically superior.

  • Reply
    Eli Burry-Schnepp
    September 2, 2022 at 5:22 pm

    Funny that this Carnotaurus got the feature scales more correct than most illustrations from the 2000s and 2010s!

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