Vintage Dinosaur Art: The Great Dinosaurs – Part 2

Vintage Dinosaur Art

Last time, as we took our first look at the treasure trove of unique palaeoart that is The Great Dinosaurs, a lot of people seemed blindsided by just how good Jan Sovák’s art is. Although there are plenty of 90s tropes to go around, there is definitely something timeless about Sovák’s style that sets him apart from the trends of the day. His work just has an artistic flair that is distinct from the hyperreal dioramas of Sibbick, Paul, Robinson and their many, many imitators that so shaped the collective image of dinosaurs for us 90s kids. I’m not saying his work is better or worse, but it certainly stands out. It’s tempting and obvious to compare Sovák to fellow Czech Zdeněk Burian, and indeed some call him “Burian’s successor”.

Of course, being more modern than Burian comes with its perks. For one thing, the sauropods in The Great Dinosaurs aren’t boring swamp lizards, but the towering terrestrial behemoths we know and love. 

I don’t want to push the Burian comparison too much, but it’s rather obvious here. In fact, if you had told me this was a late Burian piece, I might have believed you. Even though the apatosaurs look powerfully muscular, even though they are fully terrestrial and one is even rearing, even though their nostrils are between their eyes in that charming 90s way, the landscape, the colours and the composition make this whole piece feel much older than that. While the landscape is all Burian, the camptosaurs even look like they might be visitors out of an old Knight painting. All in all, this painting exists out of time.

Aww! It’s Littlefoot! Of course, sauropods famously didn’t practice much in the way of parental care, so this scene isn’t very realistic. It’s cute, though. Look at that little uggo’s smiling face. It might be just a wee bit too whimsical for comfort; after all, this is a Serious Book For Grown Ups. Note how Sovák emphasizes the size of the adult Camarasaurus by making it appear muted and blurry in the background, like a mountain on the horizon. Masterful.

Here’s an absolute jaw-dropper of a painting, a masterclass in perspective, motion, creativity and water effects. Brachiosaurus looks enormous and impressive as it crosses the water, while small plesiosaurs swim around. It’s certainly very, very different from Burian’s famous take on underwater brachiosaurs. Not only is the underwater lighting beautifully realized, the immense power of the animal really comes across as its neck makes waves across the surface. Of course, the authors are quick to point out that sauropods were, in fact, terrestrial and only swam on occasion. Can I get away with not referencing a certain bowtie-wearing crank this time?

Another way to sell a sauropod’s size is to just put something smaller next to it. This one has a disagreement with two Torvosaurus, themselves giants, but the sauropod fills the page. As a result, the carnivores look more like pests than dangerous predators. The sauropod is “Ultrasauros“, that legendary supposed supergiant brachiosaur that turned out not to exist. This unfortunate fact doesn’t stop Sovák from making it look massive. Although there’s great drama here again, there’s something weirdly off about this one. The way Ultrasauros flexes its neck doesn’t look very natural or comfortable, though I’m sure this pose would be within its range of motion. Why would it bring its vulnerable head all the way down to roar at the torvosaurs, when it could just as easily stomp them to a pulp?

Probably my favourite sauropod in the book is this impossibly long-necked Mamenchisaurus. The text remarks that that incredible neck makes one wonder what keeps it from toppling over. One thing that does betray the age of these paintings is that the skin on the sauropods does have this elephant-like texture, something that was never supported by any evidence, but almost universal in palaeoart around this time. Because when we think of large herbivores, we think of elephants first, this kind of skin just seems look right on a sauropod.

This is a somewhat odd piece. It might take a while to realize what you’re looking at here. This is a depiction of Seismosaurus, the other mythical giant that never was. Rather, this one did exist, but turned out to be “just” a really, really big Diplodocus – not that that’s anything to scoff at! I’m not too sure what effect Sovák is going for by hiding it in the shadows like this. Our eye is made to look at the water in the brook first, drawn up, and then – holy crap, there is a ruddy great big dinosaur there! The fact that this spread (unlike some of the other spreads) doesn’t fill the entire page it’s on diminishes the effect somewhat.

I think this was my introduction to Amargasaurus back in the day. Sovák made me fall in love with it, and it’s still one of my favourite dinosaurs. It turns out that a sail on the neck was never really all that plausible as a scientific interpretation of its elongated spines (for one thing, it would have been a double sail), but it sure caught on in palaeoart! They just look great like this. Oddly, Amargasaurus (from the Early Cretaceous) is erroneously featured in the Jurassic section of the book, one of the few real blunders the authors commit. I mean, what does Currie know, after all? He’s a theropod guy.

No, there was only one Cretaceous sauropod in the 90s that truly mattered: Saltasaurus. Since realization has dawned that the Cretaceous was actually lousy with titanosaurs in all shapes and sizes, Saltasaurus disappeared to the background of pop culture somewhat. Back in the day, on the rare occasion a book mentioned that Cretaceous sauropods were even a thing at all, Salty was your man. I still think it’s a cool dinosaur. What do I think of this piece? Well, it sure is very green! I wonder if Sovák, comissioned to make so, so many different dinosaur paintings, ever gave himself little challenges to mix things up a bit? It’s like he set out to do a full dinosaur painting, with a forest and a lake and everything, using only shades of green. I suppose it’s a job well done.

Sovák is at his best when he paints these lush landscapes that the dinosaurs can inhabit, landscapes in which the dinosaurs can disappear. These are unnamed titanosaurs in a valley, such as a time traveller might obeserve them from a distance. In that way, pieces like this are even more immersive than big close-ups. This is how you’d see sauropods if you would actually be there.

I’ve talked about this book a lot, and I feel like I’ve only just scratched the surface of what it has to offer. There’s still so many ornithischians to get to! Seriously, there is a lot. I could easily get three more articles out of this and still not have shown you half of all the paintings by the end. Should I do that? Let me know in the comments just how much Sovák is enough Sovák, but in any case… The Great Dinosaurs will return!

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  • Reply
    Andreas Johansson
    September 27, 2020 at 3:34 pm

    There’s something about the brook in the Seismosaurus piece that makes my brain interpret it as much larger than it’s presumably meant to be, and the sauropod therefore not so much gigantic as impossible, like thunderstorm darkening the horizon.

    • Reply
      Grant Harding
      October 14, 2020 at 9:51 am

      I’m not usually a fan of Sovak’s style, but damn, that underwater brachiosaur is gorgeous!

  • Reply
    Andreas Johansson
    September 27, 2020 at 3:36 pm

    Oh, and too much Sovák is not enough.

  • Reply
    Marc Vincent
    September 29, 2020 at 1:13 pm

    More please

  • Reply
    October 13, 2020 at 2:46 am

    Ooh Amargasuarus one of my favorites and also the inspiration for the pokemon Aurorus?

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