Vintage Dinosaur Art: The Great Dinosaurs – Part 5

Vintage Dinosaur Art

Gather round everyone, it’s time for the fifth and final look we’re having at the fabulous book of The Great Dinosaurs, the swan song of the great Zdeněk Špinar, who died shortly after publishing this book, and the artistic masterpiece of his fellow Czech Jan Sovák. Here are part one, part two, part three and part four, if you’ve missed them. There’s been a healthy number of comments and discussions under each of these so let’s see if we can keep that going.

With most of the herbivores – sauropods, hadrosaurs and ceratopsids – we’ve seen how Jan Sovák loves to put them in lush, beautiful forests, lovely landscapes and peaceful circumstances – with some exceptions, of course. Enter the thyreophorans, the group of dinosaurs blessed with the most unpronouncably sesquipedalian name. Seriously, can’t they have gotten a name that rolls off the tounge like “theropods” and “sauropods”? Sovák really seems to like putting the armoured dinosaurs in harsh circumstances and occasional mortal peril. Even the ankylosaurs, the toughest dinosaurs of all, aren’t safe from Sovák’s inventive cruelty. To add insult to injury, there also aren’t that many in the book, so I’ll also show you some odds and sods that didn’t fit with the other chapters.

Rather than a lush forest, Scelidosaurus has to make do with this barren, rocky wasteland, not that it’s any less beautiful. Sovák really puts the animal in perspective next to these mighty rocks. Sovák’s dinosaurs are not almighty super-animals, but mere visitors in this large and sometimes hostile world. Tastefully placing the animal off-center and blurring the rocks that are farther away, Sovák once again shows his mastery over light and composition.

Stegosaurus doesn’t seem to have an easier time of it, looking mighty grumpy as it tries to find its way through the mists. This particular incarnation of 90s Stegosaurus might look outdated now, since the uncovering of Sophie, but it sure looks cool with that dramatically curved back.

None are more unfortunate, however, than poor Huayangosaurus. Just to shake things up, one assumes, Sovák has elected to represent this one as a recently deceased cadaver! It must have died of natural causes. Even with action and violence happening, Sovák never paints bloody or gory scenes… Steve White and Brian Engh are your guys for that. However, even with the dead animal mostly intact, the way the shoulder spike just seems to have come off, leaving nothing but a hole with no blood in sight, is rather gruesome.

Here’s a very peculiar piece. Hylaeosaurs, large, shadowy and blue in the background, looks on unbothered as Calamospondylus, a small theropod chases Germanodactylus, a pterosaur. There’s a lot to unpack here. First, have you ever heard of Calamospondylus? If you have, you must be Darren Naish; it’s a coelurosaur from the Isle of Wight. As for Germanodactylus, I suppose you can guess where it’s from. Sovák has allowed himself some artistic freedom in terms of what animals he can put in one scene. I can sympathize with that, and I certainly respect an artist depicting obscure animals, but it remains a very odd composition that seems “off” somehow. Do you see it? Maybe it’s the blue Hylaeosaurus, maybe it’s the gangly, awkward theropod, maybe the action in the foreground clashes with the peaceful animal in the background, maybe it’s just me.

This is another one of those paintings that appear small in the margins of the book, but still turn out to be quite detailed once you take a magnifying glass to them. This is Panoplosaurus, by the way. If you like your derived Late Cretaceous nodosaurids, I’m afraid this tiny image is all you’re getting from this book. After all, everbody likes the club-tails better, right?

Pinacosaurus is here to scratch that particular itch. This is one of the only ankylosaurs of which good juveniles are known, and the piece shows the babies as lacking the armour and the tail club and thus reasons that they were dependent on parental care before their defences grew in. Seeing an armourless ankylosaur is quite strange. But it’s only fair they should go through a vulnerable phase; ankylosaurs always seem so overpowered to me! Or are they?

Here’s one of Sovák’s most interesting and infamous pieces, one that has been copied many times (not least in Dinosaurs! Magazine). One of the Ankylosaurus has taken a wrong step and fallen down a cliff! Not so invincible after all. The image’s caption does not mince words: for an animal that heavy, a fall from that height is not survivable. Depicting a falling animal is not easy (again, as handily demonstrated by Dinosaurs! Magazine) but Sovák does a spectacular job of it. The falling debris making small splashes in the water helps sell the effect of motion, and you can imagine the big splash that is coming.

I’ve got no more thyreophorans for you, but there’s a couple of non-dinosaurian pieces here and there. The book is pretty much all dinosaurs, all the time. There’s barely any otherprehistoricanimals that get mentioned and one gets the impression that the authors don’t much care about them. Nevertheless, this Quetzalcoatlus is perfectly reasonable for the time; don’t forget, in the early 90s, they were still getting books out with versions of that horrible pin-headed demonic Quetzalcoatlus! It’s fuzzy and crested and it has nice big wings. Its face is pretty ugly, though, and that thin, nasty beak is probably too birdlike. It’s scavenging – because what else would it be doing – the carcass of what looks like a light brown Neil Lloyd ceratopsian from the very earliest issues of Dinosaurs! Magazine. I’m not sure how you’d go about stripping that carcass with that beak.

This Mosasaurus, however, belongs firmly in the camp of Very Dated Things. Lifted straight from the Knight and Burian school of ridge-backed, serpentine sea dragons fighting stuff above the waves in a raging sea, this is one of the pieces that betrays that Sovák was probably more influenced by the ghosts of palaeoart past than he was by cutting-edge Dinosaur Renaissance science. It’s a small miracle that there isn’t some knotty-necked plesiosaur there for it to sink its teeth into. The Pteranodon aren’t bad, but they aren’t great either. The fact that they’ve got bird feet bothers me slightly. The sea is nice.

I get the feeling I’ve been more down on Sovák’s work in this final part than I’ve been previously. Let it be known that I hold his art in the highest esteem, and that I honestly think he’s up there with the likes of Hallett and Henderson as being one of the finest palaeoartists of the Dinosaur Renaissance. So let’s raise our glass to the Czech Canadian, a European in a world of anglophones, a stylist in a world of realists, as we enjoy one more bonus theropod picture, depicting Carnotaurus using its horns for intraspecific combat!

And that, at long last, is The Great Dinosaurs. It’s such a unique book, so defined by Sovák’s work that combines old-school sensibilities with progressive ideas in a way that is just different enough to stand out among the nineties crowd. Seek it out if you can – there’s plenty more art in there – but I’ll leave it at this. Next time: Something else!

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    December 16, 2021 at 2:19 pm

    Thank you much for this series.

    Whom else could you recommend as illustrators with more artistic approach and such good compositions?

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