A pair of Cryodrakon pterosaurs flying high, with their shadows cast on a cloud

Paleoartist Interview: Rebecca Dart

Interview

For the last few years, Rebecca Dart has been blowing the minds of her social media followers with her dynamic and atmospheric paleoart, and her #DrawDinovember output is legendary. More than any other artist, her body of paleoart feels uniquely suited to social media. As you scroll through her feed, the rounded square framing device she uses evokes the feeling of using a Viewmaster, seeing single frames selected from moving worlds that existed before we looked, persisting after.

A veteran of the animation industry, Rebecca has had a unique path to paleoart. Currently working as an art director, she’s also been a background artist on cult hit Mission Hill and a character designer on an obscure series called My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. As if that wasn’t enough, she’s an acclaimed comics artist as well. In this interview, we zero in on paleoart and what it means to her.


A pair of the sauropod qijianglong in the moonlight, near a shoreline

An adult and a juvenile Qijianglong rest for the night in Early Cretaceous China. Illustration © Rebecca Dart.

It’s been a couple years since you began sharing paleoart online. What inspired you to start? Had you been doing paleoart for a while?

I have been interested and fascinated by paleontology since childhood and as I became an adult I tried to keep up on the latest news and discoveries, but I never drew or painted paleoart, because I found it very intimidating. Most of the paleoart I had been exposed to was photorealistic and I just don’t have the patience, knowledge or skill to render that type of art. I have great admiration for people that can pull it off, as I would die a thousand deaths if I had to paint every scale.

A few years ago I was in a bit of an artistic slump and there was a lot of discussion about global warming and learning about mass extinctions was calming in a weird way, it helped me to put things in perspective and also sparked a curiosity to learn more about the deep past.

Then I discovered the work of Levi Hastings, an artist from Seattle, at a local comic convention. He does these wonderful, stylized watercolor paintings of dinosaurs and it dawns on me, “Oh, paleoart can be any style of art!” It was inspiring and after that I began to look more closely at the paleoart community and discovered so many amazing and diverse artists that I decided to throw caution to the wind and try it for myself. It’s the only thing that brings me joy artistically at this time.

A pair of Rhamphorynchus fly over a rock formation studded with ammonite fossils.

A pair of Rhamphorynchus fly over a rock formation studded with ammonite fossils. Illustration © Rebecca Dart.

I can see that joy in your work! There’s such a sense of curiosity, exploration, and drama. Where does the spark of a piece come from?

Sometimes I have a very specific idea of what I want to do and sometimes I go down internet rabbit holes that lead me to interesting places that spark an idea, very often it’s a completely different destination than where I started. My artistic goal with paleoart isn’t to have the most accurate reconstruction, because I’m terrible at it, but to be immersive as I usually place the “viewer” in the scene. My objective is to depict the past in the context of how we experience the world here and now everyday in an attempt to make it feel more real.

What are your biggest paleoart influences?

Growing up I had many hand-me-down dinosaur books from my older brothers. They depicted the vintage reconstruction of dinosaurs, with sauropods neck deep in a lake and T. rex dragging its tail. I liked them, but it wasn’t until I saw Mark Hallett’s work in Zoobooks during the ’80s that I fell in love with paleoart. I poured over those illustrations of early horses, rhinos or elephants running towards camera in a big cloud of dust. The dinosaur issue was so mind-blowing too. The animals he painted were so dynamic and alive.

In 1993 the “Dinosaurs” issue of National Geographic came out and introduced me to the art of John Gurche. His work is so immersive and atmospheric and the way he painted the animals being clipped by the edge of the frame really gave an incredible sense of scale. That made me realize what you don’t see is just important as what you do see and it’s important to make the world feel that it continues outside the edges of the painting. That image of the allosaurs hunting a baby brachiosaur is probably my favourite piece of dinosaur art of all time. His work isn’t just beautiful it tells a story and that is what I love about it so much.

It wasn’t until later in life that I discovered Doug Henderson. His compositions and control of values is just not incredibly inspirational for paleoart, but all kinds of narrative art. He’s a true master.

On the more contemporary end of the spectrum, Simon Stålenhag’s paleoart is stunning and has a naturalism and almost minimalism that makes me swoon.

The shadows of the dinosaurs Magnapaulia and Labocania are cast on a sand dune.

The shadows of the dinosaurs Magnapaulia and Labocania are cast on a sand dune in the midst of a chase. Illustration © Rebecca Dart.
A brachiosaurus reaching high into the treetops to eat, seen from an extreme low angle
Brachiosaurus blends in perfectly in this forest setting. Illustration © Rebecca Dart.

I can see all of those influences in what you do. Specifically speaking to Henderson, you certainly lavish attention on your environments. Many paleoartists voice their troubles over creating appropriate environments for their fauna, since paleobotany hasn’t received the kind of attention in the press that animals receive. Do you have tips for artists hoping to up their environment game?

I am definitely more of an environment artist than a character artist, if I could do nothing but paint clouds and rocks that would make me very happy. I often come up with the backgrounds first and try to find an animal to fill it. Paleo environments are actually very tricky, it’s difficult to find concrete information on what plants were endemic to one area at a specific time. We know so much more about the origin of dinosaurs than we do about flowering plants. Research and collect as much information as you can and remember ferns are a pain in the tookus to paint.

The advice I’d give to fellow artists wanting to up the realism in their environment game is to learn about light, how it works, how it bounces, how shadows work, how it affects colour and all the other ways light influences our perception of the world. Also to treat the environments as characters themselves, they are not static and boring, there’s wind, insects, weather, all kinds of things that you can add to make them feel alive.

The pterosaur Tropeognathus prepares to dive, high in the clouds.

The pterosaur Tropeognathus prepares to dive, high in the clouds. Illustration © Rebecca Dart.

Shantungosaurus with birds perched on its back walks through a river canyon.

Shantungosaurus, the huge hadrosaur from China, strolls through a canyon. Illustration © Rebecca Dart.

Is there any group of extinct animals that you find yourself most drawn to for purely aesthetic reasons?

It’s hard to turn down a pterosaur. They are just so much fun to paint, they fly and some have big, fancy crests. The shape of their wings is so appealing, but at the same time they look utterly ridiculous (I say that lovingly) with their skinny legs and gawky necks. Hadrosaurs have more beautiful lines than Arabian horses in my humble opinion, so they are fun to draw as well. It’s so hard to pick an absolute favourite though, nature is just so gosh darn beautiful.

With your broad experience in narrative media, I have to ask if you’ve got anything brewing involving prehistoric beasts.

Nothing I can discuss that isn’t under NDA! [“non-disclosure agreement” in the biz – ed.] With that being said I did pitch a mini-series idea to Netflix Canada about a beautiful and moody 2D animated series about dinosaurs living their best lives as animals in a pristine world. Unfortunately it was rejected, but maybe I will try again next year. It’s difficult to pitch something more all-ages involving dinosaurs, because it is always relegated to “children’s entertainment” or they become monsterized for the adult market.

A white Triceratops in close-up.

It’s not always about the big picture, as you can see in this lovely close-up of Triceratops. Illustration © Rebecca Dart.

Thanks so much to Rebecca for participating in this interview. I hope it’s helped introduce her work to a new audience, and given some valuable insights to her fans! Follow Rebecca at Twitter and Instagram. The featured image up top is Rebecca’s recent Cryodrakon piece. All images shared here with Rebecca’s permission.

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