On more than one occasion, I’ve bought an intriguing-looking old dinosaur book on eBay, only to find that it’s filled with artwork from an older book that’s already been featured on the blog. This would be one of those cases…almost. For you see, while an awful lot of the palaeoart in this book is recycled from 1992’s Gollancz Dinosaur Enyclopaedia for Children, there’s a significant amount of newer material here too, and given that it’s all from the same artist it makes for some interesting contrasts. It’s an odyssey in Steve Kirk time.
Dinosaurs was published in 2000 (twenty-one years ago, yes yes) as part of the Marshall Mini series from Marshall Publishing (predictably enough). As is prominently advertised on the cover, the book originally came with a clipart-filled CD-ROM – one of those shrunken ones that hardware manufacturers told you to never insert into the drive. Sadly, the disc is missing from my copy. Never mind – there’s still plenty of beautiful Steve Kirk art to enjoy in the book itself. The cover is a good start, with Rexy threatening to devour the book’s title. Nice.
The book follows the format of so many kiddy dino-pedias – starting with an overview of dinosaur habitats, evolution and lifestyles, before profiling individual animals. This naturally includes a look at how dinosaurs might have defended themselves, which features a really quite stunning Centrosaurus head (above). Just look at the wonderful, layered detailing on the keratinous coverings of the horn and beak. You’ll note that, 8 years on from the Gollancz book, Kirk’s reconstructions have become much more colourful and dynamic; that Euoplocepalus is positively vibrant, and the ‘warning stripes’ Styracosaurus is suitably intimidating. Bonus goofy-looking Mark Iley Allosaurus and Stegosaurus (one of the few non-Kirk pieces to appear).
It’s amusing to think that, a mere two decades ago, a specialised fish-eating theropod was considered some sort of bizarre aberration. Kirk’s Baryonyx boasts a very attractive spotted pattern on its skin, and a suitably dynamic-looking fish-grabbin’ action. We’re also treated to a rare reconstruction of a ‘flat head’ Tsintaosaurus, restored here alongside its more traditional, er, horn-headed counterpart. The only other place I’ve seen such a beast is in Dinosaurs! magazine, as I explained back in 2013(!), so it’s pleasing to see another. Finally, Mononykus is depicted in worryingly naked stylee, although ’twas the style at the time. It appears all the more disconcerting because Kirk’s reconstruction (even given the tricky perspective) is really rather good, lending it a ‘plucked’ appearance. Like it’s ready for the oven.
While the Gollancz encylopaedia had a bland parade of grey, brown and brownish-grey clone-o-pods that were indistinguisable from one another, this book features a spectacularly vibrant and muscular-looking Brachiosaurus, decked out in a fetching green giraffe-print pattern. That’s probably to draw parallels with the actual giraffe standing next to it, straining pathetically to pluck leaves from a tree that the dinosaur effortlessly towers over. And it’s a male giraffe, too. Take that, mammals!
The book’s ‘spotter’s guide’ section affords all the more opportunities to compare early ’90s Kirk with 2000 Kirk, and marvel at just how much he’d progressed as a palaeoartist. But first, I’d like to highlight this Tyrannosaurus, which gets a page all to itself – as it should. I love both the patterning on this beast (stripy jaw, mmm) and well-executed use of a tricky perspective, with the animal’s legs arranged in a birdlike fashion with the feet close to the midline. These days, it would probably be reconstructed as bulkier and heavier-looking, although one could hardly accuse Kirk of ever shrink-wrapping, even back when it was popular.
Rexy’s Mongolian cousin, Tarbosaurus, is recycled from the Gollancz book, alongside its amusingly overblown size guide. Here, though, it appears alongside a newer Kirk reconstructon of Siamotyrannus – more colourful, more muscular, and sporting myriad small details that make it more convincingly resemble a real creature. It’s amazing how much a skin flap there, a few folds and creases here, and a carefully placed ridge of muscle there can add up to a much greater sense of movement and living, breathing dynamism. Tarbosaurus appears stiff and lifeless by comparison.
Similarly, Kirk’s gorgeously patterened Cryolophosaurus contrasts with the dull, brown Allosaurus from 1992. It’s notable that Kirk employs interesting perspectives far more in his newer work, rather than relying on plain lateral views; undoubtedly this reflects a growing (well-earned) confidence in his command of these animals’ forms from every angle. As it’s from 2000, this Cryolophosaurus still features a more robust, allosaur-like head (and pronated forearms of course), but it’s an excellent illustration regardless.
One illustration that I particularly like for its use of perspective is the above Carcharodontosaurus. Again, I have no doubt that these days, this animal would be reconstructed as a much more heavy-set beast. Still, I love the subdued, and yet subtly threatening nature of this reconstruction. The perspective places emphasis on the animal’s huge head, which is lowered, its beady eye fixed on the viewer, as if it’s measuring us up for its next meal. There’s no need for open-mouted theatrics here – this is a depiction of a real predatory animal, languidly taking a step, giving us the eye.
And finally…what is therizinosaur? Why is therizinosaur? On the Darren Naish ‘palaeoart therizinosaur parade’, I’d say that these two are gumby-types (which makes sense, given the time they were produced), although their tails are arguably too long. Shades of that 1990s Safari toy sculpted by Ely Kish. The therizinosaurs are shoved to the end of the theropod section of the book, as if the author didn’t know what to do with them (which is quite fair), which means they sit slightly uncomfortably opposite Massospondylus. No one cares about Massospondylus, though. Poor Massospondylus.
Next time: something else! There’s also another new podcast episode coming up, and I’m tempted to stream some more live things over on Facebook – I’ve got my eye on The Usborne Book of Dinosaurs…