Vintage Dinosaur Art: Creatures of the Past – Part 2

Vintage Dinosaur Art

Our journey into the distant past (that is, the eighties) continues today! Last time, we looked at specifically the dinosaurs among Chris Forsey’s work for Creatures of the Past. Today, we will dive into the sea of the Devonian and work our way up past all those jolly otherprehistoricanimals.

When it comes to Dunkleosteus, there’s really two ways to go about it. You can either make a somewhat naturalistic looking Dunk that doesn’t overplay it, you can give it expressionless, glassy eyes, you can extract all sense of monsterhood from it, make it look like a real animal and let its absolutely terrifying anatomy speak for itself. Or you can take everything that makes Dunk scary, crank it up to eleven, make its guillotine mouth look even sharper and pointier, give it an evil grin and the sense of unstoppable malice and turn it into the villain of the sea. It’s clear what path Forsey has chosen. It’s not what I would have preferred but you got to respect that he picks a lane and sticks to it.

The rest of the spread makes me realize how ignorant I am on all other things Devonian. Are all these outlandish fish real or flights of fancy? I have to do more research. This is a pretty sweet, dynamic composition from Forsey.

Dunk makes another appearance on this spread, together with some other, comical looking Devonian fish. Note how Forsey, like so many vintage artists, interprets the sclerotic ring in the eye of so many animals as visible from the outside. Forsey has turned down the villainous grin on this Dunk but still gives it a few pointy ends too many in its mouth. If I was a Dunkleosteus, I wouldn’t much like to bite my own tongue.

Hello Rudolph. Forsey, usually a landscape expert, has fairly shamelessly copied the world that the Permian synapsids inhabit from Rudolph Zallinger. Not so much the animals themselves though. The Edaphosaurus especially has more of a Burian vibe, though it looks more shabby and wrinkly and a bit like slightly melted wax. Dimetrodon plays second fiddle in the background. It’s neither very Zallinger nor very Burian, it’s face looking far more generic than either examples. The giant dragonfly is also a wholesale invention, because artists still can’t tell their Carboniferous from their Permian.

When it comes to mesozoic aquatic reptiles, in the 80s there’s only one source you can turn to and his name is Zdeněk. The placodonts on the bottom especially carry over from works in Life Before Man, which was only twelve years old at this time, lest we forget. Again, this is a pretty cool, action packed, dynamic scene from Forsey who does really well displaying motion like this, with the bubbles coming off the flippers of the plesiosaur and the snout of the ichthyosaur.

More Burian-looking stuff in the Palaeocene, especially that Gastornis/Diatryma that dominates this time period. There’s two quite different looking uintatheres in the background, with only the left one looking like a weird rhino. I’m always interested in how an artist stylistically depicts the difference between Mesozoic and Cenozoic, how the landscape, colour palette and atmosphere reflects the artist’s philosophy about these changing times. This might be intentional or otherwise; some of it just carries over from Knight and Burian. Instead of the swamps and deserts he made the reptiles inhabit, Chris Forsey has this scene take place in a rather pleasant, familiar looking forest. Forsey has given this scene some sunbeams emerging from between the trees. Symbolic of a new dawn, maybe?

This is a gloomy, atmospheric night scene (the bat flying across the full moon fell off my scan) but it’s still a basically peaceful scene. No gory dinosaur violence here. You can’t judge prehistoric mammal art using the same standards as dinosaur art. Today’s nature gives us so much more to work with, so much more reference material, such an instinctive understanding of what a big mammal is supposed to look like, that most of the time even old-fashioned mammal palaeoart is going to look basically convincing to us. Science still marches on; we don’t see entelodonts as big boars anymore, just as much as we don’t see uintatheres as rhinos or oxyeanids as panthers. If the dinosaurs in this book looked a bit too weird, the animals we’re looking at here could probably stand to look, if anything, stranger. More like their own beasts and less like reflections of the animals of today.

By the time the Miocene rolls around, the animals’ resemblance to modern-day creatures becomes a bit more justified. A rare featured appearance here by Diceratherium, an animal I hadn’t heard of and not massively represented in modern palaeoart and only briefly discussed on Wikipedia. I have no idea where modern science stands on those two side-by-side horns right now; I’ve seen them reconstructed with two much bigger ones or with none at all.

Let’s bring some violence back. Here, the hyenodont Megistotherium is presented as “the biggest carnivorous mammal ever!” and its size oversold by about 200%. To drive the point home, here it is attacking a freaking mastodon. It’s probably massively exaggerated but the artwork is pretty awesome.

More gruesome is the obligatory La Brea tar pits scene, with the mammoth struggling as the Smilodon eat him alive. The blood dripping down his trunk from his head is a particularly grim touch. He still has his mouth full of plants; whatever went down here went down really quickly. The Smilodon on the right in particular very much takes on a Knightian pose – why change a winning formula? Again, I doubt Smilodon would attack a mammoth that still looks like it can defend itself but we’re running on rule of cool here.

Here’s a South American pampas megafauna scene to close things off for today. Among Thylacosmilus, Toxodon, Macrauchenia and Glyptodon, the giant sloths are conspicuous in their absence. Usually they’re such a staple! As for the landscape: I’m quite happy with Forsey’s use of multicoloured grass. Grass used to be more interesting before boring green English ryegrass became ubiquitous everywhere. The rocks and the splash of purple in the sky keep the otherwise flat landscape from getting boring.

The book continues into a big, long chapter on early humans but I won’t bore you or myself with that. Reviewing a book on mesozoic mammals was as far a journey outside Dinosaurland as I’m willing to make.

And that’s Creatures of the Past. It’s precisely that dime-a-dozen Sibbick-and-or-Burian-copying English 80s mediocrity which is very much the bread and butter of this blog. It’s a book of small pleasures: the sometimes comically bizarre dinosaur designs, the excellent landscape work and the crowded and the occasional action packed composition make this one stand out among the crowd. The words “of its time” are, once more, very appropriate.

Next time from me: Something much worse.

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  • Reply
    Joan Turmelle
    April 12, 2022 at 2:42 pm

    Thanks for sharing this book! I’m always fond of big landscape scenes like these, as they really convey more about ancient environments (even if the details may be outdated today).

    It’s a shame about passing up the hominin section though ? But that’s just me! ?

  • Reply
    April 12, 2022 at 7:33 pm

    Giant dragonflies actually persisted into the Permian, with the American Meganeuropsis being a prime example and possibly the creature depicted here.

  • Reply
    Timur Sivgin
    April 13, 2022 at 5:58 pm

    Surprised you didn’t talk about the fact that the Macrauchenia here aren’t depicted with a trunk, which is highly unusual for a book of this time. It actually looks like some of the more modern reconstructions.

  • Reply
    April 14, 2022 at 11:46 pm

    All those Devonian fish are real, clockwise from top they are: Climatius, Dipterus, Pteraspsis, and Lungmenshanaspis.

    • Reply
      Thomas Diehl
      May 12, 2022 at 4:28 am

      Waitaminit, aren’t the long structures to the side of Lungmenshanaspis bone? Because they almost look like tentacles the way they are bent here.

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