Vintage Dinosaur Art: The News About Dinosaurs – Part 1

Vintage Dinosaur Art

Greetings my good sir or madam or otherwise! Hark, I come bearing joyful tidings! Have you heard the good news?

Although this copy comes from 1994, The News About Dinosaurs was originally wirtten as early as 1989 by Patricia Lauber. Patricia Lauber (1924-2010) was a prolific American science writer for children, and this book is all about her excitement for the Dinosaur Renaissance. As the title suggests, it is a book relaying all the new insights that had been coming to the fore since the seventies, about how dinosaurs are no longer tail dragging swamp monsters but dynamic animals full of interesting behaviour.

So who do you get to illustrate a book that is meant to take the very cutting-edge of dinosaur science to the young reader? Everyone, that’s who. This book features mostly pre-existing, licensed artwork by the absolute A-list of palaeoart, including Douglas Henderson, Mark Hallett, John Gurche and Greg Paul! Notably absent from this Who’s Who of eighties palaeoartists is Our Lord Conseigneur John Sibbick, who was revered utterly by all his peers, but Lauber might not have thought he was forward-thinking enough. Either that, or he was just too British.

Some of the artwork in this books is stuff we talked about before, but presented in a different context. In this chapter, I will focus on the works of Gurche and Paul, while I will dedicate the second part to Henderson and the rest.

So. Gurche. We don’t talk about John Gurche much on this blog, even though it would be no exaggeration to call him one of the most influential palaeoartists of all time. His style influenced the look of That Movie probably even more than Greg Paul’s style did, so what dinosaurs look like in the general public’s imagination is thanks in no small part to John Gurche. There is no end to his achievements. The Sue mural at the Field museum. The cover of The Dinosaur Heresies. National Geographic. You will not have to look far at all to find dinosaur fans willing to call John Gurche the GOAT of palaeoart. Yep. Good old John Gurche. Um.

Is it weird that I don’t love this?

I know, I know. Speaking of heresy. Gurche has become somewhat infamous for drawing mostly dull brown leathery wrinkly things. On the flipside, he is very renowned for his absolute realism. In terms of making painting look like photography, you will find no artist more convincing. But boy, if that is not the most grotesque nightmare of a hadrosaur parent you ever did see, I don’t want to know what is. The fact that it looks like it’s really there, horking up some pre-chewed plant matter for its brood, does not help. The babbies look cute enough and the way the nest is visualised with those fern leaves is well done and the sense of scale on the adult animal is brilliant. But still. It’s a startling image, and I’m not sure if it’s entirely for the right reasons.

Gurche originally produced this piece in 1987 for Discover Magazine. Apart from some shrinkwrapping issues, it holds up perfectly fine.

You might be familliar with Mark Hallett’s 1986 mastepiece Crossing the Flat. We’ve discussed it on the blog a few times and it makes an appearance in this very book, too. Here’s a Gurche piece from 1983 depicting pretty much the same thing – sauropods crossing arid landscapes in search of food, in rather spectacular fashion – but where Hallet places you on ground level with the animals, this earlier Gurche piece has a very different, bird’s eye perspective. Once again, Gurche must be commended for his amazing realism. No one of his contemporaries reached this level of absolute photoreal tangibility. In this case, I feel the limited colour palette – all greys and tans, which can seem drab – rather strengthens the piece. It’s supposed to be harsh and gritty, as these determined giants rough it out through this bleak world, looking for foliage. Gurche is unsurpassed in giving the animals a sense of weight, power and presence. The sauropods have their tails off the ground – Lauber is adamant about that – and in Gurche’s world, a sauropod’s tail looks bloody heavy, something to lug around. Almost gravity-defying.

This is a reproduction of a painting Gurche did for the Smithsonian in the 80s. For some reason, it shows up very blurry in the book; the original is perfectly sharp. In a book that is about looking forward, this is the most dated piece in here, with a lumpen iguanodont attacked by naked, pack hunting dromaeosaurs. Feathered dromaeosaurs appear in this very book, so the choice to include this older piece in this book is somewhat unfortunate. The details on the iguanodont with its wounded, loose hanging skin (observed in more gruesome detail on the sharp version on Gurche’s website) are, again, nothing short of grotesque, but for the right reasons this time.

Many Gurche pieces are deserts and wastelands, a persistent trope that I associate with palaeoart of the ’80s. So it is interesting to see a forest piece from him. Very nice. That forest floor is wonderfully textured; you can basically feel it under your feet. Also, look at those treetrunks in the background… I don’t think they are all treetrunks, actually. Lots of atmosphere to enjoy here. Unfortunately, the Archaeopteryx again suffers a bit from a certain of-its-timeness that doesn’t fit well with the progressive nature of the book. The wing-hands and the lizard face are very tropey… and tropes is what I keep coming back to with Gurche. He might have been stylistically ahead of the game during his time, but in terms of cutting edge science, he was a few steps behind the real vanguard.

Anyway, I’m done talking smack about one of the most beloved palaeoartists around. Let’s take a look at Gregory S. Paul ™, the neurodivergent antihero of the Dino Renaissance and one of the most forward-looking palaeoartists of all. The book contains quite a few full colour pieces of his, in addition to the greyscale work he is perhaps more known for. And speaking of vanguard, these feathered dromaeosaurs show well how ahead of the game Paul was. Lauber herself is an early adopter of the “some dinosaurs may have had feathers, strange as it may seem” school of thought.

We’ve spoken often about Paul’s early takes on feathered dinosaurs. These have a satisfactory, natural looking feather coat and yellow, beak-like snouts that remind me a bit of Luis Rey. The Greg Paul bunny wrists and strange, plucked-chicken looking bumpy legs have aged less gracefully, but it’s a very cool portrait with popping colours, and the foreground animal scratching itself is a bit of familiar animal behaviour that adds believability to these creatures. The illustration has sort of a rough around the edges, broad-strokes, unpolished feel to it, as if this was a study rather than a full finished museum-quality piece.

Having gone on record saying I don’t always find his greyscale work terribly interesting, seeing all these full-colour Paul illustrations is a bit of a treat. Especially when they are action-packed scenes like this. Spiky styracosaurs, solar beams coming through clouds of mist, splashy water and an albertosaur in over its head. You love to see it. Oh, and also some suspiciously modern-looking birds again. Are those Himmapaan cranes? Elsewhere in the book is a Hallett illustration of ceratopsids in a circle around their young, like musk oxen (I’ll show it to you next time). This is a more chaotic scene, the adult ceratopsids protecting their young simply by being belligerent. A very fine piece of palaeoart.

Not one, but two Paul pieces of Jurassic sauropods facing off against predators. I never thought I’d use the word “lanky” to describe a brachiosaur, but Paul manages it. By modern standards, these are too thin, not enough sauropod on the sauropod. But boy, are they cool. And Greg manages a nice Dutch sky for them to pose against, as well. The pterosaurs in the foreground are a great touch, with their red chests. Having them bathe at ground-level in the foreground is a brilliant subversion to the old trope of always having a pterosaur or two soar in the sky in the background. The diplodocids stage right are Barosaurus.

More Paulian action. It’s interesting to compare Paul to Gurche when they’re in the same book. Gurche’s sauropods were not tail-dragging swamp monsters, but they did look like lumbering heavyweights. These Paulopods look slender, light on their feet and athletic. These seem like they would have no trouble at all holding up their tails. Interestingly, modern interpretations of sauropods inhabit a halfway house between these interpretations. What is striking about this Diplodocus piece are those whippy tails everywhere, like bizarre vines. What I also want to flag up is that interesting, elephant-like patch of skin connecting the knee to the torso in the rearing Diplodocus, an intriguing choice. And again, dramatic sunbeams through the mist.

No theropod attack this time, but the chasmosaurs seem spooked by something. Greg Paul uses colour to differentiate the animals in a speculative way; I assume we’re meant to think the one on the right is the male. Greg Paul may not have the photoreal quality of Gurche, but his animals always look fully convincing to me with their solid musculature and dynamic presence. Once again, there are very modern looking birds here.

I must say I was agnostic about Greg Paul before, but these big, maximalist, dramatic, full colour pieces have made me a fan. I guess sometimes more is more. That, or I just have bad taste.

Until next time, when we will explore this news-tastic book further and focus on the work of your favourite paleaoartist’s favourite palaeoartist: Douglas Henderson.

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