Vintage Dinosaur Art: The News About Dinosaurs – Part 2

Vintage Dinosaur Art

Douglas Henderson! Roughly half of you just let out a wistful sigh. Few palaeoartists are more universally praised and beloved. At the same time, his work might not be as well known and widely seen as that of, say, Greg Paul, John Gurche or John Sibbick. For whatever reason, his work wasn’t featured in too many of the books we read in our nineties childhoods (I’m assuming you’re about my age). Apart from Dinosaurs: A Global View and this very book, I can’t think of many popular books that had Henderson as a featured artist, and in both cases he’s one among many. He remains the palaeoartist’s palaeoartist, known and beloved especially among those who practice or follow the discipline.

That is what makes The News About Dinosaurs such a gem, and honestly the main reason I sought it out. This book intends to give you a full overview of where cutting-edge science stood in 1989 and doing a pretty good job of it, especially since it features some of the best palaeoart of the time. Last time we looked at John Gurche and Greg Paul, and today is the all-you-can-eat Henderson buffet.

Like the other artists in the book, Henderson has herds of sauropods crossing barren flats. But his work is just so much more, there’s no other way to put it, tasteful. Look at those monochrome camarasaurs slowly, slowly moving away from you into the mist. Look at those nearly-invisible camptosaurs in the background. Look at the sparse but lovingly rendered foliage. That little downcurve on the tip of the central camarasaur’s tail, giving that sense of movement. The overall feeling of the whole thing, drab and grey and melancholic but also heroic, like cowboys riding into the future.

More monochrome sauropods, but a completely different atmosphere as these brachiosaurus flee a double tornado! Even the mightiest of all dinosaurs are ultimately powerless against the violence of nature itself, a common Henderson theme. Galloping sauropods is an idea introduced by Bob Bakker that probably isn’t much in vogue anymore, though if anything could motivate a dinosaur to do so it’s probably a big old twister heading its way. The animals are heavily foreshortened and have been given mast-like necks, emphasizing their staggering verticality. The smaller one in the foreground especially has a noodle neck.

One of the interesting things about this book is that several artists illustrate comparable scenes, so we can really dissect the differences in approach that the artists have. Like Gurche, Henderson shows a close up of a hadrosaur parent tending to its brood. Gurche’s piece, discussed in part one, was bold, startling and confrontational. Henderson’s here is much more soft and gentle. The colours muted and pastel, the animals drawn in soft, meticulous pencil, the babbies looking as cute and the adult as kind as Henderson can get away with. Though the piece lacks many of Henderson’s trademarks – the moody atmosphere and the sense of the awesomeness of nature, it is still utterly convincing. He carefully avoids anthropomorphic facial expressions on the dinosaurs, but there’s no escaping the sense of parental care and concern that he imbues the adult Maiasaura with. It’s heartwarming… until you realize that Maiasaura babies have like a 90% mortality rate.

More peacefully parenting dinosaurs, although these “hypsilophodonts” – I don’t know what actual genus Henderson intended these to be – seem more precocial and independent. The perspective is especially inspired, with the parent animal towering over us as if we are looking through the eyes of a baby. The environment is a plain, no old school forest-dwelling hypsilophodonts here. I love the pink heads. The staring eye of the baby on the right is intense.

Out of all the Henderson pieces in the book, this one is the most quintessentially Henderson. It’s black and white, there’s an enormous tree front and center that dwarfs the dinosaurs and the whole image breathes atmosphere. The tree is rendered as lovingly and with as much detail as any dinosaur. Dinosaurs are definitely just one part of the scene, not overpowered super-animals but subjugate, as all creatures are, to the awesome power of Nature itself. If you want to know why Henderson is revered by all palaeoartists, this image is the best answer I can give.

Maiasaura is a frequent subject of Henderson’s work. It really is quite remarkable how much emotional expression an artist can put in a scene while at the same time remaining utterly naturalistic. With your eye being so drawn to the mood and atmosphere and composition of his pieces, we must also not forget to mention that Henderson always got his dinosaurs spot on. These hadrosaurs look fully believable as big animals, their essential strangeness even downplayed a little. Unlike Greg Paul, Henderson doesn’t draw your attention to the anatomy of the animals, but he was easily Paul’s equal when it came to getting the scientific accuracy right. But compared to his artistic achievement, that seems almost a footnote.

Let’s look at some carnivores, then. These are Coelophysis, another signature species for Henderson to reconstruct. Small dinosaurs give Henderson a different dimension of natural beauty to play with, focusing less on massive trees and vast landscapes and more on moss, water and fallen logs to give his compositions a sense of location. In these woods, the monochrome, pale dinosaurs move like ghosts. Whereas some of his work can invoke the vastness of nature, this piece feels intimate.

More hadrosaurs. Although the book itself presents this as a depiction of the Cretaceous extinction, Henderson himself has said this is actually an illustration of a volcanic ashfall, a hypothesis on how the many Maiasaura found in the Two Medicine formation died. The effect is the same. There’s a huge cloud of dust blocking out the sun, smothering the world to death. The background has completely faded here, there’s no location but thick, suffocating death. Within this hellscape, the doomed hadrosaurs are as well-observed as ever, with the one on the left an interesting blue face which the others don’t seem to have. A touch of speculative sexual dimorphism. Some of the dead ones are on their back, toes all curled up. All of these Maiasaura illustrations were done for the Museum of the Rockies in the mid-80s.

This is one from Phil Tippett’s collection, and if you are familiar with Tippett’s wonderful short film Prehistoric Beast, you can definitely see Henderson’s influence. Highly atmospheric, although there doesn’t seem much going on at first glance. Two of the dinosaurs seem alert. Are they spooked by something? Is there a predator nearby, or was it a false alarm? Danger is never far away, especially in Tippett’s world. The environment is rendered with less detail than some of the other Henderson pieces, but gracefully immersive all the same, and the red dinosaurs are very striking.

Another more sketchy, broad-strokes piece that I found nevertheless very striking. The bright colours on the centrosaur’s head really stick out here, with the rest of the animal and the environment rendered in the more muted Henderson palette. Lovely, and a Henderson ceratopsid is a rare treat. This holds up wonderfully in 2023, and I really appreciate how Henderson avoided making the ceratopsid look at all like a rhino.

And that’s Douglas Henderson’s work as it appears in The News About Dinosaurs, one of the rare titles that features him (although probably all of it was pre-existing and merely licensed for this book). As for the book itself: it also features a handful of Hallett illustrations, including the familiar twin T. rexes and the sauropods crossing the flats, all pieces that have been discussed on the blog elsewhere. There’s also some Kish, Bakker and others as fitted the needs of the author. It was a great book for the time, and even now it’s worth checking out just for having so much great art in it (though not all reproductions are perfect). One of the best books of its kind. Spread the news!

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