As previously observed, our 20-year rule for what does and does not count as Vintage Dinosaur Art means that we are now tentatively beginning to review 21st-century palaeoart. Nevertheless, I had to resist using the “vintage-ish” stamp for this one. As the 2000’s pool for VDA widens, and as our own aging brains start entering a stasis when we can’t meaningfully distinguish between 10, 5 and 2 years ago, we begin to come across books that feel nearly contemporary.
Written by John Colagrande and illustrated by Larry Felder, In The Presence Of Dinosaurs is a coffee table book from 2000 that, in style and structure, feels not at all out of place among the large, art-filled books you get today. Observe how the T. rex on the front cover is completely failing to roar, or try to eat you! Instead, it looks down thoughtfully, as if in contemplation of its impending extinction. Such a striking image, without having to be aggressive.
Nevertheless, the book shows the signs of its age, and this is not merely in the way it reconstructs dinosaurs. The influence of Walking With Dinosaurs in particular is very clear. However, whereas the spectre of WWD meant, in the worst cases, a hard shift towards shonky CGI and outdated speculation repeated as fact, in this case the influence of the landmark show is nearly entirely positive. The book is structured beautifully like an anthology of nature documentaries, a collection of stories following the fauna of selected ecosystems. So we have something here that tries to emulate the immersive storytelling of WWD, rather than being another dry book of facts. Also, the artwork is gorgeous.
Larry Felder is by his own admission a capital “R” Realist painter from Texas. On his personal site he explains that he strives not just for photorealism, but for the realism of the human eye itself. It’s a lofty goal that he also seems to apply to his palaeoart. Sadly, although he still paints the odd animal, he seems to have left palaeoart behind these days (while his technique only seems to have improved).
Here we have Sharovipteryx, one of those inscrutable Triassic weirdos we love so much, and indeed an animal used in the book to illustrate the evolutionary innovations of that period. Sharovipteryx is often portrayed in an exaggerated, spread-eagle gliding pose. Felder avoids the cliché, having it climb a tree instead and downplaying, if anything, its overlong legs. Felder shows his modernity as he uses tropes we still value today: naturalism, and the avoidance of what we now call monsterization. Of course, predation is still frequently depicted.
Snap. I love to include phytosaur content whenever I can find it. Rutiodon here looks pretty pleased with itself. The animals have a slightly painterly, not-quite-real quality, highlighted by the splashy water effects which look realer than the animals. If absolute realism is the goal, this is one of the times Felder doesn’t quite get there. But the result is still very interesting, a style completely his own that has little in common with what came before him and much more with what came after – Julio Lacerda immediately comes to mind as a comparison, although they work in different mediums. The high contrast between the dark background and the lighter animals really pops.
Speaking of water effects: this is awesome. So well done. The bubbles and the ripples are one thing, but it’s almost as if Felder tried to show that the pterosaur’s fur was slightly hydrophobic and thus traps the air in little pockets of dryness, like a duck’s feathers. The pterosaur itself – Eudimorphodon – is wonderfully realized, the slight yellow tip on its beak the detail that brings it all together. The eyes are glazed over with a membranous, see-through eyelid that protects the eyes. The attention to detail here is astounding, and this is one of the times Felder gets really close to the absolute realism he strives for.
At this point I will need to admit that this book, as these coffee table things always are, is far too big for my scanner and my scans of the two-page spreads in particular suffer as a result. Some of the midsection is missing here, but we still get the idea. The animals depicted are a trio of animals featured in WWD: Postosuchus taking the central role, Placerias as its kill and Coelophysis among the opportunists coming in stage right. Postosuchus in particular seems a Paulian creature, with those pebbly scales and very reptilian details. The reverse-tiger colours and shape of its head set it apart from its WWD counterpart. Coelophysis is even fluffy!
Felder, to his credit, goes in hard on the feathered theropods. His Dilophosaurus is delightfully fluffy, but still dangerous and intimidating. And the paintings look so crisp, so detailed, so tangible. Once more, the high-contrast close-up action really makes the animals pop. The “written nature documentary” style of the book means his dinosaurs get to be returning characters, whom he can depict in different situations. This is meant to be some ritualized display between two rivaling (or courting?) males. That, or a butterfly has landed on its head and it’s trying to shake it off. Colagrande’s text suggests that these animals avoided breaking their crests as these were important display structures, so actual deadly combat was rare for them.
Here’s Dilo again, from a more neutral angle. I love the orange and blue highlights on its face. The colouration on its body is more muted but no less striking with the high-contrast countershading. Felder is visibly taking as many cues as he can from birds. That’s something we almost take for granted in contemporary palaeoart but was still a bit revolutionary in 2000. Think how many dinosaurs were still given grey elephant skin in the 90s! The dark body and striking head remind me of nothing as much as an Asian hornbill.
Coelophysis again, and this time we can really revel in its fluffiness. The ridge of pink bosses on its snout is another one of those lovely little details that just really make an animal feel real and alive. This one caught a mammal as it was fleeing from a forest fire, poor thing. Nice high contrast again with the pattern on the mammal’s back, and its little rat feet are very well observed, as well. The dinosaur’s forelimbs carry with them the legacy of Greg Paul with those big, bird-feet scutes on its hands. Not sure where science stands on those at the moment. I heard somewhere that those are specific to animals with complex feathers (so definitely not Coelophysis) but I also heard that might not be the case anymore.
Inevitably, once the action moves to the Late Jurassic we get an extended chapter on the Morrison formation, which of course was also explored in an episode of WWD (two if we count the Allosaurus special). If we look at these two handsome fellows in close-up, the similarity to the WWD Allosaurus is definitely there, complete with the slightly dubious placement of the horns. I’m willing to say I like these a little better. Interesting how these two kind of have a different skull shape, like he used different skulls as reference. The top one is more squat and deep, while the bottom one has a more elongated skull, showing the variety within a single genus (Allosaurus is, I believe, the most commonly found of all big theropods and we have quite a few specimens).
Sauropods are rare in this book, with this half-page spread one of the precious few outings they get. They are apatosaurs, and I must admit that, even though I love the colours, there’s maybe something missing from this image for it to be among my favourites. I’m missing a sense of size, heft and power here. The bare-bones environment doesn’t help, as there’s no reference point to compare these animals to. They might as well be the size of horses, and I was mildly surprised to learn that these are indeed big apatosaurs rather than some smaller species. Felder absolutely sells scale and power elsewhere, so maybe sauropods just aren’t his thing. I’m quite happy with how striking they look, though. No dull grey elephant skin here.
The Ornitholestes is, again, very WWD-like. The now-debunked nose horn remains, but the odd quills have been transformed into a more substantial shaggy coat. I like the spots. Not just the design of the animals feels WWD in this chapter, also the environments, with Ornitholestes in the forest and Allosaurus on the plains. This one’s found a hole under a log and is looking if there might be something tasty in there.
Let’s wrap up part one with an Allosaurus feeding frenzy. Apologies, once again, for the black stripe where the two halves of the spread don’t quite meet. With so many sauropods around, Allosaurus would have spent a lot of time stripping cadavers. I especially love the one that is holding its head sideways, depicting the flexibility and power of the allosaur neck. The placement of the horns doesn’t bother me so much, but the Greg Paul bunny hands of the one in the background kind of do. And if we’re gonna keep comparing: WWD actually did theropod forelimbs better. As for the backgrounds and environments, Felder keeps them simple and functional, but the dinosaurs do fit into this world quite seamlessly, being part of the environment without it really being obvious. The rain is a nice touch.
Larry Felder’s artwork is wonderful and distinctive, and there’s quite a lot of it in this book. So next time, let’s take a look at what he does with the animals of the Cretaceous. In The Presence of Dinosaurs will return!