Vintage Dinosaur Art: In The Presence of Dinosaurs – Part 2

Vintage Dinosaur Art

So here I am once more, in the playground of the finer arts. This is the 21st century, and we’re looking at one of the definitive dinosaur books of the year 2000, illustrated or rather painted by the talented Larry Felder. If you’ve seen part one, you’ll know Larry’s depictions of Triassic and Jurassic creatures was, gorgeous though they may have been, somewhat indebted to Walking With Dinosaurs. In the Cretaceous chapters of In The Presence of Dinosaurs, his work begins to get more of a character of its own. As you can see, in some of his reconstructions he goes a bit wild, and the results are rather good.

Felder’s Pteranodon is probably his most outlandish, unexpected design for a prehistoric creature. Highly furry, with a fan of swooping pterofuzz on the back of its head that completely changes its silhouette, and dramatic facial markings over a colour scheme that seems to be modelled after a gannet, or a pelican. Modelling marine pterosaurs after seabirds is so obvious, yet so rarely seen, especially in large species like Pteranodon. In dinosaur art vintage and modern, I’ve never seen a pterosaur quite like this. An extremely refreshing and very believable take on a creature so often given that cookie cutter Knightian brown flying lizard appearance. The fact that it seems to be preening itself makes it even more natural. Again, the only other palaeoartist I can think of that gives me vibes like this is Julio Lacerda.

Here’s a rather spectacular piece of an elasmosaur grabbing a fish and the entire length of its neck coming out of the water as it does so. It’s a very fun perspective to play with, and the blur that increases as it goes downwards, as if the camera is focusing on the animal’s head, is always a cool touch. I say “camera” because there seem to be salt spots on the lens!

Felder was operating under the now-debunked assumption that plesiosaurs can come onto land safely (again, just like Walking With Dinosaurs). Accepting that, we have another interesting piece here, with the Elasmosaurus nursing a wound. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that particular behaviour in palaeoart before. It nicely shows off the neck, and how flexible it is. Again, Felder likes sharp contrasts on his animals. I think these are the colours a white shark has when it’s out of the water. It looks smooth and slick. The sky is nice and dramatic, and Felder has absolute mastery over water and waves.

Here’s Pteranodon again. If the rest of the book is riding the slipstream of Walking With Dinosaurs, this piece if anything is a prelude to Prehistoric Planet, with rival male pterosaurs in a ritualized territorial display (though it can easily be mistaken for a courtship dance). The exaggerated eye markings in the animals’ facial patterning can be seen better here, very unusual. This Pteranodon features in half a dozen other paintings in the book, so check it out if you’re a fan of this design.

Parasaurolophus is another stock prehistoric animal that Larry Felder has given a glow-up. We see a very rotund, heavyset and powerful animal. A membranous skin flap dangles underneath its crest. It has an incredibly striking and elaborate colour pattern. And it has some commensal bird friends! Here’s another extremely refreshing take on an animal we’ve all seen reconstructed a million times and whose essential strangeness is easy to take for granted. Perhaps strangest of all is that Felder has made it a sail-back, with a ridge of spines on its back connected by a membrane.

In a group shot with its cousin Corythosaurus, we can see how hog-wild Felder has gone with the high contrast patterns on his hadrosaurs, while still sticking to whites, browns and blacks all the way. This is how you make your animals striking, without ever leaving the realms of the plausible. The black masks of Parasaurolophus, swooping back towards their crests, are especially interesting and noteworthy. Again, Felder is very much ahead of his time here. Long evening shadows, autumnal colours and a subtle but gorgeous environment give this piece tons of atmosphere (again, the black line in the middle is where the two halves of the spread don’t quite meet). One very odd detail about Parasaurolophus that I’m not sure if I like is the black ankle bands.

As we return to the theropods, things get fluffy again. These are troodontids tending to their nest. I like details such as the yellow beaks and the slight difference in colouration, indicating sexual dimorphism. Beyond the chapters about the seas, with lots of blacks, whites and blues, his work in this book tends very much towards earthy colours. Interesting how palaeoart was at a point where the paravians were given downy fuzz but no complex bird feathers yet. Still, some of Felder’s work in this area holds up beautifully…

I don’t think you would have seen a better dromaeosaur than this in the early 2000s. This was a time when artists began to realize that you couldn’t get away with making unfeathered “raptors” anymore, but didn’t always have a good idea how to properly integrate feathers with our preconceived notion of these animals yet. The results were often awkward and sometimes hideous, especially with the advent of CG art. Give Larry Felder credit then: his Deinonychus is both fully feathered and fully believeable, and he makes it look effortless. Far from a JP-raptor with a feather coat stuck on, this is a naturalistic portrait of a feathered animal whose plumage fits it perfectly. I think Larry’s earned the right to show it off a bit, making it pose dramatically on a peak like that. Give or take some finer details, it could have been modern, made by someone like Jed Taylor. I wish his contemporaries had looked at this a little closer, especially those responsible for the glut of sub-WWD palaeomedia that came out around this time.

Violence in the time of chasmosaurs! Dueling ceratopsids, we’ve seen it tons of times and it’s always fun. Rather than the usual interlocking horns we’ve got one biting the other’s horn. It’s a bloodless battle. Felder likes his prehistoric world pristine. When looking at ceratopsids, one thing I’m looking for is how little or how much rhino is in there. In this case, the rhino content is pleasingly minimal; we’re looking at thorougly reptilian giant herbivores. The author, John Colagrande, engages in some intriguing speculation on the behaviour of these animals, and their role in the ecosystem. In his narration, ceratopsians are dominant towards hadrosaurs, more ornery and more alert. The book is worthwile for its text as much as its art.

After all that spectacle, Felder’s T. rex is… okay. It’s fine. It’s aged well, especially with regards to the broad skull, powerful build and correctly oriented forelimbs. Again, we’re treated to a nice atmospheric piece with long evening shadows. I don’t know what I was expecting, but given how spectacular his Pteranodon, Parasaurolophus and Deinonychus were, his Rexy is a bit conservative. Maybe I’d have liked it to have a little bit more going on on top of its skull. Maybe the old LITC trope of us being underwhelmed by T. rex reconstructions is more due to the fact that we expect so much from the tyrant lizard king. This portrait of it is kind of low-key. It’s not really doing anything. Of course, that’s refreshing in its own way: monsterization was in full effect during those days, and a T. rex not mindlessly roaring away or lunging at prey might still be called a bit subversive in the year two thousand.

And that’s In The Presence of Dinosaurs! I’d love it if Larry Felder got back to palaeoart. His work slots right into the current palaeoart environment, especially the more realist side of it. As it is, we shall have to make do with this book (I don’t know if there’s any palaeoart he’s done beyond this), but it’s plenty. Highly recommended, and definite proof that printed palaeoart in the 2000s wasn’t all awful. Of course, we’ll still get to the awful stuff in the future, don’t you worry.

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  • Reply
    Brett Austin
    July 21, 2023 at 8:46 pm

    in the troodont painting, is that a spectral tyrannosaur glaring through the murk?!?

  • Reply
    July 22, 2023 at 6:30 pm

    I wonder if that Elasmosaur painting inspired the vignette in Tree of Life, with the Elasmosaur at sunset on the beach, also examining a wound…

  • Reply
    July 23, 2023 at 10:02 pm

    Felder did a mural of the Clarno Nut Beds of Eocene Oregon, viewable here:

    It’s quite lovely, as you might expect.

  • Reply
    Brett Gabbitas
    July 23, 2023 at 10:47 pm

    Shouldn’t they be Archosaurian, or Avian, not Reptilian?

  • Reply
    Eli Burry-Schnepp
    July 31, 2023 at 6:31 pm

    The Elasmosaurus and Pteranodon have stuck in my head for over a decade and influence how I draw plesiosaurs and pterosaurs to this day. This stuff is BEAUTIFUL.

  • Reply
    August 22, 2023 at 4:29 pm

    I recently received the copy that I ordered through Amazon, based on your review and it’s just BEAUTIFUL!. Thanks for bringing it to my attention,Niels.

  • Reply
    August 25, 2023 at 4:54 pm

    I must admit that I really like this one… the art style, colors, everything hit my “soul” so comfortably but at the same time kind of “scary”…

    Liminal Paleoart is a thing i guess

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