By Carlos Augusto Chamarelli
Hi everybody, it’s me again with some more paleoartistic tips mixed with ranting since the first one was quite well received by our readers. Long overdue, as usual. Last time we saw examples of plagiarism and why it’s bad to do it, emaciated reconstructions by taking skeleton references too literal and the perils of overloading details.
Actually, before we move on to new tips I’d like to elaborate a bit more on the skeleton reference topic since I felt I didn’t talk enough about it. After all it is a vital part of paleoart since without them we’d be still stuck with draconian monsters (or worse: creationism) so it deserves to be further discussed. So let me put it right off the bat, short and simple: skeletons are a good way to know about the creature, but they’re a terrible way to know what the creature looks like.
Sure they allow us to know their overall size and shape, but they can only reveal so much on their own because skeletons hardly resemble the animal they’re supposed to be on the outside.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not being unfair because we know what these animals look like in real life, while dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals, not. The path of reconstructing things we only have bones to work with is a rocky one and involves a lot of guessing, true, but what the heck, I think we can afford to have better guesses than just add skin over bones and call it a day.
I know those pictures are actually intended to be just humorous, but they also remind us of how far off we probably are of knowing what dinosaurs truly looked like. Trust me on this one: in the future, as out knowledge on dinosaurs advance, many of the pictures we love to label as accurate will join the ranks of laughably outdated reconstructions.
In the meantime we might as well try and improve it the best we can, so let’s move on to the tips properly, such as…
– Slit pupils are Okay!
Long ago you’d see many pictures where dinosaurs had eyes with slit pupils, a feature that’s easily identifiable as a reptilian characteristic. Of course, that was before the feathered dinosaur revolution came into scene and their relationship with birds was settled for good; the slit-pupil eyes gradually fell in favor to the round-pupil eyes of the likes of birds. Nowadays it’s considerably harder to find pictures of slit-pupil dinosaurs, even if there’s no good reason to think they didn’t had them.
It’s understandable that some like to hint the close relationship with birds by making all dinosaurs – specially feathered ones- have round pupils but first you have to consider that slit pupils aren’t exclusive to reptiles: fishes, amphibians, even some mammals, like that one obscure creature the internet knows nothing about, identified only as “cat”, have them.
But then again, we’re talking about dinosaurs here; are there any birds with slit pupils?
If you asked sometime ago I would have to answer “no” because I did search about it and couldn’t find anything at all. Because of that this rather minor tip was left out of the previous one. Then I re-searched and again nothing turned up, which made me think that maybe it was because slit pupils were somehow unsuitable for flight; either that or we are unfortunate to live in an epoch where no birds with such eyes exist.
But later I re-researched and I found out that indeed there’s one particular bird with slit pupils. It’s the black skimmer (Rynchops niger) from the Americas.
Unfortunately for us the skimmer has very dark brown irises, which make it mighty difficult to see the slit pupils, but there are a few pictures over the internet where you can make out the details. Not only it proves that slit pupils aren’t a handicap for flying, birds aren’t an exception either:
In other words, you definitely shouldn’t be shy to make some of your dinosaurs have slit pupils when making dinosaur pictures for fearing it makes them somehow “inaccurate”. If anything, not giving some slit pupils is the inaccuracy.
– Movement does not equal to quality!
As much as the Dinosaur Renascence was a great breakthrough in our understanding of dinosaurs, even I have to recognize it also brought a lot of annoying trends. One in particular is the emphasis in movement.
Sorry, let me rephrase this: the extreme emphasis in extreme movement.
If you ever had the chance to see Bakker’s book “The Dinosaur Heresies”, the bible of the dinosaur renascence, you’ll know what I mean. The dinosaurs pictured have very dynamic poses, so dynamic in fact that they probably need a string attached to the ground so they don’t jump out of orbit.
It wasn’t so bad at the time of its release; it was fresh and mind-blowing, but after years of nothing but marathonist dinosaurs, it kind of lost the appeal. It really did. I’m also not so sure if it can be taken as accurate, such as the galloping Chasmosaurus previously seen, and I do intend in talking about this in a later post.
Anyway, what I’m saying is that, while I understand it’s exciting to make and see dinosaurs as dynamic as possible, we’re not in the Brontosaurus Age anymore, or the nineties, we don’t need to prove anything. We already know dinosaurs weren’t lethargic, and we’re moving on to a new vision on these creatures. Making them appear running at 300 km/h with their jaws wide open all the time does as much harm for their image as the spiked and skinny reconstructions I pointed out last time.
The problem it seems is that dinosaurs to this day are labeled as “monsters”, so their actions need to be shown in an over-the-top fashion to highlight their monstrous monstrosity, thus perpetrating their monster status, and people accept this kind of image. As a consequence we often see dinosaur-centered documentaries that prefer to focus solely on the violence that such monstrous monsters provide, sometimes at the expense of accuracy. I swear I couldn’t bear to watch one episode of Jurassic Fight Club for the word “killer” was repeated incessantly in a span of less than 5 minutes.
This reminds me of a conversation RSN had with his friend Rafael Albo (and I hope he’s okay with his mention here) about this issue, in which he said something along the lines of “well if a magazine like National Geographic were to show pictures of lions they definitely would prefer to show them fighting rather than sleeping”. Except that’s not necessarily true: a quick search for lion pictures by NG (or anyone else, really) will reveal that the majority of them are the animals being playful or resting. In other words, acting like real living things would.
Amazingly, dinosaurs too had their moments of relaxation, playfulness, even (preposterous!) boredom. Modern paleoartists (and as consequence, their audience) should divorce dinosaurs of their image as monstrous beasts in a hellish struggle and begin to see them like real animals, because as much it’s hard to imagine, that’s what they were. A restrained scene can be just as inspirational, but because of the overexposure of the more artistically-oriented depictions (dynamic/spiked) the average person tends to mistake the latter as a realistic approach.
Hey, since we’re at it, let’s talk about…
– Photorealism vs. Lifeness (And why you should shoot for the latter)
This is probably one of the hardest tips I ever gave, simply because since we don’t know for sure how dinosaurs looked like, so I’ll try to summarise it saying that trying to make them “photorealistic” is an ungrateful task of herculean proportions that probably will never stop looking out of place, so if you can’t make it LOOK real, the solution is to make it SEEM real. And that’s hard.
I’ll give an fair example (i.e. not comparing different artists), using John Sibbick’s Styracosaurus. Same author, same technique, only years apart. The one on the left is the iconic Styracosaurus that is actually part of a larger scene depicting short-frilled ceratopsians like Centrosaurus and Triceratops (when he was still considered to be a short-frilled ceratopsian), dating from about 1985. The one on the right is a more recent one, I have no idea from what year it is exactly (90’s? Early 2000’s?), but it’s once again Styracosaurus hanging out with other short frilled ceratopsians (and Triceratops, again).
Now, I don’t know about you, but if someone asked me to choose which one depicts a real Styracosaurus, I definitely would say it’s the former. I find that to be one of the most intringuing things about Sibbick’s older art: they are actually more realistic than his most recent ones despite of being grossly outdated.
So I kept thinking of why was that, and I’m positive that, for one, it’s not because I grew up with the older ones because I’m not that old and I in fact grew up seeing his newer art (well, relatively new). After some time I concluded that, although he didn’t make it accurately, he made a very convincingly depiction.
That’s the key word for this tip: convincingly. It’s entirely possible to create a paleoart picture making the creatures the most accurate as possible, but still end up with something that looks rather artificial, simply not conveying life to the creature (at the same time it’s possible to make a VERY good one at the expense of accuracy, but that’s not desirable if you’re trying to take it seriously). I mean, there’s a reason as to why to this day the great masters of paleoart like Charles Knight, Rudolph Zallinger and Zdenek Burian (my personal favorite out of the thee) are considered such great artists: their dinosaurs are anything but accurate, but they managed to apply all of their knowledge on what a living thing looks and acts like and all of the elements the composes a natural scene in such an effective manner that it’s almost like they travelled in time and painted the animals in their enviroments.
Sibbick can also be considered a great master os paleoart of the same rank, but as I said, his older art does a much better job of depicting dinosaurs as living beings: It’s almost possible to touch and feel the leathery texture of their hides and the dirt encrusted in their scales, the rustling of the foliage as it moves, and the heat of its breath. Yet the recent depiction severly lacks the same essence despite using the same gouache media and visual details like the clouds of dust. It would be delightful if Sibbick went to mimick his old style while making it up to date.
Also have nothing to do with the media used; While I do think that paint has a certain feeling of being touchable and bitable* that’s virtually unrivalled by digital media, it is possible to create paleoart in a convincingly manner with it.
Of course, it’s also possible to make catastrophically terrible too. With the ascencion of computer photomanipulation it became easier to texture creatures using various real animal photograph references as bases, so wouldn’t make them look more realistic? No. I say this technique has mixed results at best that most of the time, in my opnion, are awkward-looking and still doesn’t quite look like something alive. That would be such a case where, despite using “real” things to compose a scene, it ends up looking artificial when sewed together.
One artist that uses mainly digital media while still making dinosaurs look convincg is John Conway, and you can (and definitely should) check his gallery here . Yes, that would be the same who featured in Dinosaur Art – The World’s Greatest Paleoart (which I reviewed here), and who I consider one, if not the, best modern paleoartist. Ironic since, as stated in the book, he doesn’t aim for super-realism, and ends up being one of the few who depict dinosaurs realistically.
Despite having the characteristics of a picture made with Photoshop (which some might consider ugly), the results are astonisihng to say the less, by the simple fact that “less is more”. Without resorting to superdetailed features, he’s able to show dinosaurs in such a way that they too convey the sensation of touch, albeit in a more stylized manner than Sibbick’s.
So these are the tips I one again have to offer. I think this time around it was less of a rant… Eh. Once again I hope these were helpful enough for all of you who want to get into paleoart as business or just as a hobby.
Thanks for reading!
* Excuse me, that’s a personal term I use.