Monday, 26 March 2012

Why I draw Dinosaurs

My Palaeo-restorative Art Manifesto, Or "Why I draw Dinosaurs":

For a professional in any field, it is important to know not just what you do but why you do it. When I was a kid I started drawing dinosaurs not because I felt some lofty 'higher calling' to do so, but because I loved Dinosaurs. But when I reached about sixteen and realized that I really wanted to make a career of this, I knew that it was time to get serious.

It is thus that I have drafted my own 'Palaeo-art manifesto', by which to choose my subjects and how best to present them. I do not necessarily advocate that all palaeo-artists follow these guidelines, nor do I suggest that they are exhaustive (there's only three!). They are merely my own private rationale for why I continue to do what I do; my motivation and my manual for ensuring that all time spent on my own palaeo-restorations is done in the spirit of science and for the benefit of all who enjoy these images.

RULE 1: There must always be a purpose. Before beginning a new work, ask yourself "What good will representing this subject do for the wider community?". If your chosen subject is a relatively new discovery, of which few restorations have been made, then the clear benefit is in creating a new piece of reference material for a species of which few images exist. If, however the species has been long known to science, instead ask yourself "How will my representation of this species teach my audience anything new?". To restore existing species, even those like Tyrannosaurus rex, of which there are very many representations in both academia and popular culture, is a perfectly valid enterprise, so long as you can honestly say that your own representation of this subject will bring something new to the table. Maybe you can demonstrate an example of some behaviour that has been hitherto ignored (such as parenthood or social behaviour), or you might include some element in the environment that is based on new evidence?

RULE 2: Context is essential. Why spend so much time and effort getting your subject's physiology right if they then end up standing in an environment that is totally inappropriate, even anachronistic? Before setting out your composition, research carefully the kind of landscape your subject might be found in; think about what plant and animal species would have been around at the time; consider what time of day or night it is; what was the climate like in that part of the world at that point in history? Doing this will not only make the creative process easier; it will invest intellectual currency in the work as well, rendering images that are as scientifically valuable as they are beautiful. The purpose of palaeo-art is to inform and educate as well as to enthrall. 

RULE 3: If there's no evidence for it, don't draw it! This is a practical measure, as much for the artist's benefit as the audience's. There's no point spending time painting or sculpting a detail for which there is no evidence. Obviously, there are times when this is necessary, but these come often enough for a palaeo-artist to make it  worth avoiding having to invent details if you don't have to.
And besides the time-saving benefits to the artist, this third and final rule also enforces the first two, by ensuring that the science behind each image is as solid as it can be.

Friday, 2 March 2012

Giganotosaurus Carolinii

Apologies for this one, as I’m afraid I must keep it brief. We just moved house this week and have yet to get an internet connection set up, so I’m having to make this entry at home, transfer it to my phone, then email it to myself and finish the whole thing off after hours at work! So, with out further ado, I give you…

Giganotosaurus Carolinii
Sauriscia: Therapoda: Tetanurae
Late Cretaceous (Albian - Cenomanian), 112 mya – 94 mya
Neuquén Province, Argentina
Giganotosaurus rightly got a lot of attention after it was first discovered in Patagonia in the mid ‘90s, but has in recent years drifted further from the public imagination. This may be because Giganotosaurus missed out on the role as ‘next biggest thing’ in the third ‘Jurassic Park’ film, (which went to Spinosaurus Egypticus, perhaps because the film makers felt it would be sensible to pit a Tyrannosaurus rex against something that doesn’t look too much like a T. rex?) or perhaps because gigantism as ceased to be a feature in the more interesting dinosaur finds of the past ten years or so. The most interesting new discoveries (most notably from China) have tended to be smaller species, with precision-engineered feathers, and preserved pigmentation rather than the vast and awe-inspiring (though ultimately quite recognisable) types.

Although the popular imagination is no longer so enthralled by the biggest species, I still feel that Giganotosaurus carolinii deserves a shout. Its cultural significance at the time it was first described was undeniable: finally someone had found a carnivorous dinosaur larger than a Tyrannosaurus (everyone loves a T. rex, but let’s be honest: we were all getting just a little bit bored)! Furthermore, evidence indicated that these new southern cousins were far more interesting animals – although greater in length, they were of a lighter build, clearly more agile; they appeared also to have lived in family groups, hunting as a team (evidenced by finds of several individuals fossilized together, with ages ranging from very young to clearly senior. The lack of other species’ remains along with the nature of the rock the Giganotosaurs were encased in indicated that the animals did not die in a flash-flood, as has been suggested). All this meant that they could conceivably have hunted the biggest of big game – the titanic Argentinosaurs and magnificent Andesaurus: the kind of spectacle unimaginable, even for a large Tyrannosaurid.

I’ve wanted to restore Giganotosaurus for its scientific and cultural significance, but then there’s the just-plain beauty of the Carcharadontosaurid family (to which Giganotosaurus belongs). Their long, sloping skulls and pronounced mandibles are a feature I find just irresistible. They’re a sheer pleasure to draw. This representation is an image I actually began over three years ago and abandoned halfway through (I was going through a difficult time with a bad relationship and was failing to see much point in pursuing palaeoart, or any kind of pleasure for that matter). I found it as I was sifting through my slush-pile on the hard drive the other day and thought ”why did I ever give up on those guys? It’s not a bad image at all!”. So I spent a couple of days scrubbing them up and this is the result: Two young male Giganotosaurs taking a walk on a crisp, cold morning, across a volcanic plateau. They’re not searching for food – they’ve reached an age where they’ve had to leave their pride and strike out on their own. They aren’t quite fully grown yet, so they’ll maybe spend up to three years wandering, taking smaller prey until they find a new pride to settle with. Their colouration is dappled to give them maximum camouflage, but as every individual’s pattern of brown spots is unique, they can also use this for identification within a group (not in any way based on scientific evidence – I just thought it would be a nice touch!)