Paleoart & Paleoartists

Haqqani Awarded at Dinosaur Illustration Contest in Spain

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Haqqani Awarded at Dinosaur Illustration Contest in Spain

Author, paleo-artist and natural history illustrator Mohammad Haqqani won the second prize at the 9th International Scientific Dinosaur Illustration Contest, held in Castile and Leon, Spain.

Winners were announced in late November. The first prize was granted to Italian paleo-illustrator Franco Tempesta who depicted a scene from the Morrison Formation in Jurassic period in which an Allosaurus fragilis pack is attacking a larger dinosaur known as Barosaurus lentus.

Haqqani, who won the second prize, had painted a Confuciusornis, a genus of primitive crow-sized birds from the Early Cretaceous Yixian and Jiufotang Formations of China, dating from 125 to 120 million years ago.

The International Scientific Dinosaur Illustration Contest was organized by the Dinosaurs Museum of Salas de los Infantes and the Dinosaur CyL Foundation, a research institute based in Castile and Leon, focusing on study of dinosaurs and management of paleontological heritage, the Dinosaur CyL Foundation wrote.

The third prize was given to Ukrainian paleo-artist and illustrator of prehistoric animals Sergey Krasovskiy who depicted a wet forest in Liaoning, northeastern China, dating back to Aptian age, a subdivision of the Early and Lower Cretaceous epoch (145 to 66 million years ago).

Selected illustrations are currently on display at an exhibition at the Dinosaurs Museum of Salas de los Infantes in Castile and Leon. The show will continue through early spring of 2018.

The jury included Fidel Torcida, director of the Dinosaurs Museum, Diego Montero, member of the scientific team of the museum, paleo-illustrators Davide Bonadonna, Carlos Papolio and paleontologist Angelica Torices.


Int’l Collaboration

For over 10 years, Haqqani has been working as an illustrator and cooperating with museums and reference book publishers and journals around the globe, including the Western Australian Museum, Capstone Publishing, Black Rabbit Books, National Geographic magazine, Studio Fenix and Talaee Publishing.

Haqqani received third prize at the 8th International Dinosaur Scientific Artwork Contest, Spain 2016. He was winner of Gold Plaque and Diploma of Honor at the 17th Festival of Children’s Books 2014 in Iran for the book ‘Golden Age of Dinosaurs,’ written in 2013 by Iranian science writer Erfan Khosravi. His artworks have been published in numerous books such as Digging for Triceratops (2015) by American vertebrate paleontologist Thomas R. Holtz Jr.; Dinosaurs (2017) by US-based children’s author and editor Megan Cooley Peterson; and National Geographic’s 2014 special issue When Dinosaurs Ruled.


The Bad Hair, Incorrect Feathering, and Missing Skin Flaps of Dinosaur Art

Saturday, September 23, 2017

The Bad Hair, Incorrect Feathering, and Missing Skin Flaps of Dinosaur Art

Inside the pitfalls of illustrating prehistoric creatures.

Elephants, zebras, and rhinos would all look pretty different if they were interpreted the same way dinosaurs are. 

ILLUSTRATING LONG-EXTINCT CREATURES IS DIFFICULT, but important work. With no living specimens to observe, it’s up to “paleoartists” who draw, paint, or otherwise illustrate the creatures of prehistory as we think they might’ve been. Their work is the reason that when we talk about velociraptors, stegosaurs, or even woolly mammoths, we have some idea of what they looked like.

But since all we have to go on are fossils, deciding how a dinosaur would have looked is as much art as it is science. And there’s at least one paleoartist who thinks we might be getting things wrong.

C.M. Kosemen is an Istanbul-based artist and author (along with John Conway and Darren Naish) of the 2012 book, All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals. A long-time creature designer, Kosemen had always had an interest in dinosaurs, but he embarked on his book with Conway after they began to realize that something was a bit off. “We were both dinosaur geeks, but the more we looked at these skeletons, and the more we looked at the pictures, we noticed that most mainstream dinosaur art didn’t look at dinosaurs as real creatures,” says Kosemen.

Most serious paleoart bases itself on the detailed findings of paleontologists, who can work for weeks or even years compiling the most accurate descriptions of ancient life they can, based on fossil remains. But Kosemen says that many dinosaur illustrations should take more cues from animals living today. Our world is full of unique animals that have squat fatty bodies, with all kinds of soft tissue features that are unlikely to have survived in fossils, such as pouches, wattles, or skin flaps. “There could even be forms that no one has imagined,” says Kosemen. “For example there could plant-eating dinosaurs that had pangolin or armadillo-like armor that wasn’t preserved in the fossil. There could also be dinosaurs with porcupine-type quills.”

How a baboon skeleton might be interpreted by future paleoartists.

Rarely do we see that type of variation in depictions of dinosaurs. In many ways, there is a certain amount of uniformity in the way we think of dinosaurs, which creates some common tropes in paleoart that Kosemen thinks could improve.

One of his main points of contention is the way that we consider dinosaur heads. “The reference has always been crocodiles,” says Kosemen. “The biggest thing is teeth and facial fat. Readers have to be aware that all dinosaurs they see in all media, and especially in popular culture, seem to have their heads flensed. They’ve always got these weird grins with only the teeth visible.” As he points out, most animals have lips and gums and lumps of facial fat that change the profile of the head, and cover the teeth. But in many predatory dinosaur illustrations, these are usually missing, making them look fierce, if improbable.

“Another trope is what I like to call the ‘roadkill hair’ trope,” says Kosemen. Some fossils show signs of hair, which Kosemen says can lead to artists illustrating their creatures with hair only on the parts where it was found on a fossil. However, it’s possible that some dinosaurs had much more hair that they are usually shown to have. “Imagine if you found a raccoon, and only half of the tail was covered in hair, so then you carry that over to a living reconstruction.”

A similar issue occurs with the relatively recent trend of giving dinosaurs feathers. While it is a good way to add some color and flare to an illustration, the placement and length of dinosaur feathers is often based more in fantasy than any past reality. “We have full-on wing feathers erupting from distinct places on the head. Or things like a raptor dinosaur jumping like a ninja and his feathers are coming out of his elbows or knee joint or those weird things,” says Kosemen. He thinks that sometimes dinosaurs are over-feathered, with plumage where it doesn’t belong, or under-feathered, being too conservative with the overall coverage.

Swans imagined as though they were featherless dinosaurs.

There is also the practice of what he calls “feather dressing,” where an artist will transfer the color palette of a living bird’s feathers over to a dinosaur. Given the diversity and unique colorations that belong to single varieties of birds, it’s unlikely that any dinosaur shared the same hues. “The feathers of a green-headed mallard exist only once in nature,” says Kosemen. “There’s no way in the world that a specific bird’s clothing would be replicated in a dinosaur in the past.”

Then there is the issue of proportion. Kosemen says that there is a tendency to exaggerate the heads and claws of dinosaurs. Certainly many dinosaurs had large claws, and fearsome heads, but in many pictures, they seem to be almost cartoonishly huge. “Artists sometimes do this semi-unconsciously because they want to depict the head and the claws, the business end of the thing,” he says.

None of this is to say that paleoart is failing at its job. Many of the more improbable aspects of current dinosaur illustration make the beasts seem rather more sensational, and in some ways more attractive, helping to keep future generations interested in paleontology. Dinosaurs look cool.

If you tried to envision a hippo based only on its bones, it might look something like this.

And the problems with depicting the creatures of the past aren’t going anywhere. It’s likely that far-future paleoartists will have similar problems with creatures we take for granted today. It’s conceivable, for example, that future paleoartists will speculate that turtles once left their shells, or that frogs, with their weird legs, used to run around upright. “There’s going to be all sorts of reconstructions with reindeer antlers having strange membranes or juvenile reindeer jumping from cliffs, using their horns as paragliders,” says Kozeman.

Short of a Jurassic Park-style clone scenario, we might never know exactly what dinosaurs looked like. But until that day, we have artists like Kozeman to continue dreaming up the endless variations of the prehistoric animal world, by taking a cue from the creatures in our own backyards. “Do not imitate them, but see what other shapes they could take.”




Paleoart: The Evolution of Dinosaur Paintings, From Watercolours to Soviet visions

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

In 1830, an English geologist named Henry Thomas De la Beche painted a watercolour of Dorset. The scene it portrayed was not a conventional one. Cows and green fields were notable by their absence. Instead, palm trees sprouted from otherwise bare lumps of rock. Shark-like reptiles with bristling teeth and giant eyes swam in a sinister, monster-filled sea. Overhead there soared strange creatures, half-dragon, half-bat. Bucolic it was not.

De la Beche’s theme was Duria Antiquiora more ancient Dorset. As a young man, he had become an associate and admirer of Mary Anning, the daughter of a cabinet-maker from Lyme Regis whose unrivalled eye for fossils had brought to light a whole host of astonishing discoveries. The seas and skies of Dorset, it appeared, had once teemed with remarkable creatures. Geologists made their names presenting Anning’s finds to learned societies in London. Anning herself, meanwhile, as someone who stood outside the scientific establishment, was denied both the credit and the financial rewards that were properly her due. De la Beche, outraged on her behalf, painted Duria Antiquior to make amends. Reproduced as a lithograph, it proved wildly popular. Anning’s discoveries were introduced to a fascinated public, and her celebrity assured. De la Beche, meanwhile, had initiated an entire new genre: what Zoë Lescaze, in her hulking great sauropod of a new book, terms “paleoart”.

Laelaps by Charles R Knight, 1897. Picture: American Museum of Natural History, New York

The ambition to put flesh on prehistoric bones did not originate in 19th-century Britain. The Roman emperor Tiberius, presented with a fossilised tooth over a foot long, is said to have commissioned the model of a human head proportionate to the scale of the artefact. At Klagenfurt in Austria, the statue of a dragon sculpted in 1590 was given a head modelled on the skull of a woolly rhinoceros. Only with the emergence of palaeontology as a science, though, were artists at last able to portray what long-extinct creatures might have looked like with a reasonable degree of accuracy – and, what was more, to situate them within landscapes thrillingly different to those of the present day. This is why De la Beche ranks as such an innovator.

Few genres of art were more authentically representative of the industrial age than portrayals of the prehistoric past. As the artist Walton Ford puts it in his preface: “This is a book brimming with images born in the heat of startling discovery, urgent works of first contact and of handcrafted time travel.”

As such, they are images not just of prehistoric life, but of how different people at different times have imagined prehistoric life. Hence, perhaps, why the earliest illustrations compiled in the book tend to be the most agitated and unsettling of all. They are the expressions of an entire upheaval in sensibility, of the shock felt by complacent humanity at the discovery of just how immense were the cycles of geological time, and of how brutal had been the repeated cullings of creatures that were now only to be found entombed in rock.

“Prehistory,” as Lescaze puts it, “could not help but engender uncomfortable musings on a benevolent God’s capacity to annihilate entire species.” A shadow of the apocalyptic hung over the earliest works of paleoart. Volcanoes exploded, oceans seethed, beast preyed on beast. In Duria Antiqua, such was the terror of one plesiosaur that the wretched animal was shown voiding proto-coprolites on to the sea floor.

Pteranodon by Heinrich Harder, reconstructed by Hans Jochen Ihle, 1982. Picture: Taschen

This conviction, that life in prehistory had been nothing but endless competition, achieved its most iconic expression in America – fittingly, in 1928, just a year before the Wall Street Crash. Charles Knight’s illustration of a Tyrannosaurus rex confronting a Triceratops established a template for dinosaur-on-dinosaur action that has never been superceded. It was an image bred of American mythology – and specifically of the mythology of the lands across which both species of dinosaur had once roamed. In Knight’s rendering, they advance through the haze, as Lescaze nicely puts it, “like gunslingers outside a saloon”.

Different cultures, though, could imagine the Mesozoic in different ways. In an early Second World War Soviet painting by Konstantin Konstantinovich Flyorov, the ceratopsians are altogether less individualistic. Banding together into a collective, three of them see off a tyrannosaur which, like the Nazis in Stalingrad, proves unable to breach a determined defence. Almost fauvist in its use of colour and abstraction, Flyorov’s paintings will prove revelatory to anyone brought up, as I was, on an exclusive diet of Western paleo-illustrations.

“The art form,” Lescaze argues, “reached its apogee under the Soviet regime, flourishing in a society that not only prized science, but craved glory and international prestige.” As she brilliantly demonstrates, prehistory provided artists under Stalin with a theme that could legitimately encompass ambivalence, mystery and doubt. “There is no single narrative, no blatant message impressed upon the viewer.” The startling images that Lescazes has assembled from the former Soviet Union, justify the price of this sumptuous, beautiful book alone.

So too, though, do the studies of better-known paleo-artists, whose work will be instantly familiar to anyone who enjoyed a dinosaur-obsessed childhood in the 1970s or 1980s: Rudolph Zallinger, who toiled in Yale’s Peabody Museum throughout the Second World War over a colossal fresco of Mesozoic megafauna; the troubled, ghoulish Czech, Zdenek Burian, whose mammoths, brachiosaurs and Neanderthals “burn with the artist’s obvious fascination with fur, flesh, scales, and skin”; Neave Parker, a beer-drinking, self-proclaimed clairvoyant who worked at the Natural History Museum, and had a taste, when drawing dinosaurs, for “hyperarticulated muscle”.

Tree of Life by Alexander Mikhailovich Belashov, 1984. Picture: Borrissiak Paleontological Institute RAS​

The only real disappointment of the book is that it stops when it does: for there is no room, in Lescaze’s otherwise panoramic study of paleoart, for more recent developments in the genre. The work of contemporary paleo-artists such as Julius Csotonyi or Mark Witton bear comparison with anything in the field that has gone before: true to palaeontology, but true as well to the traditions of eeriness and inventiveness that have been constants in paleoart since De la Beche settled down to paint Jurassic Dorset.