Paleoart That Makes Fossils Come Alive

Monday, May 17, 2021

The unusual bird Gastornis that lived across Europe, North America and Asia not long after non-avian dinosaurs went extinct. Photo: Mark Witton

Not only do they give arms and legs to prehistoric findings, paleoartists help research to reach larger audiences.

Close your eyes and imagine a dinosaur. Did you think of a tall, sinewy, sharp-fanged creature? How did this image pop up in your head considering that dinosaurs lived millions of years before the first modern humans appeared? Of course, there’s Jurassic Park, but the actual credit goes to the discipline of paleoart, or paleo illustration, which helps create the most realistic depictions of long-extinct animals.

In the early 19th century, artists mingled science with fantasy to recreate dinosaurs for popular imagination, usually showing them in apocalyptic forests with an erupting volcano in the background.

American paleoartist Doug Henderson, who was credited as a “dinosaur specialist” in the film Jurassic Park, says dinosaurs were part of popular culture when he was a child in the 50s. “There were books and movies that made deep impressions on me — illustrations by Charles Knight and Zdeněk Burian — and one movie in particular, King Kong, made in 1933.” The septuagenarian starts with a simple doodle and the ideas get refined eventually into fully developed outlines, with all the image’s components orchestrated into a workable composition.

The worm Facivermis yunnanicus. Photo: Franz Anthony

Prehistoric life was more than just dinosaurs. Even before plants and life on land evolved, creatures thrived in marine environments and now their fossils tell those stories. In 2019, while studying the fossils of a worm, Facivermis, that lived 500 million years ago, researcher Richard Howard noted that the creature didn’t have lower limbs, and that it may be a missing link in evolution. Now, this mere imprint on a rock needed flesh, skin, and colours. “Facivermis looks so strange and alien because there’s nothing like it living today,” says Franz Anthony, a professional paleoartist from Indonesia. “To illustrate this creature, Howard and I looked at other marine animals for inspiration, and we agreed that it might have resembled modern featherduster worms, even if they’re not closely related!”

An image of Teleocrater. Photo: Mark Witton

Paleoart is a complex art form. The reconstruction of an extinct animal involves vast research, only the beginning of which is examining the fossil. Scientists cover much ground here, and their detailed research papers give most of the details needed for reconstruction. David Hone, a palaeontologist and senior lecturer at Queen Mary University of London, explains how paleoart has advanced over the decades. “In the 70s and 80s, you would see drawings where everything lived in a rainforest. But in the last few years, there’s been a real intensity to the art form. Artists try to recreate what trees there were or depict how hot the location was in summer. Would there be snow in winter? Would it be deep snow? What was the daylight like?”

Moon in paleoart

Paleoartists also analyse the geological time period the animal lived in, to recreate its habitat as truly as possible. Dr. Hone talks of how Julius T. Csotonyi, a paleoartist in Canada, even paid close attention to the moon in his paleoart. “About 80 to 90 million years ago, the moon was closer to Earth and would have looked bigger. And some of those really big craters that we look at weren’t there, because we know they’re more recent. He did a painting of the moon with a dinosaur in front of it, where he took out the craters and made the stars brighter. Not just because you didn’t have light pollution. But again, 100 million years ago, we were in a different position in the galaxy. It makes quite a difference — what stars you see, and how bright they are.”

Ancient and modern

It is also important to know the closest relatives of the creature in the evolutionary tree. Artists compare the fossil with modern animals that may have had similarities in anatomy and behaviour.

Archaeopteryx, the first feathered dinosaur. Photo: Mark Witton

However, one can never be sure what a prehistoric creature really looked like. When American paleoartist Emily Willoughby finished painting the Anchiornis huxleyi, a small dinosaur from China, she thought it was a perfect reconstruction. “But a week later, a new study came to light that described in fantastic detail the coloration that this animal’s feathers would have had. I had painted it brown and black but the study showed that it was black and white with a red crest like a woodpecker. I painstakingly repainted the animal to reflect the new findings.” She says that paleoartists have to come to terms with the fact that everything they draw may become outdated or inaccurate at some point.

More fossils are being discovered today than ever before, and palaeontologists have realised that good art helps their work reach a wider audience. Mark Paul Witton, a vertebrate palaeontologist and paleoartist from the U.K., says that paleoart is scientifically informed art. “At its most fundamental level, paleoart is not reconstructing extinct creatures as they were, it is reconstructing our ideas about them. This is what we thought about that creature when this art was constructed. We can never be 100% confident about our illustrations. We are visualising hypotheses, not recreating the creatures themselves.”