The Art of Extinct Animals: Pop-Up Palaeoart Exhibition

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On Wednesday 13th December King’s College London, in association with the Popularizing Palaeontology Workshop II, hosted a pop-up palaeoart exhibition “The Art of Extinct Animals” featuring some of the UK’s leading palaeontological artists who showcased their artwork and talked about how they go about reconstructing extinct animals and lost environments.

The one-off event engaged with questions like: How can artists reconstruct and recreate the life of the past? What challenges, techniques and difficulties are there in this process?  How does the history of palaeontological artwork affect current conventions in the field?  And what does palaeontological artwork tell us about the relations between science and art? The palaeoartists featured were Bob Nicholls, Mark Witton, Beth Windle and John Conway.

The first talk, delivered by Bob Nicholls, was ‘No, we don’t make it up! Palaeo-reconstruction explained from the inside-out.’

Bob used his reconstruction of Psittacosaurus as a case study to describe his process of building a physical representation of a dinosaur from its fossil, beginning with taking many detailed photographs and measurements of the fossil, including 3D prints to help reconstruct the skeleton and whatever traces remain of details of skin and soft tissue. He then considers the soft parts such as musculature and skin, drawing on evidence on the fossil for them, and considers the creature’s respiratory, digestive, circulatory, nervous and other systems and how these might have been laid out in the creature’s body.  We can draw on living creatures to help imagine this.  Bob stressed that it is important to overcome preconceptions of what the animal may have looked like; in other words, let the science speak.)

Bob creates palaeoart both traditionally (paint and brushes), using software and also as sculpture.  Psittacosaurus is a sculpture so the next steps were to create an armature and clay model which was then coated in silicone to preserve detail then in fibreglass to keep it stiff. The sculpture was then cast, after which it needs to be repaired and tidied up before the final stage of painting takes place.

When deciding which colours to use it can be difficult or impossible to know but scientific developments are progressing constantly and new techniques enable us to learn more from fossils than ever before.  Melanin preserved in fossils indicate likely colours.  A good deal can also be surmised by considering the environment inhabited by the creature, evidenced by the other fossils found alongside, trace fossils like coprolites and the geographical location of the creature at the time of death and likely climate. For example, countercolouration is determined by environment – the amount of light, affected by latitude and habitat, determines the degree, acuteness and position on the body of countercolouration. By placing the model in a similar environment to that it is thought to have inhabited you can assess and inform decisions on how to place countercolouration. Other considerations include carotenoids, porphyries, pterines and purines in fossils, which also inform colour, and patterns in nature.

Next to speak was Mark Witton, whose topic was ‘The science of extinct animal life appearance: why “what did it look like?” is not just a question for palaeoartists (or children).’

Mark observed that it is natural to look at a fossil and wonder “what did it look like?” – palaeoart is about answering that, not by making it up but through scientific research. Palaeoart is more than basic anatomy – lots of new science is constantly revealing more information. So is palaeoart only to inform the lay person/children (non-specialists)? Is it too unknowable/speculative/scientifically meaningless? Is it not relevant to other fields of science? Can palaeoart serve science? Yes. Mark took us through examples of how fossils lead to the artist considering what the remains tell us about the animal and therefore how to depict it.  Considering Arsinoitherium (an extinct horned mammal from the Eocene), the horn bone is not dense so what covered it to make it strong? Nature tells us this was likely a keratin sheath.  Keratin rarely fossilizes so we cannot see it in the fossil so this makes us ask “what did it look like?” and question how the horns were used. Different horn types exist in modern nature which can be compared to fossils for similarities and the type of headgear extrapolated.

Considering Triceratops, it is hard to predict shape of the horn from the bone fossil because it isn’t the complete story so you need to think beyond that and consider how horn grows. For triceratops the horn shape reconstruction tells us the shape changes with age as a result of how horn grows, adding layers within the horn and pushing the earlier layers out and up. Taking another example, Tanystropheus, the fossil might be interpreted as a marine reptile with a long neck or a shore-based angler.  Studying the skeleton more closely, tong cervical ribs and a large scapular area for muscular attachment gives power to lift and support the neck. Since this musculature and skeleton would not be necessary in water because water alone would provide sufficient support to the neck we can predict that the creature was a land based fisher.

So, the inquiring mind of the palaeoartist informs the artist how to build the creature up from bone to flesh, which habitat to place it in and how it interacts with other creatures in battle, mating and feeding.  At the same time this rigorous inquiry and the resultant art feeds back into science, providing new hypotheses and giving context to scientists to then inquire further too.

Finally, Mark drew audience attention to a forthcoming publication, “The palaeoartists handbook”. Which is out in 2018 and published by Crowood Press.

The next speaker was emerging palaeoartist Beth Windle, whose topic was ‘Illustrating Mammals from Specimens, Life & Location.’

Beth’s primary artistic focus is the Hyena, a creature known and rercognised by most people in its modern form but which would have looked dramatically different during the Pleistocene due to a far cooler climate.  Although genetically the same species as modern Hyenas, those of the Pleistocene would have borne thick, fluffy coats and predated on different animals to today.  Beth strives to understand intimately how this creature and its environment would have looked and portray this in her art.

Beth spoke with passion about how good palaeoart must be informed by drawing from real life observation rather than relying on past art or Google.  As an example, when it snowed recently Beth went out and sketched to capture the English Pleistocene-like environment.  She recommended artists visit museums and collections and handle and draw real specimens and visit zoos and wildlife parks and observe and draw from life and real animal movement. Whilst we might not know exactly what a creature looked like, if we can understand its build and it’s habitat, and we really know how to draw animals and landscapes which contain movement and life, we can create good palaeoart.

Finally the audience heard John Conway expound on ‘Paleoart is the Best Art.’

John is an artist who sometimes draws dinosaurs and sometimes doesn’t.  John elected to argue that palaeoart has the potential to be a mainstream art movement. John provided a complete – and very entertaining – art history lesson taking us from the beginnings of fine art right up to the modern day, arguing that art has already done everything from realism to abstraction so what is left to be done? Can palaeoart be fine art? Is palaeoart impeded by being representational?  Palaeontology provides a new subject for art. Yes, it is technical, but that’s not novel. Art has been technical, fantastical, realistic and everything palaeoart is.  So why hasn’t palaeoart become mainstream? Is it because it’s never been pitched as art for its own sake? Palaeoart can inform and entertain. So what is stopping it from transitioning from the stuff of science at one extreme and of childrens’ playgrounds at the other?  John didn’t answer the question but left it as food for thought.  One thing was certain; the audience at tonight’s event would certainly be glad to see more palaeoart!

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John Conway talks to the subject of palaeoart as a mainstream art form

Following the presentations the audience was able to return to the art displays to appreciate with fresh eyes the palaeoart on display by the four artists, including items available for purchase. All the artists were open to questions about their art and about palaeontology and some very interesting discussions ensued, from the likely function of the hind paddles of a plesiosaur to which creature of highly limited fossil evidence would the artists most like to be able to understand and portray.

Thank you to the event hosts and organisers, King’s College London and Popularizing Palaeontology Workshop II, and the artists for putting on such an interesting and informative event.

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