Paleontography: Illustrating Ancient Life

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    Paleontography: Illustrating Ancient Life

    It was sort of a ritual a few years ago: when I went to the local mega bookstore, I spared some time to go to the kids' section and peruse the dinosaur books just to see how things went on the illustration front. Lately, it got me more aggravated than anything else with the patent inaccuracies and poor aesthetics.
    The straw that broke the camel's back was seeing work from relatively well known illustrators remixed digitally into... abominations. I think that's the politically correct word for it. After seeing this... abject state of affairs, why bother with people who clearly just don't care enough?

    The reason why I'm here with all this rambling is a more proactive, dare say pedagogical, attitude and because, obviously, such professionals alluded to above hopefully don't represent the bulk of the profession. So if you are interested in the accurate-to-the-best-of-current-scientific-knowledge depiction of prehistoric life feel free to continue reading... and if you aren't, I'm not stopping you

    First a distinction: while there is such a thing as art inspired by paleontology, what is being discussed here is the application of scientific illustration to the depiction of extinct life forms: what "paleontography" means, in essence. This can be encapsulated in the sentence "Jurassic Park isn't a documentary". It's vicariously embarrassing that such a thing has to be said but, reading the rationalizations of people who prefer the aesthetics of JP's movie monsters to those of current depictions of dinosaurs, one can't but feel that it's a necessity.

    Paleontography requires, above all things, research skills. It's a bit disconcerting to hear of illustrators that the commissioner didn't provide references so for that reason the work is inaccurate. Saying you need them upfront goes a long way. Reminding your employer does too... Or you could knuckle down and go look for them yourself. Perhaps it's the latter way of working being so ingrained in me that I view such complaints as lacking in substance. Besides this is the day and age of the Internet and lifelong learning: better get with the times.
    You need to be moderately conversant on the science behind it: evolution is the thread that binds such disparate evidence into a coherent and consistent narrative. So being familiar with such concepts as phylogenetic bracketing and parsimony is important. There's also the realization "that Science knows it doesn't know everything, otherwise it would stop." A paleontographical illustration is, in more technical parlance, the visual representation of a scientific hypothesis[1.8MB *.pdf] on an aspect of the history of Life on Earth, normally one that is best supported by the evidence. As such it's prone to become obsolete or need revision as time goes by, as is exemplified by the recent flurry of studies on the colors of feathered dinosaurs. Those are, unfortunately, the rules of the game. Like the Red Queen said: "It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place." It's also what, in my view, keeps the field interesting and fresh: an illustrated hypothesis can also be seen as a sort of bet for bragging rights and a lot of us in the paleontographical community were overjoyed at the description of Yutyrannus as it fitted in nicely with the current phylogenetic bracket.

    I think this has gone long enough to be sufficiently informative. Be sure to check out the links. If you have any thoughts, questions or criticisms on this stance, be my guest

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    So,what's the problem? That, say, the T-Rex is still being illustrated as a "monster" instead
    of a monstrous chicken? Yuturannus is separated by the T-Rex by 60 MILLION years. If man
    can shed so much body hair and change so much in 2-4 million years, I think 60 is plenty
    time to shed those feathers. But even if it's proven that T-Rex had feathers, it will be
    illustrated. Hell, a mere 40 years ago is was realized that T-Rex's posture wasn't upright,
    rather parallel to the ground.

    I agree with you 100% that books that document paleontology should be accurate. I haven't
    seen any lately that aren't, based on accepted proof and theorems. From what I have seen,
    when the proof comes along the imaging in such books evolves and will do so based on
    evidence, as it constantly has. Now, if you have a recent example where a dinosaur, who's
    look is well established to be different, was illustrated in a non-realistic way, link us to it.
    It would be interesting to see it.

    On the other hand, I can sort of understand the laziness of either artist or client to do the
    research or to select a look based on what is popular, or based on what sells. Let's face
    it, turning something like the awesome T-Rex into a gargantuan bird, makes it look like a
    joke. Not many people would prefer to buy a book that shows huge meat eating turkeys.
    But you must understand that it takes a certain amount of love for the truth, to accept
    it. And there are many people out there who either don't have it, or just aren't interested
    enough to care, it's all entertainment. And, I think it doesn't hurt our world all that much,
    so long as it's stated.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Line View Post
    Let's face
    it, turning something like the awesome T-Rex into a gargantuan bird, makes it look like a
    joke. Not many people would prefer to buy a book that shows huge meat eating turkeys.
    Let's face it, you're wrong.


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    Quote Originally Posted by Elwell View Post
    Let's face it, you're wrong.
    You're saying that the major public's imagination would be captured by that? Most
    people I know are turned off by the mere suggestion that velociraptors had feathers!
    On the other hand it excites me.

    I didn't imply that the establishment of all therapods having feathers shouldn't be
    illustrated if that's proven. Quite the contrary, I'm on Dracontes' side. But don't you
    think it will affect book sales, at least short time?

    Your retort to my simple yet logical assumption would hold up if you backed it up. I
    didn't say I was right, nor that I am an authority and had any data, my logical
    assumption is based on the mere fact that what's "cool" sells, and a feathered T-Rex,
    no matter how you view it, is less "cool" than the current look. So please, explain
    why I am wrong, I'd be glad to accept my error. Besides, this is a discussion, not a
    contest of whit or status.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Line View Post
    Most people I know are turned off by the mere suggestion that velociraptors had feathers!
    I have never had that conversation, and I have some very strange friends..

    Your friends are either really awesome or very weird.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Line View Post
    You're saying that the major public's imagination would be captured by that? Most
    people I know are turned off by the mere suggestion that velociraptors had feathers!
    On the other hand it excites me.
    Let's face it, your friends are idiots. How about explaining to them why it's so exiting?


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    Quote Originally Posted by Flake View Post
    Your friends are either really awesome or very weird.
    I must say that most are very much both. But such conversations come up even
    with people who aren't my friends. I am very often saddened when I see people
    disappointed with the fact that some therapods have been shown to have feathers,
    nor are many people astonished by the fact that birds seem to have evolved from
    dinosaurs. Some have even considered it disgusting...what can I say.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Elwell View Post
    Let's face it, your friends are idiots. How about explaining to them why it's so exiting?
    Sure, most of them don't find it exciting, and believe me I try to explain it to most
    people, friends or not. But that doesn't counter how I would make my assumption,
    it's the statistical "sample" I have had available. I trust your friends find it exciting
    as we do, hence your disagreement?

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    Why?

    /flimsy argument deleted because I don't care.

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    Well, I suppose some people aren't fascinated by the way evolution seems to work. It's their right.

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    Biplane dinosaurs are way cooler than any featherless T. Rex.

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    Quote Originally Posted by QueenGwenevere View Post
    Biplane dinosaurs are way cooler than any featherless T. Rex.
    Microraptor gui...agreed.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Line View Post
    Let's face
    it, turning something like the awesome T-Rex into a gargantuan bird, makes it look like a
    joke. Not many people would prefer to buy a book that shows huge meat eating turkeys.
    Not turkeys. More like secretary birds. :-)

    Paleontography: Illustrating Ancient Life

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    More like giant moas. With teeth.

    Dunno, I think that would be pretty intimidating...

    Give it all time, artists are still working out a "look" for feathered dinosaurs. We're still in an awkward phase of feather fashions here.

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    Quote Originally Posted by blogmatix View Post
    Not turkeys. More like secretary birds. :-)

    Paleontography: Illustrating Ancient Life
    Pretty neat!

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    The thought of Megalodons and Lioplerodons lurking in the ocean will hunt my nightmares forever, so if velociraptors suddenly have chicken feathers and The T-Rex is a smelly slow-walking scavenger, then so be it, there´s no shortage of big and scary prehistoric creatures, biological inacuraccy is not a requirement for badass.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Line View Post
    You're saying that the major public's imagination would be captured by that? Most people I know are turned off by the mere suggestion that velociraptors had feathers!
    Well, personally I think that probably has something to do with the fact that from childhood, most adult people have lived knowing only about the featherless versions, have been captured by how awesome the dinosaurs were in Jurassic Parks and so on, and now when scientist come and say they didn't look anything like that at all, of course people won't find the new version as awesome as the ones that first blew their mind when they were ten years old. Same happens when people find out that velociraptors weren't as large as in the movie, they're disappointed because their vision that they had had for years had suddenly been changed, but not necessarily because small dinosaurs suck (at least I haven't met anyone who had hated the compsognatush dinosaurs just because they're small).

    But you know, I don't think that this will hold, as kids first learn about the feathered ones, I'd say they're still as amazed by dinosaurs as today's adults were when they learned about the featherless ones, which changes their viewpoint in their adulthood.

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    Quote Originally Posted by TinyBird View Post
    But you know, I don't think that this will hold, as kids first learn about the feathered ones, I'd say they're still as amazed by dinosaurs as today's adults were when they learned about the featherless ones, which changes their viewpoint in their adulthood.
    I agree, as a matter of fact, I feel this is how things will develop, but it takes
    time I feel, hence my opinion on a reduction in sales of such books for a time.

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    Let's face
    it, turning something like the awesome T-Rex into a gargantuan bird, makes it look like a
    joke.
    How do you figure? Most people don't think of most birds of prey as "jokey" and they're feathered. (Except maybe vultures, but again, it depends on how they're illustrated or even photographed. Sometimes even those awkward baldies look badass scary as hell.)

    Not many people would prefer to buy a book that shows huge meat eating turkeys.
    This would be about the most awesome thing ever--even though it's inaccurate to how Trex would probably have looked. I think kids in that gruesome+weird+=totally cool phase would love it, to be honest.

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    On the subject of ...well, getting to know your subject, I reccomend Introduction to the Study of Dinosaurs by Anthony J. Martin.

    It's the only educational Dinosaur book I have that I feel I can trust because the others are either more outdated or worse, have illustrations reminiscent of Crash Mcreery's T Rex to entice...kids? people who don't really want to learn? I dunno.

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    My response from a similar conversation on facebook a while back:
    "I challenge your contention that fuzzy ≠ badass: what's more badass, an elephant or a WOOLY FUCKING MAMMOTH!!!!!!"


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    Quote Originally Posted by Elwell View Post
    My response from a similar conversation on facebook a while back:
    "I challenge your contention that fuzzy ≠ badass: what's more badass, an elephant or a WOOLY FUCKING MAMMOTH!!!!!!"
    The decider: Is either one a zombie?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Slothboy3000 View Post
    or worse, have illustrations reminiscent of Crash Mcreery's T Rex to entice...kids? people who don't really want to learn? I dunno.
    Well, they could also have... this:
    Name:  Tyranno.jpg
Views: 326
Size:  158.5 KB
    Admittedly that's pretty old, but still that's also pretty damn goofy.

    Last edited by TinyBird; April 20th, 2012 at 06:27 AM. Reason: CA ate my image
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    Quote Originally Posted by habrok View Post
    How do you figure? Most people don't think of most birds of prey as "jokey" and they're feathered.
    Well, this is what some people's reactions are to this idea. I don't personally
    feel it's a joke, tho I might not have made it clear.

    Quote Originally Posted by Elwell View Post
    My response from a similar conversation on facebook a while back:
    "I challenge your contention that fuzzy ≠ badass: what's more badass, an elephant or a WOOLY FUCKING MAMMOTH!!!!!!"
    Both in my book. Bears are badass, and an ostrich from up close, no matter how
    silly it may look from afar, looks very dangerous! Still, I'm not expressing my
    opinion based on what I think is cool, it's the general conclusion I've reached
    based on people's opinions with whome I've talked to over the years on said or similar
    subjects. And as a result, I feel that it would affect the sales of said items in the
    short term. And if what Dracontes says happens, then maybe some publishers
    think so too. Not, that I agree with them.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Line View Post
    Both in my book. Bears are badass, and an ostrich from up close, no matter how
    silly it may look from afar, looks very dangerous!
    Ostriches are -very- dangerous indeed, just one kick is able to disembowl an
    adult human.

    But, our most dangerous animal is actually the hippo. Seriously. Out
    of the big 5, they are the ones responsible for the most deaths. They
    don't eat people, they just kill them.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Elwell View Post
    "I challenge your contention that fuzzy ≠ badass: what's more badass, an elephant or a WOOLY FUCKING MAMMOTH!!!!!!"
    Tigers are fuzzy. Case closed.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Line View Post
    I agree, as a matter of fact, I feel this is how things will develop, but it takes
    time I feel, hence my opinion on a reduction in sales of such books for a time.
    But if nobody puts these books out then kids won't discover them and will never get excited about feathered dinosaurs. Even if the child's parents don't buy the book because they don't think the dinosaurs look right, a library or a school might because it's accurate. If it's in the library or school some kids will read it and will think bird dinosaurs are awesome.

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    Tinybird - Haha! Oh god, I used to have a calendar that had those models on every page. I still find them hilarious. And is it just me or does the front view of that T Rex look like something from that Mario Bros movie?

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    Quote Originally Posted by Line View Post
    Not many people would prefer to buy a book that shows huge meat eating turkeys.
    This is the point where Doctor Grant produces a valuable fossil from nowhere and tries to disembowel you with it.

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    Quote Originally Posted by QueenGwenevere View Post
    Give it all time, artists are still working out a "look" for feathered dinosaurs. We're still in an awkward phase of feather fashions here.
    Yup. I don't doubt some of the earlier attempts (some by mediocre illustrators and 3D artists as Dracontes mentioned) turned people off feathered dinosaurs. A fairly steep learning curve, with results described as 'dinosaurs with feathers, not feathered dinosaurs', or even better: 'half-arsed velociraptors' and 'lizard-faced monsters wearing gorilla suits'.
    It's been getting better, though.

    ...which is only my opinion.
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    So I'm curious...a lot of folks with more knowledge of paleontology than me in here...IF T-Rex (and other Therapods I imagine) were well feathered why are those feathers not preserved in the fossil specimens, as they are in other specimens that are clearly well feathered?

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