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April 19th, 2012 #1
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