Interview with Julius Csotonyi

The first single-fingered dinosaur, Linhenykus, commissioned to publicize the discovery (2010).

Today I’m delighted to bring you an art interview with Julius Csotonyi. I first came across his art relatively recently after he ended up doing a lovely life reconstruction of Linhenykus and this sent me to discovering his work. I recently got in touch to ask to borrow a bit of that piece for my new blog banner and casually suggested he might like to join the ever-growing list of artists on here and he was most keen. So keen in fact I’m rather buried in his artworks, so enjoy! As usual this art is Julius’ and should not be reproduced etc. without his permission as he retains the copyright.

A digital painting of the Gondwana giant Futalognkosaurus (2007).

How long have you been an artist?

I’ve been at it for as long as I can remember. In fact, referring to some “artwork” that my parents have held onto from my larval years, they would claim that I’ve been an artist for longer than my memory can reach. Thankfully, my style has improved a bit since I was three. Although I took an introductory university art course in which I had a lot of fun exploring different media, most of my practice came from years of work on my own. I’ve always had an (almost) pathological attention span when it comes to observing nature, and I was fortunate enough to have access to a very large rural backyard while I was growing up, where I could go exploring for wildlife — myriad insects, conifers, birds, moss, the occasional skunk. So, aside from a few close calls, this environment provided me with a very rich visual reference for drawing and painting the living portion of the natural world.

A velociraptor-like dromaeosaurid from Mongolia, Linheraptor (2010).

It also fueled my interest in science, which ultimately earned me an MSc in ecology and environmental biology, a PhD in microbiology and nearly a dozen scientific papers covering everything from pollination-seed predation mutualisms in semi-deserts to novel modes of anaerobic metabolism of toxic semi-metals by bacteria in deep ocean hydrothermal vents. At the moment, although palaeoart has sequestered most of my time, I am still working on some manuscripts for publication, and I also maintain a blog, “Evolutionary Routes“. Although my scientific background developed mostly in parallel with and disjointedly from my paleoart career, I nonetheless have relied on it to help me to restore prehistoric ecosystems as accurately as I can.

Restoration of the Campanian Montana landscape in which the mummified Brachylophosaurus lived. Commissioned for the HMNS exhibit “Dinomummy CSI: Cretaceous Science Investigation” (2008).

How long have you been producing palaeoart?

Like many kids, I possessed a rabid fascination with dinosaurs in my early instar years. In fact, my parents interpret my first drawing to be a galliform bird (monophyletic with dinosaurs!), but this interpretation may well depend on the orientation of the drawing. Unlike many kids, I never ‘grew out’ of my interest in all things prehistoric and/or archosaurian, but rather this enthusiasm has stayed with me, grade school to grad school and beyond.

Even though my interest in dinosaurs coevolved with my enthusiasm for art, I consider that I took my first serious foray into palaeoart in about 1998, when I became involved in producing artwork live in certain art galleries in Edmonton. This helped me get a lot of practice with various media, but I really began my palaeoart career commercially in 2005, when I was approached to help illustrate an dinosaur encyclopedia by Dougal Dixon.

A post-mortem restoration of a Brachylophosaurus that would become a mummy. Commissioned for the HMNS exhibit “Dinomummy CSI: Cretaceous Science Investigation” (2008). This piece won the 2010 Lanzendorf Paleoart Prize for Two-Dimensional Art.

Everything just felt like it spiralled out of control from there. After a few more gigs with Anness Publishing, I was approached by a number of book publishers and museums. The first major museum project, with the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology in Drumheller, Canada (in my home province of Alberta), was spine-tinglingly exciting. I could scarcely believe that I was actually going to be producing works of art that would be displayed in such a prestigious museum. Since then, I’ve had a number of projects with other institutions and researchers, gradually increasing in size. These have thus far culminated in three of my most ambitious projects, all opening within the last two years: (1) several life-sized murals of dinosaurs and inhabitants of prehistoric oceans for the new Dinosaur Hall at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History (2011) ( ); (2) most of the murals for the new 36,000-square-foot Hall of Paleontology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science (2012); (3) the life-sized murals of dinosaurs and their environments for the exhibit entitled “Ultimate Dinosaurs: Giants from Gondwana” for the Royal Ontario Museum (2012). These last projects really sapped me of my time, as some of the murals measured over 100 feet long and 15 feet tall. My new specialty increasingly seems to be the production of life-sized illustrations of prehistoric life at what feels like breakneck speed.

This year, I also feel extremely grateful to be featured as one of the artists in a book that has received some great reviews in palaeontology/palaeoart circles: “Dinosaur Art: The World’s Greatest Paleoart“, edited by Steve White. It contains eighteen of my pieces, including the Brachylophosaurus image that won the 2010 Lanzendorf PaleoArt Prize for Two-Dimensional Art. It’s a real privilege to be included alongside 9 highly talented paleoartists, some of whom were my childhood heroes. Another unusual project that I’ve completed this year is a coin design for the Royal Canadian Mint. It felt surreal to see the collector quarter dollar piece with my Pachyrhinosaurus lakustai painting featured on The Colbert Report, owing to its most unusual feature: the glow-in-the-dark pigments with which the skeletal layer of the image was applied. Although it was quickly sold out, other prehistoric animal designs are on the way.

Triassic scene, featuring Placerias and Smilosuchus. Commissioned for the HMNS Hall of Paleontology (2012).

What first got you interested in dinosaurs and art?

My parents obligingly bought me several children’s books on dinosaurs and other prehistoric life when I was starting grade school, and I treasured those volumes. I know the artwork in them influenced me a lot. My favourite children’s book at the time was entitled simply “Dinosaurs” and was lavishly illustrated by Peter Zallinger, son of the Peabody Museum legend. When I was about 5, my mother drew me a wonderful Diplodocus based on a piece in this book; it meant the world to me, and showed me that one could draw dinosaurs without having to be a ‘famous’ illustrator.

Another one of my earliest memories of dinosaur art revolves around the opening of the Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology in 1982. One of their advertising brochures sported their now familiar running Albertosaurus logo. I recall that this dynamic portrayal of a dinosaur inspired me to draw a detailed, zebra-striped running tyrannosaur, a piece of which I was very proud because it worked out particularly well. That initial success highly motivated me to continue to draw dinosaurs because I felt that for the first time, I could handle this subject. I’m still learning how, and I always get excited when something goes right.

Permian scene in Texas, featuring pelycosaurs and other early tetrapods. Commissioned for the HMNS Hall of Paleontology (2012).

What is your favourite piece of palaeo art that you have produced?

The answer to this question keeps changing, because I become more and more bothered by inaccuracies or artistic inadequacies of my previous pieces as time passes. Having said that, one of my favourite pieces is currently the Permian scene that I created for the HMNS’s Hall of Paleontology (above). Despite the fact that so many of the predators are gape-mouthed and feeding (a common complaint about palaeoart), what I like about it is (1) the inclusion of so much new material from bone beds in Texas, (2) that its dynamic, crowded fauna may actually be seasonally representative of some of the mud flats of the time (so many museum murals become overcrowded if the desired number of taxa are illustrated to support the exhibit), (3) the way that the scene is backlit, which I feel works reasonably well despite the fact that it was challenging to pull off, (4) the centralizing composition, which is intended to keep the viewer’s eyes flitting around within the scene. Similarly, I am pleased with the 150-foot-long Laurasia mural for the ROM’s 2012 “Ultimate Dinosaurs” exhibit and I still think that the 64-foot-long Cretaceous mural works pretty well that I was commissioned to create for the HMNS in 2008 for their exhibit “Dinomummy CSI: Cretaceous Science Investigation”(seen above).

Acrocanthosaurus stalking Sauroposeidon, created for the Museum of the Red River, Idabel, OK (2007).

And for different reasons, I think that I will always be pretty proud of the Acrocanthosaurus that has stalked the title page of my web site for the last few years (above), and which won “Best in Show” at the Museum of the Red River in Oklahoma in 2007, for which I created it. I feel partial to it because, unlike much of the photographic compositing techniques that I employ in so much of my recent pieces, the Acrocanthosaurus piece is a true painting. Sure, it was my first digital painting, but despite the computer-based medium, its creation entiled much of the same painting skills that I would draw upon if I were handling acrylic or oil paints. I wish to increase the representation of such paintings in my portfolio; no artist should compromise their traditional painting skills, even (or especially) if they move to an exclusively digital platform.

The first neoceratopsian from South Korea, Koreaceratops, commissioned to publicize the discovery (2011).

Who is your favourite palaeoartist or piece of palaeoart?

Oh, this is a tough one to answer, not only because there are so many wonderful styles out there which all deserve praise, but also because it necessitates a bit of favoratism, to which we humans don’t respond well. So, (1) I cannot answer with a single choice, and (2) I will undoubtedly kick myself after the fact that I have forgotten to include many impressive artists in this list, and I apologize in advance to those whom I thus offend. So, a few of my favourite palaeoartists include (with only some of the reasons for each): the team of Bob Walters and Tess Kissinger for their spectacular murals, their vibrant palette and great use of mixed techniques; Raul Martin for his splendid mastery of lighting and depiction of anatomy in three dimensions; Andrey Atuchin, for his gorgeous and efficient painting technique, Bob Nicholls for his amazingly realistic marine imagery; Emily Willoughby, who is quickly rising into the spotlight with her extraordinarily painted feathered dinosaurs; Vlad Konstantinov for his splendid 3-D models; Peter Trussler, for his jaw-droppingly realistic paintings; Davide Bonadonna, for his beautifully accurate dinosaurs and superb painting style; John Sibbick for his amazing level of detail and realistic painting of textures; Doug Henderson for his wonderful ability to place animals into realistically plant-rich environments and unparalleled skill with pastels; and Mark Hallett, who coined the term “paleoart” and produced some wonderful masterpieces of it. Hallett’s elegant Mamenchisaurus mother and calf crossing a flood plain under an evening sky pregnant with rain is still one of the most sublime and awe-inspiring paleoart pieces that I have ever laid eyes upon.

Restoration of the Campanian Montana landscape from the Judith River formation in which the mummified Brachylophosaurus lived. Commissioned for the HMNS exhibit “Dinomummy CSI: Cretaceous Science Investigation” (2008).

What is your favourite dinosaur / archosaur?

This is also a difficult one to answer. I have very broad interests that span not only dinosaurs and archosaurs, but also the full diversity of species in all the prehistoric theaters that earth has exhibited. It’s the visualization of weird and almost alien landscapes that drives my passion for palaeoart. It’s the difference of prehistoric ecosystems from today that fascinates me. However, I have always been drawn to bipeds, and particularly the theropods because of their lithe, elegant morphology. A body requires a certain efficiency of form to balance effectively on two legs, and bipedal predators seem to take this to the extreme. We still see it in birds today. The tyrannosaurids are one of my favourite groups, but not Tyrannosaurus per se. I favour the smaller, more slender genera such as Gorgosaurus. I also take an interest in the bizarre, in all areas of biology. (Look up pyrosomes to get an idea of how bizarre the close relatives of chordates can get.) So the relatively bizarre theropods have always caught my eye, and I have a soft spot for the abelisaurids. Those odd little flaps of arms, squashed and often highly rugose faces, horns either over eyes or at the tops of their heads; these derived features scream beauty to me.

Miocene China scene, with Hipparion, Chilotherium and Mammut. Commissioned for the HMNS Hall of Paleontology (2012).

Is there any animal you would like to paint but have not?

Lots. A few include Yutyrannus, Sciurumimus, Guanlong, Tiktaalik, Kosmoceratops, Diabloceratops, many of the Cambrian fauna from the Burgess Shale and other sites. I hope to have some of these taxa illustrated before too long. And speaking of new paintings…I am about to launch online print sales of my work with a link on my website, which I have not done in any serious measure before.

A before-and-after image showing the alterations (top) I made to the original (bottom) following research on plumage coloration of Anchiornis (2009).

What do you think is the most important part of good palaeoart?

With my fascination for science, my goal — had I the means — would be to facilitate time travel, to allow my audience to step through to the past. Since my time machine prototype development work has hit a bit of a snag, I work at the next best thing for now: to endeavor to create photorealistic palaeontological reconstructions of the landscapes that we would expect to see had we the capability to launch out timeship into the past. As a result, above all else, I feel that palaeoart must strive for scientific accuracy. There are many forms of art whose intent is to be expressive of emotion or of esoteric concepts, but the subset called palaeoart has occupied a niche whose primary appeal is its provision of visual support to scientific investigation. Don’t get me wrong; I think that the most successful palaeoart is often also highly emotionally evocative. But that’s a close secondary goal for me. One of the consequences of this point of view is that when rigorous research opens a window on some area of knowledge that was previously obscured, I must be willing to revise my work when possible to be consistent with the new results. For example, when Li et al. (2010) mapped the color patterns of the feathered troodontid Anchiornis based on its melanosomes, I repainted my original red-feathered depiction to match what is now known of its plumage coloration (above).

Having stated my position on the importance of scientific accuracy of paleoart, scientific accuracy alone is not enough for palaeoart that intends to suspend the viewer’s disbelief of standing in a prehistoric ecosystem. For this kind of realism, one must also develop a good grasp of perspective, the physics of light, momentum and elasticity, and concepts of composition, to list a few. Applying all of these successfully at once is no small task, and I will let you know when I feel that I have gotten the hang of them.

The earliest and smallest ceratopsians known from North America, Unescoceratops and Gryphoceratops, commissioned to publicize the discovery (2012).

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