Technical drawings

A much underappreciated area of palaeontology this and one I should probably have mentioned months if not years ago, but the opportunity arises so here we go. Emma Schachner (who’s pursuing a PhD with Peter Dodson) was kind enough to let me use some of here pictures from an upcoming paper on the basal iguanodontid Tenonotsaurus to illustrate this post for which I am most grateful (and you can see more of Emma’s work here).

An obviously important part of palaeontological papers is illustrating them to show off your ideas. Pictures can indeed be worth thousands of words and when you are striving for the accuracy and clarity that is an anatomical description they can be essential. Obviously if you have a specimen then a photo is a damned good start in terms of getting across what it looks like, and how big it is etc. but it is not the only way, and technical drawings are often as good if not better.

The foot and lower leg of Fodonyx (left) and reconstruction of the tibia (right).

While obviously there is no set terminology and continuum of levels of detail and so on, I’m here tying to refer specifically to work that is designed to clarify and show off various features of a specimen. That is, something more than just a very simple outline with minimal shading or other features being recorded (like this lower leg and foot of Fodonyx on the left, contrasting with the technical reconstruction of the tibia on the right). While photos are of course rather by definition exceptionally accurate renditions of fossils, they do have their drawbacks and that is where technical drawings can come in.

Tenontosaurus ulna. Courtesy Emma Schachner.

For starters it is incredibly hard to light and shoot some things well and certainly some institutes or researchers lack the facilities to do this, but pretty much anyone can find a pen and paper. Secondly, some things can be cryptic in photos – no matter how well shot it is, a black coloured bone in a black matrix will not reveal it’s subtleties well as contrast goes out the window. Drawing this in clean black and while can clear up this problem, and using different styles or pen sizes etc. can help distinguish between breaks and sutures, or show where matrix is adhered to the bone or whatever. One can also use techanical drawings to make things in a sense ‘more real’ – by highlighting important features of a bone or leaving out the unimportant or distracting to make the image clearer. Similarly, while restorations of broken and distorted bones can be done in a simple manner, where the morphology is important or complex, a more detailed image can really help.

Tenontosaurus phalanges. Courtesy Emma Schachner.


I think the ability to produce these is much undervalued especially as now often perfectly acceptable images can be produced pretty easily on a computer by someone with minimal artistic ability. However, good or great drawings really add to a paper or description and it would be a shame if this was lost to us. I still produce all of my own images like this by hand, and while I’m not a patch on someone like Emma, I do think that they are generally better than most electronically produced ones. Many students even have access to professional artists and can end a higher degree without having drawn a single bone which I can’t help but think will be a problem for them one day. Sure we have to move with the times, but I think that drawings are still much better than computer generated outlines and this is something we should make an effort to hang on to.

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16 Responses to “Technical drawings”

  1. 1 Tor Bertin 02/12/2009 at 10:47 am

    Very much agreed. I stumbled upon a couple of images done by Robert Boessenecker from MSU, and was utterly blown away. The level of visible detail displayed through those kinds of drawings (including those you showed, which are quite remarkable) is better than just about every photo I’ve seen in official descriptions.

    Though a part of me thrills in seeing the actual colors and forms of the fossil in question, I really feel that for the kind of detailed comparative work needed for people unable to see the specimens in question it’s one of the best mediums there is.

  2. 2 Johnny 02/12/2009 at 11:05 am

    You’re spot on Dave – and there’s no better way to learn a critter’s nuances than to spend a few hours drawing it! Computer images are fast and easy, but so much more can be gained/learned from drawing.

    • 3 David Hone 02/12/2009 at 11:14 am

      Well I like to think I’m right the vast majority of the time on here, but thanks for the comment! 😉

    • 4 mattvr 02/12/2009 at 6:51 pm

      Emma’s work is great.
      You mention creating ‘computer images’ in a disparaging way. Are you referring to manipulated photos?
      I’m curious as there’s an array of ways I can imagine generating such images, including using a computer in exactly the way Emma uses pencil and paper.

      • 5 David Hone 02/12/2009 at 8:23 pm

        Well I’m really not the one to ask. However, as a general and specific answer, when trying to generate soemthing closer to the tibia I feature at the top of the post that I did, rather than soemthing very in depth like Emma’s work, many people will simply find a good photo and trace it in Photoshop or something simialr and then add in some minor shading or add lines for the key features etc. Beyond that I don’t know as I’m not much of a whizz with computer graphics programs and Ive not seen anyone prodce anything better than the above example using a computer.

    • 6 John Conway 04/12/2009 at 1:28 am

      Well, on the computer front, I don’t think it’s so much that you can’t produce high quality technical illustrations, but that just about anybody can produce more or less adequate ones very quickly.

      I’ve used computers to make technical drawings like Emma Schachner’s (though they’re not as good, because I’m not _that_ good). Take a look:

      It has the advantage of being traced from photos, and (I hope) the same clarity you get from traditional illustrations. It is also infinitely correctable, if that comes in to the equation.

      • 7 David Hone 04/12/2009 at 8:37 am

        That was pretty much what I was trying to say John! Thanks for saying it much better than me. Computers are not bad, merely that one can (I think) often do better by hand, but they are a great leveller in allowing anyone to produce something adequate quickly.

      • 8 mattvr 05/12/2009 at 3:06 pm

        Thanks, this is an interesting example as it certainly looks quite ‘traditional’. It really does come down to the tools just being tools.
        As an artist I think there is a distinct advantage working from ‘life’ rather than from photos.

  3. 9 CQC 02/12/2009 at 1:48 pm

    Oh, you know Emma too? I dug with her in North Dakota.

    • 10 David Hone 02/12/2009 at 2:39 pm

      She was picking up a Masters in Bristol while I was working on my PhD. If you hang around in vert palaeo long enough, everyone goes through Bristol it seems – the list of people is really quite staggering.

  4. 11 Roger 02/12/2009 at 7:31 pm

    All very true, particularly if your artist happens to be both technically gifted and have a lot of experience in anatomy, like Peter Trusler does ( or

    Of course, there are plenty of published specimen drawings (especially in the realm of Mesozoic birds, I find) that are virtually useless…

  5. 15 casey holliday 02/12/2009 at 11:56 pm

    My advisor -strongly- encouraged picking up illustration as a skill. I’ve got reams of poor, bloody sketches made during dissections, and photos of dissections always suck, no matter what, so don’t submit pictures of dissections without good interpretive drawings. But for fossils, good illustration is really important. Its sorta easy to get good photos of whole specimens. But up close, you start losing finer details. I spent a few years trying to get good photographs of the lateral walls of braincases, sticking my coolpix 4500 into orbits, subtemporal fossae, lateral temporal fossae, trying to get appropriate lighting etc. But it wasn’t until I sat down and learned how to stipple in Corel that I was really able to convey the morphology necessary to publish a story. I can’t drag a pen on paper to save my life, so I’d trace a photo, but then embellish it with dots, erase heavier lines, etc…its easy to erase mistakes, modify, make that one foramen/bump/character pop out of the drawing. It did drive my labmates crazy listening to me click away for days on end. But, I’m pretty happy with the result:


    sorry, self promotion

    which reminds me, i’ve been putting off stippling a new croc sp. braincase for a while.

    • 16 David Hone 03/12/2009 at 9:07 am

      Noting wrong with the occasional bit of self promotion Casey (look around the blog!). I should add that I’m not criticising people who do their work in computers, merely that in general, I prefer the hand drawn stuff. Still, the important thing is the information content and one can generate that with a number of perfectly suitable methods when it comes to producing ‘drawings’.

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