The one and only Mark Witton takes to the stand today. Mark is of course a researcher in his own right and regular blogger on Pterosaur.net and indeed has a Flickr page full of his artwork and ramblings. In just a couple of years he has accelerated into the palaeoart scene with his works cropping up in all manner of papers and press releases and of course his model-making skills were put to the test with the creation of the great pterosaur exhibit of old London town. Here Mark divulges on his art and provides two brand new images as well! While best known for his computer generated / coloured images he’s a mean model-maker and pencil-sketcher too as you can see below (all images are Mark’s property etc.).
What first got you interested in dinosaurs and art?
I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t drawing dinosaurs and other prehistoric beasties, but my folks tell me that my interest in them was kicked off by what I termed ‘elebumps’, animals that I’ve recently been informed are actually called ‘elephants’. Kiddie dinosaur books provide a direct line to dinosaurs from elephants via mammoths, and, gradually, the saurian influence became stronger and I left the mammals behind. Like most kids, I had a strong interest in dinosaurs and drawing but I wasn’t obsessed: I drew all sorts of things like boats, people playing football, werewolves, H. R. Geiger’s aliens, Stan Winston’s Predators and other monsters doing nasty things to people. You know, like a normal child. When Jurassic Park was released in 1993 it blew my little nine year-old mind away. It was such an event for me that, even without knowing much about the story of the movie, I could barely contain my excitement about going to see it. The press bits we saw on TV showed but the most amazing-looking dinosaurs ever: Dinomania exploded all over the innards of my brain. I was so enthusiastic about it that I was decked out in a black Jurassic Park T-shirt and baseball cap when my folks took me to see a screening. From that point on, dinosaurs more-or-less ruled my pictorial output, and Tyrannosaurus-themed Jurassic Park images became a firm favourite. In fact, for much of the next decade and a bit, I drew little else than palaeontological-themed pictures: it was only at the age of 23 or so that I expanded my horizons into other types of drawing and illustration, which I really enjoy now. In fact, I don’t really do palaeoart for fun anymore: it’s far more of a work thing. That’s not to say that I don’t enjoy it, but I like being free from the scientific restraint that is inherit in palaeoart. Sometimes you just want to draw a giant amputee with an enormous head straddling a block of flats, after all.
When did you become a palaeoartist?
Oh, I’m not sure I’ve ever really made it that far. There’s no comparing my work with the giants of palaeoart, the Knights, Burians, Skrepnicks, Halletts, Pauls and Reys of the world: their art is so beyond my own, technically at least, that calling us all ‘palaeoartists’ seems like an insult to their work. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt like a real palaeoartist: I throw my pictures or models together with minimal time and patience and really don’t have the foggiest what I’m doing. I genuinely feel like a phony: you must’ve got the wrong E-mail address when you asked me to do this interview. I’m waiting for the day when people finally wise-up and throw me out of the palaeoartists club. They’ll take my caricature off the wall and everything.
If you’re forcing an answer out of me, though, it would only be relatively recently that I’ve even started to feel like a genuine palaeoartist. Though I’ve been creating images that could be termed ‘palaeoart’ since I was old enough to hold a crayon (though, granted, my output as a three year old was marginally less scientifically credible than something I may produce now), I saw it up as little more than a hobby until around 2005 when Darren Naish asked me to draw a PR image for the Martill and Naish (2006) work on growth in Tupuxuara. That marked some sort of recognition of my artwork from my peers and was the first commission I undertook, so that would probably be the closest I had to any ‘beginnings’ as a recognised palaeoartist. That was around four years ago now, so I would’ve been 22 or thereabouts. I do look back on that picture and cringe a little now: it’s so basic and full of problems, but it took me ages! I do feel I’ve developed a lot as an artist since then: my work now pebbledashes the earliest stuff I started posting online. The style’s changed a lot, too: I produce things that look more like real paintings now. Rather scruffy, untidy paintings, mind, but paintings all the same.
What is your favourite piece of dinosaur art that you have produced?
That’s hard to say, really, as I’m generally never entirely satisfied with anything I produce. My pictures are generally drawn in pretty tight time constraints and mostly declared finished when the deadline has arrived and I can’t tinker with them any longer. Hence, there’re always some things that I’d like to do more with. Generally speaking, I’m also happier with pictures I’ve drawn more recently than those done in the more distant past: both my knowledge of animal form and abilities as an artist have improved over the years, and I think my more recent work shows it. I’m probably happiest with some images I’ve been generating for some new books, including a murky scene with hypothetical protopterosaurs and a panoramic view of three ornithocheirids. However, my rare forays into dinosaur art are some of my favourites, too: the Diplodocus herd with craned necks I illustrated for Mike Taylor, Matt Wedel and Darren Naish is one of my favourites (shown below). Sculpture-wise, I’m quite keen on the head of my giant azhdarchid pterosaur, Bamofo. He had a lot of character in that 2.5 m long noggin of his: a knackered left eyelid, lots of scarring along his beak, a fractured headcrest and more. He looked more alive than the other pterosaur models I’ve made, like he had some real history. I’d like to do more with sculpture, too, but finding the time and money to do that is even harder than it is to paint anything.
Who is your favourite palaeoartist?
There are some great palaeoartists in the modern day, but we owe a lot to the real pioneers of this art, some of whom also happen to be the pioneers of vertebrate palaeontology: the likes of Georges Cuvier, Richard Owen, Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins and Henry de la Beche. These guys not only produced the first pieces of palaeoart but also established the methodologies that we all follow now. For instance, we all think of tracing soft-tissue outlines the restored skeletons of fossil vertebrates as a relatively recent invention, but Cuvier was doing this at the turn of the nineteenth century. This may not seem like a big deal, but this requires estimating the size and distribution of muscles over a skeleton, a crucial process in palaeoart. This was a big deal in the early 19th century, too: Cuvier was apparently rather shy with his peers about his extrapolations. Owen, cad that he was, recognised the possibility of using palaeoart to bring palaeontology to the public: lay people can appreciate bones and skeletons to a certain extent, but a reconstructed living creature is far more informative to people who don’t know how to ‘read’ anatomy. The installation of the dinosaur models in Crystal Palace is a real piece of ingenuity and one that we’ve merely imitated repeatedly since then. Likewise, Hawkins was the model palaeoartist that left footsteps for us to follow in: his grasp of anatomy and natural history were what made his images and models believable, and the same knowledge has marked the most successful palaeoartists since then. We can laugh a little now at the crazy looking fossil reptiles and mammals that Owen and Hawkins erected in Crystal Palace, but their work is as scientifically credible as our own tentative reconstructions of poorly known animals today: given the knowledge of the time, they did a damn good job. And Hawkins didn’t fudge the art, either: his models, fanciful as they are, look like convincing animals that could exist.
Of modern work, though, I particularly like those combining scientific accuracy with strong, distinctive styles. Todd Marshall’s work is ace in having such a unique, almost sinister atmosphere: everything’s dripping with moisture, his animals are battered and the landscapes are dark and uninviting. At the other end of the style spectrum, John Conway’s stuff is really fantastic, too: it’s marked by an unmistakeably clean, almost art deco finish, unusual concepts and amazing detail. Academics should really be using John’s stuff in PR work: it’s really distinctive, attention grabbing stuff (I’m only saying this, of course, so he lets me borrow his sofa when I’m in London again). Both show their animals in very interesting, dynamic ways: a lot of palaeoart is very static, with animals standing around looking like they’re waiting for direction. I’ve been enjoying a lot of Matt van Rooijen’s work, too: I like the fact you can actually see his paint strokes, and his colour palate is very convincing. And I must mention Carl Buell’s work for its enormous detail and craftsmanship: his paintings look like he’s paused time for long enough to draw every crinkle an animal’s skin, every eyelash, every grain of sand they’re standing on. Amazing stuff. Uh, that’s quite a long answer, isn’t it?
What is your favourite dinosaur/archosaur?
Lacusovagus and Tupuxuara deliradamus. Got to love your own kids, right?
Actually, there’s no archosaurs that really stand head and shoulders above the others in my eyes, I’m afraid. I’m never very good at choosing a favourite anything: I don’t have particular favourite films or songs or anything like that, just collections of them that I think are cool. Start to find out details about any archosaur, or most fossil animals at all for that matter, and they suddenly become equally interesting. This can be very frustrating at times as your interest is often not matched by the material available about them: I think we’re all in agreement that most fossil animals are under represented in books and illustrations. All except bloody theropods, of course. I theropoded-out, man: they’re real science and media hogs. There you go: you can have the answer to my least favourite dinosaur group: theropods, because their feathery hides eclipse most other interesting finds so enormously.
Is there any animal you would like to paint but have not?
There are some ‘classic’ pterosaur species that I’ve really neglected, a massive oversight considering my portfolio is almost entirely comprised of pterosaurs. I’ve got azhdarchids coming out of my ears, but I’ve never painted Rhamphorhynchus properly: it’s the best-known non-pterodactyloid pterosaur and I’ve never painted an entire one, just its head. Likewise, I’ve never properly painted a campylognathoidid nor the more interesting members of Ctenochasmatidoidea like Cycnorhamphus or Ctenochasma. I should be generating images of at least some of these forms soon, though.
What do you think is the most important part of good palaeoart?
The success of a palaeoart piece is determined through both its scientific and artistic merit, and the science is often the easier part to get right. With a complete skeleton, we can probably assume the rough body contours of an extinct animal to a reasonable degree of accuracy. Our record of soft-tissues is improving markedly, too, so even the detailed external anatomy of some long-dead animals can be restored in some detail. The science of palaeoart, then, simply relies on paying attention to the data available on given taxa: proportions, soft-tissues where known, footprint and trackway data and whathaveyou. We’re going to have some of this data superseded by other finds later, but we can definitely be ‘correct’ when we’re putting paint on the canvas.
Thing is, anyone who can use a ruler and a pencil can bring this information together and knock up a basic reconstruction of an extinct animal: in some respects, it almost has more in common with technical drawing than it does artistry. It has, indeed, led to the Dreaded Recurrence of Flat Views flowing through a fair amount of palaeoart: there’s a whole bunch of palaeoart images with dead-on lateral or anterior views of animal heads or bodies. Inspired, I suppose, by Paul-esque reconstructions of skeletons in multiple views, they look more like technical reconstructions dropped on top of painted landscapes than natural scenes. They’re great bits of art, mind: they look like 2D cutouts arranged on a stage, with even the backgrounds having a similar theatre-set feel to them, but they’re too stylised to persuade the viewers, even if only in a minor way, that the artist was actually there, witnessing these ancient scenes himself. This is where the artistic prowess of the best palaeoartists comes in: they take the schematic technical work of scientists and turn it into something dynamic and vital. Something composited into a realistic environment and interacting convincingly with other animals. Purely artistic skills – a sense of composition, use of shading, the position of the PoV, the colour palate – are what gives the picture presence and really grab the imagination of the viewer. Even the most striking, fantastic-looking critters will lose their effect in artwork if they’re poorly lit, positioned awkwardly within the frame or postured in an obscuring way. In this respect, palaeoart is identical to other forms of representative art: the artist needs to understand the form of their subject, how they would appear in a realistic environment, and then wrap it all up in a dramatic, stylish way. Think about John Gurche’s work, for instance: his knowledge of form, use of light and depth of field makes it look like he’s photographing enormous animals from 75 million years ago: it’s like he’s there, man. If you can trick your audience into that (and his work did, indeed, do this to a younger version of myself), you know you’ve done your job. That’s not to say there’s no room for individual style, but the key is to be convincing.
And, typically, I could’ve written the last six words of that paragraph at the start and saved everyone bags of time. Oh well.