The art of Zhuchengtyrannus

Zhuchengtyrannus life reconstruction by Bob Nicholls

I have my longtime Musings friend Bob Nicholls to thank (well, we did pay him too) for the superb art of Zhuchengtyrannus that has accompanied the release of this work into the media. The original and Bob’s pencil sketch will soon hang proudly on the wall of my office (they’re being framed right now).

What Bob has produced is, I think, quite beautiful, but there are a couple of features in there which the sharp-eyed (or overly nit-picky) may have spotted that are worth discussing as they illustrate some of the issues of producing such a work and how things can be done to highlight certain issues or produce an effect for the reader. While much can, and has, been written and discussed about the various aspects of palaeoart (or palaeontography if you prefer) this is a nice opportunity to go a little further.

First off there is one too few teeth in the dentary. This is basically my fault (or if you want to be more generous to me, that of the authors collectively). We originally misinterpreted the broken small tooth socket at the front of the dentary, that many tyrannosaurs have, as being part of a very large first tooth. That is, the first and second sockets were smushed together and we thought they were just a single large one till a referee correctly spotted this error and we corrected it in the paper. By this point Bob had already turned in his work and it was too late to do anything about it. To be more accurate, we never told him! So if you’re reading this now Bob, feel absolved of any blame, but I didn’t tell you because I felt guilty and didn’t want you to have to go to any trouble to correct it and assumed that no-one would know or care (though I’m rather destroying the first notion by writing this).

Of course, if anything the teeth are too correct in that (first dentary tooth apart!) they are all there. Theropods shed their teeth quite regularly and it would be normal for one or two to be broken or only half exposed in the jaw rather than a nice neat row as seen here. This of course introduces the main point I wanted to make in this post: this artwork (like many others) is supposed to be illustrative. It’s created to communicate something about the animal as a living organism to people based on the fossil bones. Many people seeing this would likely be hindered, not helped, by such details and would be wondering why the teeth were uneven and oddly positioned. This artwork, (with the Musings being the only likely exception) will not be accompanied by expert commentary on theropod anatomy and physiology and was destined for consumption by the general public so keeping things simple was the order of the day. (Though for the record, Bob and I never discussed this, his draft had the teeth like this and I thought it fine to keep them like that).

Zhuchengtyrannus maxillary sculpting. From Hone et al. in press

Similar to this, the sculpting on the maxilla (seen here) is particularly prominent, and while this is a common feature of adult tyrannosaurines, to my eye at least, it’s a little bit more pronounced than I’ve seen in other tyrannosaur specimens. As such I asked Bob to emphasise this in the artwork. In reality, the muscle and fat layers and even the skin itself were probably thick enough that looking at the living animal this would be invisible, or at least rather more subtle than seen here. But again, the point here was to emphasise a characteristic of the bones in the art – to provide an obvious point of reference for someone who knows nothing of dinosaurs to make the connection between the bones and the life reconstruction.

I can see that not everyone might be happy with this. But my take would be that you have to tailor the picture to the audience and the level of information that can go with it. In emphasising the sculpting and keeping the teeth regular there is nothing especially odd or outlandish about this. It is accurate and reasonable (plausible if not probable if you like) and deviates only a little from what you might consider a perfectly accurate or perfectly probably reconstruction (this after all, is not what a human looks like – it’s informative, but not necessarily realistic as such). If I were to get this done for a dinosaur book where I could wax lyrical over several pages or include key notes and labels then I’d probably actively want to add missing teeth and reduce the sculpting to emphasise these very points, but in the circumstances this was the best way to convey the maximum information with the minimum amount of confusion.

10 Responses to “The art of Zhuchengtyrannus”

  1. 1 Marc Vincent 04/04/2011 at 3:16 pm

    I think it’s a beautiful illustration. Even if it has an unrealistically intact set of fullsome toothy pegs, at least it isn’t suffering from ‘skull-with-skin’ syndrome. Oh, and the nostril wasn’t put in the antorbital fenestra (cough cough)

    • 2 David Hone 04/04/2011 at 3:58 pm

      Well as noted, it is a *bit* ‘skull and skin’, but that was deliberate. And yes, it is beautiful and regardless of the contractual arrangement, I’m delighted with what Bob produced and really, really, like it.

  2. 3 Maija Karala 04/04/2011 at 5:18 pm

    Umm, am I the only one bothered with the combination of pink gums and no lips?

    The picture instantly reminded me of some zombie movies: there are zombies whose lips have been ripped of/decomposed/whatever, revealing just the gums and teeth. With some blood of course, just as our Zhuchengtyrannus here.

    Needless to say, I really, really don’t like the mouth (gives me the creeps), though otherwise it’s beautiful work. But it might be just me. I asked around, and nobody else seems to notice it.

  3. 5 Brian 05/04/2011 at 8:09 am

    It is a beautiful picture, but the mouth doesn’t sit right with me either.

    To me, there’s something else that seems wrong with the mouth than the lips and gums, however. Imagine its mouth closing and closed. To me, it would seem that the lower jaw is drawn at such an angle that the jaw tips won’t properly close. I imagine it would have a serious overbite or buck teeth!

  4. 7 Mike Taylor 05/04/2011 at 11:10 am

    Obligatory link for everyone who’s interested in the process of palaeoart, and specifically in the artist/scientist collaboration:

    • 8 David Hone 05/04/2011 at 11:15 am

      Good though this is Mike, I should use this to point out that I intended to have one of my own, but I’m still waiting on Bob for some stuff. hopefully it will appear soon….

  1. 1 OK, so I’m just milking it now – final Zhuchengtyrannus roundup « Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings Trackback on 05/04/2011 at 10:00 am
  2. 2 Guest Post: Illustrating Zhuchengtyrannus: « Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings Trackback on 15/04/2011 at 10:25 am
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