Today I’m pleased to bring to you an interview with artist (and researcher) Brian Choo. I first became aware of Brian’s art with his image of a very early fish giving birth based on a spectacular find of a fossil embryo from the Devonian. Brian himself works on fish so much of his art is based around his own research and that of his colleagues, but his love of dinosaurs and the fact that he’s Australian means he has a nice tendency to produce images of Auzzie taxa that tend to get overlooked when people tend to go for Allosaurus or Diplodocus. Brian is now installed in my old stomping ground at the IVPP so I ran into him recently when I was back there and managed to persuade him to add the latest in my palaeoart interviews. Here then is his interview and there’s a special bonus I’m saving for tomorrow so stay tuned.
For as long as I can remember I’ve been scribbling pictures of whales, dragons, fish etc. I undertook basic art courses in secondary school, but concentrated on science once I entered university (Biological Sciences at Murdoch University , Perth ). Despite this, I continued to advance my artistic skills via trial & error, be it prettying up my dissection diagrams of pouched lampreys or providing fantasy art for the local fanzines.
Joined the local dinosaur club (The imaginatively named “The Dinosaur Club”) at the Western Australian Museum in the 1990s, founded by my future PhD supervisor John Long. I supplied a number of articles and b&w illustrations for the club’s Dinonews periodical. First paid bits of artwork were some scrappy paintings that appeared in John’s Dinosaurs of Australia and New Zealand.
Throughout the late 90s to early 00s my work popped up in a variety of local and international publications (Nature Australia , Scientriffic, Australasian Science etc). Had fun with the Speculative Dinosaur Project, a shared online project that tried to imagine a world where the Chicxulub boloid has missed. My fondest artistic experience of this time was illustrating The Big Picture Book (Allen & Unwin, 2005) as it was here that I started to mature as an artist (the fact that it made money and raked in awards didn’t hurt either).
Barely a week after the release of Big Picture, I went off to Melbourne , commencing PhD research at Museum Victoria on Devonian actinopterygian fishes (supervisors John Long and Gavin Young). My artistic output took off as well and I produced life reconstructions of most my actinopterygian research subjects, a number of other major paleo-discoveries at MV (non-actinopterygian Gogo fishes, weird Oligocene whales), designs for the “Dinosaur Dreaming” Cretaceous research group (including the infamous “Popcorn of the Cretaceous” T-shirt) plus even a few live-artist performances at the museum. Damn it was fun!
Now I’m postdoctoring at IVPP, looking at some utterly bizarre Silurian-Devonian fishes. Currently sketching/painting/photoshopping like crazy, both on subjects directly related to my research and otherwise.
Unfortunately there were no decent palaeontology exhibits in Perth during my childhood. All my early inspiration was from books and wildlife. I developed a love of birds and reptiles early in life, both were diverse and abundant in my neighbourhood. Plus I became an avid aquariast, developing an obsession with fish.
At first, I was only aware of biblical creation. I vaguely remember, probably when I was 5 or 6, glancing through books on prehistoric animals at the local library and seeing images of bizarre monsters, completely unlike the animals I was familiar with. Only. these weren’t make-believe monsters, they were REAL! The history of the world as seen by science was more intricate, terrible and beautiful (ie. much cooler) than anything I could have imagined. I coveted these images and made tracings of them (hmm…might have accidentally ripped off a page or two) before building up my own collection of books. I copied the illustrations, then began making my own original arrangements. It started there and then.
What is your favourite piece of palaeo art that you have produced?
I like the vibe of my life reconstruction of Guiyu (Silurian sarcopterygian fish – shown near the top) that accompanied the Nature article in 2009 (shown above). But the piece that gives me the most satisfaction is not truly palaeo-art, although it does depict an archaic reptile – the painting of the critically endangered Australian Western Swamp Tortoise (Pseudemydura umbrina) that was used to draw public attention to the plight of this wonderful animal (shown below).
Who is your favourite palaeoartist or piece of palaeoart?
Honestly cannot single out single piece or artist. The following bodies of work are personal inspirational landmarks, listed here in the order in which I obtained them =
Various Zdeněk Burian works. Particularly his Palaeozoic scenes.
Peter Schouten’s Prehistoric Animals of Australia
William Stout’s The New Dinosaurs.
Greg Paul’s PDW
What is your favourite dinosaur / archosaur?
At school, I think I was the only kid who DIDN’T like T.rex for the sole reason that everyone else liked it. Always liked the look of Deinonychus (pre- and post-feathered), Allosaurus and lambeosaurines (currently Olorotitan is my fave – shown top).
But my truly favourite archosaurs are the native birds of the Australian bush.
Is there any animal you would like to paint but have not?
I’d like to restore the entire macrobiota (or at least the vertebrate fauna) of the Gogo Formation and associated units – a Frasnian tropical reef Lagerstätte with incredible diversity (for the Devonian) and preservation. You find fossil fish encased in limestone nodules, their skeletons fully articulated in three dimensions and chemically unaltered, often with extensive soft-tissue preservation (for example, pregnant placoderms with the umbilical cords of the embryoes visible). On some of the larger fish, you can pick up the skulls once you’ve prepared them and playfully open and close the mouths.
Theres at least 50 fish species in the assemblage – probably many more awaiting discovery and identification. Currently I’ve illustrated 7 of them.
What do you think is the most important part of good palaeoart?
I’ve found that the quality of my work is enhanced by two practices. Firstly, spend time in wild habitats looking at wild animals doing the mundane day-to-day things they do – obviously this is much easier in places like Australia than in places like Beijing! Many of my earlier works look like static figures set in a diorama – but watching how, for example, fish interact with their surroundings on a reef has helped me to give a more “lived-in” look to my creations. I can’t summarise the benefits of this in a just a few paragraphs – if you haven’t already, just go out and do it and you’ll see what I mean.
Secondly, when you put down the brush/pencil/wacom pen, look at your picture and say “it’s finished.FINALLY!”, 9.9 times out of 10, it isn’t. Go away, do some unrelated activities, wait for the euphoria and weariness of artistic conquest to die down, then come back and look at it again.