Archive for June, 2011

Interview with Jim Robins

Today Jim Robins kindly submits to the rigour of a Musings palaeoart interview. He also near buried me in art so while there’s the normal selection through the interview, some of the extras are included at the end. And Jim also has a blog where you can see still more images.

How long have you been an artist?

I graduated from Brighton College of Art in 1971 as an illustrator, husband and father….a traumatic condition requiring income, and substantial quantities of it. Art college education in those days didn’t really prepare one for the harsh world of commerce ( still doesn’t, I understand ) but I was up for anything and, sadly, still am. Was launched into the world of encyclopedias – Mitchell Beazley, Joy of Knowledge – which would require in short order drawings of anything and everything, from Dinosaurs to steam locomotion, from political analysis to psychological problems. Then to DK, cookbooks, gardening books, health books, sex books, DIY books, a phenomenal variety of stuff. Early in my career, in fact as a student, I fell in with Giovanni Caselli, who was a strong influence over my style of working. Haven’t seen him for decades, but manage to stay in occasional e-mail contact.

How long have you been producing palaeoart ?

First Dinosaur book was 1974, but I think we ought to skirt around that one….by the 1980’s, because my favoured technique tended to be line and wash you’d most often find me in the add-on ‘technical’ sections of palaeontological publication, the skeletons, the muscle structures etc, especially in a ground breaking series of books for Kingfisher ( I believe then still Grisewood + Dempsey ) authored by a young fellow by the name of Michael Benton…..The line and wash thing was then a bit of a bug-bear, publishers disliked it because if the printing register was off by a micron you had a nightmare, or they did. I tried to be John Sibbick, but it just didn’t work…..

What first got you interested in dinosaurs and art ?

For the former, being dragged around the Nat.Hist.Mus. on wet Sundays…..for the latter, there’s not much else I’m competent at……..

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

Don’t think I’ve done it yet. There are odd things that I’ve felt happy with as a job competently done, Caudipteryx four-view for instance (shown below), drawn from the first published fossils, in need of serious reappraisal now, but at the time satisfyingly close to the mark. There was a time in the mid 1990’s when I was energetically proposing that this was the way to read Dinosaurs, four-view aviation style diagrams, much in the style of Profile publications much beloved of airheads and motor-nuts in the ’60’s and ’70’s. Unfortunately this coincided with the first ‘Walking with….’ where they did just that, digitally and in motion. Fortunately by that time I was a political cartoonist…….

Who is your favourite palaeoartist or piece of palaeoart ?

Difficult, there are so many, over the long term I guess I’ve been most in awe of Burian, then John Sibbick, a singular talent ( maybe coloured by not being able to do it myself ), Carl Buell, Anton, Csotonyi, Rauol Martin, Gurney etc etc. Luis Rey for brave ( and predictive ) eccentricity, of course Greg Paul – although I fear I’m well beyond the pale in reference to his recent palaeoart criticisms on DML. Similarly in awe of the digitalists, some of whom are also above, but I worry about an ‘over-plasticity’ ( probably ‘cos I can’t do that either ) but I also like Mr Witton – who makes it look like he didn’t use a computer at all.

What is your favourite dinosaur / archosaur ?

Love’em all……It’s the constantly evolving / reappraising thing about this branch of the study I enjoy. I have a long term unfinished project here on Australian Megafauna which is an occasional preoccupation. This also started in the mid 1990’s with a Platypus analysis – only hampered by there being no Platypi in the UK – but I’ll get there one day. In the meantime I’m a political cartoonist….or did I mention that ?

Is there any animal you would like to paint but haven’t ?


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

I guess to describe the beast as completely as possible according to the available information. To make the viewer believe in what they’re looking at, if possible to place it convincingly in it’s environment…..not, as it would seem so many publishers want, to be constantly rushing at you out of page or screen, red in tooth and claw.

Perhaps at this stage I should declare myself a fraud and a charlatan…..there have been many years when most of my income and future aspirations were derived from palaeontological illustration……I have to admit it’s been a while since I earned a red (green, or gold) cent from palaeoart. Probably not talkin’ to the right people…….list me amongst the political cartoonists……  J.

Darren Tanke’s Gorgosaurus preparation 27: burlap additions

All of the exposed bone and rock was then covered up with wet tissue paper. The low spots on the body that were infilled with plaster earlier were in need of a separating layer too – I again used a cut up plastic garbage bag. Then the main support jacket was ready to be made.

A bolt of dry burlap was cut up into various-sized pieces first- enough (and more) for the job that needed to get done next. One always cuts more than needed- you don’t want to run out of cut burlap near the end of a project! The next person doing a plaster/burlap job can always use your cut up pieces. All the cut burlap pieces were put into water and allowed to soak for 15-20 minutes then wrung out. Now we are ready for the plastering phase.

Darren Tanke’s Gorgosaurus preparation 26: numbers

The skull block was numbered again numerous times. Numbers on jackets have a way of fading, getting cut or rubbed off, etc, so it is better to overnumber a jacket. Note how the numbers were written on upside down- this was done so when the block is turned over the numbers will be correctly oriented. Low spots on the body were also covered in wet toilet paper and infilled with plaster, but these infillings were done in sections with care taken that they are not in contact with each other for ease of removal in the future should it ever be necessary.

At this point in time we think no, but some future technician will be grateful if he/she has to turn the specimen over yet again and remove these infillings. Each is outlined in red felt marker so they will know where one section ends and another begins. As some of the low spots on the skeleton are wider at the bottom than the top, these plaster infillings are now “locked” in place and will need careful airscribing to break them up for removal.

The plan is to keep the skull block inside the jacket when it is flipped over, so we will have a “jacket inside a jacket”. Therefore it is necessary to separate the jacket skull from the jacket for the whole specimen (which will be made soon). I used a garbage bag cut in half and covered the skull with that. Then I filled in the areas where I had dug around the skull with old rags and put paper on top of that, thereby filling the void.

“Pterasaur Dinosaur Teeth”

Such was the headline of some teeth for sale I came across on a website the other day. While you can understand that a commercial site might not differentiate a pterosaur from a dinosaur, or would want to assocaite them together as the average punter may not know what a pterosaur is, the spelling is still not a great start. The description of the teeth though is truly bizarre:

“Genuine Pterasaur dinosaur tooth. These teeth are 2-4cm and are C-grade, economy price. They are of the dinosaur Rebbachisaurus, and Cretaceous age. They come from Morocco.”

I am *most* interested to learn that sauropods could fly, or that pterosaurs were 20 ton terrestrial grazers. Hardly fills you with confidence about their ability to identify other bones does it? (It was incidentally, as far as I could tell, a pterosaur tooth). What’s more odd was that the next item in their list were Rebbachisaurus teeth which were correctly identified as belonging to a sauropod dinosaur.

Interview with Larry Felder

Here’s the latest in this little burst of palaeoart interviews. Following on from the recent ones by James Gurney and John Sibbick. This time out, it’s Larry Felder.
How long have you been an artist? 
I’ve been an artist about as long as I’m alive.  As soon as I became aware of paper and pencils, I picked them up and never looked back.  It’s also about the same time I became interested in dinosaurs.  And, I think if you ask any paleo artist, they’ll tell you it’s not when they got into dinosaurs, it’s that they never got over it.  I think all of us are afflicted with the same ‘disease’, and if we’re lucky, we’ll never get over it.
How long have you been producing palaeoart?
I’ve been in the field going on over 20 years.  I was always able to paint and was interested in dinosaurs, but didn’t put the two together until the early 90s.
What first got you interested in dinosaurs and art?
The thing about both dinosaurs and art is that they are so primal.  From the earliest, and I’m talking tens of thousands of years ago, the human species has had the need to transcribe what we see around us in some creative fashion. Look at cave paintings of 35,000 years ago.  What makes up the bulk of them?  Depictions of the animals these early artists shared their world with.  And, the fact that they exist at all points to a primal desire to depict that world in some visual fashion.  It’s still with us today, and as we become more ‘advanced’, though I’m not completely convinced that we’re all evolving at the same rate and in a linear fashion, the need to create and depict our world remains a basic human need.  When dinosaurs came to the awareness of the scientific and then general community, there immediately arose an intense desire to interpret these incredible remains in some sort of creative form.  Paleoartists today are can trace a direct line back to the works of Hawkins, Knight, Burian and Zallinger.  It’s neat to follow in the footsteps of people like them.  And, I think there will always exist in the human spirit a need to create, and an equal need to appreciate and depict life and the universe we exist in.  So there will always be an interest in dinosaurs and art.
What is your favourite piece of palaeo art that you have produced?
My favorite piece is more a life study of one of my favorite dinosaurs, Parasaurolophus, that I did for my book “In the Presence of Dinosaurs”.  I did an extended series of paintings of the animal, from adults, to courtship displays, nesting sites, hatchlings and behaviorial studies.
Who is your favourite palaeoartist or piece of palaeoart?
I honestly don’t have a single favorite paleoartist or piece.  I would have to answer this as a group appreciation.  I always had a thing for the works of Charles Knight, as the Father of PaleoArt.  And, Burian’s work was particularly interesting to me.  Today, there are several artists.  Dan LoRusso is one of the best sculptors around, as are Mike Trcic and Paul Hudson.  Visual artist I appreciate are Mauricio Anton, Tracy Ford.  I always liked Brian Franczak’s work, though he has been out of the field for a while.  And, there are artists working more and more with computers.  Luis Rey has been moving more towards that it seems.  And Julius Csotonyi has done some spectacular work with the computer.  As technology pushes the envelope more and more, it will be impossible to dismiss it’s impact on visual art.  It doesn’t mean that painting will go the way of the dinosaurs.  But paleoart will adapt.  There was an artist whose name escapes me, in the mid 1800s.  As soon as he saw a photograph for the first time, he said of the new technolgy, “That’s the end of painting.”  Of course, it didn’t prove to be the case.  But painting had to reinterpret itself and come to a new meaning in light of the new technology.  So will paleoart have to evolve in light of the computer.  But painters shouldn’t throw away their brushes and get new mouses.  Wildlife art continues to thrive, particularly significant in that lions, tigers and bears are still with us, and anyone with a digital camera can shoot some impressive shots of these animals.
What is your favourite dinosaur / archosaur?
I always had a fondness for Parasaurolophus, but again, there are several groups of animals I am drawn to.  Small theropods, the more bird-like the better I always thought were neat.  And pterosaurs are just in a league by themselves.
Is there any animal you would like to paint but have not?
I would actually like to do more work on pterosaurs, and would like to do some extended images of the wildlife of Cretaceous Australia/Antarctica.  The adaptations of the dinosaurs in that unique habitat, with the cool weather and extended darkness just cry out for interpretation, especially in light of the incredible record now of feathered and insulated dinosaurs.
What do you think is the most important part of good palaeoart?
Believability.  It is a multi-tiered reality, including a working knowledge of anatomy, good drawing, good draftsmenship, good art, a good eye for appreciating the natural world today, and some patience.  A good piece of paleoart works the same way a good wildlife painting does today.  You have to put the various elements together that segue seamlessly with each other in a way that either immediately clicks or doesn’t.  Especially with paleo art, since one of the main components is a believable color scheme and sense that this is an animal that is alive and can be seen as existing in its habitat without too much of a stretch of incredulity.
Finally, a little bit about myself.  I finished up a series of large paintings for several national parks a few years ago.  I’ve been working with Mike Triebold of the Rocky Mountain Dinosaur Resource Center in Woodland Park, Colorado, USA, on a traveling exhibit for museums and science centers entitled, “Bringing Dinosaurs to Life.”  It is centered around one question, “How do we know what dinosaurs looked like?”  It is a combination of paintings, sculptures, fossils and source material that paleoartists use to recreate dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals and habitats.  The movie “Tree of Life” that just came out, (with Brad Pitt and Sean Penn, directed by Terrence Malick, and that just won best in show at Cannes), features a filmed depiction of one of my paintings, an elasmosaur on a beach, about to nurse a wound.  I’m also a writer, and am finishing up a novel, a science thriller.  It’s about a physicist who inadvertantly comes up with a quantum gravity theory that allows thermonuclear detonations to proceed without producing radiation.  In trying to weaponize it, it turns into a spectator sport.

Darren Tanke’s Gorgosaurus preparation 25: completing the skull jacket

The skull was then jacketed. A picture of the skull (without separator) shows the bandaging (jacketing) material used. It is a hospital product of cloth impregnated with dry plaster. It is used there to set and hold broken bones in place, but is also ideally in the lab or field for collecting and stabilizing a fossil specimen. [I have few posts on this on the Musings – here, here and here]. You simply soak it in a pan of water for about 5-10 seconds, squeeze out excess water and then apply it to the item being jacketed. It can be cut into pieces as shown or dispensed right off the roll. About 6 layers were used.

The wooden frame was put back on the jacketed skull and more hospital-type bandages used to attach it. I typed up the specimen number in enlarged font, printed it off, then cut the number out and glued it in place with white glue. It looks messy at first but the glue dries clear, sealing the number inside.

Interview with John Sibbick

My next palaeoart interview is with John Sibbick. John is one of a real cluster of Bristol-area palaeoartists in the UK with Jim Robbins (coming soon!), and Bob Nicholls. His work was some of the first I became really familiar with as a budding researcher as he illustrated Peter Wellnhofer’s classic encyclopedia of pterosaurs, and the companion dinosaur volume by David Norman as well as the classic undergrad handbook, “Vertebrate Palaeontology” by my PhD supervisor Mike Benton. Anyway, I’ll hand over to John who’s much more interesting talking about art than I am talking about him.

How long have you been an artist?

Artist?  That’s a tricky one.  I’ve been illustrating since 1973 but became freelance doing illustration for children’s books 35 years ago.

How long have you been producing palaeoart?

My first book of dinosaurs was in 1985 – a slim but illustration rich (around 40 images) project with David Norman.  I was very green and had a lot to learn.  I knew about deadlines but it was pretty scary getting through it.  But with a palaeontologist on board I must have been a paleoartist?

What first got you interested in dinosaurs and art?

I first got the bug for fossils looking in the old display cases in the Natural History Museum, London.  Life was pretty mono in the late fifties so I painted as a hobby which eventually became a possible career move as it was pretty obvious I didn’t want to do much else.  I just loved looking at illustrated books and postcards – Maurice Wilson and Neave Parker were my favourites.  I suppose I preferred the past to the present.

What is your favourite piece of palaeoart that you have produced?

So difficult ..favourite because I enjoyed the process or because the artwork turned out OK?
They are not always the same thing.  For me most of my paintings have a flaw in them and sometimes now I can see how to fix it.  But I never retouch or change a piece when it is ‘over’.  Favourite? – I can’t really answer that one easily – maybe an Estemenosuchus group in a glade of tree ferns (below).

Who is your favourite palaeoartist or piece of palaeoart?

I always love looking at Jay Matternes work…a true palaeoartist who knows his subject inside out.  If I find anything published of his I collect it.  Mauricio Anton does beautiful work – I still prefer his paintings and drawings to his digital work but his reconstructions are superb.  Peter Trusler is a master draughtsman who I greatly admire.  Doug Henderson has also brought prehistory to life and has become the biggest influence on how the Mesozoic landscape is portrayed.  His work is very underestimated in my opinion.  How can I choose a favourite example from these – you try!

What is your favourite dinosaur/archosaur?

Dinosaurs – I like the hadrosaurs – any of the crested types – maybe Parasaurolophus the best.  I am also very fond of Dimorphodon amongst the pterosaurs and phytosaurs are very elegant – crocs on tip-toe.

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

I feel that I haven’t made any impression yet..and probably I shouldn’t take on anything that I’ve done before.  I would like to work on the mammal-like reptiles and early amphibians and there are so many invertebrates still to look at, and I would also like to paint or draw my own lurcher whippet – he’s such a good model and sleeps most of the time! Which reminds me I would also like to look at the Eocene mammals…

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

If at the end of a project I haven’t learnt anything new about the process or subject then there is little point in doing it.  The collaboration is the key aspect.  I’ve worked with very generous experts who know that I have limited experience in their field, but have worked very closely to help me to the end result.  A key example was Dr Rachel Wood who had the patience to draw me in to the world of reef evolution.  I think the results are so improved working in that spirit.  The same applied to Dr Peter Wellnhofer -a draughtsman himself who made his pterosaur book a joy to work on. If the collaboration is a good one, then I think the results hopefully reflect this.

Darren Tanke’s Gorgosaurus preparation 24: jacketing the skull

The skull was then readied for jacketing. Prior to doing that, a small woden frame was measured up and assembled with glue and small nails. This frame will be incorporated into the skulls plaster jacket later on and provide both strength and allow the jacket to sit flat on a table, not rock back and forth.

Before the skull was jacketed, several things needed to be done. Any deeper low spots (gaps between teeth mostly) were packed with wet toilet paper, then dry sheets of same were put on the skull and dabbed with a wet paintbrush. This toilet paper layering is done until the brown bone coloration can no longer be seen. The toilet paper acts as a separating layer between the skull and the plaster jacket. If you don’t create a separating layer, you are putting plaster directly on to the bone which will have catastrophic results- it will be hard to remove the set plaster without damaging the fossil.

There were still a couple areas on the skull that were rather deep (antorbital fenestra in particular) so these were carefully filled in with solid plaster of Paris until the depression was flush with the rest of the skull. The plaster is mixed in a rubber cup which is easy to clean when finished- you just squeeze the cup and all the dried plaster cracks and falls out.

Darren Tanke’s Gorgosaurus preparation 23: drilling

When a specimen is flipped over one has to think in reverse regarding where the specimens various parts are then located. Boney processes that pointed one way, now point in the reverse. Bone processes that pointed up are now pointing down. So do I cut or grind away the plaster jacket here? Maybe not, there was a rib or limb bone there. Usually one just guesstimates where everything is but as the incredible Gorgosaurus skull is close to the original field jacket I did not want to do this. So what to do? I tried something different and have never tried before.

First I took a red marker pen and drew a line around the skull, several centimeters away, thereby marking a safe buffer zone. Then using that line as a guide, I drilled a series of spaced holes with a power drill and a long bit. The holes were drilled all the way through the jacket. In curved areas the holes were drilled closer together. When the block is flipped over, these holes will appear and the holes can be reconnected with a red felt pen and thus accurately outline the skull. As the jacket is then pulled and cut apart, the holes will always be there until the very end to remind me where the skull is.

I also spent a couple hours photographing the specimen under various light levels, angles and distances. These pictures will serve as a valuable reference when I prepare the other side and will be useful for future researchers.

Darren Tanke’s Gorgosaurus preparation 22: trenching the skull

Yes as promised, Darren is back with more Gorgosaurus stuff! For those who are new to this a review and links to the first 21(!) parts can be found here.

Much work has resumed on the Gorgosaurus. I was away on fieldwork and extended holidays and a number of other delays means most of the things covered in these new updates happened days to weeks ago. The Gorgosaurus was successfully molded in a high grade rubber material in April. The mold came off OK, then it was time to do a number of things in preparation of flipping the specimen over to prepare the other (top) side. Ideally we would remove the skull now, but we could not get the plaster jacket to really “grip” onto it properly as the original field jacket (now on the bottom) was in the way. So the skull was trenched all the way around with a small hammer and awl, just like it would be done in a field setting and newly exposed bone stabilized and glued. Small scalpels were used for close-in work. The top of the head was uncovered. The disarticulated right postorbital was found long ago, but it is now evident that the right lacrimal bone is missing too and that has yet to be seen.

The curious absence of cervical or neck vertebrae is now also confirmed, though was suspected when we were in the field. The intention with the skull now is to jacket it, then encase that within another jacket that supports the entire specimen. It is an unusual, but correct ploy in this instance- a jacket within a jacket. Future updates will detail all this work required to flip the specimen over.

Crowdsourcing thingy

In the tradition of my general typing this was nearly entitled ‘crowsourcing’ which may have been very interesting (and possibly more effective). Anyway, I’m struggling to find some literature and thought I should ask around for help.

I’m doing a short piece of work on the science of science – how papers are put together, what things tend to get published (or left out) and so on. I have found a bit on publication bias (the tendency not to publish negative results) but after that I’m not doing too well. The problem is that I’m not familiar with the field so I don’t have a pile of papers to hand to work from, and it’s not a commonly discussed subject. Moreover, searching on something like Google Scholar for keywords like “science” “abstract” “publication” and “research” don’t get you very far. They tend to recover everything or overly specific papers on some essay or editorial on the subject as a whole.

Anyway, if you know of a few papers that deal with these patterns of publication then do drop their citations into the comments or links to where they can be found. Much appreciated.

Upcoming features

Yesterday’s palaeoart interview with James Gurney of Dinotopia fame is the start of two big comebacks on the Musings. James is the first of a string of new palaeoart interviews I have lined up. Well it should be anyway, I have a good number of others who have promised their contributions ‘soon’. Obviously those will go up as soon as they come in.

The other biggie is the restart of Darren Tanke’s Gorgosaurus series. When this wrapped up a few months ago we really didn’t know if or when it would (or even could) continue. However, Darren has kindly taken some more time to continue blogging the next stage of preparation and we hope to add at least a few more posts to the Musings starting very soon. The piece has already been cast in Darren’s absence but we have been promised photos of the event so that should be covered on here eventually. In the meantime there are a couple of teaser photos on the Tyrell’s Facebook page.

Right, I’m off to hassle some artists about promised interviews. More to come!

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