Following on from the recent interview with Julius Csotonyi and Steve White about the new palaeoart book, I wanted to take a closer look at one image in particular. This is both because it is covered fairly extensively in the book by Julius who writes about its genesis and production and because it is, in part, a result of discussions between him and myself.
Julius was kind enough to ask for my advice and suggestions and I was naturally happy to give him some feedback and thoughts for artworks that appear in the book. Here though we are going to chat about one in particular as it’s so unusual: a fish-eye view of a group of sauropods making their way through the Morrison. One adult is using its bulk to push down and ultimately snap a tree, while Stegosaurus and Ceratosaurus appear in the background and some small pterosaurs take flight. While obviously presented one way up in the book, the image can be rotated in either direction and to any degree and should still work fine. I’m not aware of any other image quite like it, and its certainly dramatic.
Ultimately this started in Canada. Although we’d been in contact before, when I was visiting the Tyrrell as part of the “Project Daspletosaurus” work (by the way that is still ongoing, there’s a draft manuscript now and I’m working on the figures) and Julius was also down. Both of us attended the fossil preparation symposium and this gave us some good opportunities to chat in the breaks and talk palaeoart. Two things that were covered in particular are areas I have an interest in: behaviour and aspect ratios.
The former is perhaps no big surprise given my work on signaling, feeding, and similar areas. Some themes are rather understandable in palaeoart, when you’re working to commission or trying to make money, you will tend to produce things that are popular and that means lots of fighting animals, and carnivory and dramatic scenes (crossing rivers, laying eggs), but too little of things like sleeping, generally wandering around, and other behaviours that might make up most of the time of many dinosaurs and so they do tend to be rather bypassed when they would at least make a change from the endless rounds of violence that we normally see
The other one might well sound a bit odd, but it’s actually linked to the point of some things being overly familiar. Both digital art and physical art often produce works that are pretty close to A4 in proportions, and while there’s nothing wrong with that per se, personally I find things that are in odd ratios (either very long or very tall) draw the eye in a very different way and can make you see and appreciate things rather differently. Perhaps it’s just a question of personal taste, but I do really like them and think it’s worth exploring more.
I’m not sure if Julius felt the same way already, or was convinced by my magnificent and elegant arguments, but he was looking for some ideas for the book and so we went through a few possibilities and that was the last I’d head of it. We did discuss the pterosaur and squid picture a fair bit shown above, which resulted from a Solnhofen specimen at the Tyrrell I’m working on (and while we’re at it, there is a wee error in the book on this, it’s not skimming, and nor is it supposed to be) and I was occasionally asked about details on various pterosaurs and dinosaurs. Then one day, my inbox unexpectedly contained the first version of the fisheye image with a note to say it was inspired by our conversations in Alberta. It was a most pleasant surprise and at this point I’ll hand over to Julius to explain how and why he went for this particular composition.
JC: A couple of things came together to generate the unusual composition of this piece. Ultimately, I’d have to blame Dave Hone for it. When I approached him about what he’d like to see in new paleoart, since I was working on a series of new pieces for the book at the time, we had a lively discussion about both dinosaur behaviour and artistic technique. It undoubtedly helped to be surrounded by dozens of archosaur skeletons in the Royal Tyrrell Museum’s Dinosaur Hall as we did so; it makes it that much easier to imagine a heavily gesticulated reenactment of dinosaur behaviour when the bones of the subjects are staring you down from ten or twenty feet above eye level.
Dave voiced some great ideas about species interactions that had been relatively less explored by paleoartists in the past, including hypothetical tree-tippling feeding strategies of giant sauropods such as Apatosaurus. I have only seen a few reconstructions of this sort of behaviour, including an especially impactful one by paleoartist John Sibbick. However, in addition to biological subjects, Dave and I also discussed in a general context the appeal of applying unusual aspect ratios for artwork. Most of my collaboration with paleontologists involves an exchange of paleontological knowledge. The choice of the most effective artistic composition is usually left to me, though it is typically constrained by the requirements of the medium in which a piece is to be published. For example, it’s useful to keep in mind the aspect ratio of journal covers to encourage selection of a figure as cover image.
For the current paleoart book, however, there was some more room for flexibility, and I am happy to consider people’s creative ideas for composition, and Dave was eager to express his interest in a departure from the norm of presentation format. For example, we talked about some unusually long and narrow canvases as interesting ways of depicting some sweeping scenes.
The intent was to convey the huge size of the tree-tipping sauropods, so a view from a low angle looking up at looming animals seemed like a logical move. Normally, sauropods are terribly suited to depiction on low-aspect-ratio media (such as the nearly square shape of the planned book’s pages), so two solutions presented themselves: (1) foreshortening from a frontal view and (2) distortion, as from a wide-angle lens. The second option better suited the goal of depicting things in an unusual way, so I flew with it.
It then occurred to me that the most extreme wide-angle perspective distortion, showing all 360 degrees of the landscape arranged around the entire sky, would not only provide the best fit to a square page, but would also make for a very intriguing composition, with the long bodied sauropod wrapped around the image, following the curving horizon. Think of a reflective silver ball. If you were to set it down on the ground and stare into it from above, the reflection that you’d see on its surface represents the kind of image I’m describing. This was actually something that I had explored earlier in a 2005 pencil sketch of Seismosaurus (Diplodocus) and Allosaurus, and I’d been hoping to do something more substantial with it since. Well, here was the opportunity.
I chose to place one of the feet of an Apatosaurus very near to the viewer in the image, because the resulting high degree of perspective would best convey the imposing size of the sauropod. This masochistic decision naturally required calculation of the greatest amount of perspective distortion of the animal’s body, and it took quite a few drafts to figure out how to properly wrap a receding sauropod around a circularized horizon. However, I found that an even greater challenge was the assignment of the angle of incident light on surfaces throughout a painting that is governed by Non-Euclidean geometry. The path of sunbeams on the Riemannian geometry of the surface of a sphere do not appear linear when mapped onto flat representations, but as curves whose degree of curvature depends on the distance that they approach zenith (the center of the image). I overlaid on the image a kind of field diagram of light rays from the sun to various target surfaces, which helped to render not only the correct phase of objects (analogous to the phases of the moon in various positions in its orbit) but also the shapes and directions of shadows cast by these objects onto the ground.
Once the shape and lighting of the central sauropod was established, the rest of the scene was relatively easier to set up, because the remaining animals and plants were farther away, and therefore closer to the horizon, which in turn meant that they exhibited much less distortion and a narrower range of degree of light path curvature. Lacking an extensive academic artistic background, I’ve had to rely on principles of optics that I studied in physics courses during my undergraduate science program, and this project certainly required me to put some of this training to use.
DH: Obviously the result here is stunning, I’m unaware of any other piece of palaeoart that uses a perspective like this and it does show off the sauropods from a most unusual angle as well as getting in some stunning detail and including a nice piece of possible behaviour. There are some details in there two, there’s a pair of stegosaurs, a Ceratosaurus skulking in the background, and a small pterosaur overhead with a some more escaping in the background. In the book, there’s also a companion piece to this in a much more orthodox view that shows an apatosaur group also mowing down a few trees, as well as a longer and more detailed description of all the work in perspective, lighting, and techniques that have gone into this piece.
Importantly though, I think it brings something new to the table. We can grow goatees and put on berets and stroke our chins to debate the meaning of ‘art’ almost indefinitely, but this is something that goes beyond what we would normally consider palaeoart. Jon Conway has advocated the term ‘palaeontography’ for much of what we would currently term ‘palaeoart’, suggesting that (if I understand him correctly) that most works are often illustrative rather than artistic to draw a nice comparison, as with say wildlife illustration) . That’s not to criticise or dismiss any other form of palaeoart in any way, (if so, I’d be throwing out most of the Julius’s book, and the vast majority of what I’ve covered here on the Musings before) – I value the work, the skill and the aesthetics of much palaeoart (it hangs on my wall because I like looking at it), and the importance of these things for science communication or generally interesting people in the subject. Nor do I think we should stop producing mainstream works and move into things like this as a primary output.
However, there are those who I think would dismiss palaeoart as ‘merely’ illustration (I’ve seen wildlife compositions and landscapes similarly dismissed), and this piece I think provides a resounding answer to that accusation. Yes there is talent, skill and artistic merit to huge amounts of palaeoart, but if works like this can help bridge that gap and help more people take this field more seriously, well that I think is most welcome for everyone involved in palaeontology. This piece is good because the image is well composed, has a fundamental aesthetic to it, the anatomy and scientific details are accurate, and there’s a clear skill in the technique and execution to it, but it is undoubtedly also highly creative and original and worthy of some extra note.