Interview with Brian Engh

Brian with his fighting mastodons picture

It has been quite a while since I managed to do a palaeoart interview but here is a new one with newly crowned Lazendorf prize winner Brian Engh. He is a relative newcomer to the palaeoart scene but has risen quickly and blogs extensively about his projects and thoughts on dinosaurs and has a reputation for taking on big projects with some of the more dramatic and unusual (while still biologically plausible) takes on dinosaurs and other ancient beasts.
How long have you been an artist?

As long as I can remember I have been compelled to depict things, to create characters and settings and stories, to inhabit the realm of imagination and try to manifest it in physical reality. But only recently has my truly personal creative interests coalesced in a way that I can survive off them.

Cacops attacks

How long have you been producing palaeoart?

My first commission was in 2010 for Tor Bertin’s paper reviewing the Spinosauridae. There was a big gap in paleoart commissions between that and my first truly professional paleoart commission which was the art depicting Aquilops (shown at the bottom) for the paper and press release describing that specimen in 2014.

Brian’s early spinosaur picture

What first got you interested in dinosaurs and art?

I have always been interested in unexplored worlds and strange non-human beings, and bringing those to life through art. I cannot remember a time when I did not want to look at a frog or a plant or a chicken or a bug an try to understand it. My fascination with paleontology is just a natural extension of that interest, with the added benefit of the creatures being even more alien, the worlds less explored, and both absolutely requiring art to bring them back to life.

Lazendorf prize wiining entry – Savage Ancient Seas

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

Whichever one I’m working on next. By the time I’m done with a piece I am exhausted with it and too close to it.

If I have to pick a single finished piece that I’m reasonably satisfied with it would be the life-sized portrait of “Ava” the new ceratopsian found by Triebold Paleontology that the Western Science Center commissioned. I feel like the character of a living animal is starting to come through in that piece. It was also fun to work at life-scale. There’s a strange intimacy to detailing the big snout of an animal that died 75 million years ago. It feels like grooming a big old pet. By the end of that project I really wished I could’ve seen what this individual who’s skull had been found really looked and acted like, where it hatched, how it survived, how it died and how it slept in the earth until it woke up in our modern world with a different face. I wish I could see the real animal’s face next to the one I gave it. I wonder how it would react to its own portrait…

The end of Xiphactinus

Who is your favourite palaeoartist or piece of palaeoart?

I really can’t pick because there are different ways to evaluate art & artists, and also the viewer’s mood and context is important for enjoying art. In terms of overall mood and style, my favourite paleoartist is Doug Henderson. His work “feels” right to me. It feels like the planet I know, and the prehistoric creatures inhabiting it feel like real animals you would expect to find living in this ancient planet. But Doug isn’t really active any more, and it seems that the difficulty of making any decent money off of paleoart and the other frustrations that come from interacting with the paleontological community seem to have worn him down and made him throw in the towel on paleoart, so I can’t say he’s my favourite artist in terms of his career. John Sibbick’s work is also gorgeous, viscerally compelling, often amazingly believable-looking, and it was hugely influential on me as a kid. I would say his animal reconstructions are my favourite in terms of the character or attitude they exude, and his plant reconstructions are the most texturally satisfying I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately he also has become much less active in paleoart since the 90s, but I really don’t know anything about him or his career beyond that. I also love James Gurney’s work, but more for the fantasy side of what he does. Gurney’s work makes me feel like life will persist and is good. There’s a sentimentality to his work that seems almost restorative for the mind and soul. It is also to his credit that he his still active in both the publishing and scientific worlds, and he shares his knowledge through his youtube page and blog. I admire all of that a lot. Mark Hallett is also at that rare intersection of still being active as a professional artist and having tremendous skill and an amazing body of work. I had the good fortune to meet him at SVP in Salt Lake in 2016. I didn’t realize until I met him that Mark was born with one arm. Despite this handicap he has developed top-level skills in drawing and painting, and has executed some of the most ambitious and beautiful pieces of paleoart anyone has ever pulled off. On top of all that he doesn’t seem to have let the often petty, political and poorly funded world of paleontology jade him too much. He has continued against all odds to grind through making paleoart, and in 2016 he released a huge book on sauropods with my friend and long-time collaborator Matt Wedel. You should probably include a link to where people can buy that here (ed: done!).

Feeding sauropods

What is your favourite dinosaur / archosaur?

I don’t have one, but because kids at outreach events ask me this all the time my go to answer is cassowary… because then I get to tell them about how goddamn awesome cassowaries are and that dinosaurs never fully went extinct.

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

Yes of course. All of the ones I have not.

Hypothetical inflated throat sacs for large sauropods

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

Inspiring wonder and awe.

In recent years obnoxious know-it-alls mostly on the internet have steered every conversation about paleontological art toward evaluating its “scientific accuracy” despite the fact that these self-made experts are pedeantic dickheads that only remember laundry lists of facts so that they can look smarter than people, rather than actually developing a solid grounding in biology by which to have any real discussions. I think this has caused a significant beating back of the creativity of a lot of artists interested in paleontology, and has contributed significantly to a lot of really beige, conservative paleoart in recent years, despite all the amazing discoveries published every other day it seems. These same paleontological pests are the same people who will look back on a piece by Knight or Burian or the sculptures at the Crystal Palace and mock them for being “tail dragging lizards” and “totally incorrect,” and in doing so completely fail to recognize that this art inspired generations of subsequent artists and scientists to take an interest in natural history. Although antiquated, these past works had that effect because they were aesthetically beautiful, impressive, and gave people a window to a world that they had never seen or thought about prior to encountering that art. At best a piece of paleoart can only reflect some of the current views and knowledge on a given paleontological subject, and as more fossils and discoveries come to light nearly ALL paleoart will eventually be totally inaccurate. We should actually hope for this, because it means science and our understanding of our planet is advancing, and we shouldn’t view older art as “bad” because it is no longer up-to-date. For this reason I am fully willing to take the risk of having my work labeled “too speculative” or “sensationalized”, and it’s part of the motivation for hosting my own paleoart contest, where the main criteria I’ll be judging and rewarding the work on is creativity and originality. The contest ends November 1st, and I am excited by all the wild entries I’ve received thus far. I hope that any artists out there who haven’t entered will do so before the deadline! You can learn more here.

Cryptic Aquilops

As ever all images are copyright to Brian and are on generous loan here. Please speak to him if you want to use them.

 

1 Response to “Interview with Brian Engh”


  1. 1 kestrelart 25/10/2018 at 11:13 pm

    This guy has the career I wish I had done! How amazing is his art?


Comments are currently closed.



@Dave_Hone on Twitter

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 501 other followers


%d bloggers like this: