Why I don’t like using modern animal patterns in palaeoart

I remember from some years ago a pub chat with John Conway about what makes ‘good’ palaeoart. We came to the conclusion that it was down to three main things, 1) is it good artistically – is there a nice composition, correct use of perspective, shading and general technique, 2) is it accurate in the sense that the anatomy, environment etc. is right (no Velociraptors vs Diplodocus) and 3) personal taste. In other words, people can produce technically brilliant and scientifically accurate material and you don’t have to like it if it’s not to your taste (though hopefully people would still appreciate it). The others of course remain somewhat subjective too depending on what the artist is actually going for (if you want it to be surrealist or a tribute to 19th Century art then accuracy may not be what you are aiming for – just like John’s own recent History of Painting book.).

This last point about ‘what you like’ is most relevant here because I want to talk about a common theme in palaeoart that I really don’t like and while I’ll try to rationalise and explain it, I do want to be clear that it is a personal preference and so doing this doesn’t really make you wrong and I don’t want to give that impression. So what is this thing I’m now going to moan about for several hundred words? It’s using really clear and obvious patterns and colours from modern animals and applying them to dinosaurs. (And yes, other things too but usually dinosaurs).

I don’t mean really common patterns or general ones like countershading, marine animals being blue or forest ones being dappled or stripes that go through the eyes or anything like that, I mean doing an oviraptorid with the colours of a parrot, or a sauropod with a giraffe pattern or a lammergier pattern on a dromaeosaur or puffin-beaks on pterosaurs or plenty of others. This approach has been around for a long, long time but it appears to be ever more common and increasingly present in high-profile art and projects. I have thought about this a fair bit and what I don’t like boils down to a few key points.

First off, it seems really unoriginal. If you are making palaeoart that is supposed to be as rigorous and scientifically accurate as possible then there’s a lot of creativity potentially taken out of what you can do, but there’s plenty of options and freedom in colours and patterns (while still being realistic) with the unknown. Taking that away that option from yourself and your audience seems a real waste and one I can’t understand. OK, I can’t draw for toffee, but isn’t making up the colours and designs of the animals one of the most fun and creative bits? Just copying another species seems such an incredible waste of an opportunity.

Next up, it’s very distracting. I’m sure there are all manner of weird and unusual animals out there with odd patterns that can be copied without it being obvious (though I still think it’s better avoided) but it certainly pulls me out of looking at the art in front of me and simply going ‘but that just looks like a weird golden pheasant / king vulture / gemsbok’ rather than considering the art itself. It actively does a disservice to the work by distracting you from it.

Perhaps more importantly, I think duplicating well-known colours and patterns is something that, accidentally or deliberately, conveys things about animal depicted because of our understanding and associations with those patterns. If you put a peacock’s colours on a maniraptoran theropod you are imbuing it with cultural or behavioural traits about how they display and their mating system, their habitats and so on that we generally don’t know at all (or are most unlikely to be similar). It’s making inferences that shouldn’t be there and that’s not a good way to communicate about long lost animals and surely that’s a major aim of most palaeoart? I think it often shows a lack of understanding about signals too – after all, something like an agamid might have a bight head and neck to best show off it’s colours, but transferring that to a ceratopsian doesn’t make a lot of sense when the back of the frill and the neck would not be the most obvious place for bright signal colours to appear when the front of the frill has evolved to be the main signal. It’s ignoring or misunderstanding how the signals likely work in both the living model and the extinct animals and again that’s not conveying good information.

There are for sure common patterns like the general white and grey of seabirds, or eye stripes and bright breasts in birds, or occasional striping on antelope that can be easily transferred to dinosaurs and pterosaurs and the like *because* they are either generic, or ecologically driven, or are non-descript (you can’t point to a bird with an eye stripe as being unique it’s so common in a way that you can a puffin bill or a macaw’s pattern) and so again, this isn’t any kind of ‘never’ instruction to copy living taxa. But I think it’s far, far more often a problem than it is a good thing and I can’t be the only one who thinks this, can I?

Actually I know I’m not, since I’ve had this conversation with a few colleagues (palaeoartists and academics and those who span the two) and I know I’m not alone, though I also don’t know how far this feeling runs. Again, I’m not saying this can’t or shouldn’t be done and there’s always a time and place to break the ‘rules’ for various reasons, but what appears to be an often default opinion of just taking one set of colours and patterns and transferring them to another is way too common. It is, to me, not only dull and unoriginal but actively misleading in a way and imbues ancient animals with symbolism and traits that they shouldn’t have while taking the audience out of the moment. So please do it less and think about why you do it when you do.

0 Responses to “Why I don’t like using modern animal patterns in palaeoart”

  1. Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

@Dave_Hone on Twitter


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

Join 580 other subscribers

%d bloggers like this: