Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Drawn to life

I read an article this morning about the reconstruction of an unusual raptor by a palaeoartist using Photoshop. Palaeoart is quite a specialist field. Although it has a lengthy history, it's still not really a term many are familiar with. Basically, as you may have guessed from the word, it's just the artistic representation of fossil material and reconstructions of plants and animals from fossil material. This can be problematic. The fleshing out of bones, positioning of limbs, fins, spacing of vertebrae and so on can all affect the final look of a reconstructed animal dramatically. Then there's colour and pattern. And the knowledge that if you don't take in advice and opinion from those with a current, working knowledge of the species, you're likely to get a phone call from a disgruntled fanboy. 'Hey - why have you painted the Obscurosaurus's brow ridge extending only two centimetres past its orbit? New findings show it went on for at least 4cm.'

Clearly it has become easier, gradually, as new finds, new technologies and new techniques have given us far more insight into the anatomies of things long dead. The huge dinosaur models of Crystal Palace have a special place in the history of popular palaeontology, but it's clear now that our understanding of the animals has come a long way since they were made in the the mid 1800s by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. The sculptor had the best help available at the time in Richard Owen, but the depiction of Iguanodon on all-fours, for example, dates the models to the point of making them scientific anachromisms. Dinosaur dinosaurs.

A prominent figure in the history of palaeoart is Charles R. Knight. You may find his depictions of prehistoric life familiar, as his murals have decorated museums and zoos, his paintings fill dinosaur books and his work often featured in National Geographic. A book about his life was published recently - Charles R. Knight - The artist who saw through time. He was working though the first half of the 1900s, and often from necessity - he was painting animals known from little fossil material - there is some considerable speculation involved. Nowadays, that speculation doesn't really cut it. Artists working in the field now need to keep abreast of recent developments in the understanding of their subjects to ensure anatomical accuracy. Museums and scientific publications often commission palaeoartists to reconstruct long-dead animals for exhibits or papers and it's more important than ever to get it as right as possible. Images don't take long to make their way around the world these days, and it's a vital tool in the communication and popularisation of science.

When Robert Nicholls was painting the shop's logo shark, Akmonistion, for me I remember how keen he was to check the details. A lot of research goes into this work, alongside the artistic ability required. It's an impressive mixture of skills. I'm looking forward to a book about palaeoartists due out in September - Robert is featured in it, alongside his picture of the Mr Wood's Fossils shark.

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