How do paleoartists bring dinosaurs - such as this Carnotaurus at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles - back to life?
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Photo by Brian Switek.
How do paleoartists bring dinosaurs - such as this Carnotaurus at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles - back to life?

Dinosaurs Inside Out

Last year saw the publication of two of the most beautiful and significant paleoart books in recent memory – Dinosaur Art and All Yesterdays. Each in their own way, the books presented stunning scenes from the ancient past and explained the artistic decisions behind each piece. Yet while both books can be enjoyed by a variety of audiences, they are primarily geared towards older readers. That’s why I’m glad to see Catherine Thimmesh bring some of the same behind-the-scenes paleoart detail to her new young reader’s book Scaly, Spotted, Feathered, Frilled.

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Scaly, Spotted, Feathered, Frilled by Catherine Thimmesh

Paleontological grump that I can sometimes be, I’ve often lamented the profusion of Walking With Dinosaurs style of documentaries. Such shows can be a refreshing step away from field sites and lab benches in moderation, but computer-generated dinosaurs have overshadowed the science that explains how we’ve come to restore the animals so realistically. And while Thimmesh’s book focuses on paleoartists working in traditional media rather than documentaries, the lessons still apply to the general question of “How do we know what dinosaurs really looked like?” Thimmesh’s objective is to show how artists meld scientific fact and speculation to create visions that no human has ever seen.

Rather than acting as a “How to Draw a Non-Avian Dinosaur” guidebook, Scaly, Spotted, Feathered, Frilled uses the changing traditions of paleoart and the various creative questions illustrators face to explore the curious combination of science and art that brings dinosaurs to life. In a six page sequence, for example, Thimmesh covers the weird 19th century image of Iguanodon created by Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, Charles R. Knight’s sluggish-looking Tyrannosaurus, and the major dinosaur image shift spurred by the switchblade-clawed Deinonychus to drive home the point the way we envision dinosaurs has always been bounded by our understanding of the fossil evidence at hand but allowed flexibility through hypotheses and the unknown. This sets up the rest of the book, wherein paleoartists discuss their craft.

Thimmesh is the book’s main narrator, but she weaves in points and perspectives from extraordinarily-talented paleoartists along the way. John Sibbick, Greg Paul, Mark Hallett, Tyler Keillor, and Sylvia and Stephen Czerkas explain the painstaking and deliberate process of taking animals often known only from incomplete skeletons and restoring them as realistically as possible while still keeping a sense of action and excitement. Paleoartists need to know anatomy and other scientific particulars as thoroughly as professional paleontologists do in order to figure out a dinosaur’s appropriate posture, musculature, behavior, and habitat. And even the one area where artists typically had free reign – coloration – has started to come into the realm of scientific evidence through the discovery that fossilized feathers retain clues as to what shades such plumage was in life. To draw non-avian dinosaurs, artistic excellence must be married to intricate scientific detail.

But as up-to-date as Thimmesh’s book is in many respects, there is one error of omission that is becoming increasingly frustrating to see. On page one, Thimmesh writes “[N]o one has ever laid eyes on a real dinosaur before.” Sure we have. Birds are living, feathery dinosaurs. They are just as much dinosaurs as bats are mammals. Thimmesh gives a brief nod to “the bird-dino relationship theory” in a caption on page 15, but that’s about all. Yet the realization that birds are truly surviving dinosaurs has provided artists with a wealth of new information from anatomy, behavior, and coloration to draw from. Thimmesh isn’t the only author to consider “dinosaur” to be synonymous with “non-avian dinosaur”, but this traditional disjunction ultimately hides evolutionary fact and exciting new science. From here on out, whoever wishes to write books on dinosaurs must find their own way to grapple with the reality that some dinosaurs survived.

My gripe about tradition aside, however, Scaly, Spotted, Feathered, Frilled is an excellent primer for young dinosaur fans and aspiring paleoartists alike. That is, if those groups are separate – they’re usually one in the same. I spent plenty of long afternoons trying to bring dinosaurs to life with colored pencils and huge sheets of paper, but I never knew how to do more than imitate elements I liked from some of my favorite illustrations. I wish I had Thimmesh’s book during those days. Our understanding of what dinosaurs were really like will undoubtedly continue to change, but Scaly, Spotted, Feathered, Frilled highlights the techniques that have been passed down through generations to do justice to those Mesozoic celebrities that continue to spark our imagination.