A Utahraptor family tears into a trapped Hippodraco.
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By Julius Csotonyi.
A Utahraptor family tears into a trapped Hippodraco.

The Prehistoric Worlds of Julius Csotonyi

Paleontology is a kind of time travel. It isn’t quite as fast as Emmett Brown’s DeLorean or as swanky as the TARDIS, but standing on the vestiges of ancient environments, picking out remnants of prehistoric life, nevertheless allows us to see through the ages. Bit by bit, all those geological and biological pieces come together to let us trace images of what life was like during the distant past, and artist Julius Csotonyi is exceptionally talented at visualizing what lies at the intersection of science and speculation.

If you even have a passing interest in prehistoric life, you’re already familiar with Csotonyi’s art. He’s created detailed murals for museums around North America, contributed some of his work to Dinosaur Art, and frequently creates illustrations to announce new scientific discoveries – from many-horned dinosaurs to giant Arctic camels. But no matter how much of Csotonyi’s art you’ve seen, nothing compares to his new book, co-written and edited by Steve White, called The Paleoart of Julius Csotonyi.

Csotonyi’s glossy new collection isn’t so much a gallery as a tour through life’s storied history. Starting with weird “fishapods” and other early oddities, the book leads readers through prehistoric time all the way up through the “Age of Mammals.” Every image has a unique feel. Csotonyi works in photo composites, digital paintings, and pencil, creating prehistoric depictions that range from photorealistic to detailed sketches that resemble slightly-hazy imaginings of these long-lost animals. And through it all, Csotonyi’s animals run, swim, breach, flap, chomp, skitter, and lope through the landscapes, giving the viewer the impression that they’re really watching a prehistoric scene rather than an obedient dinosaur posing for the artist.

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The book itself is finely-printed. Csotonyi’s images have never looked crisper. This makes even old images look new, although, in some cases, it does highlight the current limitations of photocomposite illustration.

Some of the photocomposites, such as a portrait of the early human Ardipithecus, show a just the slightest disjunction between the animals and their background. This can throw ancient organisms into the uncanny valley. But when this technique works, as Csotonyi has become increasingly adept at doing, it takes a moment to even realize that an illustrated animal has been placed within a photographic proxy of a lost habitat.

And whether in photocomposite or pencil, Csotonyi’s greatest strength is considering animals as parts of their environments rather than gaudy prehistoric monsters. This attention to ecology creates some true stunners, such as a dome-headed Acrotholus dwarfed by a larger dinosaur track and a fluffy little Archeroraptor stealing a scrap from a carcass before a grumpy tyrannosaur chases it away. Then again, the most stunning image in the entire book is a double-page spread of disembodied horned dinosaur heads, each detailed down to individual scales, which shows just how varied and strange these herbivores were.

This visual feast is supplemented by a smattering of text. Each illustration gets a rundown of basic stats – the kind of painting, who it was created for, what animals are featured – and others are paired with comments from the paleontologists who named the animals in question, short descriptions of the fossil creatures, or long explanations of how Csotonyi created the illustrations, the most striking example of the latter being a ground-up, fisheye view of a sauropod breaking down a tree. Some of this text is a bit too tiny, but otherwise the text helps amplify that message that Csotonyi is a prolific and skilled artist who is bringing some of the latest fossil finds to life.

In fact, more than a few of the dinosaurs featured in the book – such a the tyrannosaur Lythronax – were named within the last year. That means readers are likely to encounter animals they’ve never seen before, but it also speaks to how important paleoart has become in acquainting us to these animals. An image attached to a news report provides a first impression of creatures we’ll never see in life. Csotonyi is an expert at this kind of artistic introduction, giving us fleeting glimpses of lost worlds.

The Paleoart of Julius Csotonyi by Julius Csotonyi and Steve White is out now.