Palaeoart: drawing from the past – Encore!

“Science-art, or sciart, is used to illustrate scientific ideas and concepts. In most cases, the idea behind sciart is straightforward – draw or illustrate what you see. Of course it’s not really that simple because a great deal of research goes into these images – more than the casual observer realizes! But when it comes to palaeontology, it’s even more complicated because the subjects are long extinct.”

This comes from a post I wrote for Science Borealis earlier this week, looking at palaeoart. Please check it out to read more about the post! I wanted to continue the discussion here on my blog simply because I got so much fantastic material from Royal Ontario Museum palaeoartist Danielle Dufault (@MesozoicMuse on Twitter) that I thought it was a real shame to let it go to waste. Since I wasn’t able to cover all of it on my original post, here is a bit more about what she (and others) had to say about palaeoart.

Wendiceratops pinhornensis by Danielle Dufault

In particular, I was interested in the process of going from a fossil to a piece of palaeoart. Danielle was quick to point out that it’s not just “illustrate a dinosaur”, using Wendiceratops as an example:

“The first step, once the fossils have been prepared, is to photograph them according to scientific convention (lighting always from the top left!). Since the material was in such great condition, Dr. Evans opted to make photographic plates for depicting each bone instead of illustration. The photos are arranged in several pages and labelled to point out their anatomical features. Of course, not all features of this animal were complete or even present, so I got to do some skeletal reconstruction [… based on] the closest known relatives of Wendiceratops according to the phylogenetic assessment of this new animal. It’s up to me to educate myself on all the closest relatives, so I have to familiarize myself with the papers that have been published. So between this background knowledge and constant back-and-forth input with David and my labmates, I can reconstruct the frill of the new Ceratopsian […] and then the skull, and then the whole skeleton. Each of these can become figures for the paper, or perhaps work their way into an exhibit within the museum. But of course, in the end, if I’m lucky, I get the honour of bringing these long-lost animals back to life in the minds of people everywhere.  We went through many variations of our final portrait of Wendiceratops, because as David was seeking out the best resolution for it’s placement in a phylogeny, it’s features had to change to reflect it’s position. Its post-orbital horns and nasal horn have gone trough several different arrangements!”

Some drafts of Wendiceratops with different horn structures. Image copyright Danielle Dufault

Another thing that I was particularly interested in is where Danielle got the colour from for the final reconstruction of Wendiceratops. Rather than a full body reconstruction, she focused on using just the head, without the environmental reconstruction. Her inspiration came from a few different groups of modern animals:

“I tried to find a colour combination that occurs naturally in scaly animals today. Squamates of all kinds, though nowhere near closely related to dinosaurs, do share a scaly hide in common with ornithischian dinosaurs at least, so that’s often where I draw inspiration for colours in a non-feathered dinosaur. I also always try and consider how the dinosaur fits in to its ecosystem, or how they may have interacted socially. Wendiceratops, as is the case with many ceratopsians (especially centrosaurines), was discovered in a bonebed consisting of the disassociated skeletons of many individuals. If died together, it’s fair to assume the lived together. The extreme variety of frill and horn ornamentation across Ceratopsia also implies that they were used for signaling. It was a display structure, and so designed to be seen! What can I say, I don’t sit in the camp that thinks that large animals are all inherently drab and grey, though maybe not giant neon glow-in-the-dark beasts either. After going through a gamut of colour tests ranging from purple, green, bright yellow, deep burgundy (all of which looked far too garish to me), I came across a picture of a really beautiful Chlamydosaurus kingii (Frilled Lizard). It’s display was impressive, but it’s cohesive colour range of browns, creams, and orange were such a pleasing balance without seeming outlandish. Of course, I had been looking at a fair number of birds for inpiration, and was surprised at how many possible skin colours they had, and when I came across some with blue eyelids, I couldn’t resist adding in that tiny hint of odd colouring for Wendiceratops. Blue eyelids to contrast all those warm tones. For the horns, I went with a fairly conservative cream-coloured keratin sheath, because at least we know they can be that colour.”

Orange frilled lizard. Image by Borbala Cser/Anu.

Of course, in addition to reconstructions of bones and extinct animals, palaeoart can also be greatly detailed anatomical reconstructions. This year, Danielle won the Lanzendorf prize in Scientific Illustration from the Society of Vertebrate Palaeontology. This was not your typical piece of palaeoart, but an amazing model of a hadrosaur dental battery, for a recent paper on hadrosaurid dental battery evolution by Leblanc et al. Danielle said this was an “intense and interesting project”. She expanded: “Identifying this whole process in a cut-away style illustration was the most information-dense illustration I’ve ever done, and the idea of showing how living tissues work in a dinosaur is a complete dream of a project. I’m really honoured to have this piece win in this category, and hope to continue and improve my skills in representing my favourite branch of biological studies. I can’t imagine doing anything else!”

Given Danielle’s fantastic palaeoart, I can say that palaeontologists and palaeoart fans alike are also glad she isn’t doing anything else! This blog post has been really illuminating for me, really understanding how palaeoartists get their ideas and how they work along side scientists to get what they want done.

Hadrosaurid dental battery from Leblanc et al. 2016. Image by Danielle Dufault.

Thanks so much especially to Danielle for your awesome help, and also to Mark Witton, Bob Nicholls, and David Evans for answering my questions!


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