It is sometimes said that artists are the eyes of paleontology, because our work gives visual form to the theories that scientists have about dinosaurs and other extinct creatures. Paintings helps shape the way the public imagines dinosaurs. Could they run fast? How did they look when they were attacking—or defending themselves? Were they dull grey or striped or spotted?
There’s bound to be a certain amount of guesswork in paleoart. All we have to start with, really, is a box of bone fragments, a footprint or two, and a lot of opinions. Because these creatures were real, we have an obligation to the facts. On the other hand, since they’re long gone, we have a degree of artistic latitude.
To paint a dinosaur restoration you don’t have to start with a blank canvas and dream the whole thing up from nothing. There are a lot of tricks to fortify your imagination and to give your work those little touches of naturalism that trick the viewer into thinking he or she is seeing a slice of real life rather than an artistic fabrication.
Watch out for the spiky look
A lot of feathered dinosaurs are shown with a spiky, ruffled look. Real bird feathers, including flightless birds, more often show a variety of textures and silhouettes, sometimes with a smooth contour, or blending into a mass. Also, keep in mind that feathers are grouped into into larger tracts. To study real bird feathers, sketch them in ornithology collections, and learn from the work of the great bird illustrators, who have developed the skills of painting feathers over a lifetime.
Change your behavior
I’ve painted more than my share of running, snarling T.rexes, and so has everybody. It’s such a cliche that we almost don’t react to these pictures any more. Why not show a dinosaur drinking water, scratching an itch, bathing, sleeping, or courting a mate? If a dinosaur has feathers, there’s a whole repertoire of preening behaviors that you can infer from birds.
Keep your head down
Look at the posture of real animals. They spend most of their time with their heads down, especially if they’re plant eaters. There’s a tendency for us to paint dinosaurs rearing up in human-like poses. But recent thinking about sauropods and hadrosaurs suggests that they spent most of their lives in more head-down, tail-up postures, unless they are alarmed.
Close your mouth
Dinosaurs, especially meat-eating dinosaurs, are nearly always depicted with their mouths open, but how often do you see films of real animals or birds with their mouths agape? Unless they’re in the act of biting or vocalizing, most creatures shut their traps. On most predatory dinosaurs, the closed mouth has a distinctive overbite, and most articulated skeletons are found that way, too.
Mess things up
Don’t paint the dinosaur in “showroom” condition. They had a hard life, and fossils are often found with injuries and bite marks. If it makes sense for the scene, show them wet, dusty, muddy, or covered with debris. Some of their teeth might be broken off, or their horns scratched and worn.
Last week's dino art tips, link.
Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Good source for understanding bird feathers and plumage, link.
Hawk photo courtesy Wikipedia
Elephant Photo courtesy 4x4 Global Challenge.
Tomorrow: Hair, Part 2: The Ribbon Secret