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Saturday, 26 April 2014

Palaeoartworks, the case studies, part 3: Ammonites and... extinct snails?

For the the final set of Palaeoart Case Studies produced for my Lyme Regis palaeoart gallery (running up until May 4th - catch it now before it's too late! Details here.), we're going to focus on molluscs. Yeah, that's right: palaeoart of squidy things, snails, clams and allies. Given that most palaeoart focuses on charismatic reptiles and mammals, this might be a hard sell. Let's see how the blog hits go with this one...

The general rarity of molluscan palaeoart occurs in spite of this group having a much better fossil record than virtually any vertebrate, as well as being fossils with uses beyond keeping socially awkward vertebrate palaeontologists off the streets. Molluscs do occur in palaeoart of course, but mostly as secondary or background animals, adding flavour to scenes dominated by larger, more charismatic species. This is a shame because molluscs are extremely interesting creatures in their own right, and especially so when we look at the bizarre forms that existed before our Recent molluscan fauna. Conchology is fun in the modern day, but becomes downright mind-bending when multiplied with deep time.

How confident can we be about the life appearance of these ancient shellfish? Because many molluscs have a fossil record quality which is basically opposite that of many palaeoart favourites (i.e. mountains of complete specimens), you might expect that we know a lot about their soft-tissues and life appearance. Do we? Read on to find out.

Erymnoceras: Ammonites - common fossils, artistic enigmas

Are there any more creatures more frustrating to palaeoartists than ammonites? These ancient cephalopods (the group of molluscs that comprising the shelled Nautilus, and the coeloids - squid, octopuses and cuttlefish) are superabundant in many Mesozoic marine deposits and, given this, we would expect at least a few extremely well-preserved specimens which reveal details of their soft-part anatomy and life appearance. This has certainly happened for fossil squid and belemnites, which are known from specimens showing their tentacle counts, ink sacs, body shapes and - sometimes - even the sizes of their eyes. Ammonite fossils are nearly as common as belemnites and certainly far more abundant than fossil squid, so there must be some fossils which inform palaeontologists and palaeoartists about their life appearance... right?

Male and female (respectively) Jurassic ammonites, Erymnoceras coronatum. The size difference between these genders is well constrained by fossil data, but the appearance of the actual animals is not.

Amazingly, no. The basic details of ammonite life appearance are far from clear, and exceptional preservation in the group is almost unheard of. Even the mineralised components of their radulae (rasping organs bearing numerous ‘teeth’, common to most molluscs) are incredibly rare, and good soft-tissue outlines of their bodies are unknown. While we can be certain that a squid-like organism lived in the last chamber of their shells (the ‘body chamber’) and was anchored in by muscles which left distinctive scars on the internal body chamber wall, little else can be said with certainty about their appearance. For instance, how many tentacles did they have? They very likely had some because they represent a grade of cephalopod evolution between Nautilus and coeloids, both of which bear tentacles. However, Nautilus has 90 small tentacles, and most coeloids have 10 large ones (octopuses, of course, have only eight). So how many did ammonites have? 10? 90? Another number entirely? And what of their eyes? Coeloids have large eyes and excellent vision on par with that of vertebrates, while Nautilus eyes are little more than organic pin-hole cameras. Which sorts, if either, did ammonites have?

And these are only immediate, cosmetic quandaries: much remains to be learned about ammonite floating postures, swimming abilities, and lifestyles. Given how elaborate some of their shell shapes are, and the unusual proportions of their body chambers, some ammonites must have had very unexpected appearances and floating mechanics indeed.

Despite being creatures which occur so commonly as fossils that it seems like we should know everything about them, ammonites are creatures fraught with uncertainty for artists and palaeontologists alike. Until new data comes to light, all life reconstructions of ammonites should be taken as extremely tentative, almost speculative renditions of their actual appearance.

Viviparus: a modern glimpse of the past

At first consideration, it may seem that accurately restoring ancient snails may be as hopeless as precisely restoring an ammonite. Like ammonites, their soft-parts are virtually unknown in the fossil record, the slug-like organisms inhabiting their coiled shells only represented by muscle scars left inside the shell.

The Creaceous Wealden mud snail, Viviparus cariniferus; probably the most accurately reconstructed extinct animal on this blog.
This is only sometimes the case, however. Unlike ammonites, snails - known formally as gastropods - are still alive in the modern day, and some types have extraordinarily long evolutionary histories. In some cases, members of modern genera evolved hundreds of millions of years ago, and remain largely unchanged in the present. This is so for members of the gastropod genus Viviparus, which first appear in the Middle Jurassic (c. 168 million years ago) and are still around today. For palaeoartists, these modern animals provide direct insights into the probable life appearance of their older cousins. For instance, modern Viviparus often have variably developed brown and ochre colour banding swirling around shells, so we may infer that their extinct relatives had the same patterning. The head and muscular foot (the name of the creeping gastropod propulsive organ) of modern Viviparus are also rather short and relatively broad, with two long tentacles emerging from the head and prominent eyes situated at their bases. We can’t know for certain that this is exactly what ancient Viviparus looked like, but it’s more parsimonious to assume that they resembled their modern counterparts than looking drastically different. The Early Cretaceous species shown here, Viviparus cariniferus, has been reconstructed with this logic in mind.

Modelling extinct animals on modern variants of the same species does not only apply to gastropods. The closer a fossil assemblage is to the present, the more likely it is to contain animals which have extremely close modern relatives, if not the exact same species. These instances provide palaeoartists with many models to essentially copy and paste into extinct scenes. If the biology of the modern variants is also well understood, they can also lend some compositional input to a palaeoartwork. A painting with Viviparus, for instance, would be most sensibly set around a relatively still or slowly moving water body, as this is where species of these gastropods occur in the modern day. Likewise, the salinity tolerances of modern Viviparus are low, so they only occur in freshwater: a reconstruction of these animals in this domain would therefore be logical. As with lots of palaeoartistic tricks, this technique is directly adapted from palaeontological science, where the biology of modern animals with fossil counterparts is frequently used to shed light on the depositional conditions and palaeoenvironmental settings of the rocks they occur in.

Monday, 21 April 2014

Palaeoartworks, the case studies, part 2: Feathered dinosaurs and tiny Crocodyliformes

It's time for part 2 of our 'Palaeoart Case Studies' series, this time featuring two subjects: the tiny Cretaceous crocodyliform Koumpiodontosuchus and the probable Lower Cretaceous troodontid Yaverlandia bitholus. Unlike our last subject in this series, giant pterosaurs, neither of these animals is huge. Koumpiodontosuchus is particularly diminutive with an estimated adult length of 600 mm long. Presenting the scale of an animal accurate is important for good palaeoart, as it's not only an important factor in the animal's biology and ecology, but also an integral part of it's character. Small animals present palaeoartists with a particular challenge because many folks hold the preconception that all extinct animals were large. For diagrammatic images, simply adding a person, modern animal or familiar object next to our creature shows its size, but this cannot work when rendering scenes that took place millions before familiar entities appeared. How do palaeoartists get around this? Read on to find out.

Yaverlandia represents the result of a recent palaeoart success story. After many years of trying, it seems palaeoartists have finally got the hang of recreating convincing-looking feathered dinosaurs. How did they do this? In short, by abandoning the need to show all dinosaurs as scaly reptiles and embracing the birdiness inherent to many species (or, to flip this around, realising that many traits unique to modern birds were common to many of their dinosaur ancestors). But what does this mean for the way we reconstruct troodontids and other feathered dinosaurs? Again, the answers are below.

This series of case studies is in aid of my art gallery in Lyme Regis, running until May 4th, at the Town Mill. Full details here.

Koumpiodontosuchus: a tiny, button-toothed crocodyliform

Reconstruction of the tiny Wealden bernissartid Koumpiodontosuchus aprosdokitii. Hopefully, you can see that it's not a large animal without having to think about it too much, but why is that? Prints of this image are available here.
The size of extinct animals a favourite topic of palaeontology aficionados, and presenting it accurately is an important goal for palaoartists. Although we often think of extinct species as very large animals, most were not giants. The skull of the tiny Cretaceous crocodyliform Koumpiodontosuchus show below, for instance, belonged to an adult individual that, in life, was about 600 mm long. But how can palaeoartists express a sense of animal size - big or small - without the use of modern objects, animals or people for reference?

Some general trends of animal appearance can be useful in conveying size in extinct species. These probably aren’t features that most of us think about when observing animals, but they provide palaoartistists with some tricks to give a sense of scale to their subject matter without using other objects or animals for scale. Generally speaking, facial features - particularly the eyes - of larger creatures are relatively smaller than those of more diminutive animals. The limb bones of larger animals are more robust and, as they approach the extremities, are proportionally shorter. Smaller animals often have less conspicuous muscle contours than larger animals, particularly if they have a fluffy covering and, in being lighter, smaller creatures are frequently more sprightly and ‘weightless’ than larger ones.

Animal proportions only give a very general sense of scale, however. To give a more precise measure, palaeoartists often juxtapose relatively familiar species alongside their subjects. The use of ‘background’ animals, or different varieties of plants, are useful in this respect. Even if the audience is not very familiar with these background entities, their proportions in relation to the subject gives an impression of scale. This can work in inverse, too: bigger animals or plants, shown in low contrast at a distance, can help reinforce the size of smaller subjects. Crafty consideration of point of view can also help: does the subject need a very low, tight point of view to be seen, or does a wider frame capture it more adequately? Again, these are not necessarily factors that we consider when viewing animals or artwork of them, but they are essential considerations for palaeoartists attempting to reconstruct not only the anatomy and lifestyle of their subject, but also their size and physical presence.

Yaverlandia: Britain's most bird-like dinosaur

Two Yaverlandia investigate a termite-riddent tree stump in Lower Cretaceous Britain. As with many other dinosaurs, their depiction here as very bird-like creatures is the result of palaeoartists having to completely overhaul the way feathered dinosaurs are rendered. 
Known only from skull caps, Yaverlandia bitholus is one of Britain’s lesser known dinosaurs. Found in Lower Cretaceous Wessex Formation cliffs close to its namesake, the Isle of Wight coastal village of Yaverland, it was thought for a long time to represent a member of the bone-headed dinosaur group Pachycephalosauridae. Recently, it has been reinterpreted as Britain’s first troodontid, an omnivorous theropod dinosaur closely related to birds and familiar carnivores like Troodon, Velociraptor and Deinonychus. Troodontids were big brained, nimble animals and most were rather small. Yaverlandia was no exception, with a tentative length estimate of about 2 m. 

Any restoration of Yaverlandia and its kin has to incorporate data on dinosaur feathering, details of which have only been available in earnest for the last 20 years or so. The uptake of feathered dinosaurs among palaeoartists has been variable. Some restrict them to specific regions of the body, while others provide smatterings of feathers across primarily scaly skin. Increasing numbers of artists restore these animals as very bird-like however, with feathers across their entire bodies including their heads, tails and legs. Fossil evidence is clearly in line with this latter approach. Bird-like dinosaurs, including troodontids, have been discovered with extensive feathering that covers their not only their torsos necks, heads and tails, but even sometimes their legs and toes. 

These discoveries have given palaeoartists a lot to think about when restoring the appearance of bird-like dinosaur species. Feathers are complex, three-dimensional structures which alter the body profile of their owners. They plump the appearance of the body and smooth contours of the animal’s profile. Thus, if a dinosaur has complex feathers, we can no longer simply restore their musculoskeletal system and wrap skin over it, as often done in the past. What’s more, palaeoartists have to think carefully about the way feathered dinosaur arms and hands are rendered, because their feather configuration is similarly complex modern bird wings: feathers erupt from the tip of the second finger to the elbow, with feathers of the shoulders covering the ‘gap’ between forelimb and body feathering. 

These ‘new look’ dinosaurs are more bird-like than ever, and evidence is mounting that feathers appeared much earlier in dinosaur evolution than classically realised. It is even quite probable that Tyrannosaurus was feathered. This is disheartening to some who ‘prefer’ the appearance of scaly dinosaurs, and many still erroneously render troodontids and their kin with scaly hides. Wholly feathered restorations of such dinosaurs are without doubt factually accurate renditions however, and entirely uncontroversial among scientists. 

Friday, 11 April 2014

Palaeoartworks, the case studies, part 1: Giant pterosaurs

If you're heading to Lyme Regis this weekend, or indeed at any point until May 4th, you should stop by the Town Mill: a dedicated gallery of palaeoart lies within. It contains more than just a bunch of pictures however, as it also endeavours to explain how palaeoart is done. A good palaeoartist restores long vanished skeletomuscular systems; knows how to fill anatomical gaps; gives a sense of size to alien-looking creatures, and constantly adapts to changing science to render their subjects more accurately. If they do their job well, viewers won't see how much (often considerable!) paper palaeoartists pull across the patchy, cracked fossil record. But how, specifically, are these illusions pulled off? And can we really be that confident about the results?

Some of the answers lie at my Lyme Regis gallery. Along with the paintings you'll find 'Palaeoart Case Studies', short explanations outlining the path from fossil to reconstruction. In each case, relevant fossil material is also provided to demonstrate how much - or little - artists have to work with. There's six of these in total, and I'll be sharing most or all of them here over the next few weeks. First up are the crowd-pleasing giant azhdarchid pterosaurs, animals which are so commonly reconstructed that we must know buttloads about their anatomy and proportions. Or do we? Read on to find out how confident, or not, pterosaur palaeoartists really are about reconstructions of giants like Arambourgiania philadelphiae, below.

Giant azhdarchid pterosaurs: iconic, famous, mysterious


Reconstruction of the giraffe-sized monster pterosaur Arambourgiania philadelphiae. The dirty secret is that 95% of what you see here is extrapolated from other animals.
Restorations of giant azhdarchid pterosaurs like Arambourgiania, Quetzalcoatlus and Hatzegopteryx are understandably common. What captures the imagination more than a giraffe-sized animal with wings spanning 10 m and a 2 m long head? All pterosaurs have an unusual air about them, but giant azhdarchids also have a majesty which is hard for artists to resist. Despite the common nature of their reconstructions however, giant azhdarchid fossils are not only very rare but also extremely fragmentary. No complete, or even near complete, fossils of giant azhdarchid skeletons are known, and a standard family kitchen table could hold the entire inventory of giant azhdarchid bones from around the world. Arambourgiania, for instance, is known from little else than the giant, tubular neck vertebra shown below. It stands to reason that these reconstructions are based largely on inference and educated guesswork, but are they simply products of imagination, or is there more to it?

Arambourgiania philadelphiae holotype vertebra, UJA VF1. From Martill et al. 1998. Scale bar represents 100 mm.

When attempting to restore the appearance of a poorly known fossil species, the first port of call is the anatomy of more completely known, close relatives - the closer the better. The best known azhdarchid species have 3 and 5 m wingspans, so were only a fraction of the size of their bigger cousins. With such a size difference, it is not sensible to assume that the larger animals were perfectly scaled-up versions of these smaller ones. Organisms rarely evolve different sizes without changing proportion somewhere. Bones of larger animals are often more robustly built than those of smaller ones, for instance, because bigger animals have greater masses to support. This is certainly true for giant azhdarchids, as is an disproportionate increase their neck lengths which correlates with size. Paying attention to seemingly trivial scaling details like this can make a tremendous difference to the accuracy of a reconstruction, especially when a lot of extrapolation is involved.

However, this is only half of the story about restoring giant azhdarchids, because deciding which animals are closely related among this group can be difficult. Not all azhdarchids were alike, and the interrelationships between them is unclear. In these muddy taxonomic waters, palaeoartists have to make some educated guesses. Whereas palaeontologists can admit that their data has limitations or that the relevant studies have not been done, palaeoartists have to stretch current data to finish their work. Artists restoring animals with poorly determined taxonomy like giant azhdarchids have to decide which other animals serve as the best models for their reconstructions, and this often involves some degree of intuition and opinion. Such palaeoartworks are especially vulnerable to being proved inaccurate when new data becomes available. Until then, the best reconstructions of these animals are simply those which use the most careful extrapolations and guesswork, and this should be borne in mind when looking at any reconstruction of a giant azhdarchid or other, poorly known fossil species.

Come back soon for the next case study!

Reference

  • Martill, D. M., Frey, E., Sadaqah, R. M., & Khoury, H. N. (1998). Discovery of the holotype of the giant pterosaur Titanopteryx philadelphiae ARAMBOURG 1959, and the status of Arambourgiania and Quetzalcoatlas. Neues Jahrbuch fur Geologie und Palaontologie Abhandlungen, 207, 57-76.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Palaeoartworks: a palaeoart gallery at Lyme Regis, April 7th - May 4th



As folks who follow me on Facebook and Twitter will have gathered, recent weeks have been spent not-so-secretly gearing up for my very own palaeoart gallery in the UK's spiritual home of palaeontology, Lyme Regis. Today, we're finally ready to go public: Palaeoartworks, as it's ended up being known, is now open.

Panoramic view of Palaeoartworks in near entirety. Image courtesy Georgia Maclean-Henry.
Palaeoartworks can be found in the Town Mill Malthouse, part of the Town Mill complex in the heart of Lyme Regis (map) and, from today (April 7th), is open every day until May 4th (including the Easter holidays). Admission is free, from 10.30am to 4.30pm daily.

The gallery is part of the famous Lyme Regis Fossil Festival, an annual event celebrating palaeontology and natural history with fossil stalls, outreach events, and public lectures by leading palaeontologists. The festival, now in its 9th year, will be running across the Early May Bank Holiday (Friday - Sunday, 3rd-4th May). I'll be present at the gallery for its final weekend, and it would be great to meet some readers if you find yourself in Lyme Regis for the festival. There may even - for the first time ever - be prints available to buy.

So, what can you expect from the gallery? Hopefully, there's a wide enough range of restorations to keep most tastes happy: dinosaurs, pterosaurs, Crocodyliformes, invertebrates, marine reptiles, even some fish. These are organised into are three collections. The first is dedicated to palaeoart of the Wealden Supergroup, a sequence of Lower Cretaceous sediments found throughout south-east England with an intensely studied palaeobiota and palaeoenvironment. Regular readers will know that I've been publishing a lot of Wealden artwork recently - enough, it seems, to fill the wall of a gallery - and my favourites are now on display.

Ever see a man make a gallery out of Wealden palaeoart? Yes, once.
The second set comprises - big surprise here - pterosaurs, the Mesozoic flying reptiles which need no introduction to anyone reading this (but if you need an introduction, consider this). A lot of the pterosaur imagery is reproduced from my book, but there's also some rarely seen or entirely new stuff here too. Efforts were made to show pterosaurs at their most diverse and interesting: you'll see them swimming, climbing, assaulting little dinosaurs, imitating famous film posters, and all sorts of stuff.

Partial shot of the 'Pterosaur' collection. There's a lot more to see in the gallery itself.
The last collection doesn't really have a theme, instead just being a suite of pieces I especially like: mating tyrannosaurs, fuzzy pachyrhinosaurs, noir-inspired palaeoart and so on. This section also features a video of art for which there was no space, including several brand new pieces and modified versions of older artwork. All of the art in the collection was produced in the last three years.

Miscellaneous palaeoart things: paintings, a discussion of ammonite palaeoart, and a scrolling movie of artwork. 
If pictures say 1000 words, there's at least 40,000 words on display at my Palaeoartworks. That, however, wasn't quite verbose enough for me, so you'll also find general introductions to the principle art subjects and several 'Palaeoart Case Studies': plinths showcasing fossil specimens behind select reconstructions and some explanation of how palaeoartists use these in their work. There's six of these in total, detailing the different approaches palaeoartists can take to fossil reconstruction, how sometimes we have to look beyond fossils of one particular species to obtain data, and how confident we can be about the resultant restorations. I'll share some of these brief bits of text online over the next few weeks.

So that's Palaeoartworks, then. Coming off the back of a post where the status of the palaeoart industry was not shown in a particularly good light (head here for the full article), it's nice to be writing about an event which pushes palaeoart to the fore. We need more events like this. Overall, I'm really happy with the gallery and hope you enjoy it too - remember to sign my guest book so I know you've visited!

A few acknowledgements

Naturally, there are a lot of people to thank here. Hats off to Kimberly Clarke for inviting my work down to Lyme Regis and organising the gallery space; Philip Clayton for helping organise and install the gallery; University of Portsmouth for sponsoring my printing costs and supplying in-house printing services; Gary Blackwell of Dinosaur Isle and Steve Sweetman for supplying a cast of Koumpiodontosuchus. A huge thanks to palaeoartist and Maximum cassowary-wrangler Gareth 'GaffaMondo' Monger, who provided top-quality printing and framing under tight deadlines (is there any other type?) - Granthams prints come highly recommended. Southsea Gallery virtually saved the show at the last moment. Finally, as usual, thanks to Georgia Maclean-Henry for help and support throughout the entire organisation and installation process. It's totally her fault if the pictures are wonky, though.

Friday, 4 April 2014

Can palaeoart prevent the over-commercialisation of fossils?

If money was no object, would you buy a sauropod skeleton, or artwork of one? A question to ponder while these Lower Cretaceous rebbachisaurids and 'Angloposeidon' look for water in this desiccating Wealden lake. Prints of this image are available here.
The greatest threat to 21st century palaeontology is the inflating commercialisation of fossils. At least, this the view put forward in a recent article by Kenshu Shimada and colleagues (2014), and I don't disagree with them. While the commercialisation of fossils is not inherently wrong, the explosion in auctioning spectacular fossil specimens, often at prices which are well beyond the reach of the scientific institutions, presents many concerns for palaeontological science. This is more than just jealousy from poor palaeontological institutions: it causes illegal plundering of fossil specimens, locality vandalism and loss of specimen provenance, robbing fossils of almost all scientific worth. Some legitimate scientists are involved in this game, either selling, lending their interpretation to auction lots, or publishing details of privately-owned fossils in peer reviewed literature. The latter, even when done with the best intentions (e.g. Sereno et al. 2009; Tischlinger and Frey 2013) panders to the private fossil market, sending a signal that scientists will accept and make-do with this new status quo. Even museums are getting in on the act, toying with the idea of selling off historically-valuable specimens for funding. At auction, commercial dealers often mislead buyers with scientific over-advertisement to increase lot appeal, making claims which have not been substantiated by genuine scientific investigation. The result has been years of debate over the legalities, economy and ethics of fossil commercialisation, with little evidence of a balance between those wanting to profit from and privatise fossils, and those who want them publicly preserved, studied and shared.

Desperate times call for desperate measures, and maybe a radical approach is needed to help settle these debates. Such an idea was pushed forward by Shimada et al. (2014), who proposed that commercialising palaeoart may be a viable alternative to selling spectacular fossils. This is not quite the first time this idea has been mentioned, although I think it's the first time it's been mentioned in print. Shimada et al. do not dwell on the point too long, merely stating that:
"...suggestions have also been made that, similar to the annual meetings of the SVP, our paleontological community can perhaps promote the sales of fossil replicas and 'paleo arts' (e.g., paintings and 3-D models of extinct organisms) as acceptable alternatives [to real fossil specimens]." Shimada et al. 2014, p. 3
Intuitively, this seems like a good idea. Combining the lucrative art market with palaeontology should allow collectors to own fossil-related wares without loss of scientifically-important specimens. Palaeoartists would make money, more specimens would end up in academic institutions, and collectors would obtain rare and valuable items - everyone seems to win in this arrangement. As someone with some experience of working within the palaeoart industry however, I'm not convinced that this plan could be executed in the foreseeable future, nor that it provides a solution to the problems of over-commercialising fossils. There seem to be three problems here: 1) original palaeoart and fossil specimens are not as readily interchanged as some may think; 2) our art is not seen as particularly interesting or varied to wider audiences, and 3) the palaeoart community is simply not in shape to offer the high-value, desirable art required for this bid, and will not be until it receives a lot more support from the scientific community at large.

Tarbosaurus specimen made famous - or more rightly infamous - when put up for auction in 2012. It was ultimately repatriated to Mongolia after palaeontologists pointed out the illegal nature of its exportation from its native country. Image from (shudder) the Daily Mail.

1. Palaeoart cannot compete with genuine fossils for aesthetic appeal or as a status symbol

As with any material item, the ownership of fossils is pursued because of academic interest, the collector mindset of owning unique objects, admiration of the natural beauty and the attainment of status. Fossil specimens, particularly large and spectacular ones, not only meet these criteria but exceed them. They're extremely rare. They cost lots of money to buy and maintain. And they're amazing. Looking at a fossil reminds us of unfathomable depths of time and evolution, and the very limits of our human experience. You don't have to know anything about fossils or palaeontology to be awed by them: their mystery, impressiveness, rarity and worth is obvious to anyone. It's little wonder that fossils can be sold at auction for large sums of money: they're immensely charismatic objects, and make major statements about the taste and wealth of their buyers.

If we intend on replacing fossils with palaeoartworks at auction, the latter needs to replace this appeal. Unfortunately, even the best-executed, most accurate, or most famous palaeoartworks can't inspire the same interest and awe as fossils themselves. That's not because palaeoartists are bad at their jobs, but because fossils and palaeoart are completely different entities. Fossils are natural objects obtained by chance and perseverance, and palaeoart is a human-derived statement about palaeontological science. It seems naive to expect rich buyers to turn from fossils to fossil-related artwork when the two have such different cultural statuses, and I think we are misunderstanding the people buying fossils if we think we can simply swap one for the other. We should probably abandon any hope of palaeoart being fossil substitutes, and realise that we need to sell palaeoart on its own merits.

Like any art, selling palaeoart is dependent on it being a fashionable commodity, culturally significant enough that it seems worth spending money on. Working against palaeoart in this regard is its real lack of status outside of the (largely online) palaeontology community. Palaeoart processes and credibility are poorly understood among the public and its most revered practitioners are entirely unheard of. It seems mostly considered a branch of dry scientific illustration, anonymous visual manifestations of what palaeontologists are imagining at a given time. Other times, palaeoart is seen as art for children, or pseudo-fantasy work with a similar target demographic to science fiction and fantasy media. In short, palaeoart is neither considered fashionable or culturally significant, and is not likely to appeal to the rich companies and celebrities who buy spectacular fossils at auction. The fact that master palaeoartists frequently find it difficult to auction their work at worthwhile prices lends credence to this idea. Sales of high-value palaeoart will not happen until we can demonstrate its cultural significance to people outside of palaeontology, and that's going to be an uphill struggle.

2. Palaeoart is probably too stylistically and compositionally homogenous to appeal to wider audiences

Because some art is sold on the strength of its style or composition, palaeoart may make some headway in the high-stakes open market so long as it offers a range of styles and subjects, with varied compositions and themes. Currently, palaeoart offers quite the opposite however, as it's compositionally and stylistically rather homogenous. Only rarely do palaeoartists deviate from realistic-ish portraits of animals, or animals in landscapes, to more stylistic or abstract waters. To my knowledge, this has never been done for significant financial gain. And yes, while palaeoartists do differ stylistically, it's a marginal difference compared to the spectrum in other branches of art. It's little surprise that palaeoart has entered a deconstructionist phase in recent years because its practitioners have noticed how repetitive and trope-filled a lot of palaeoart is (Conway et al. 2013). From a marketing point of view, this is dangerous territory. It's easy to imagine that many will take the attitude that 'once you've seen one piece of palaeoart, you've seen it all', and if its general style or compositions are not to taste, there's little chance of it being bought. We must remember that our objective here is to make palaeoart appeal as widely as possible, and not only to palaeontologists and dinosaur fans.

Those of us who know palaeoart may argue that it is continually changing and developing, and subject to fashions and trends as much as other artworks. These are mostly related to the methods of reconstruction and changes in science however, which are subtle to the point of near-undetectability for lay audiences. Palaeoartists and palaeoart fans may consider the publication of All Yesterdays (Conway et al. 2013) a recent landmark in palaeoart methodology, but for the uninitiated, it's just an excuse to draw extinct animals in different postures or with slightly tweaked anatomy. In short, unless potential buyers are up on palaeontological and palaeoart history - and most aren't - this significance of palaeoartworks will be missed. Our current lack of artistic diversity may be a real problem for those wanting to make palaeoart a valuable commodity.

Misty the Diplodocus, auctioned last year in the UK for £400,000. Image by Luke MacGregor/Reuters, from here.

3. Palaeoart needs support to develop the culture required for commercialisation

The points made above highlight palaeoart's biggest problem: it basically lacks context and culture outside of a tiny community. There's no way we can take this little industry to auction and expect it to compete with awesome fossils. There may be ways we can alter this, but it might require a significant overhaul of the way palaeoartists work with scientists, educators and the media. To be honest, palaeoartists are presently treated quite awfully with little public promotion, a resulting lack of public identity and an infamously poor and unreliable economy. This condition describes the 'major players' or 'masters' of palaeoart as well as its lesser-known or new, fledgling artists. We need to change this if we want palaeoart to step into the world of high-value auctions.

How might we go about this? Firstly, it is time that artists were obviously and publicly credited for their work. In other industries, artist names are essentially brands. Artwork is frequently valued because of who produced it rather than the art itself. In most off-line activities, palaeoartist accreditations are difficult to spot or, worse, allocated to faceless institutions or companies. This is even so in richly illustrated palaeontology books, where artists are treated as secondary importance to authors. This may be why palaeoart is often only seen as an extension of science: funny as it sounds, we rarely acknowledge palaeoartist roles in producing palaeoart. As long as we largely deny exposure and name-recognition to palaeoartists, no-one will pay top dollar for their work. Perhaps we should start prominently naming artists who make significant contributions to palaeontological projects - galleries, articles and books - to start building their reputations. With time, artist association may pay off commercially, lending 'brand recognition', credence or quality to the projects they work on. People could start to follow palaeoartist careers in the way we can musicians and actors and, when their original work comes up for sale, potential buyers will have some concept of its significance to the artist as well as wider scientific culture.

We also need to stamp out the idea that all palaeoart, and palaeoartists, are interchangeable. Not only is it highly detimental to palaeoartworks, but it cripples the industry as a whole. Book publishers, outreach coordinators and even major museums regularly have in-house artists directly copy palaeoartworks rather than using original work. Sometimes, the shamelessness of these acts is unbelievable. The reasons for this are normally to do with money and desire for 'in house' styling. This is a disaster for multiple reasons. From an outreach perspective, plagiarising artists often misunderstand their subjects and make mistakes: we fail in our goal of conveying palaeontology accurately. More broadly, these acts are questionable ethically and legally, they dilute the importance and impact of original work, are insulting to the original artists, and ultimately reduce the market value of palaeoartworks. I can't think of another artistic medium which allows this. Radio stations didn't play cover versions of Beatles songs because they don't want to pay royalties. Book publishers do not force artists to re-draw the Mona Lisa so it matches their house styles. They herald the art for what it is, its significance, and the hard work of the people behind it. By allowing palaeoart to be copied so liberally, we send the message that the artists are unimportant, which means their work is also worthless and undesirable.

The sort of crap palaeoartists have to put up with all the time. One is an original image considered shocking and thought provoking when first published, the other is a direct knock-off, produced for profit by a renowned palaeoart plagiarist. The institution hiring the latter has since taken the offending image, and others of similar derivation, out of circulation. 
This has to change if palaeoart is to develop any real sense of culture. After all, if the palaeontological community does not respect its artists, how can we expect wider audiences to? We need to stop employing individuals who repeatedly rip off other people's work and, if asked, palaeoartists themselves should refuse outright to rip-off the art of their colleagues. Authors, exhibition developers, publishers, and educators should employ genuine palaeoartists rather than knock-off illustrators, and obtain the education to know when 'historically important' images are more appropriate than new ones. We cannot have culture without a sense of history, after all. Some folks within the palaeontological community already strive to do this, often against the tide of publisher might. Palaeoartists do also sometimes get treated well by publishers, even being featured in well publicised, high quality books celebrating their art (e.g. White 2012). Unfortunately, these are exceptional instances in the palaeontological community, when they should be normal. I don't doubt this proposal will require more money to obtain original artwork for projects rather than second-rate copies, but the investment might pay off: better treatment and more business for palaeoartists; higher quality work for the products concerned; and more marketability for both. This would be a major step towards offering palaeoart as a replacement for fossil specimens.

Longer term, granting palaeoartists more fame, income and success can only have a positive outcome. Financially comfortable artists have more time to make art, which gives us more art to sell instead of fossils. Moreover, it allows time for experimentation. Palaeoart really needs this if we want it to float economically outside of the immediate palaeontological community. We need more stylised and abstract art in addition to more conventional scientific illustrations, or service to dinosaur fanboys. We can look to the popularity of modern animal artwork as a guide here: it's very popular, but also mostly stylised. Palaeoartists have little to offer in this area at the moment, and, if palaeoart is to really help push against over-commercialisation of fossils, we need fossil-based art which is as interesting and striking as the fossils themselves.

But will any of this ever happen?

The palaeoart industry has always been a bit of a slum to work in. Even Charles Knight, arguably the most famous palaeoartist ever, spent much of his career on sporadic contracts which made relatively little money (Milner 2012). There's no obvious sign that this is going to change either, or - from a strictly functional perspective - that it even has to. Palaeoart will probably always be around, its practitioners making the best they can from the opportunities that come their way. But this is not to say that perseverance alone makes it fit for high profile auctions as an antidote to over-commercialisation of fossils. There's very little palaeoart can do to develop itself, let alone take the brunt for another cause, until it is properly supported and respected by scientific and media communities, and we stop treating it as a near-worthless addendum to palaeontological science.

References


  • Conway, J., Kosemen, C. M. & Naish, D. (2012). All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals. Irregular Books.
  • Milner, R. (2012). Charles R. Knight: The Artist who Saw Through Time. Abrams.
  • Sereno, P. C., Tan, L., Brusatte, S. L., Kriegstein, H. J., Zhao, X., & Cloward, K. (2009). Tyrannosaurid skeletal design first evolved at small body size. Science, 326(5951), 418-422.
  • Shimada, K; Currie, P. J., Scott, E., & Sumida, S. S. (2014). The greatest challenge to 21st century paleontology: When commercialization of fossils threatens the science. Palaeontologia Electronica Vol. 17, Issue 1; 1E: 4 p;
  • Tischlinger, H. & Frey, E. (2014). A new pterosaur with mosaic characters of basal and pterodactyloid pterosauria from the Upper Kimmeridgian of Painten (Upper Palatinate, Germany). Archaeopteryx, 31: 1-13.
  • White, S. (2012). Dinosaur Art: the World’s Greatest Paleoart. Titan Books, London.