Monday, May 30, 2011

Dinosaurs of the recent past

I suppose some of you who have been following this blog for some time and who aren't interested in dinosaurs probably find these posts excruciating.  Sorry, guys; there will be plenty more urban sketching posts, including some very soon.

Meanwhile, I've been spending the last three months or so re-learning how to draw dinosaurs, and rediscovering the world of dinosaurs-- the research, the art, and the fans, thanks to the dinosaur blogosphere.

Why do I say "rediscovering?"  Because, about 17 years ago, I was nuts about dinosaurs.  Just completely bonkers.  This post is about how that all started and ended, and started again.

As a pre-teen, I was certainly a fan of dinosaurs, but I was never the kind of serious devotee that many of my friends were at that age.  It was my final year in middle school when I stayed up all night reading Jurassic Park for the the first time on my bottom bunk that I became truly hooked.   Mind you, this was a few months before the movie came out.  My dad was a hardcore Crichton fan at the time, and my brother and I would read anything that he read.  By the 7th grade I was reading Ursula K. Le Guin and Robert L. Forward, so Crichton didn't seem too tricky.  I read Sphere first, I think, then moved on to JP, which I still think has one of the most compelling covers for any book I've ever seen.  I knew the movie was imminent, so I wasn't reading the book in some hype-free vacuum, but I nevertheless had few expectations.

I should say right now that I have always been a person who fixates exclusively on one interest for a while until I feel I have gained some measure of expertise, at which point I move on to the next thing.  Prior to my dinosaur interest I was a scholar of all things whale-related, having watched Voyage of the Mimi in 6th grade science.  I promptly dropped that for comic books, after my Uncle Mark and Aunt Mary gave me a copy of How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way by Stan Lee and John Buscema.  I had been on that kick a few years (and didn't drop it entirely, at least at first) when dinosaurs came along.

After I read the last page of Jurassic Park I quickly pulled my few dinosaur books from my bookshelf and began to re-read, with far more enthusiasm than ever before.  I had a copy of David Norman's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs that my grandmother had given me for Christmas when I was younger.  I had a picture book called Dinosaurs by Anthony Rao filled with beautiful colored pencil illustrations.  I had another gift from my aunt and uncle, a very cool and very ahead-of-its-time book on Pterosaurs by Helen Roney Sattler and illustrated by Christopher Santoro.  It featured hairy(!) pterosaurs of all things and talked about the idea that they were warm-blooded, and made abundantly clear the fact that pterosaurs were not dinosaurs.  Of course, when I got it for Christmas as a 6-year-old I had no preconceived notions about pterosaurs at all, so nothing about it seemed all that controversial to me.

I absorbed as much as I could from the books, including Norman's already-outdated Encyclopedia, and began to psyche myself up for the movie that was still some six months away.  I remember getting a copy of Newsweek with the movie's T. rex on the cover and a big spread of the brachiosaur inside.  I remember the whole family going to the theater on opening night (something we had only done before for Indiana Jones and Batman).  (I saw it at least 8 total times in the theater, including twice at the IMAX.  That fact embarasses me now.)   The final step in the process was forcing my parents to buy me a copy of The Making of Jurassic Park  and looking at all the dino concept-art by Crash McCreery.  I think I made my mind up right there in the bookstore that I would be a dinosaur artist.

Only my dinosaur world was about to change again in only a few months.  That summer I also got a copy of The Dinosaur Heresies by Robert Bakker on the basis of Crichton's acknowledgments list in the back of JP, and my memories of the guy from Christopher Reeve's "Dinosaur!" from the '80s.  There was a feathered Deinonychus in there!  Weird.

Then I discovered in my school library (I was now a high school freshman) a copy of Predatory Dinosaurs of the World by Gregory S. Paul (another guy acknowledged by Crichton).  It was shocking at first to see all the feathered dinosaurs in there.  I showed others, who also thought it bizarre, and a little bit crackpot-ish.  But I checked it out and read it from cover to cover (no joke) over the weekend, and was convinced:  Gregory Paul and Bob Bakker were right, and everyone else was wrong, including JP.


I spent the next two years of my life ripping off Bakker and then Paul in countless dinosaur drawings.  They got steadily better over the years, at least technically, even if they were all essentially plagiarism.

Wow-- this must have been after just seeing Paul's raptors for the first time.  I had no real sense yet for Paul's style or proportions, just the profile running pose.  The clenched foot is interesting.  I must have still been borrowing from Crash McCreery.  Check out the ape-like arms.
















This T. rex is a copy of Greg Paul's T. rex, but with the pen and ink stipple style of Bakker.  The date on this looks like fall of '93.   Small head and feet on this guy.

This Triceratops is now using Paul's pencil style with Bakker's running trike skeletal pose.  Again, bad proportions.




At some point I think I became so confident in my ability to draw T. rex that I wouldn't use a reference and instead just went for it.  Somehow he got leaner and more tilted.  His head is all funny-looking, too.  The pattern is another Paul rip-off.

For some reason, Homalocephale:

Well, at least I really did get better as an artist at some point, to the extent that my plagiarism would be truly lawsuit-worthy now.  This Velociraptor muscle study is just copying out of Greg Paul's book.  This is on 18" x 24" posterboard by the way.  The others are a similar scale.  I did my share of drawings on 8.5" x 11" dot-matrix printer paper, but I wasn't too intimidated by scale like some kids my age were (and some much older folks still are).  I liked working big.


So then I stopped.  What happened?  Well, in my high school art classes I got a lot more serious about trying to make "real" art, whatever that means.  But the truth is, I got into the Beatles, and then guitar.  Remember what I said about switching interests?  I did a handful of dinosaur drawings my junior and senior years, and one or two things in college, as a fun exercise, but nothing too serious.  I think my dinos really got weird after I'd been away from them so long.  The Greg Paul running pose got even more Mannerist and slaptsicky, as evidenced by these two pieces from college (they're still each about ten years old):



Then, for a decade, I didn't draw one dinosaur or even really read up on any dinosaur news.  You can imagine how surprised I was to learn about the Liaoning fossils and that we now know small theropod dinos were indisputably feathered!  Thanks to my job as a paleo-expert at Dinosaur-Quest, at long last I've returned to making dinosaur art again.  Old habits die hard, and it's been tough to break the old Greg Paul stranglehold on my work.  I still like his stuff, and happen to actually agree with a lot of his recent comments on paleoart, but I've had enough training in art now that I feel I can make the dinosaurs I want to make, and I'm having a lot of fun doing it.

tyrannosaurus rex
This recent T. rex is my first ever all-digital painting.  

1 comment:

  1. Love it. These dinosaur drawings are brilliant. I too was crazy about Jurassic Park when it came out, and read the book several times back then (great read), mostly because I was dinosaur nuts when I was a young kid. I used to go to the Natural History Museum in London all the time, my sister used to take me, I knew everything back then. At school I remember we had some basic art-animation package and I did an animated Tyrannosaur running. Now I'm trying to get my three year old into dinosaurs, took him to the museum in London at christmas, but i'm not sure he likes them as much as I did yet. We'll see! He loves the Beatles though...

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