Thursday, February 16, 2012

Problems With Paleo Art

When I started doing paleontological illustrations, I was unquestionably inspired by Gregory Paul. I'd track down a diagram or photograph of a skeleton, and draw or trace the individual bones in a new pose.

And then I'd flesh them out. At this point, what I was doing wasn't so much art as a grunting, primitive attempt at getting some kind of visceral contact with extinct life. But this technique was so restrictive -- the silhouettes do not deliver as much of a sense of a living animal as I'd like, and I always had a shabby feeling about relying on reference materials. It's not like any of this was commercial work.

In order to vary things, sometimes I'd take a photograph of a skeleton, manipulate it a bit, and use it as the basis for a piece. I'm not sure where the original photograph for this came from -- I just figured I'd changed it enough not to worry. Again, personal work, not commercial.
But it was frustrating. I wasn't able to render as well as I'd have liked, my draftsmanship was weak... I was struggling for a comic book look, and then being unsatisfied with the results.

And I knew I needed to get closer to the original material. So I tried contacting some working paleontologists. The experience was kind of a drag -- at first, I was received with open arms, and told that after the next Society of Vertebrate Paleontologists convention, I'd have a nice sit-down with a very prominent paleontologist, who would go through my portfolio and see if we might have some mutual interests. Sweet!

But then I got an email that suggested rather strongly that my man had been exposed to some bad, wrong people. He said something about too many paleo-groupies, and called off our meeting. Probably just as well, given the caliber of my work at the time.

Flash forward a couple of years. I was asked to produce work for an art show. Let's not go into the details, but after I put a good bit of work into it, things fell through. But I did make some advances. These aren't digital pieces. They were done using a mix of graphite pencils and sticks, ink, and black and white Prismacolor pencils. I found that the ink and Prismacolors were necessary to get deep grays and blacks without developing an unattractive sheen, and the white Prismacolor allowed me to add touches of light to inked areas, making them congruous with the pencil work.

In this piece, I worked from a reproduction of a Velociraptor skull I probably shouldn't have bought. Oh, well. It classes up the joint. But I think it proves my point about needing to be closer to the fossils to produce good work.

The frustrating thing about working from photographs is that you're never sure if they're really orthogonal, you don't get a sense of the actual shape of the bones -- they're reduced to graphics rather than representations of solid objects. I can feel myself losing valuable information as I work. It drives me nuts. And I never quite get the poses the way I want them. They seem too posed.

But when I get that feeling of life, it's worth it to me, even given the various awkwardnesses I generate in the process.

This image is probably the most popular thing I've done, at least among my friends. For this one, I didn't use an initial skeleton, but rather sketched it out freehand. Why I felt obliged to stick to a strict side-view I cannot say...

This was the heartbreaker of the project. It was a life-sized Ceratosaurus head. It took me over a month to draw the neck, shading every scale, and my back gave out twice. I had to give up in the end, having rendered the neck, unable to physically execute work at that scale. I have to be able to work from my recliner. Oh, well. Live and learn.

So let's see. So far, I've gotten some social disrespect, some physical pain, and some artistic dissatisfaction.

I did have a number of pieces published in Mike Fredrick's Prehistoric Times magazine, which was quite pleasant. It also gave me an excuse to ditch dinosaurs from time to time.

A pal of mine told me this Hyeanodon Horridus looked like Benji gone bad, which dated the man fairly savagely. Still, this has a not-quite-there feeling to it. Look at how disjointed that skeleton looks. Good hobbyist, eh illustrator, bad artist.

Science humor -- it's pretty much a blot on the earth, but sometimes I can't help myself. This was one that got me involved in the on-line pale0-art scene when Brian Switek posted it on his Laelaps site. This led to my eventual involvement with the Art Evolved website.

And this is pretty clearly a cartoon, not scientific illustration. I'd decided at that time that since I wasn't going to get access to fossils, then I may as well just fake it.

See, this does and does not work. Still hobbyist stuff. The sleeping Allosaur looks dead, the ground is simply lacking, the shadows are weak, etc. But it's got a bit of a thing, where if it was like this but only good... He sighed.

Japanese brocade prints are one of my most important influences, and I've tried to incorporate this into my paleo art. Part of this is due to the distance many of these artists had from their subjects, and how inaccurately they portrayed them.

When I saw photographs of famous waterfalls in Japan compared to their print renderings as drawn by Hiroshige, I realized that the stylization and inaccuracy of these representations made them perfect models for my paleo art.

And there are other graphic traditions to draw on. With these two pieces, I felt as if I'd gotten some real art in -- but this one was based on a print by Max Ernst, and the next was drawn from a photograph I took of a skeletal mount at UC Berkeley. If given access to fossils, I would dearly love to do a full series of prints in this style.

But why do I do them? It's purely out of nostalgia for the prehuman.

It's been a long time since I've done a paleo art piece. This was the last one I did, my first attempt at the kind of fully-rendered 'realistic' art that's standard in the field.

Honestly? I'm not sure where to go next. I want to know more about prehistoric plants, I wish I was a better draftsman in general, but in particular of landscapes, etc, etc, etc. Here's the thing. I'd love to work with paleontologists, but until I do? This is art, not science. I wish it were otherwise, I struggle as hard as I can for accuracy, but I am not a scientist.

So until then, I'm doing this for personal creative satisfaction -- and I'm honestly not sure which direction I should take next. Grrrr... all I know is that dissatisfaction means I need to work harder.


Craig Dylke said...

Awesome post, my good sir.

I am getting rather sick of being stuck in the middle of the scientist vs. palaeo weenie clashes myself. This has been becoming a bigger problem in the past two years. I suspect it is one of a few prompts to Mr. Paul's meltdown (among a couple others... not that I care as he kinda blew the PR/sympathy front of his attack).

I'm kind of stumped on how to seperate myself from the weenies. I don't fancy myself a palaeontologist who just "didn't make it due to circumstances". I just like 3Ding prehistoric critters.

One futile step I'm trying to take is launch a sister blog to ART Evolved. A database of simplified academic information of visual importance to artists. It's not exactly as good as talking to a real scientist, but its the best I can do with my connections and know how.

Wrapping up I can't say how much I love that print of the T-Rex Edmontosaurus pic you sent. Do let me know how I can get you back for that one!

Sean Craven said...

Paleo-weenie. That is the term we've been looking for.

Yeah, that scene was a drag. I didn't want to refer to the paleontologist by name, because his public reputation as such suggests that he's a million miles away from being a dick. Which doesn't mean His behavior toward me was dickish, but I think he was having a legitimate response to social trauma.

If I try and bust a move in that direction again, I am going to print up a leaflet, a one page folded in three panels kind of thing, and show some of my art and include a clear and specific "I am an artist who wants to learn from science and I will never argue with you about paleontology EVER" statement on both the front and the back, and then just mail out a shitload of them.

It all feels like lottery tickets sometimes...