Drawn To Dinosaurs

With fossils and daydreams as their inspiration, illustrators bring the prehistoric creatures to life. Are the renderings accurate? Well, they're part art, part science, and always interesting.


June 03, 2005|By Dennis O'Brien | Dennis O'Brien,Sun Staff

They draw fantastic creatures that no one has ever seen, based on scraps of ancient bone and scanty threads of information. And their critics? Merciless experts they don't even know.

Yes, illustrating dinosaurs and other prehistoric life can be a challenging job for an artist.

"Most of the public is looking at the pictures. That's why their work is so important," said James Kirkland, a Utah State paleontologist and member of a team that recently discovered a new dinosaur species.

Paleontologists like Kirkland spend years digging in sun-baked wastelands, pawing through fossil remains in search of prehistoric life. But when they make a discovery, they need artists to create images that will grab the public's imagination.

"I feel like I'm acting as a representative of the dinosaur because it can't speak for itself," said veteran dinosaur illustrator Michael Skrepnick.

Kirkland and colleagues announced their discovery of Falcarius utahensis with help from Skrepnick, who brought to life a beast that thrived 125 million years ago, bridging a gap between meat-eating predators and later herbivores. And his images attracted public attention that the researchers consider vital for financial support for their work.

"We're one of those sciences where there's an artistry that can be tied to the public's reaction, as opposed to chemistry or maybe physics," said Lindsay Zanno, a co-discoverer of Falcarius.

Illustrations of prehistoric animals in journals, museums and even in the movies create indelible impressions. It's the artist who creates a dinosaur's personality, be it a friendly, loping vegetarian or a fierce predator. Either can remain etched in our memories: think of the Velociraptor that chased children in Jurassic Park.

"As someone in my 40s, I grew up with the image of dinosaurs as dull-witted, swamp-dwelling behemoths. But for the generation since Jurassic Park, there's an image of a fiercer, more predatory, fast-moving beast," said Lawrence Witmer, a dinosaur expert and anatomy professor at Ohio University's College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Some illustrators spend months or even years on a project, creating models out of clay or wire frames before they begin sketching. They do their own research, consulting experts and going through dozens of pencil sketches before committing to a color illustration.

"It's really important to study the creature and the environment that it lived in," said Kazuhiko Sano, an illustrator whose work has appeared in Scientific American, National Geographic and several international publications.

Sano makes clay models of the creatures he sketches and daydreams about them to trigger his imagination as he tries to give them a personality.

He also studies information about them -- their diet, how they moved and captured prey -- to try to bring them to life for viewers. It helps that he's been fascinated by dinosaurs since childhood.

"I go through a daydream in my head to try to make these creatures come alive," he said.

The results can be striking. Sano's cover for a Scientific American in 2003 shows a newly discovered, feathered dinosaur that looks ready to launch an attack. His illustration of a hobbit-sized Indonesian hominid on the March Scientific American cover shows a lean and muscular male looking up at the viewer, a spear in hand and a threatening look in his eye. The perspective was intentional.

"The problem was, how do you show that this human was really little without bringing in anything else to show scale? It accomplishes that by having him looking up from a lower perspective," said Jana Brenning, senior associate art director at Scientific American and a former free-lance illustrator.

The artists have different reasons for pursuing careers -- or parts of careers -- drawing dinosaurs.

Sano, who also paints landscapes, movie and opera posters and book covers, began drawing dinosaurs in the early 1990s to keep from burning out. Variety, he says, is a key to a productive career in illustration.

"If you're painting just people or just book covers or period pieces, you can get tired of them. Doing different things makes you more excited about doing them," he said.

Skrepnick, whose image of a snarling Falcarius appeared in newspapers and magazines across the country, is more of a dinosaur specialist. He's been drawing the ancient beasts since he began working as a volunteer at a Calgary museum in 1985. His work has also appeared in National Geographic and at the Field Museum in Chicago.

In the case of Falcarius, the illustrator was lucky: Researchers had 90 percent of the creatures' bones. All too often, paleontologists and their artist collaborators have only fragmentary evidence to go by.

"The more you have to work with, the better off you are," Skrepnick said.

When researchers have just a few bones or fragments, they use the creature's nearest relative as a model. They can usually place an ancient creature into its dinosaur family with just a few bones.

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