5 Things You Didn’t Know About Paleoart

«Shared passion for an obscure topic is what binds scientists and artists,» celebrated paleoartist Ray Troll tells us in an email. «They’re both curiosity-driven.» He would know. Based in Alaska, Troll builds on scientific findings to create art that depicts prehistoric life.

Through paleoart, fossils are revived. A single drawing or sculpture can define how the public will visualize an extinct species. So paleoartists strive to keep their work as accurate as possible — a task that gets harder when the experts disagree. It’s a tough job, to be sure, but it’s also a dream job for loads of fossil fans and dinosaur enthusiasts. Here are five facts about paleoart and the artists who create it.

1. A «Dinosaur Renaissance» Changed the Game
Paleoart needn’t always feature dinosaurs. All prehistoric organisms, from early palm trees to woolly mammoths, make worthy subjects. Nevertheless, the charismatic reptiles were at the center of a significant period in the history of this art form, the «dinosaur renaissance.»

Prior to the 1960s, dinosaurs were largely written off as dimwitted, tail-dragging hulks. Most paleoart from the early 20th century reflects that view.

But in 1969, Yale paleontologist John Ostrom published a new paper on Deinonychus, an 11-foot (3.3-meter) predator akin to Velociraptor. Noting its long legs and sickle-shaped claws, Ostrom claimed Deinonychus was an athletic beast who ran down its prey and might’ve even hunted in packs. The scientist went on to popularize the now widely accepted idea that today’s birds are descended from Mesozoic dinos.

Exciting hypotheses like these changed the discourse about how dinosaurs looked and behaved. In the 1970s and 1980s, a growing number of artists responded by illustrating the creatures in active, dynamic poses. What followed was a renewed public interest in both the study of dinosaurs and in paleoart itself.

2. A Technique Called «Shrink Wrapping» Has Met Some Pushback
Bare bones and skeletons may not tell you a whole lot about the overlying soft tissue. Hence, some paleoartists choose to reconstruct animals (reptiles in particular) as lanky beasts with ultra-low body fat, skinny tails, and heads that are largely devoid of cartilage or loose skin. The practice has been called «shrink wrapping.»

«I think there are some really valid points to be made about ‘shrink wrapping,'» Troll says. «Many paleoartists are reluctant to jump into more speculative reconstructions, preferring to play it safer.» By keeping their animals lean and mean, paleoartists can highlight known skeletal anatomy without making conjectural guesses about an animal’s soft tissues that might not have been preserved.

Back in the dinosaur renaissance, shrink wrapping was in fashion. That’s no longer the case. Modern critics point out that living animals tend to look a lot different than you might expect if you had nothing to go on but their naked skeletons. «Things like trunks, ears and blubber don’t usually fossilize,» Troll says.

Matt Celeskey, a paleoartist and museum exhibit designer, recently offered us his thoughts on the issue. «Today’s paleoartists are looking more closely at the extent of soft tissue in living animals,» he says via email. Chunky limbs and necks (not to mention poofy dino feathers) have gone mainstream. «I think this ‘fleshing out’ of paleoart makes for heightened levels of believability in the reconstructions, and greater diversity in the way artists approach their subjects,» Celeskey says.

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