Every so often I like to put aside my obsession with the Ediacaran biota and have a good look at some of my old dinosaur books, revisiting what originally got me into palaeontology. One in particular stands out, simply titled Encyclopedia of Dinosaurs, published by Beekman House and containing over 140 dinosaur profiles. Dinosaur palaeoart truly is some of the most fascinating and beautiful, when it is done well, and this book is chock full of sumptuous illustrations. One of the most featured artists is Greg Paul and rightly so, for he was a key figure in changing how we view dinosaurs. Gone were the big, often green, lumbering creatures moving sluggishly or not at all. Paul’s dinosaurs were dynamic and he pioneered a process which allowed for more scientific accuracy. His skeletals set a standard and the pose has become iconic. But there was, for me, always something missing. Looking at his artwork gives me the feeling that they were not real animals, or at least when he has tried to capture movement. It isn’t true of all cases, as there are some which I cannot help but revisit and allow myself to be amazed (none of Paul’s images will be reproduced in this post, so if you want to see them, his website is here).
Greg Paul has come under some heavy criticism over the years, not least for his bizarre ideas regarding dinosaur phylogenetics (he is possibly the reason that Deinonychus is named Velociraptor in Jurassic Park, as he sees them as the same genus). He also has some interesting views regarding palaeoart, some of which are valid, whilst some may cause you to raise an eyebrow. His self-aggrandisement grates rather a lot, take a look at this page on his website, as he throws superlatives at himself almost constantly. He is certainly influential and has every right to threaten legal action when people blatantly rip him off, but he takes things too far. He doesn’t want other artists to do anything which resembles the “Greg Paul look” and that includes poses he favours (particularly skeletals). It is a fair point that if you want the Greg Paul look it is better to go to the man himself rather than an imitator, but he goes to the extreme of suggesting that other palaeoartists should just not bother, for they could never match the artistry and scientific rigour of the great GSP. I don’t want to go into too much detail on these points, I agree with some of his views, though his suggestion that other palaeoartists should use different poses for skeletals is odd considering skeletals are in part supposed to aid with comparison with other taxa, so a standard pose would be beneficial to the science. If you want to read some criticisms, check out these posts on The Paleo King blog: here, here and here.
What I really want to focus on is Greg Paul’s status as the “leading originator of the modern look of dinosaurs” (his words). Palaeoart might just be going through another sort of renaissance, shifting from Paul’s approach to what will likely be labelled the All Yesterdays approach, making his “modern look” a thing of the past. These changes have been infiltrating palaeoart steadily for a while, but with the release of a new book it looks like they could change the face of palaeoart. Some key points of this movement are worth looking at:
Appearance: Taking cues from Greg Paul, many palaeoartists apply his rigorous approach to anatomical depiction, showing what science can demonstrate regarding the bones and musculature of these ancient beasts. The result is scientifically consistent, but way too conservative, according to the authors of All Yesterdays. These “shrink-wrapped” dinosaurs fit snugly into the views of dinosaurs as very active beasts, but just do not feel real. The animals we see today have extra tissues and it is difficult to discern muscular and skeletal details without skinning the animals in question. So it seems that Paul’s approach works fine as a basis, but it needs more, something is missing. Some animals look positively bizarre when they have all of their soft tissues, so some speculation is warranted, provided that it has basis in the science. The result is a dinosaur depiction which looks like it could be real, check out John Conway’s art, one of the authors of All Yesterdays, for a good example of what I mean.
This criticism of Paul’s approach is highlighted in the book by reconstructing extant organisms using his anatomical approach, as though future palaeontologists have reconstructed them (if you are a fan of Nemo Ramjet you will be pleased to know that he is one of the authors/artists, also known as C. M. Koseman). Below is Koseman’s GSP style Homo sapiens:
Although their criticism is a very valid one, Greg Paul has produced work which was ahead of its time and does have the feel of a modern animal. A favourite of mine, found on page 128 of the aforementioned encyclopedia, depicts two Deinonychus covered in feathers, in a book published in 1990. Some members of the public are still coming to grips with the idea of feathered dinosaurs, and Greg Paul was showing them before the overwhelming amount of current evidence (though his application of feathers is also now considered to be conservative). I wonder what those people would make of the next image:
Behaviour: The second key area of change is behaviour. Palaeoart is filled with too many clichés, with incredibly angry looking theropods attacking everything in sight, Troodon chasing small mammals and other beasties, dromaeosaurs leaping with their claws ready to sink into prey, and so on. Yet behaviour is one of the most speculative aspects of palaeontological reconstruction. There are so many different things which dinosaurs could be doing, and All Yesterdays presents that range, even taking it to some extremes which remain plausible (see here and here). Like other animals, dinosaurs cleaned themselves, defecated, vomited, rested, slept, played, socialised, wandered aimlessly, and even had behaviours which may surprise (and is it wrong of me that I love seeing dinosaurs showing no behaviour at all because they are dead?). The authors, Conway, Koseman, and Naish, are not suggesting that rampant speculation should be the order of the day, but that just as anatomical reconstructions have been too conservative, so too have depictions of behaviour.
I would, again, like to say that Greg Paul is not completely guilty, as some of his images show behaviours which might be considered mundane, and those are the ones which feel the most real to me. The Deinonychus image I mention has one of them using its sickle-claw to have a nice scratch, and one of the best images in the book is found on pages 80-81, showing a Jurassic scene where Allosaurus is simply lying down quite lazily as Camarasaurus, Diplodocus and Stegosaurus walk around and drink (though there is a beautiful Doug Henderson picture which is the most believable in the whole book). But overall there is a need for change.
Despite the length of this post I have not yet bought the book, though you can get many insights from some of the following links: here, here, here, here, here, here, and here (I am not quite sure why, but I found it amusing to do it that way… oh, OK, have another). I sadly couldn’t afford to get to the talk in London either, but once I have purchased the book (again, available here in many formats) I’ll give it a decent review perhaps. I like what I have seen so far, as the older artwork seemed to have something missing which has been added by the All Yesterdays approach. I see their artwork and get the impression that these really were living beasts and I hope to see more in the future. One question does come to mind; will Greg Paul update his own approach? Or respond by lashing out?