We’ve all seen those colorful, life-like illustrations of dinosaurs—T. rex lunging with open jaws, for example, or a giant Brachiosaurus nibbling at prehistoric foliage. But one has to wonder, how accurate are these paintings, really? What mixture of scientific fact and artistic fantasy goes into dinosaur illustrations?
We posed the questions to James Gurney, the creator of the beloved book series Dinotopia, and an artist who regularly paints dinosaurs for national publications. Gurney explained how he resurrects long-extinct life, in color and on canvas.
LEARN YOUR WAY AROUND A FOSSIL.
Paleoart is as much about science as it is about art. Artists like Gurney study fossilized remnants of dinosaurs in order to understand their anatomy and proportions. Because no one has ever photographed a Stegosaurus, obviously, paleoartists have to work like detectives, drawing on whatever physical evidence they can gather. This evidence can come directly from fossils or footprints.
“I’m interested to reconstruct the skeleton,” Gurney says. “I build outward, building the muscle sets, and trying to figure out what the skin would look like—whether it’s covered with feathers or some feather-like surface. It’s kind of a reverse X-ray vision.”
Paleontological discoveries accumulate and scientific theories change, so good paleoartists must track these developments. It wasn’t until the 1990s, for example, that paleontologists found widespread evidence of feathered dinosaurs.
Paleoartists often work side by side with paleontologists. These scientists can shape the basic idea of an illustration. They can provide crucial skeletal diagrams, and they can explain when an artistic concept is veering away from science, like if, for example, the feathering on a dinosaur’s body is too showy, or the skin colors are too bright. "My job is to work closely with a scientist to bring their vision of dinosaur life into concrete form," Gurney says.
BE AN ARTIST AND A SCULPTOR.
Image courtesy James Gurney
Paleoartists study fossils and scientific journals, but that doesn’t mean they’re any less interested in shadow and light. Before creating Dinotopia, Gurney went to art school and then honed his craft by working as an illustrator for National Geographic. If you watch his videos online, you’ll see that he’s an expert in color gradations and light effects.
For Gurney, sculpting subjects is also essential when preparing for a new piece. Gurney creates wire frames based on paleontological diagrams that approximate dinosaurs’ skeletal structures. Next, he lays clay on this wire structure and molds a dinosaur’s body. Once that is done, he paints the figure. The small-scale models help to predict how, for example, light will fall on a Kosmoceratops in the late afternoon.
Combined with initial sketches of a scene that were done earlier in consultation with a publication’s art director, this modeling helps Gurney as he paints his final piece.
BECOME A NATURE ENTHUSIAST.
Painting extinct animals presents many unique challenges. How can anyone know what colors dinosaurs were? What were dinosaurs’ muscles actually like? And what, if anything, can we surmise about their behavior, let alone their facial expressions?
Fossil evidence is obviously limited, and that’s why paleoartists look to living animals for guidance. “I’m always looking for analogues in living creatures to hypothetical dinosaur behavior and morphology,” Gurney says. Fossils show that “some dinosaurs formed colonies during breeding season with young protected and fed by parents, and some dinosaurs have recently been found with a fleshy ‘comb,’ so such extrapolation to similar bird behavior is pretty well accepted."
Sometimes Gurney takes physical details directly from living animals. He relates the story of a robin that had laid her eggs in a nest near his house. “Right when they hatched, I climbed up on a ladder and looked at the hours-old hatchlings, whose eyes weren’t open yet, and sketched them.”
Soon after, he was commissioned to paint Allosaurus dinosaurs in their nests. “I was drawing upon a lot of what I had learned from sketches of robins and other nestlings—about the coloration of feathers, and the character of their feathers,” he says.
Paleontologists also believe that some dinosaurs were colored like modern birds. Recently uncovered fossil evidence shows that dinosaur feathers had melanosomes, pigment-producing structures that are found in living birds’ feathers. These findings take away some of the guesswork when coloring a dinosaur, Gurney says.
Gurney also performs outdoor studies of things like ferns, conifers, and streams. By painting these subjects, he can more realistically imagine what life was like in the Mesozoic.
But even with his careful studies of current life, Gurney admits that extrapolation only goes so far. “Dinosaurs were probably weirder than we could ever imagine,” he says.