There’s a reason that it’s been a long time since the last Evolutionary Routes post. When I’m not writing about the results of funky scientific research, my artistic alter-ego takes on scientific illustration projects with museums and book publishers. In fact, these days, scientific illustration (especially a subset focusing on prehistoric subjects and coined ‘paleoart’ by paleoartist Mark Hallett) makes up the bulk of my work.
For the last several months, I’ve been collaborating with the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Texas to roll out their enormous new Hall of Paleontology, which is set to be one of the top five paleontology exhibitions in the United States. It opened on June 2 amidst near record-breaking Houston temperatures. At around 36,000 square feet, it’s bigger than a football field, more than 50 feet tall and packed with over 30 dinosaur skeletons, plus hundreds of smaller critters, all mounted in dynamic poses apparently ready to pluck unwary visitors from the labyrinth of hall below.
The skeletons, trace fossils, text and murals chronicle the evolution of life on earth from the Precambrian to the Holocene. My part in the project was to create fifteen colorful back-lit murals, each as tall as a person, to flesh out the prehistoric creatures and their environments, helping visitors to visualize what these other-worldly living things looked like in ages long gone. This exhibit is definitely a must-see, and the short safari on which I’ll take you here only highlights an aspect of one facet of the exhibition, namely the development of the murals.
In a museum commission like this, a lot of effort is put into ensuring as great scientific accuracy as possible. This is where the dialogue with experts begins, well in advance of the first rough sketch. The interaction takes two forms: studying published scientific research and dealing directly with curators. There are reams of fascinating research papers on several ancient ecosystems and the biological elements that constitute them, taking out a lot of the guesswork about how these environments would have felt to walk through. However, many fossil ecosystems are relatively new to science. In these cases, it is helpful to gain additional insight and fill in some of the gaps of knowledge by talking directly with the scientists who are involved in doing the first-hand work to uncover the ancient past.
I love working with museums to endeavor to create works of art with high scientific fidelity. The diversity of people with whom I get to interact is very great, and there are some highly memorable characters. Possibly the personalities that fall at the farthest extremities of the normal curve are the scientists. We’re an eccentric lot, and paleontologists are no exception. Torrents of enthusiasm can bubble to the surface when they describe the worlds that their work reanimates in their minds.
As an artist, it’s very entertaining and inspiring to talk with people such as Dr. Bob Bakker (Curator of Paleontology, and one of the main scientific minds behind the exhibit) when they elucidate, say, the likely goings-on of a typical day in Permian Texas. I always feel motivated to illustrate after such discussions. Even on the phone, I can practically hear him gesticulating enthusiastically as he describes giant sail-backed predators snacking on sharks in crowded streams.
And it’s not just words that are exchanged. Anyone who’s read his works such as “The Dinosaur Heresies” knows that Dr. Bakker is also an accomplished paleoartist. He provided numerous concept sketches for the exhibit, establishing the intended postures in which the animals’ skeletons were to be mounted. (It’s no coincidence that many of the skeletons on display remind one of his drawings.) I often based the postures of the species in the murals on such sketches. One of the best examples is the Dimetrodon/Xenacanthus reciprocal attack tableau in the Permian mural.
Once everybody on board is happy with the planned content of a scene, I generate the first rough draft of a mural. At this point, a good dialogue between artist and experts is vital, because the first draft usually requires a lot of revision until it’s given the nod of approval. Everything from the relative position of animals to the thickness of a snout based on new fossil evidence can require alteration of the rough draft, and usually several rounds of review and revision take place.
Most revisions simply increase the accuracy of the images. However, there are other factors to consider, some of which you just don’t see coming. In what is by far the most unusual example, the Triassic scene depicting a hungry Postosuchus attacking an armoured Desmatosuchus was based on a dynamic concept sketch by Dr. Bakker in which the former steps over the tail of the latter during the scuffle. My rough draft of the mural rotated the scene so that the viewer sees the action from behind and below, allowing for some interesting compositional effects. However, my draft was just slightly ‘off’ in the animals’ mutual proximity, and an unintended side-effect of the particular angle chosen was that the animals could potentially be interpretted as engaging in amourous rather than predatory behaviour; by offsetting them slightly from each other (it was hoped), potential misunderstandings would be averted.
Once the revised rough draft is given a unanimous thumbs-up, I proceed to rendering the details in high quality. Although I frequently cater to clients’ requests to provide work that has a specifically ‘painted’ feel (watercolor, acrylic, etc., such as my Cretaceous murals in the new Dinosaur Hall at the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History), my preferred artistic style is characterized as hyper-photorealistic. I achieve this by harmonizing a variety of digital techniques, from digital painting to photographic compositing, as in the movie industry. The latter requires me to acquire photographs of the geological, floral and faunal elements for the images, not only for visual reference but also incorporation of image content.
But I can’t just snap a photo of a grassy field, smack a Triassic animal into it, and grin with satisfaction. A scientific illustrator must strive not only to portray anatomically accurate animals, but also geologically appropriate associated paleobotanical communities. Plants matter as much as animals, despite the tendancy of some artists in the past to focus almost exclusively on the animals, either placing them in a “parking lot” devoid of plants, or depicting anachronistic plant communities (such as grass in the Triassic).
Attention to this kind of detail while maintaining photorealism requires me to travel to places on earth that host what are known as analog communities, whose overall structure and species composition closely resemble certain prehistoric communities. For example, the Taxodium (swamp cypress) communities depicted in the Maastrictian (latest Cretaceous) half of the terrestrial Cretaceous mural come from photos of swampy or slow-flowing river locations in eastern Texas and South Carolina. Some ecosystems from the Cretaceous looked a lot like certain subtropical or temperate forests and wetlands of today. Such landscapes may only require small adjustments to agree with scientists best models of the compostion of prehistoric ecosystems.
However, one of the neatest things about prehistoric biological communities brought about by evolution is that the farther back in time you look (i.e. the deeper in the strata of the geological column), the less familiar and more alien the landscapes look. This is not only because the composition of species differed, but also because the representatives of familiar goups of plants looked very different from those of today. There has been a lot more time for evolution to mold the appearance of these organisms since their deepest ancestors. Therefore, in many cases, I cannot simply photograph an existing landscape and only slightly modify this analog to make it agree visually with what we expect to have seen millions of years ago in the living version of the fossilized ecosystem. When the very plants themselves have no visually similar living representatives, I must build up these species from scratch, and then incorporate the elements of my work in an appropriately arranged community. Some mural landscapes are therefore much more a mosaic of work than are others. The Triassic and Permian murals are good examples of this process. Notice the segmented Neocalamites and Equisetites trees. They’re relatives of today’s horsetail plants, but they grew to around 20 feet (6 m) tall, and looked considerably different from modern horsetails.
Even the appearance of the nonliving parts of the landscape must be tailored, for paleontologists and geologists can deduce from the chemical composition and physical structure of the matrix material containing fossils what the ground and landscape were like at the time that the sediments were deposited. For example, sandstones sometimes indicate dunes whereas shales generally result from muddy surfaces. The matrix and state of preservation of fossils within it can even tell us about the climate that predominated when the creatures died.
Physical and chemical cues within the rocks (as well as the species compositon of plants and animals whose fossils exhibit adaptations to certain environmental conditions) tell paleontologists that, for example, the Permian beds of Texas that yielded the Dimetrodon nicknamed “Willie” were deposited in a region that experienced seasonal peaks in precipitation. These monsoon-like rains periodically generated streams in which feeding frenzies appear to have taken place during the emergence of some animals from drought-evading burrows in the mud (just as lungfish do today). Such a ‘breakfast bonanza’ is depicted in the Permian mural, where sail-backed synapsids (relatives of early precursors of mammals) devour bizarre spined eel-like freshwater sharks known as Xenacanthus.
At the risk of aggravating paleobotanists, the illustration of animals often receives special attention. Some of what drives this faunal focus is that charismatic animal fossils are often placed at the center of displays, and murals tend to highlight these stars of the show. Patrons are generally more excited by animal fossils than those of plants. This is like the phenomenon of children peering into terrariums in search of animal life (especially active animals) and looking straight past the fascinating plants. In some ways, it’s too bad that so many of us seem to take a much greater interest in fauna than flora, because we thus miss out on a tremendous number of brow-raising tales of botanical natural history. To that end, I would be very interested in illustrating an exhibit that focused primarily on prehistoric plant communities. Still, despite the abundance of faunal fossils, the HMNS team did a very nice job of placing the animals in the proper ecological context, which is a gratifyingly increasing trend in many museums today.
To flesh out the animals in the murals, I relied on a number of techniques, from digital painting to sculpting to photographic compositing. When you can’t go out to photograph a 70 million year old Cretaceous mammal, you need to be resourceful to get the job done. In the case of the Didelphodon that appears in the terrestrial Cretaceous mural, I used as a model our Corgi/Jack Russell dog, Wiki (from a Hawaiian word meaning ‘fast’ or ‘quick’, a very apt name for her). In one photoshoot, we persuaded Wiki to engage her ‘begging mode’, which reasonably closely approximates the clam-clutching bipedal stance of one of the Didephodon skeletal mounts in the exhibit. By working from these photographs as visual reference for the way that lighting falls on different parts of a small furry animal while relying on the Didelphodon skeleton as guide, I was able to build up an anatomically and posturally accurate reconstruction of Didelphodon in a photorealistic manner.
To be sure, a lot of pressure can build up as the deadline for submission of artwork nears and when it still feels like I am months away from completion. Inevitably, the candle begins to burn not only at both ends, but at several points in between. Nevertheless, the best indicator that tells me I’m in the right field of work as a scientific illustrator is that even at the peak of this pressure cooking, I still draw enjoyment from the work of illustration itself. Perhaps it is this gratification from the exciting nature of my job (I get to paint dinosaurs for a living; that never gets old) that helps me reap the energy I need at the home stretch to keep delivering the materials on time, which is crucial to a timely opening.
The new permanent paleontology wing has grown from a twinkle in the developers’ eyes about five years ago, to a reality today. It was a pleasure to work with the paleontologists and exhibit designers to create the colorful visual elements of these murals, which depict about 90 species of prehistoric animals all told. The HMNS Hall of Paleontology is a permanent exhibit, viewable at the Houston Museum of Natural Science in Hermann Park, located in central Houston, Texas.
Featuring more of my murals, another exhibition, “Ultimate Dinosaurs: Giants from Gondwana” opens later this month (June 23, 2012) at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada for a limited time.