John Conway’s Dinosaur Paleoart

I’m a big nerd for dinosaurs, so I was really excited to write this post. Who doesn’t love dinosaurs? Imagining the Earth at a time when dinosaurs roamed has always been fascinating to me, and I am not alone. I recently checked out this cool book from my local library, which includes paleoart from John Conway and other artists:

book

I love John Conway’s unique portrayals of our prehistoric friends. His work is a unique critique on the field of paleoart, exploring the connection between art and science that is necessary when creating illustrations of dinosaurs. He presents some interesting new ideas about how these creatures may have looked.

giraffatitan_mudbath
“Giraffatitan brancai at the Mudbaths”
deinonychus-antirrhopus
Deinonychus antirrhopus

Illustrating dinosaurs is both a science and an art. Paleoart is necessary for us to be able to understand their world, and it requires careful scientific investigation as well as some artistic speculation.

leaellynasaura
Leaellynasaura in a fluffy guise.” These cute little critters lived in what is now Australia. At the time, Australia was located near the South Pole. The purpose of their exceedingly long tails is not known, but perhaps they used them as “flagpoles” to locate each other and stay close to their pack?

Most of the time, the only parts of the dinosaur that are fossilized are its bones. (There are, of course, exceptions. Recently, a perfectly preserved feathered dinosaur tail was found in a chunk of amber. Researchers have also found rare examples of preserved dinosaur skin.) Researchers can locate muscle attachments on dinosaur bones, and so we can roughly reconstruct the muscle structure of the dinosaur. However, it is very difficult to reconstruct the size of each individual muscle, or to know how much fat, loose skin, or other soft tissues were present. This is where the speculation comes into play. For example, how do we know that Parasaurolophus wasn’t this round?

parasaurolophus
Parasaurolophus

Perhaps these Protoceratops climbed trees. Why not? Goats can climb trees, which we would not know based on their skeletons.

protoceratops
Protoceratops

Perhaps the most speculative part of dinosaur paleoart is color, which is most certainly not fossilized. Paleoartists can use knowledge of the ecology of animals alive today to infer their color patterns, but almost no direct evidence exists. (Although there is this cool example of a way scientists have used a fancy microscope to determine the color of dinosaur feathers!) Some dinosaurs may have had brightly-colored crests to attract mates, similar to modern birds.

lambeosaurus-lambei
Lambeosaurus lambei

Maybe this little critter had a striped tail, like a lemur or raccoon.

compsognathus
Compsognathus longipes was a titchy little theropod dinosaur from the Late Jurassic of Europe”

All Yesterdays concludes with a section on “paleoart” reconstructions of modern animals. Conway has drawn them as if we only had their fossilized bones. This conclusion highlights some of the problems with a lot of paleoart. Believe it or not, this is a housecat:

cat
The killer stare of the cat

Cats’ ears and lips are entirely soft tissue, an unlikely candidate for fossilization.

How about this “shrink-wrapped” cow:

cow
“The cow was a lithe, graceful herbivore that despite its size, could easily outrun pursuing hunters.”

Or this venomous baboon, straight out of your nightmares (This one is illustrated by C.M. Kosemen):

baboon
Venomous Baboon

Finally, maybe we would determine that swans used their knife-like forelimbs (which, without feathers, we might not recognize as wings) to impale tadpoles (also illustrated by C. M. Kosemen):

swans
“Two Swans are seen with their long, scythe-like forelimbs, which they must have used to spear small prey items. One of them has just caught a Tadpole, one of the mysterious fish of the past.” C. M. Kosemen

While these illustrations may seem preposterous to us, they are not unlike the reconstructions of dinosaurs that we believe to be true. Artists often “shrink-wrap” dinosaurs, so that their skin clings tightly to their bones, lean with very little muscle. We also sensationalize images of dinosaurs, making them out to be vicious beasts, much like the creepy swans in the image above. Dinosaurs almost always appear in battle scenes or striking dramatic poses. In reality, even the most vicious predators only spent a small portion of their lives fighting, snarling, and breaking necks.

I’ll leave you with this image of a peaceful, sleeping Tyrannosaurus rex.

sleepyrex
“Sleepy Stan” takes a nice nap after finishing a big meal

So, what now? What did dinosaurs really look like? We may never know the answer for sure, but we are surely on our way.

Want more? Check out John Conway’s website, follow him on Twitter and Facebook, and support him on Patreon. Also check out the books All Yesterdays, and Dinosaur Art for more cool paleoart.

Special thanks to Bryan Bongey for editing and fact-checking this post for me!

Have a suggestion for an artist or topic I should write about? Comment on my “Suggestions” page!

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5 thoughts on “John Conway’s Dinosaur Paleoart

  1. Pure beauty. The Mesozoic/Cretaceous periods of our planet’s history are ones in which these creatures lived. This art gives a window into another age. Ingenious.

    Like

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