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Submitted on
January 4


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Paleontologist and eminent blogger Andrea Cau has recently written a somewhat controversial article (be mindful that it's translated from Italian) about paleoart and what he calls "paleoartismo". Paleoartismo, from what I can understand, is a sort of "acme" paleoart, wherein the illustrator doesn't have a full understanding, or appreciation, of what they're illustrating. The article has generated a bit of flack, and other paleoartists and enthusiasts have written their thoughts in places like here and here.

I can understand where Cau is coming from, and I definitely don't disagree with him entirely as others seem to. For a brief rundown of my thoughts on his points, you can see my comment to Hyrotrioskjan's journal entry above. But that's not what I want to discuss here.

My journal title here is a bit misleading in that this isn't just a response to Cau, and it isn't addressing his points directly. It's to offer a different perspective on what paleoart is, why it's important, and why we need it - both the scientists and the laymen among us.

The following is largely an adaptation of my "about" page on my website, which some of you may have seen before.

What is paleoart?

In a nutshell, paleoart (or paleontography, or paleontological reconstruction) is a category of scientific illustration that focuses on the accurate representation of prehistoric life. It is related to, yet categorically different from, wildlife art. Before the invention of photography, artwork was the only visual method available to bring the natural world to the public. Often the illustrator and the naturalist were one, for who could better understand how to most accurately render a natural subject than the one who studied it? Today, with sophisticated photography and video equipment, the vast majority of natural subjects can be recorded in the flesh. All of the delicate nuance of behavior, sound, texture, and anatomy are always accurately represented, so long as the person recording it is skilled with the equipment.

Of all scientific disciplines, paleontology is unique in that there is no equivalent method of using film to capture the reality of its natural subjects. Like the subjects it studies, the methods of paleontological reconstruction are old: we must paint, sculpt and draw to bring these animals to life. We are like the intrepid wildlife illustrators of the 1700s and prior, only with an additional limitation in that we cannot directly observe our subjects. John James Audubon painted birds in the field, but he also collected dead specimens for study and reconstruction. We have dead specimens in the form of fossils, to be sure - and we have to be the ones to layer the bones with flesh and muscle and behavior.

But paleoartists are not limited merely to bones. We have to know how to layer atop bones, and for that we have the entirety of biological science at our backs, from ornithology, evolutionary biology, to paleontology itself. The best bird photographer in the world doesn’t have to know anything about the biology and anatomy of a bird to capture breathtaking photographs, but a paleoartist can only be successful if he truly understands the animal he’s painting. In that, the paleoartist is the perfect melding of scientist and artist, the only one of its kind that really exists in the modern day.

Why is paleoart important?

Paleoart is important, in large part, because there’s no alternative way to visualize extinct organisms outside of photographs of the fossils. But why is visualizing them to begin with important? Well:

Science writers and natural illustrators have a unique responsibility to the public in that they must convey the reality of their subjects to laymen in a palatable format. Paleoartists have the responsibility to make whatever we’re illustrating as accurate as possible, because these renditions are often what shape the public’s perceptions of what these animals were actually like. We have to act as the filter that compiles and transforms published paleontological knowledge into a visual representation of that knowledge. We are, in a sense, bringing the bones back to life - but we must do so with care and respect.

But, still, why is it so important that we have visual representations of these animals and ecosystems for the public to enjoy? After all, not many people care whether the public has an accurate understanding of things like, say, the redox chemistry of dioxolenes. The answer is simple: the public loves dinosaurs, and the public funds paleontological research. State museums and a huge amount of research are direct results of the public's interest and fascination with dinosaurs. Unlike sciences including medicine, microbiology, pharmacology, engineering, etc - paleontology does not have a lot of direct influence on the health and economics of our society, but it is largely knowledge for knowledge's sake. And luckily, the public loves it, and the public is willing to support it financially.

And our obligation isn’t only to the public, either - it’s also to the animals themselves, and to the individual existences each one experienced. Every piece of accurate paleoart is based on knowledge drawn from specific specimens, and often entire species are represented only by a single fragment of skeleton. Each fossil specimen, for all of its rich wealth of knowledge, represented an individual animal with its own experiences, personality and set of behaviors that made it unique. The Sciurumimus holotype, for instance, represents everything we know about that taxon, from its phylogenetic placement to its proportions and anatomy. Yet it wasn’t just a “species”, it was also an individual - a young one, at that. What was it like? How did it die? More importantly, how did it live?

Of all the living things that have come and gone upon this planet, we will only ever know a tiny fraction of them. As a paleoartist, I feel that it’s our unique responsibility to make sure that these creatures are not forgotten, and that the public will come to know them in a way that not only represents them accurately, but pays respect to the individuals they were in life. Nothing sums up this concept better than the poem "Not Forgotten" by Jonathan Kane, which makes reference to three unique fossil specimens famous to paleontology.

Paleoart is more than a mere clinical representation of a taxon. It is an homage to the dead, a celebration of the individual lives that fought and loved and died eons ago. Through art, the public can come to know these dinosaurs as they were, not as movie monsters or mysterious creatures, but as real animals, full of beauty and life.

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StudioSpectre Featured By Owner Sep 24, 2014  Professional General Artist
Hello everyone, I just re-read the original Article by Andrea and had a few more thoughts/questions.
Cau makes some very valid pints as does Emily, but I'm wondering how much are we really discussing just  paleo-imagery, or how that paleo-imagery applies and is received via search engine results. Meaning 
Is this just as much of a critique on how search engines work relating to imagery, searching for paleontological imagery online? 
On that question, I don't disagree that many of the first images to appear in a google search are "Paleoartismo" as Cau defines it, however think of this scenario.
I can't upload the image in the comment here, but you can follow along at home,
If I google "Canis Lupus", then this appears, let's ignore the photographs for the most part since there is no way to photograph a dinosaur (in the flesh) and look at the art that appears. I wanted to create a similar test for a scientific name.
I would venture to say that some of the images we see here are "Wildifeartismo" or "Wolfartismo" in that they aren't perfectly anatomical illustrations of the wolf.
Just a thought to put out there to chew on, would love your thoughts in return and thanks as always.
StudioSpectre Featured By Owner Aug 29, 2014  Professional General Artist
Charles R. Knights representations of dinosaurs are now considered quite inaccurate, however I still view them as beautiful paleoart based on the knowledge he had at his time and our knowledge today. 
It's all relative. Some kids will paint simple silly little dino images, thats fine, they don't have to be in a textbook and there's no real reason to critique them against professional paleoart. 
Paint what you love, love what you paint. 
Do research if that's what you want to do, if accuracy is your goal. It will show, it will be obvious, but what is most important is what you want to create for yourself and your audience.
Personally, when I'm wrong, I greatly appreciate being corrected. Unfortunately I don't have as much time to read as many scientific papers as I wish I did. I like to ask questions, and usually the community is more than happy to provide me with great answers and resources.
Interesting thoughts by all here but I (personal opinion) don't feel paleoart need be 'exclusive' for any reason. Again, it's still art after all and depends upon the artist and their intents.
Of course, as one who favors accuracy, I strive for that in my own work, but that's me, others are free to do as they wish.
EWilloughby Featured By Owner Sep 1, 2014  Professional General Artist
Yes, great paleoart is like great science: we can still appreciate the vastness and clarity of Galileo's physics, even if it was blind to relativity and quantum mechanics. Endeavors that are among the best of their time have a beauty of their own, even if they're later rendered outdated as progress marches on.

The best paleoart (to me) is a melding of science and art, and exists in a different category from artwork of prehistoric animals that's meant to just be art on its own. Art for its own sake is perfectly legitimate and worth respecting, but it's a different thing altogether in its purpose and intent. 
StudioSpectre Featured By Owner Sep 3, 2014  Professional General Artist
I'd say I agree. There is "paleoart" proper. Then there is everything else. I wouldn't consider scooby doo to be "wildlife art" in that same sense. 
That said, different art for different audiences/purposes which is perfectly fine. 
AndreaCau Featured By Owner May 15, 2014
Emily, as you noted, your words above are not just a response to me. Thus, the title is a bit confusing... as I've never written something against you (on the contrary, I've written positive posts on your art in the poast)... I agree with you that paleoart is more than "a mere clinical representation of a taxon", in particular given that, as I've written many times, a fossil taxon is just the fossil parts, and thus any "life restoration" is automatically beyond the "clinical representation". Also, if you check my blog you'll see that I've used many artworks by paleoartists in my scientific productions (in particular, Troco, Bonadonna and Panzarin), and I've collaborated by an important paleoartistic exhibition lead by S. Maganuco. I'm a very big fan of paleoart. As I've written in the past, my term "paleoart" is probably less inclusive than the term used by others. Probably, my "paleoart" is "paleontological illustration" of others or "scientific-based depiction of extinct taxa" of others, and so on. Often, people disagree just on the meaning of a word but agree on the concepts above that word. My concept of "paleoart" does not include ALL pieces of art just because based more or less directly on fossils. That's my idea of how to use the term paleoart. That is just my personal perspective, not a general law to force to other people. This is not elitism (as someone has argued), but a preference to some form of art (like yours, I like much your paravians), that is a deep connection between artistic skillness AND scientific accuracy. Scientific accuracy does not mean just "copy the bones as they are", but, "draw the extinct animals as if they were living beings and not just tale monsters, fantasy beings or cartoon heroes". If someone likes to draw monsters, cartoons or so on, I have nothing againts that. At the same time, I think it's important, in the age of Internet, to mark a clear boundary between different paleo-inspired forms of art (what other people call "paleoart" sensu lato), in order to help anyone to select the form and the media he/she prefers and the theme and the intent he/she wants to follow. That is, in very short, what I want to say with my posts. A final, very important note: GOOGLE TRANSLATED VERSIONS OF MY POSTS ARE A VERY ROUGH (IF NOT COMPLETELY BAD) VERSIONS OF MY ORIGINAL WORDS! Please, don't read my Google-translated posts assuming what you are reading is a fine translation of my original words. As everyone reading both Italian and English could confirm, this never happens. :-) Andrea
EWilloughby Featured By Owner May 15, 2014  Professional General Artist
Hi Andrea, thank you for the response. As noted in my post, this was not intended merely as a response to you, but rather as my somewhat independent thoughts on paleoart that were inspired by your words. It was also not at all intended to be "against" you: on the contrary, I agreed with most (not all) of the points you made in your article, and felt that other people were misunderstanding and cherry-picking some of the things you said. I also agree that your attitude about paleoart is not necessarily elitism, as some have argued. Rather, I understand your frustration with "paleoartismo" and often share the same. I wanted to try and draw a sort of middle ground between the two "camps", and I apologize if my post came off as overly critical of you - it was not intended. I think that we are largely in agreement about this topic on the whole, though I do think there is much practical utility in encouraging laymen and casual artists to dabble in accurately reconstructing extinct animals - whatever label you want to apply to that.
Floyatoy Featured By Owner Mar 23, 2014
I must say that I think paleoart has gradually gone downhill since the computer and internet age. Since it has become popularized and more convenient to achieve and showcase.  People get inspiration almost exclusively from memes (not my favourite word) and their peers (the past masters lived in an age when the science was less advanced, after all, so they can be appreciated but subconsciously rejected as a direct influence) rather than past artistic standards, the artist's own inner 'muse', combined with the science.

Let me just say that I'm the first person to encourage young folk to put pencil to paper or paint to canvas to depict their favourite animals, alive or extinct. However, it's when those who are old enough for responsibility and old enough to discern insist that what they are creating is 'art' is when I start to worry. It's worse when 'professional' standards blur into the now prolific amateur art culture. What you often get is very good rather than excellent work at the very top end. I also must admit that the inability to distance myself from the knowledge that most of the 'better' art I see these days is achieved digitally lessens that sort of primal (for want of a better way of putting it) response i get from my favourite images from the past.  

I must add that this response is not directed at the OP of this page or anyone else in particular and some of these images certainly have the power to become iconic in the future but I certainly see less in general these days.  My favorite modern images of dinosaurs are mostly skeletals and that's kind of a shame.   
Myuniverseinabox Featured By Owner Mar 9, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
nice I like dinosours too! good job
JD-man Featured By Owner Jan 11, 2014
I don't have much to say about this deviation other than that I like it. Specifically, it reminds me of an editorial review for "Dinosaur Imagery" (See "From the Back Cover":… ), but longer/wordier (in a good way, of course).
Kazuma27 Featured By Owner Jan 7, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Well said miss, really well said!
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