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.