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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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:iconandreacau:
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
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:iconewilloughby:
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.
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:iconfloyatoy:
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.   
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:iconmyuniverseinabox:
Myuniverseinabox Featured By Owner Mar 9, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
nice I like dinosours too! good job
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:iconjd-man:
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": www.amazon.com/Dinosaur-Imager… ), but longer/wordier (in a good way, of course).
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:iconkazuma27:
Kazuma27 Featured By Owner Jan 7, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
Well said miss, really well said!
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:iconleogon:
Leogon Featured By Owner Jan 6, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
With all due respect for Mr. Cau ,  I think he mixes the essence of art with the pure science! If in Google search results,they can not present "true" reconstructions or "real" materials of a specimen, it's no fault of the creators of the artwork! Perhaps the Paleontologists and museums are a little stingy to share their resources with "Paleoartismo" lovers!

PS:
Again with all due respect for the pioneer paleoartists of the past,most of their reconstructions don't seem to be accurate anymore! But does it matter? I think not! they are always of great inspiration for all the Paleo subject enthusiasts(including Mr. Cau),both Art and Science!
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:iconwillemsvdmerwe:
WillemSvdMerwe Featured By Owner Jan 5, 2014

Art is art!  Does My Little Pony detract from scientific knowledge about horses?


There's good art, bad art, weird art, realistic art, surreal art, fantasy art, abstract art, and it can use any subject matter it wants.  But as for science, art can stimulate interest.  Also ... when an artist tries depicting an extinct creature, a lot of imagination is necessary ... and the artist will often have to imagine aspects a palaeontologist might not have thought about.  When palaeontologists then look at and ponder works of art, they might get new ideas based on that. 


I strongly feel, though, that there should be closer collaboration between scientists and artists in the area of paleo-art that is *meant* to be as realistic and accurate as possible.  As an artist, I want to know as much as possible, I would like to be able to see photos of the actual fossils, to see reconstructions of the skeletons by the scientists who study them, I would want to know what is known of the lifestyles and the environments, what other things lived in the same time and place ... as an artist I might then try and imagine whatever is not known, and using what I know about living animals to give me ideas.  I also feel we need to go beyond living animals ... clearly there must have been 'looks' and 'ways of life' back then that are quite different from anything that survives now.  Depicting that ... speculative as it may be ... is in my view also important because what I want is to give people the idea of the wealth, the richness, the diversity, the potential of life ... that is is, and always have been, way more diverse than most people realise, indeed than what most people could even imagine.  This, hopefully, will stimulate appreciation.  As an artist, this is my ideal.  Spread awareness and appreciation for the life of this planet ... past, present, future.





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:iconewilloughby:
EWilloughby Featured By Owner Jan 5, 2014  Professional General Artist
Thank you for your insight, Willem, you make good points as always.

Does My Little Pony detract from scientific knowledge about horses?

I wholeheartedly agree with this, and it relates to one point of Andrea Cau's that I can't really agree on or empathize with. He said in his original post that a symptom of "paleoartismo" is drawing fantasy or cartoon creatures inspired by or related to paleontology. I feel like most paleoartists know the difference between "real" paleoart and cartoons or fantasy creatures, and for them, the fantasy work is a hobby unrelated to strict paleoart. Maybe Cau's issue with this point is that he's concerned the fantasy art would inform the paleoart, but in my experience it's usually the other way around.

Also ... when an artist tries depicting an extinct creature, a lot of imagination is necessary ... and the artist will often have to imagine aspects a palaeontologist might not have thought about.

I agree with this also, but this is another part that Cau seems in agreement with, and it's one of the reasons he considers paleoart to be distinct and different from true paleontology - because good paleontological data isn't based on any creative inference, it's just a report of the facts of the fossils. This is why even skeletals aren't paleontological data in the same way that the fossils are, because even the most rigorous skeletal reconstruction involves elements of speculation. 

I strongly feel, though, that there should be closer collaboration between scientists and artists in the area of paleo-art that is *meant* to be as realistic and accurate as possible.

I very much agree with this too, but the fact that it often isn't possible is more the fault (imo) of paywalls than it is the scientist or the artist. In my experience, it can be maddeningly frustrating to find relevant information on a paleontological subject when attempting to reconstruct it if I don't have access to the papers or to the scientists who are willing to discuss the research with me.
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:iconwillemsvdmerwe:
WillemSvdMerwe Featured By Owner Jan 11, 2014

Hi Emily, thanks for those responses to my points!  In the end I still think imagination is very important for science ... Albert Einstein had a thing or two to say about that as well!  Well ... I'm not a scientist, I'm an artist ... but I did study chemisty and physics at university so I have sort of an idea what science is about.  I think art and science should embrace each other! 

We still have many issues regarding science at the moment ... there is still a lot of confusion about what science is or isn't, what it is *for*, and whom it properly belongs to.   The thing about it being so hard to get photos of specimens or scientific papers ... I hope we can make progress with that.  I really feel the more science that is 'out there', available to everybody, the better it will be for humanity.  And I do think artists can help with this ... if we're allowed! 

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