As with most artists, I’ve been drawing since I first learned to pick up a pencil. Most of my early “work” focused on animals, especially birds, dinosaurs, and predatory mammals. Despite my love of drawing, I intended all throughout childhood to be a scientist, and I graduated college with a bachelor’s degree in biology in 2012.
My childhood interest in paleontology had been rekindled in the late ’90s by the new feathered dinosaur discoveries that were coming out of China, especially Sinosauropteryx and Sinornithosaurus. I’ve always loved birds, and learning about the evolutionary connection between birds and dinosaurs was really fascinating to me and acted as a huge inspiration for getting back into dinosaurs (and illustrating them). My first big paleoart inspirations in high school were Gregory Paul and Luis Rey: I loved the meticulous accuracy and bright liveliness in their work, respectively.
At some point along the way, I decided that pursuing paleoart as a melding of science and art was the best use of my interests and abilities. A solid scientific background has been a huge benefit in reconstructing these animals as accurately as possible, since it’s trained me to be meticulous, detail-oriented, and to have a healthy respect for peer review. My starting point for a reconstruction is often a skeletal diagram, if one exists; if one does not, then examining the original research and any published photographs of the fossil is the best way to go. From there, researching related species, contemporaneous species, and the animal’s environment usually comes next.
Outside of illustration, my most beloved hobby is birding and bird photography. A selection of my bird photography (with an occasional non-bird) can be found in the gallery section. All photographed animals are not captive and are shot wild in the field. I by no means claim to be a professional bird photographer, but the challenge and thrill of getting a good shot of a difficult bird is not only addictive, but has been a huge benefit to my paleoart and bird illustration. Observing how closely-related animals move and behave in the field is invaluable for dinosaur reconstruction, especially paravians and avialans.
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 the 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.
Paleoart is important, in large part, because there’s no alternative way to visualize extinct organisms outside of photographs of the fossils. But visualizing them to begin with is important for a variety of more complex reasons.
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.
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 a poem by Jonathan Kane, which makes reference to three unique fossil specimens famous to paleontology.
Be peaceful, sleeping dragon, and sleep well,
And may your slumber bring you pleasant dreams.
Reality is harsher than it seems,
But dreaming visions do not have to tell
That when you go to sleep tonight you never shall arise.
The downy quilt of ash will keep you warm,
And also grant you rest without an end,
Your silence from the eons to defend,
And perfectly preserve your sleeping form,
So you are not forgotten, for your shut-forever eyes.
Take heart, devoted parent, guard your nest,
And may your care protect it from the storm.
Be steadfast as you watch the land transform,
And thus is your fidelity expressed,
Although your dedication’s goal you never shall attain.
When rapid flows of sand begins to rise,
You still preserve your unborn progeny,
As you are joined with them eternally,
Recording what your honor must comprise,
So you are not forgotten, though your nurture was in vain.
Be bold, courageous hunter, seek your prey,
Although it is a dark and stormy night,
And on the sliding hillside where you fight
Are dangers that exist no other day,
And which no prey or predator is able to outrun.
Against your hunger fear can make no gain,
Your claws do well to hold your quarry still,
Are held more firmly by the shifting hill,
To set in stone what danger you disdain,
So you are not forgotten, for your battle lost and won.
Be patient, wise explorer, search the field,
And do not overlook what may be there,
For any tooth or fragment in your care
Might cause a hidden tale to be unsealed,
And help you in your duty of remembering the dead.
The citizens of eras that are old
Have lived their lives, and perished in the act,
But still their marks on time remain intact,
Awaiting one whose wisdom could behold.
You must assist their stories to be told,
So they are not forgotten, for the purposes they led.
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.