Welcome to a blog now shared by one, two, um... four people. Wipe your shoes off on the mat and delve into the posts featuring rants, museum pictures, and some cool facts. Nerds of all kinds welcome.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Paleo Interview 6: James Gurney

Yes, you read that right. We finally have an interview for the month! And with none other than the esteemed creator of Dinotopia! James Gurney has acted as an inspiration for me, as I first picked up Dinotopia when I was in 3rd grade and was hooked on it immediately. Now having read all four books as well as Imaginative Realism, it's about time I asked for an interview. Gurney is currently at a convention so he provided me with these questions and answers; that still doesn't take away the honour of talking to him though. So give a warm round of applause for James Gurney!


Did you study art in college?
I went first to UC Berkeley and majored in archaeology, a subject I that always fascinated me. I then went to school for a couple of semesters at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, where I learned some very helpful material about perspective. However, most of what I have learned has been self-taught. 

How did you teach yourself?
I developed my own curriculum of self-teaching based on The Famous Artist’s Course from the 1950’s, Andrew Loomis’s book Creative Illustration, and the teaching methods from the 19th century French academy, which involved fairly detailed anatomy and cast drawing. The best book for learning about French academic painting methods is The Academy and French Painting in the Nineteenth Century by Albert Boime, 1971. 

I had never really painted up until this time, so I felt like I was starting from square one. All this self-teaching from books was combined with daily outdoor sketching, which became such a passion that I ended up coauthoring a book on the subject for Watson-Guptill called The Artist’s Guide to Sketching in 1982.

Who were your main influences?
Norman Rockwell was my childhood hero.  I also always loved MC Escher. Both artists really succeed in pulling viewers into their work. I also greatly admire the Dutch book illustrator Rien Poortvliet. Other artists I admire: Frederic Church, William Bouguereau, Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Tom Lovell, and Howard Pyle.

What were your first jobs like? 
As a high school student, I learned how to do hand-lettered calligraphy, and made my first income from designing wedding invitations. I got a job doing engraved line illustrations for ring ads in the newspaper. It wasn’t paying the bills. My big break was getting a job painting backgrounds for an animated film called Fire and Ice, co-produced by Ralph Bakshi and Frank Frazetta, and released in 1983. It was a marathon of painting, because I had to paint about 600 paintings in a year and a half.

How did you break into the illustration field?
I didn’t really start in the freelance illustration business until I was about 20, when I started doing paperback covers for science fiction and fantasy books. I never used agents or sourcebooks, instead sending samples directly to art directors. 

How did you get hired by National Geographic?
I sent them samples and went in for an interview. They didn’t like the samples at first (because they were fantasy-related), but liked my attention to detail, and gave me a chance. They work with their illustrators on a freelance basis, though in the past they used to have artists on staff. 

How did you get the idea for Dinotopia?
I traveled to Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome on assignment for National Geographic, and it was a huge inspiration to see those famous old cities. I spent time with Rick Bronson, an archaeologist who was just like Indiana Jones. He led me through overgrown jungles to find little known Etruscan ruins, and we descended down ladders into newly-discovered tombs. Sitting around the campfire at night, Dr. Bronson and I would talk about dreams of discovering a lost city like Machu Picchu or Troy. I realized that I could always make a painting of such a lost city, and that led to Dinosaur Paradeand Waterfall City.  After that, I drew a map of an unknown island and came up with the idea of a Victorian explorer who discovers this island and reports about it in his journal.

Can you describe your working environment?
My studio is part of my house, right above the garage. There’s a four-foot square skylight above the painting area, flanked by color-balanced fluorescents. The countertops are covered with dinosaur models and toy robots and the closets are full of costumes and props. I have a pet parakeet named Mr. Kooks who hangs out on a big playground right next to my painting area. My window looks out past a bird-and-butterfly garden to an oak forest, inhabited by pileated woodpeckers, a flock of wild turkeys, and families of foxes. I typically work from 8:30 to 5:30 five or six days a week, listening to classical music and books on tape as I paint and draw. I usually sit down when I paint indoors, but stand up when I paint studies outdoors from nature.

How long does it take to make a picture?
Some pictures only take a day.  Most take a week.  Big ones with lots of people take about a month.  Most of the time is spent in the preparatory stages. Each Dinotopia book takes me about three years to write and illustrate. 

What is your favorite medium?
All the pictures are painted in oil. Oil is my favorite. I often use oil in transparent washes over a line drawing that has been sealed with acrylic matte medium. I’ve been using just turpentine and Liquin for the painting. All the Dinotopia paintings are done in oil. Sometimes I’ll start with a pen and ink drawing or an acrylic wash-in. I often work on heavy weight illustration board, and sometimes on oil-primed linen canvas.

Could you describe the research and reference process?
I start with small thumbnail sketches in marker or pencil, sometimes dozens. If the painting requires scientific or historical accuracy, I consult with experts at every stage of the process and incorporate their suggestions. If it’s an architectural subject or a dinosaur, I’ll often build a little model or mockup to establish shadows and angles.

If necessary I enlist models to pose in costume, usually friends or neighbors. I either take photos or do tone paper sketches of the models. I have a large mirror mounted in the studio and often develop tone paper studies of myself posing in costume to get the basic action. I also have a scrap file of color magazine photos that I use for texture and form ideas. 

After all these studies, I work up the line drawing—and sometimes a full charcoal drawing—and finally begin the final painting. The place to really see the process is in my book, Imaginative Realism.
Are there moments of struggle in most paintings?
I find that the early stages of the painting, when the major areas are being established, are generally the hardest to get through. The reason is that the actual painting is very far from the original vision in my head. When this happens, I try to take one area to finish, and build from there.
You mix real and fantastical elements, often to make an impossible scene look believable. What is your thought process in this kind of work?
Some people have called this kind of work “reality-based fantasy,” but I think it’s really what artists have always done through history in portraying scenes from myth, literature, and the Bible. Basically what I’m trying to do is to create a realistic image of a scene that could never be photographed. My guiding philosophy is the old Latin saying “Ars est celare artem,” which means that true art conceals the artifice of its making. For me, creating depth and illusion is one of the most exciting goals of painting, but it’s just a first step, because the higher goal is to select, accentuate, and subordinate all the elements of the picture to communicate a particular mood or feeling, and that goes beyond mere illusionism. 

What is your advice about style?
Forget about style. Try to learn from nature with close observation and humility. Don’t model your work after any living illustrator (including me). If you must study the work of other artists, pick ones from the distant past, and look at many different ones, not just one.

What is your feeling about computers in art?
I’m personally committed to traditional painting and drawing. I have a deep love of the tactile quality of brushes and pigments and the physical presence of framed paintings. Nevertheless, I am fascinated by the new visual ideas that digital artists introduced, and I have enjoyed working with digital artists who have helped translate Dinotopia into other realms. Of course image-making is always in a time of transition. Traditional painting will always be around, but it will constantly evolve to fill new niches in the art world.  

What is the nature of the art business these days, and what advice would you have for aspiring artists?
It is competitive but not cutthroat. Nearly everyone I’ve met in the field has been congenial and welcoming to new talent. Of course there is always a surplus of young (and older) artists who want to be working in the field, but there is always room for a new voice with a new song. Keep in mind that desire and hard work are worth more than talent. Genius, as Thomas Carlyle once said, is the infinite capacity for taking pains.
Thanks again for the great interview, James, and for saving me the time of coming up with questions, ha ha! For more of James Gurney's stuff, visit his blog:

All images belong to James Gurney and are from his blog.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Julio Lacerda, Part II

As you (hopefully) know, I started off my interview series with Julio Lacerda four months ago in January, when the blog was just in its toddler days. No, this is not another interview, but I would like to feature some of his newer art to show how he's improved over that four-month period.

Lacerda's Yutyrannus has to be one of my favorite representations of it so far (no offense to anyone else). The white feathers and snowy background reminds me of his Gorgosaurus pieces.

Anyone remember how I said "Diplodocus Parade" was one of my favorites? Yeah, it just got even better. This was done for his one year deviantART anniversary, if I recall correctly. Purely magnificent.

Julio's Pterodaustro is only the second one I've seen without pink colouration (one of those paleoart memes), and the first I've seen based on the white ibis.

An elegant Microraptor in flight.

Lacerda's prehistoric creatures are very natural-looking and this one reminds me of a nature documentary.

Julio pictures Dsungaripterus as elegant and beautiful, the first one I've seen. It's based on a great crested grebe, it looks like, and how could you ignore that smile? Wonderful. Keep doing what you're doing, Julio, you're getting even better.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Romanian Enantiornithes

Wonderful image by Julio Lacerda.

Another great theropod discovery for 2012! A nesting colony of Romanian enantiornithes (the diverse family that occupied many niches) was found in, well, Romania, where fossils have yielded such wonderful discoveries like Hatzegopteryx and Balaur, as well as Telmatosaurus. The cause of death? A flood is most likely. I also have to agree with Mr. Naish here when I say Julio seemed to reconstruct the enantiornithes to look like birds, not crazy feathered-dragon monsters. Oh yeah I found my new favorite word: dortokids. It's the family those turtles in the image belong to.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Prehistoric Elephants

Recently I drew a Platybelodon and uploaded it to Deviantart, proclaiming my love for extinct elephants (and other afrotheres, and other "pachyderms"). So let's talk about elephants, shall we?

Elephants, formally known as proboscideans, first appeared in the fossil record some 58.7 million years ago, in the late Paleocene. The first of the proboscideans known is named Eritherium and it was the size of a large rabbit (~5kg). Yeah, you heard the books call  Moeritherium small. The  slightly bigger (fox-sized) Phosphatherium followed about two million years later. Both of these tiny elephant ancestors hailed from Morocco, home of Casablanca. The amphibious anthracobunids followed next, and were probably ancestral to moeritherids and desmostylians, and possibly the sirenians. This family existed from the Early-Middle Eocene.

More proboscideans began to rise in the Eocene. One of these was the somewhat famous Moeritherium, the rotund little hippopotamus-niche filler. It is often stated as one of the earliest elephant genera, but has seen above, Eritherium came earlier before they were cool. Fellow proboscideans Phiomia and Palaeomastodon, the latter already similar to modern-day elephants coexisted with Moeritherium. Phiomia probably used its upper tusks to strip bark off trees, while Palaeomastodon is thought to have scooped water plants into its mouth. Also from the Late Eocene was Barytherium, which sported eight (though short and stubby) tusks. Showoff.

During the Oligocene, families were either diversifying or dying off. Brontotheres were part of the latter decision, as were embrithopods and multituberculates. As forests gave way to plains, horses, camels, rhinos, entelodonts, and oreodonts diversified. Elephants also diversified. By the late Oligocene, a bizarre family had sprouted up; the deinotheres. Chilgatherium was the earliest known deinothere,  the size of a small hippo. It is unknown if it had the bizarre downwards pointing tusks that makes the family famous and earns them the nickname "hoe-tuskers". Time went on, and in the middle Miocene, when Prodeinotherium died out, Deinotherium arose. This deinothere proved to be the most successful as it only went the way of the dodo in the Early Pleistocene. D. giganteum was one of the largest terrestrial mammals ever known, exceeded only by a few mammoths and the giant rhino Paratherium.

Equally as bizarre were the gomphotheres, a family from the Miocene to the Pleistocene eras. A very diverse family, they flourished and enjoyed ecological success. One of the most famous is the "shovel-tusker" Platybelodon, seen above. With tusks on its long lower jaws, and the typical tusks found on modern elephants, it is thought to have scraped bark off of trees and consume branches. There were other "shovel-tuskers" as well, such as Amebelodon and Archaeobelodon. Another somewhat well-known gomphothere was Anancus. Why? Just look to the upper right and you'll see why. It's those really long tusks that make it stand out. Yep, each tusks measures 13ft long, slightly longer than the elephant is tall. How's that for a trophy?

Another famous gomphothere is the one that gives the family its namesake. Gomphotherium, 10ft tall, sported four tusks and probably inhabited dry wooded regions by lakes, or perhaps swamps to boot. It was also one of the most successful gomphotheres as it spread into Afro-Eurasia, North America, and possibly South America (in Chile) as well. The last gomphothere we'll talk about is Cuvieronius, a 9ft tall elephant with spiral tusks. It is the most recent of the gomphotheres, dying out just 6,000 years ago. Named after George Cuvier, it has been found in the US, Mexico, and South America.

Now we touch on the most famous prehistoric elephants of all: mammoths and mastodons. While the former term is often used to describe something large in size, it technically defines anything that belongs to the genus Mammuthus. Of that genus, eleven species have been described: M. meridionalis, M. trogontherii, M. imperator, M. exilis, M. subplanifrons, M. africanavus, M. columbi, M. lamarmorae, M. hayi, M. creticus, and most famous of all, M. primigenius, the woolly mammoth. In common terms, that's, respectively: the southern, steppe, imperial, pygmy, African, North African, Columbian, Sardinian dwarf, (no common name), and the Cretan dwarf mammoths. Despite their large numbers, the mammoths existed in a short window of time, only 5 million years. Despite these numbers, there were able to inhabit Afro-Eurasia and North America, ranging in size from 3-17ft tall. The woolly mammoth isn't actually as "mammoth" as some may think, standing "only" 9ft tall, and when compared to the steppe and southern mammoths, it looks quite small.

Mastodons, known by the genus Mammut, are often confused with mammoths by laymen, by there are several differences. Mastodons were usually smaller and lacked the classic dome head, and had different dentition than mammoths. Seven species have been described in the genus: M. furlongi, M. matthewi, M. raki, M. spenceri, M. pentilicus, M. cosoensis, and the classic American mastodon M. americanum. It would have lived in spruce forests, as well as warmer lowlands, and it went extinct only 10,000 years ago.

All in all, elephants proved to be one of the most successful families in history, carrying on a legacy that has lasted for 55 million years. From the tiny Eritherium they blossomed into the five ton African elephant and became some of the largest terrestrial mammals.
In respective order:

© Vladimir Nikolov.
© BBC and Impossible Pictures.
© Dmitry Bogdanov.
© Boris Dimitrov.
© Remy Bakker.
© Charles R. Knight.
© Mauricio Anton.
© Sergio De la Rosa Martinez.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Birds of Prehistory, Part II

On occasion, I write articles for the birding group I belong to (Illinois Young Birders http://illinoisyoungbirders.org/), mostly about prehistoric birds or something like that. The next issue coming up features my article Birds of Prehistory Part 2 (Part 1 is in an earlier issue and is way less good than this one). Here's the text of the article for those who are interested:
Quick, say ‘bird’. What’s the first thing that pops up in your mind? A sparrow? Gull? Ostrich? These forms may seem familiar today; we’ve all seen birds in the wild and in zoos, but before man there were much, much stranger birds that lived.
The Enantiornithes: Conquerors of the Mesozoic
            One of the most successful groups of birds that ever existed was the enantiornithes, which colonized the world of the dinosaurs for sixty six million years. If you’ve ever watched Walking with Dinosaurs, then you’ve most likely seen enantiornithes; the birds attacking the pterosaur (similar to hummingbirds and other birds which will attack hawks if they stray too close to their nests) were enantiornithes known as Iberomesornis. A small (finch-sized) bird, Iberomesornis inhabited what is now Spain nearly 125mya, living near rivers and deltas with oddities such as the dinosaur Pelecanimimus, which can be imagined as a flightless pelican, and the hump-backed Concavenator, a carnivore related to Allosaurus. Known as the “opposite birds”, due to the arrangement of the scapula/coracoid bones filled the niches that are inhabited by passerines, sapsuckers and raptors today. We’ve already talked about one in the first part of BOP, known as Avisaurus, which was like a red-tailed hawk with a meter-wide wingspan and teeth. A Chinese form, Longipteryx, would have filled the niche the kingfishers occupy today. However, all good things must come to an end, and even though the enantiornithes stormed through five of the world’s continents, they went extinct along with non-avian dinosaurs 65mya.
Killer Ducks and Seriemas: Birds Hold Their Grip
            The Cenozoic, the age we live in now, is often called the Age of the Mammals, due to the fact mammals were evolving more rapidly and taking over niches the non-avian dinosaurs left. Rhino-like uintatheres and brontotheres filled the niche that non-avian dinosaurs like Triceratops left behind; the cougar-like Patriofelis was the apex mammalian predator. But dinosaurs, in the form of birds, weren’t giving up just yet. For 16 million years, a 5-7ft tall bird terrorized North America and Europe. Known as Gastornis, this bird wasn’t large enough to take on the uintatheres that inhabited the land at the time, but they were large enough to kill just about anything else in their environments; pygmy horses in North America, anteater cousins in Europe, etc. They faced little competition from mammals, except for the aforementioned Patriofelis and the jackal-sized Arctocyon. And while Gastornis, an anseriforme, died out 40 million years ago and mammals took over, South America wasn’t ready for mammals’ rule yet.
            They came in the form of terror birds. When we went to the Field Museum, a model of one, Andalgalornis, was in the room where we saw the hawk. Terror birds reigned over South America for sixty million years, their rule ending just 2 million years ago. Related to seriemas (cariamas), they were apex predators, most of them nimble and agile, striking down prey with their sharp talons and beaks. Phorusrhacos, a Gastornis-sized terror bird, was anachronistically featured alongside sabertooth cats in Walking with Beasts. The largest terror birds were Titanis and Kelenken, 8ft and 10ft tall, respectively. The former actually reached North America and managed to cause terror (no pun intended) for another three million years, running alongside prey at speeds of 65 kph, rivaling that of the ostrich. And then, for unknown reasons (probably niche competition), they all died out, and were replaced by carnivores such as wolves and sabertooth cats.
Pseudodontorns: Pterosaurs Rise Again
            Seventy-five million years ago, a large pterosaur known as Pteranodon, soared over Kansas, when it was an interior sea, and dwelled on cliffs, consuming fish. Fifty-five million years later, a similar scene is repeated and the actors are birds. Known as the pseudodontorns, these birds are known in the fossil record from 58-2mya, with the most famous being Osteodontornis, which lived 20mya in North America. This bird had the second-largest wingspan in avian history, surpassed only by a giant South American vulture (bonus points if you know its name). The pseudodontorns were odd birds, with the largest possessing wingspans of twenty feet. They also had bills lined with false teeth (hence, their group name means ‘false tooth birds’), similar to the projections on mergansers’ bills. These giant birds would have filled the niche that some pterosaurs held in the Mesozoic era, and the niche albatrosses fill now. When they went extinct 2.5mya, Olduvai stone tools were just being invented.
Samrukia and Gargantuavis: Giant Birds of the Mesozoic
            Everyone knows the Mesozoic as the heyday of the non-avian dinosaurs. They reached immense sizes, so big that no other animal could get bigger than a rat when they were alive. But that view is inaccurate. In reality, mammals, birds, and reptiles flourished into various niches and sizes. Badger-sized mammals fed on baby dinosaurs, crocs the size of SUVs walked around on land and terrorized life. And even the birds were getting huge. On the islands of Late Cretaceous France, a bird as tall as man roamed. Possibly related to the patagopterids mentioned in Part 1, it was an herbivore, somewhat like a moa, and its name was Gargantuavis. But this wasn’t the only giant bird around, or so it is thought. Very recently discovered, the Kazakh Samrukia was a bird that must have stood 10ft tall. However, its classification is disputed at the moment. Since it is only known from a jawbone, some say it could be a pterosaur and some say it could be an oviraptorosaur dinosaur. Whatever the case is, it was gigantic, and proves that dinosaurs weren’t the only big ones around.
Presbyornis: The Flamingo-duck
We end this article on a peculiar bird that appeared just three million years after the non-avian dinosaurs were wiped out (and it could have possibly lived alongside the last dinosaurs, if scant fossil remains prove to be from it). Named Presbyornis, it was an early anseriform, which most professional birders would recognize as the order that includes ducks, geese, swans, screamers, and magpie geese. While an individual could weigh in at goose-swan size (14-33lbs), Presbyornis was much more gracile, with longer legs, standing around 3-5ft tall. In fact, it resembled a flamingo with the head of a dabbling duck, feeding on small animals and water plants. Presbyornis proved to be a successful design, living for seven million years before dying out. The author hopes you learned some new bird material from this article.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Nature, You Scary!

Say hello to Crocodylus thorbjarnarsoni (try saying that 3x fast):

© HodariNundu. 

That's a frickin' Hippopotamus gorgops in its jaws by the way. At 27ft long, it was the biggest true crocodile ever known (creatures such as Sarcosuchus or Purrussaurus were bigger, but not true crocodiles) and it might have preyed on early hominins. Yeah, trying being neighbors with a crocodile big enough to star in Lake Placid

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Even Buttheads Get Boo-Boos


There's a lot of debates in paleontology. Is T. rex a scavenger? Are Triceratops and Torosaurus the same? Though the former is pretty famous to laymen and normal people, the particular debate we're talking about is one generally more known among people in the paleontology field. The debate is: did pachycephalosaurs butt heads? Well, a recent discovery might have the answer. Described as "it looked like someone went through it with a hammer", an injury in the skull dome of a Pachycephalosaurus shows that they most likely did, indeed, butt heads (you can hear your little siblings laughing at this already).