Welcome to Jurassic Art

RM: This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. Anyone who has had kids knows that they go through obsessive phases that can last anywhere from a few days to several years.

EF: I went through a lot phases growing up.

RM: That’s producer Emmett Fitzgerald.

EF: There was a brief train phase. Then in preschool I was obsessed with farming equipment. I could list obscure European tractor brands off the top of my head like an old Italian wheat farmer. But I think my most intense obsession, like many kids, was dinosaurs. I knew more about dinosaurs at the age of five then I do now, and I was all but certain that I would one day become a paleontologist. I don’t know exactly where this dinosaur obsession came from, but I think part of it was just that they looked so cool. I had all these books filled with incredible drawings of colorful dinosaurs leaping around, roaring, and tearing into one another. I fell in love with the artwork in those books.

RM: And, at least for the time being, art is the only way we experience dinosaurs. We can study bones and fossils, but barring the invention of time travel, or some Jurassic Park resurrection scenario, we will never see these animals with our own eyes. There are no photos, or video, which means that if we want to picture how they look, someone has to draw them.

BB: Hello, I’m Dr. Robert Bakker, known to the folks in North Texas as “Jurassic Bob.” I dig up bones, dinosaur bones.

EF: Bob Bakker is one of the most famous living paleontologists, and he also happens to be a very skilled paleoartist. He thinks the two go hand in hand.

BB: Art is very important in teaching natural history science; maybe all science. Teach everyone art, and everyone music too! Patterns! Jeeeeez!

EF: I like Bob a lot. When I interviewed him in a studio in Boulder, Colorado, he showed up an hour early and brought his own snacks.

(voice): Uh, he’s got snacks here. He’s got coffee and some apple pie.

BB: Free-Range apple pie! This is so liberal this place, this is so Boulder. Cage free apple pie!

EF: Once we started the interview, Bakker said that, like me, he got obsessed with dinosaurs and dinosaur art pretty early on.

BB: How I got hooked, was a piece of journalism from 1953, Life magazine, a cover story called THE WORLD WE LIVE IN; and had pictures of dinosaurs and whatnot.

EF: The cover image was the head of a long necked dinosaur sitting in a swamp, munching on grass with a stegosaurus in the background, staring off into space. And inside was this long article about evolution.

BB: After two hours with that Life magazine I announced to my startled parents, “Mom and dad I want to grow up and be a vertebrate paleontologist.” And dad had no expression. And mom smiled and said, “That’s nice dear. It’s a stage you’ll outgrow.”

EF: But unlike me, dinosaurs weren’t just a childhood phase for Jurassic Bob. By the time he headed off to college, a career in vertebrate paleontology was still the game plan.

RM: But it was kind of strange time to be entering the field. In the mid twentieth century, American dinosaur science was in a bit of a rut. Dinosaurs were considered big, dumb, cold-blooded reptiles. Evolutionary failures destined for extinction.

EF: And that view of dinosaurs affected how they were painted and drawn.

BB: Most of the paintings of dinosaurs, they’re not moving. They’re not interacting with each other. There’s no spark of uh, intelligent social life.

EF: And their bodies were like, hulking masses of flesh.

BB: The way Brontosaurus and Diplodocus, the biggest dinosaurs were illustrated, they were like giant, gray vacuum cleaners with very very short legs and they were slowly pulling themselves across the landscape, or sitting neck deep in a fetid swamp.

RM: Dinosaurs were often drawn sitting in swamps, like on that Life Magazine cover. The thinking was they were so large they couldn’t possibly hold up their own body weight.

EF: And if they were drawn on land, they usually dragged their fat tails behind them as they walked.

BB: And that’s where we were in the early 1960s. Dinosaurs were sad, cold blooded, dead ends in the history of life.

EF: But paleontology was about to go through…

BB: A spectacular and unanticipated U-turn!

EF: And a young Bob Bakker, just off to college, would find himself right in the thick of the action.

BB: Freshman year the Yale geology department took me, and a bunch of other freshmen out to dig!

EF: The trip out West was led by one of Bob’s professors at Yale, a paleontologist named Jon Ostrom.

BB: And among other things we dug up four raptors.

RM: They were new species of raptor that Professor Ostrom named Deinonychus.

EF: Meaning, “terrible claw.”

RM: And the bones were found really close together.

BB: Presumably they lived together, that were a pack, maybe intelligent?

EF: But what really got Professor Ostrom excited, was the anatomy of the skeleton. After studying the fossil remains back at Yale, Ostrom concluded that Deinonychus had not been a slow, plodding, swamp creature. It had been fleet footed, agile, and extremely active.

RM: Ostrom began to argue that if you really looked at the anatomy of many dinosaurs, they looked less like a lumbering lizards, and more like a super athletic birds.

EF: And his student, Bob Bakker, found this idea really compelling. He remembers looking at a skeleton of a different dinosaur called ornitholestes.

BB: It really did look like a roadrunner! With a long bony tail, and teeth, but wow, it just spoke agility. But then you read the textbooks and you’re not supposed to believe that.

EF: As an undergraduate, Bakker dissected modern animals in an effort to better understand dinosaur muscleature. And he concluded that the old stereotypes about stupid, sluggish dinosaurs just didn’t hold up.

BB: They weren’t slow and sloppy!

EF: Now, this idea wasn’t totally new. Bakker says that going back decades, as early as the mid nineteenth there had been people saying that dinosaurs were smart, active, and birdlike…but…

BB: These facts were forgotten about. Really. They dropped out of textbooks.

RM: So Bakker decided to publish a paper in a Yale journal, and his editor says….

BB: “I know what you should call this study, you should call it the Superiority of Dinosaurs.” I said, “Yeah! that’s it.” They weren’t evolutionary hasbeens. They weren’t dead ends in the flow of Darwinian process. They were top of the line! They beat everybody!

RM: But convincing people that dinosaurs were actually totally different than they had been depicted for the past sixty years was going to require more than few good academic papers. To really change people’s minds, sometimes you gotta show instead of tell.

EF: And remember, Bakker was a skilled illustrator as well as a scientist. And so when Jon Ostrom wrote his definitive paper on Deinonychus, he asked Bakker to do the illustration.

BB: And I positioned the bones as if his Raptor was running.

RM: In the picture, the raptor is nearly parallel with the ground, it’s left leg springing forward, it’s right leg curled tightly against it’s torso, preparing for the next stride. The tail is high in the air. It’s beautiful. And kind of terrifying.

EF: Ostrom put the picture right on the front of his paper, and it quickly became an iconic drawing. No one had ever seen anything like it.

DN: Bakker is like a renegade.

EF: This is Darren Naish, a paleontologist based in the UK.

DN: He like, he’s got like, a flamboyant appearance, he insists on wearing a cowboy hat all the time, he’s got a giant bushy beard. And right, right from the late 60s when he’s you know, starting to talk about this stuff, he’s drawing these agile, active dinosaurs.

EF: Bakker finished up at Yale and went off to graduate school where he continued to speak truth to the slow, dumb dinosaur establishment. He wrote academic and popular articles about how impressive dinosaurs had been. And he illustrated them all himself. He drew dinosaurs bounding across the prehistoric landscape like track and field stars with lithe, muscular bodies.

DN: So prior to this time, an animal like Tyrannosaurus would have been drawn as like a Godzilla type animal, dragging its tail on the ground. It’s not a perfectly attractive beast, but under Bakker you’ve got this thing shown with massive bulging muscles.

EF: And Bakker’s athletic dinosaurs became a model for other paleo artists.

BB: So when my Deinonychus drawing appeared, some young artists younger than I said, “Huh, okay, now we can do it!”

EF: Artists like Gregory Paul embraced this new exciting vision of dinosaurs. They started giving their dinosaurs vibrant colors and occasionally feathers to really emphasize their bird-ness. Soon, images of athletic, colorful dinosaurs were everywhere.

RM: And they helped fuel the revolution that was taking place in paleontology.

EF: Throughout the 70s more and more paleontologists got on board with Ostrom and Bakker’s theories. They found new fossils and footprint evidence suggesting that dinosaurs had been warm-blooded, intelligent, and bird-like.

RM: This period has become known as the Dinosaur Renaissance, a moment when we totally rethought all of our assumptions about these incredible prehistoric animals, and Darren Naish thinks art was a huge part of its success.

DN: I think that part of the reason that the dinosaurs of Dinosaur Renaissance, the dinosaurs of Ostrom and Bakker, drew in so many scientists in the 60s and 70s was because it had it was accompanied by brilliant visuals.

RM: If anyone missed out on this scientific revolution and still thought that dinosaurs were slow and stupid, that ended in 1993. The dinosaurs in Jurassic Park are very…active.

DN: The dinosaurs of Jurassic Park 1993; they are the dinosaur Renaissance Dinosaurs.

EF: And when that movie came out the whole world got to see these fierce, athletic, creatures, running through kitchens and eating lawyers off of toilets

RM: And once you’ve seen the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park, you can’t unsee them.

JC: I think it cemented the notion of athletic dinosaurs.

EF: This is John Conway. He draws dinosaurs for a living.

JC: I’m a paleo artist which means that I draw and paint prehistoric animals.

EF: Conway got interested in paleoart after reading Bob Bakker’s book the Dinosaur Heresies. And in the early part of his career he drew dinosaurs that looked a lot like Bakker’s, super lean and muscly. But after awhile he started to feel kind of funny about it. He says that all of his dinosaurs looked they had been “shrink-wrapped.”

JC: You know those suction packs? You pack your clothes in, and you put the vacuum cleaner on it and you suck all the air out? And it shrinks it down? That’s sort of what we were doing with dinosaurs, we were sort of putting skin on them, and then vacuuming out anything that was in between that skin and the muscles.

RM: Now paleoartists weren’t just doing that to make their dinosaurs look all cool and buff. They were trying to be accurate.

JC: I am part of the generation of paleoartists that grew up from a young age, when we first started to think that it really mattered to get things right.

EF: And to get things right, you want your art to be rooted in real scientific evidence, and the main piece of evidence is often a skeleton. Paleoartists would base the shape of their dinosaurs on an accurate skeleton. The bones give you a pretty good idea where the muscles should go, but soft tissues like skin and fat are much harder. Fat usually doesn’t survive for for millions of years in fossils, and so without any evidence of it, paleoartists tended to be pretty conservative about how much fat they gave their dinosaurs.

RM: Which makes total sense! You’re not going to add something you don’t have evidence for.

EF: But the result was that all of these dinosaurs looked like the went to gym three times a day and drank protein shakes for every meal. John Conway says it began to feel as though paleoartists had replaced one orthodoxy with another.

JC: At some point I thought, “You know we can’t just keep doing this. This is not interesting in many ways. And is it even right??? Is this conservative approach really giving people the right notion about what dinosaurs looked like?”

EF: Just because fat didn’t survive for millions of years, doesn’t mean that a dinosaur didn’t have it. They are animals after all.

JC: Animals have fat, and they have it all over the place, and some places they have really big fat reserves which changes their shape fairly drastically.

EF: To underscore this point, Conway asked me to consider a thought experiment.

JC: If we reconstructed modern animals like we reconstruct dinosaurs, what would they look like?

EF: In other words if some alien paleontologist from millions of years in the future, was to try and draw a modern animal, like say, a whale or a camel, just from their fossilized skeleton, how would it look?

JC: Well, if you actually do it, the modern animals look ridiculous.

EF: If you draw a bowhead whale just from the skeleton, without a lot fat or blubber, it looks kind of like a giant tadpole with a bulbous head and long snake-like tail.

JC: I mean, you take away all that stuff and you’re not left with much whale. Because whale’s, their shape is defined by fat.

RM: Dinosaurs also had fat, and John argues that it would have changed their shape pretty dramatically. Who knows, some might’ve even had humps, like camels.

JC: Yeah, you could take one of the most familiar dinosaurs. That dinosaur could have camels humps and we wouldn’t know, right? Because you can tell from a camel’s back that it has humps. Brontosaurus could have had humps, we don’t know!

RM: Now scientists do sometimes find dinosaurs fossils with the soft tissues intact. And when they do, it can completely change our image of the animal.

EF: The dinosaur psittacosaurus for example, used to be depicted in a standard shrink-wrapped kind of way, until paleontologists found this amazing full body fossil where lots of the fat and the skin, and the different soft tissues had been perfectly preserved. Turns out…

DN: The fleshy outline around the body was quite extensive. It was quite a chubby creature. There’s striping all over the place, all over the body. and growing off the top of the tail he’s got like a hundred long,curving quills. They look kind of like floppy porcupine quills. And you add all that together and that’s a creature that we would not predict that based on, you know, just finding bones alone.

EF: In recent years fossils have been found with fat, and frills, and thick coats of feathers; way more than anyone had predicted.

JC: So it turns out everytime we discover something like this, it’s weird. And that got me thinking, “So if all the ones we’ve discovered so far have turned out to be weird, what does that tell us about the rest of them?” There are bizarre possibilities out there that no one’s looking at and I thought, “Well I’m going to start drawing some of these things.”

RM: So John began to try something new with his art, something that felt almost heretical for a scientific illustrator. He started to speculate.

EF: He started drawing pudgy dinosaurs, and dinosaurs with humps and quills and weird skin flaps.

JC: And that was my rule. It was, “How far can we go? What’s the most outrageous thing I can do, that we know we don’t know isn’t true.” It’s still within the realms of possibility, it’s not falsified.

EF: John wasn’t just making stuff up out of thin air. It was like there was a standard conservative dinosaur at the center of his drawings, then Conway would cover it with more speculative elements. He wasn’t claiming that every drawing he did was perfectly accurate, but he wanted to show people that dinosaurs as a group probably had a lot more weird variety than we think.

JC: And so to get the overall picture of dinosaurs right, I think you need a healthy dose of speculation in there.

RM: Conway says that dinosaur art should always reflect the latest science; what we know for sure. But we’ll never know everything.

JC: And I think the speculation is about what extra bits of weird beauty were in the world that we’ll just never know about. The role of the artist is to bring back some of that real magic of the prehistoric world that was certainly there.

RM: John eventually decided to give the world some of that magic in the form of a book. He teamed up with Darren Naish and another paleoartist named Memo Koseman, and published a slim little paperback called All Yesterdays.

EF: All Yesterdays is filled with dinosaurs that look very different from what you’re used to. There’s a triceratops that’s covered in spines, a majungasaurus with skin that camouflages it against the forest floor, and a therizinosaurus that is so covered in feathers it looks like a haystack. And next to each image the artist describes why they drew it that way. The camouflaged dinosaur is drawn that way because the artists reasoned that it’s oddly-proportioned body might have made it vulnerable to predators and in need of some kind of defense strategy.

RM: All Yesterdays was a big hit. And it helped spark a little movement for more speculative paleoart.

DN: We talk about the All Yesterday’s movement as like, the new frontier of the way we should depict prehistoric animals.

EF: Darren Naish says it’s more acceptable now to draw a dinosaur based on a hypothesis.

RM: For example, horned dinosaurs like triceratops have these absurdly large nostrils that have confused paleontologists for years. There have been a few different hypotheses put forward by scientists. One of them is that the dinosaur may have had inflatable nose balloons.

DN: Kind of like elephant seal or hooded seal inflatable pouches, but just would look weird and grotesque and utterly alien to us, but that’s a very real possibility

RM: Now, 20 years ago if someone were to draw a Triceratops with nose balloons they would have been laughed at.

DN: But I would say that what we call the All Yesterdays movement means that it is now quite reasonable for an artist to say, “I’ve shown my Triceratops with giant inflatable nosed balloons for this reason.” And you could say, “No don’t do it, that’s too speculative.” but it would be equally justifiable to say, “Okay. For the time being that’s okay.”

RM: That doesn’t mean that triceratops definitely had nose balloons!

EF: But by drawing it that way, it’s like the artist is asking us to keep an open mind. Because even though we know a lot about the prehistoric world, and more and more everyday, the science is always changing. The past is always a moving a target.

Comments (3)

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  1. Geoffrey Lindenberg

    This show reminded me of another book that examines how archeologists and anthropologists may not get things exactly correct. ‘Motel of the Mysteries’, by David Macaulay, looks at the excavation of a motel, preserved in 1985, in the year 4022.

  2. I loved this new take on dinosaurs and the fact that there continues to be new takes. I am a collage artist and I may or may not have used some of the older images shown in past collage pieces :)

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