|How the world met Dreadnoughtus schrani in palaeoart. Left, restoration by Jennifer Hall; right, Mark A. Klingler. Images from the Dreadnoughtus media release hosted at the Drexel News Blog.|
I find these decisions interesting because I think they represent a case of a modern palaeoart convention overruling 'classical' artistic approaches. Traditionally, artists use the same basic techniques for making subjects look big and important when placing them in a scene. They stress proportional extremes (including small head size - this even occurs in renditions of royal or divine human figures), use low points of view so that the the top of the subject clears the horizon line along with other elements in the composition, and place items to give an appropriate sense of scale. Positioning smaller items in the foreground can help the viewer find their position in the scene and ground their sense of size, but these need to be placed carefully: cluttered compositions tend to dwarf their subjects. A consequence of these methods is that giant subjects are often no closer than the mid-ground. An obvious exception to this are images with points of view positioned at the very base of a subject, looking up, so it looms above the viewer (below). This is a slightly different approach to the problem, though, almost treating the subject as the landscape rather than an entity within a background.
|A cockroach-eye view of a titanosaur.|
Attitudes towards these foreground-emphasised, perspective heavy images are often divisive among palaeoart aficionados - some love them, others hate them. Fans of such works point out their utility for outreach, in that they're relatively novel, different, fun and striking, while detractors note their distortion of proportion, not to mention that many look, well, silly (I've argued elsewhere that this may have negatively skewed public perception of feathered dinosaurs). The most relevant common complaint to our discussion is that they lose all sense of scale, essentially for all the reasons listed above: unfamiliar proportions, a lack of foreground space to place 'scaling' elements, and often the loss of height associated with moving the anatomy into a position where it can all be seen behind the head (for many infamous examples, see Brusatte and Benton's enormous book Dinosaurs (2008)). Whatever your opinion, we can't deny their success and influence. such images are now a standard palaeoart convention, particularly in children's books, and have been used to showcase virtually any prehistoric animal you can think of. In this respect, the arching, frame-filling Dreadnoughtus images released last week are just following this now familiar palaeoart convention.
Thing is, I'm not sure if this practise works for all palaeoart, and especially in images where conveying size and anatomical details are important. Of course, the ultimate success of a composition is a matter of taste, and there is no actual 'right' or 'wrong' to palaeoart so long as it obeys basic laws of anatomy. But here's the beef: palaeoartworks often have a purpose - very commonly to convey the anatomy and size of a new species - but 'full frame' animal compositions are probably the worst composition to demonstrate these attributes, for reasons discussed above. Moreover, and fundamentally related to the goal of palaeoart being realistic portraiture of extinct species - how do we rationalise the adoption of the contorted postures required to fit the animals into frame? Why would these animals be condensing themselves into such weird shapes? And what do these poses look like from other angles? Wouldn't they look, at best, a bit odd? For me, seeing a restored animal in an unconventional, maybe even biomechanically implausible pose so it can take up more of the canvas is jarring, a reminder than I'm looking at an reconstructed animal rather than one an artist saw with their own eyes.
For art where proportions and a sense of scale is important, pushing our subjects back to the tried and tested middle distance would alleviate these problems, without jeopardising their excitement. Palaeoart was just as inspirational and exciting to audiences before we started rendering animals right under our viewer's noses, after all. Ultimately, while there's nothing inherently 'wrong' with any composition in palaeoart, some compositions suit certain scenes and animals more than others, and some are definitely more informative and educational than others. 'Full frame' compositions certainly have their place within palaeoart, but they're probably more limiting artistically and educationally than the alternatives.
I'll leave you with my own take on Dreadnoughtus, a quick painting done as the end result of my spate of fanboyism on Thursday night. And if you like sauropods, stay tuned, because there's more on the way...
Update: 07/09/2014, well past bedtimeNot many moments after posting this, arty chum Jon Davies (@SovanJedi) responded with an image on Twitter which sums up the few thousand words above into one image:
The evolution of the dinosaur book cover: pic.twitter.com/ehszJQjS3J
— Jon Davies (@SovanJedi) September 6, 2014
It's funny because it's true.
- Bakker, R. T. (1986). The Dinosaur Heresies. London, Penguin.
- Brusatte, S. and Benton, M. J. (2008). Dinosaurs. Quercus.
- Lacovara, K. J., Lamanna, M. C, Ibiricu, L. M., Poole, J. C., Schroeter, E. R., Ullmann, P. V., Voegele, K. K., Boles, Z. M., Carter, A. M., Fowler, E. K., Egerton, V. M., Moyer, A. E., Coughenour, C. L., Schein, J. P., Harris, J. D., Martínez, R. D., and Novas, F. E. (2014). A gigantic, exceptionally complete titanosaurian sauropod dinosaur from Southern Patagonia, Argentina. Scientific Reports. 4, 6196; DOI:10.1038/srep06196.