Our instinct might be to assume that lack of scientific rigour reflects flippancy towards palaeoart and its impact, and I think that is true - in at least some cases. But in a comment posted after my article, Matt Bonnan proposed that scientifically poor artwork might reflect scientists struggling with their role in the palaeoart process - that is, not really knowing how to instruct an artist, or where the line between scientific and artistic considerations lies. I can believe this is true, too. Lots of people - including many scientists and artists - view science and art as incompatible concepts, and are unsure how to approach projects blending the two. For some folks the idea of contributing to an art project is pretty terrifying, perhaps because they're afraid of being seen as naive, or of their contribution letting a project down.
Whatever the reason, I want to follow my previous criticism with something more constructive: some pointers for how scientists might approach their role in producing palaeoartworks. The take-home message is that scientists concerned about getting paint on their fingers shouldn't worry about the artistic aspects of paleaoartworks. The primary role of a scientist is not to understand colour hues, choice of media, composition and so on, but to comment on objective, factual components of the work. Is the restored species the right size in relation to other species and the environment? Is its head the right shape? Has it been restored with the right soft-tissue anatomy? Answering these and other questions does not require artistic training, or any special training at all for that matter, just application of knowledge that most palaeontologists will already have.
This discussion mainly considers scientists involved in producing a novel palaeoartwork, but will also apply to those reviewing artwork before publication or exhibition. This includes peer review of papers with palaeoartworks, and I encourage editors to make sure these aspects are checked alongside other parts of a paper. After all, if an artwork is being presented as scientifically-credible enough to be included in a peer-reviewed publication, it should be held to the same standards as the rest of the paper. I don't want to beat a dead horse by bringing this up again, but we should recall that palaeoart components can remain in use long after the context of its genesis has been consigned to history, and artworks associated with papers can be especially prone to long-term use. We should take all opportunities to steer depictions of the past in the most credible directions, hopefully influencing subsequent generations of artists in the best way possible.
So, what should scientists look to critique in artworks, and how might they go about assessing credibility? A perquisite of guiding palaeoart processes is having a concept of what the subject species looked like. This might seem like a patronising comment, with experts replying 'of course I know what [subject species] looks like!', but really think about it - do you really know what the proportions of your subject are, and what they look like when reconstructed against one another? As in, to the point where you could render a reasonable stick-figure version of it? Could you describe what it looks like outside of plain lateral view, and are these interpretations based on modern technical data, not treatments of the same subject by previous artists? Palaeoart is highly varied in scientific credibility and even those works produced by masters of palaeoart may have dated or contain errors. Ergo, palaeoart consultants should form their basic concepts of appearance from images of fossils, tables of measurements and other primary resources, not previous artistic interpretations. This need for caution applies to skeletal reconstructions too, as these become dated and require modernisation as much as any other reconstructions of prehistoric life. So before dusting off that copy of Romer's Vertebrate Palaeontology for another round of consultancy work, or digging out a skeletal reconstruction from a century ago, consider how kind the last few decades of research have been to those familiar images. Anyone needing an example of how a well-known, seemingly 'safe' skeletal can become dated should check out Scott Hartman's new Dimetrodon skeletal. The animal we all 'know' as Dimetrodon is really Romer's 1927 skeletal - 90 years on, it's looking pretty different.
|Is palaeoart a reliable source of information about the appearance of a fossil animal? Sometimes yes, but oftentimes, no. Talk slide from my 2014 TetZooCon presentation on the cultural evolution of azhdarchids pterosaurs, showing some of the earlier, zanier attempts to restore these animals. There's so much incredulous anatomy here that artists and scientists should steer well clear of these as reference material and go back to primary sources - fossils, descriptions, measurements - to form the foundation of their artwork. (Psst - TetZooCon is happening again soon, details here)|
- Anything to do with basic measurements, including the size of the subject relative to its environment and other species, or the proportions of its body. Obtaining metrics from 2D art can be difficult if a subject is obliquely posed or foreshortened, but their rough proportions can be estimated based on their relationship to other body parts. If in doubt, it’s better to get the artist to check their work than to ignore it. Pay particular attention to the proportions of the head to the rest of the body, the size of the torso, and the ratios of the limb bones, as these are prone to errors.
- Whether the skeleton of the subject fits within the restored soft-tissue volumes. Especially notice the shape of the head and teeth, the cross-section and length of the torso, and the bulk of the appendages, as these are often problem areas. Also make sure the position of the shoulders is correct – it is often more challenging to reconstruct the pectoral region than the pelvic, so the forelimb attachment region can end up in strange places.
- Whether the chosen pose breaches predictions of joint articulation. Over-stretched limbs, as well as exaggerated neck and tail poses, are key to look at here.
- Whether appropriate fossil soft-tissues have been factored into the painting. This includes tissue types (e.g. correct integument) and aspects of tissue bulk. Where tissue types are unknown, check that the predicted substitute is based on sensible use of phylogenetic bracketing and comparative anatomy.
- Finally, note whether the species depicted in the artwork were actually contemporaneous, and that the restored environments and climates are appropriate.
Because of this, palaeoart consultancy is not as arduous a task as it first appears, nor a total time sink. I'm not going to pretend that good palaeoart consultancy is a job you can do in seconds but, once you have basic references established, most comments simply pertain to nudging the reconstruction in the right direction. As with many academic projects, advising on palaeoart requires the most time investment up front, and then relatively little after. Needless to say, the more prepared you are at the start, the less time investment is needed down the line.
And these points - basic as they might seem - will see just about any palaeontologist able to guide and shape palaeoart production. It should be stressed how continued checking along these lines can make an amazing difference to a palaeoartwork, and thus its success at capturing a hypothesis and future legacy. Correcting a scientific goof not only makes a picture more credible, but it often marks a division between a picture being artistically lacking and coming together. There's a reason artists of living creatures (including humans) are so obsessed with the anatomy of their subjects, and that's because it's essential to producing good artwork. Palaeoart is no different, so don't be shy: help your artist get the information and understanding they need to make your science look great.
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