Q&A: The world’s greatest palaeoart

By Jacqueline Outred and John Pickrell 8 May 2014
Reading Time: 6 Minutes Print this page
Two of the world’s top palaeontological and dinosaur illustrators talk about their craft.

The works of Julius Csotonyi and Robert Nicholls feature in the book Dinosaur Art: The World’s Greatest Paleoart, images from which are found in the attached gallery.

Julius T. Csotonyi is a freelance natural history illustrator and palaeoartist based in Canada. He has worked with many major museums and book publishers, including the National Geographic Society and the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology. His work encompasses dinosaurs and other prehistoric life, as well as living animals.

Robert Nicholls is a UK-based artist who produces unique and exciting palaeontological and archaeological artworks. His illustrations, murals and 3D models are exhibited in many universities, museums, theme parks and attractions worldwide and appear in numerous books and journals.

How did you become a palaeoartist?

Robert Nicholls: I am and always have been a massive dinosaur geek.  Well, I say ‘dinosaur’ but I’m interested in everything to do with the natural world, from modern animals to Precambrian invertebrates. However, I do have a particular interest in very, very dead things. If something is so dead that all that remains are fossils, then that’s my thing, and it always has been. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t draw extinct animals – some of my very earliest memories are of drawing dinosaurs. As a boy I would get up in the morning and sit in my pyjamas all day just drawing until it was time for bed again. I struggled at school – I’m not at all academically clever – but I could draw well and it made me happy. It still does today. I have a degree and master’s degree in visual communication and all my knowledge about prehistory is self taught. After university I decided to become a professional palaeoartist. It was, after all, the only job I had ever wanted to do. My first five years were very difficult, but I worked really hard and eventually started to make a living from illustrations, murals and models.
Julius Csotonyi: I’ve always been fascinated with prehistoric creatures, and I’ve been drawing them since I was a kid. However, around the end of my twenties, during my PhD on microbiology, I began to be contacted by publishing companies and museums asking me if I wished to contribute to books and exhibits. Word spread fast and it wasn’t long before I was illustrating entire exhibits for museums. It’s been an uphill climb of excitement since then. My biggest murals have so far appeared in the Royal Ontario Museum’s ‘Ultimate Dinosaurs: Giants from Gondwana’ exhibit, where some of the murals are 5m tall and run for 30-45m around the walls.

What skills are involved in creating prehistoric illustrations?

Robert: Good palaeoartist requires a lot of research and I find it is important to make sure I learn my subject inside and out before producing a final piece. It is essential for budding palaeoartists to have an understanding of fossils, comparative vertebrate and invertebrate anatomy, animal behaviour, and palaeobotany. Besides the obvious experience in each medium (thousands of hours of practice) and good observations skills, I would say you also need enthusiasm. An interest in the topic means you will enjoy working hard – and hard work pays off. I am not the smartest palaeoartist, but I’m a grafter and I never stop learning new techniques, interacting with museums and publishers, and keeping up to date with the science.  Give the client the artwork they want and they will come back to you again.  

Julius: Initially, all scientific illustration requires a perusal of the existing scientific literature on the topic. Sometimes, the material is so new that little published scientific literature exists. In those cases, I communicate directly with researchers who are actively studying the ecological system or animal/plant I’m after. From here on, the skills required depend on the approach I take. Traditional-style digital paintings require the same sorts of skills and knowledge about perspective, the behaviour of light and composition, as artwork with physical media such as acrylics does. I must design brushes to achieve desired textures and mix paints by eye. I really love this kind of work – it’s truly therapeutic. Much of my artwork, however, is photorealistic. To achieve this appearance, I rely mainly on my collection of over a quarter of a million high-resolution photos that I have snapped in environments around the world. These show scenes analogous to various time in prehistory. I carefully extract and stitch together parts of photographs to create entirely new scenes, being careful to eliminate elements that don’t belong.

How do you construct your art, what does it involve?

Robert: I use many ways to produce my artworks. You name a medium and I have probably had a go at it at some point. Today my portfolio primarily contains graphite, ink, and digital drawings; watercolour, acrylic, and digital paintings; photo-composite illustrations and murals; scale and life-size sculptures; digital sculptures; and mixed-media exhibition installations. One week I could be carefully sketching a skeleton with a pencil, and the next I might be building a Cretaceous riverbed with lengths of timber and buckets of cement. I work almost exclusively within palaeontology but I can produce just about any kind of artwork for the subject. One medium that I am particularly enjoying at the moment is photorealistic illustration. To render these pictures I am sculpting models, either digitally or traditionally, and putting them into environments composed of digital painting and multiple photographs. It is proving to be a very popular style.

Julius: I completed my first pieces mainly in watercolours, pencil, pen, pastel and acrylics. Since 2007, however, my increasing involvement in scientific reconstructions in collaboration with researchers has caused me to shift mainly to a digital approach. I think some people believe that digital art is much easier or quicker than its traditional counterparts, but really good digital artwork can be every bit as time consuming and effort intensive as traditional artwork, and sometimes even more so. Although I really enjoy the feel of material paint and am making an effort to return to more traditional artwork out of sheer enjoyment from time to time, the benefit of digital artwork is that it is more malleable and revisable, and this is critical for high-quality scientific restorations in which peer review and revision of the work is of paramount importance.

What is the interaction between palaeoart and palaeontology?

Robert: In my opinion palaeoartist is the most effective and efficient way to communicate palaeontological ideas and discoveries to the public.  Fossils are precious and beautiful treasures but many are difficult to imagine as living creatures.  The palaeoartist’s job is to absorb all the information they can about the fossil, reconstruct it as accurately as possible, and the living specimen to life in a way that the audience can understand.  Achieving this is what makes a palaeoartwork successful, so a well-researched pencil drawing can be a better palaeoartist piece than a poorly researched ultra-realistic CGI image.  It is all about visual communication.

Julius: Palaeoart and palaeontology exhibit perhaps a greater degree of mutualism than exists between artwork and nearly any other scientific field. More than in most types of science, much of palaeontology focuses on subjects entirely beyond the reach of image capturing devices. We use microscopes and telescopes to visualise the very small and the very large, but time travel is beyond us. The only way to visualise living creatures from millions or billions of years ago is to reconstruct them artistically based on the results of intensive paleontological study. Books and illustrated press releases that accompany research results help publicise paleontological research because people really love pictures. Conversely, without extensive paleontological studies, palaeoartists would have next to nothing to paint, and that to which we do happen to have access (sometimes bones and even skeletons become exposed naturally as a result of erosion) is easily misunderstood without the rigorous science that palaeontologists bring to the table. Without palaeontology, palaeoartist would be more akin to fantasy art.

What is the importance of palaeoartist to our understanding of palaeontology?

Julius: This is actually a really important point to make. I think that palaeoartists should be careful to declare the intent of their work (e.g. whether it is intended to be an accurate depiction of prehistoric life to the best of their ability, or whether its main purpose is expression, with artistic license perhaps in place of scientific rigor). This is because palaeoartist is so much more readily accessible as a source of information about palaeontology for the public than scientific papers, and this means that a lot of the public knowledge base about palaeontology is based on palaeoartist. Some public knowledge about prehistoric life is unfortunately largely based on very old visual reconstructions, either from times before certain scientific breakthroughs were made, or from individuals who were not excessively careful to ensure the scientific accuracy of their work. On the other hand, scientific illustration is a very effective venue for public outreach about science. As a palaeoartist (and with a scientific background), I strongly feel that it is my responsibility to make my palaeoartist and other scientific illustration agree as closely with well-established scientific results as possible. This has occasionally required me to update some of my illustrations to accommodate new findings.

Learn more and buy prints on Julius’ (csotonyi.com) and Robert’s (paleocreations.com) web sites.