The evolution of dinosaur art
A visual history of humans’ depictions of terrible lizards
From the primeval ooze rises an era of dinosaur art of new creativity. Dinosaurs have intrigued the imagination for a long time; they are deadly reminders of a world gone, untouched by humanity. They are depicted in many ways; as monsters, to be scared of; beasts to be tamed; as animals, part of our ecosystem.
They fuel our imagination, and inspire us to dream.
Dinosaur art is as diverse as the animals themselves, and has evolved alongside people’s understanding of the animals.
1. The primordial reptiles: the mid-19th century
The study of what we recognize as paleontology began in the Enlightenment and post Enlightenment, but the classifications of dinosaurs proper did not begin until the 19th century. Naturally their existence is best understood in the era following Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. This led to the classification of Reptilia and Mammalia, an understanding of evolution, and began what we call today the Bone Wars — a rush of explorers finding these old skeletons.
The 19th century perception of dinosaurs was, of course, inaccurate; nonetheless, it holds its own set of assumptions and artistry that still echo and influence today’s art.
In the above image is portrayed an Iguanodon and a Megalosaurus locked in combat. Of course everything about their portrayal is erroneous; their skulls, their limbs, dragging tails, the texture and scales, their bizarre proportions. However, it is, of course, easy to ridicule in hindsight; keep in mind this was the first proper study of these creatures, with only some bones.
The title of the piece does not refer to evolution, but the Biblical flood; this is an interesting detail. Another detail: as skeletons cannot display fatty cells, it is a correct assumption animals can be as fat as they come without a trace; hence their chubbiness.
The illustration of Dryptosaurus above is totally wrong, of course. The theropod has too many fingers, and a completely erroneous posture (also a dumb grin). Elasmosaurus is literally backwards: its head is actually where its tail should be.
And below it, the drawing of another Megalosaurus. Thick with fat, with a crocodilian grin, a dragging tail, and almost hippopotamus-like proportions.
However, they’re still, to me, riveting images.
There’s a mysticism and an occult about these drawings: they imply a knowledge that this is a primeval earth, beyond human knowledge or understanding, leading to rough surroundings, and the surreal environment of all the sketches. The rough seas and dull skies with no sun show a gravitas and a seriousness somewhat ended by the grins of the beasts. But they too are surreal; since it was not known how they were, they almost look like old, mythological depictions of lions:
Out of understanding, legendary, old serpent-like monsters.
The following eras would have a deeper understanding, and a more naturalistic outlook.
2. The roaring beasts of Knight : the turn of the 20th century
Charles R. Knight, famous paleoartist, took the rough sketches of the past, and gave them style, grace, and color. His primordial beings and landscapes are beautiful, and now mythic.
They’re inaccurate, but does it matter? Brontosaurus was not aquatic. Dryptosaurus has too many fingers, and crocodilian scales and ridges; all posture and proportions are way off.
But — the art itself is brilliant; Charles R. Knight was responsible for impassioning a generation of scientists to explore the ancient world. Less surreal and mythological than the drawings of before, his art evokes animals and beasts truly alive. They are depicted in the middle of actions, an attack, eating, or swimming. The watercolors are beautiful — they are impressionistic, as per the trend of the era, which causes the animals to stand out even more.
Though it remains unrealistic, the Dryptosaurus also showcases the large progress made in the depiction of these animals. Compare it with Cope’s dinosaur of 30 years prior: Knight’s looks much more believable, of course, with the frame of reference that they were indeed lizards, or crocodilian. This depiction of animals in action would inspire more research and more works beyond.
“Not since the Lord himself showed his stuff to Ezekiel in the valley of dry bones had anyone shown such grace and skill in the reconstruction of animals from disarticulated skeletons. Charles R. Knight, the most celebrated of artists in the reanimation of fossils, painted all the canonical figures of dinosaurs that fire our fear and imagination to this day
King’s rendition of these animals, the theropods such as Allosaurus specifically, would become so ingrained in the public eye that they would define our perception of these animals for decades to come. The image of the predator — slim, muscular, crocodilian — would be here to stay for a long time.
3. Apocalyptic monsters and moving pictures: the mid 20th century
The art form changed in the mid-20th century: motion pictures became a recognized, established, and mostly respected art form. Of course, this ushered in a new era of dinosaur art in this new medium.
Walt Disney’s Fantasia brought drawings dinosaurs to the screen for the first time, to Igor Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring”.
This portrayal of dinosaurs was clearly in homage to Knight — but now introduces some of the increasingly popular ideas of dinosaurs in this era. One is the popularization of Tyrannosaurus rex as the biggest, baddest of them all. The animals are clear, Disney representations of Knight dinosaurs. Different stylistically due to being cartoons, of course, but in proportion and color, all Knight.
(Arguably even more unrealistic — T. rex and Stegosaurus did not live any time near each other, with a difference of millions of years.)
But there is a change. The difference is all in the background. Where before we had gentle, natural impressionist water colors of scenery we recognize as nature, the backgrounds are now deadly, surreal, and post-apocalyptic. This depiction came due to increasing evidence of the calamity that would drive these animals extinct. The meteor theory was not as conclusive as it is today: many claimed it was due to the climate. Thus the surroundings are gassy and barren, showing a primeval earth no longer able to sustain life.
Live-action portrayals were even more blatantly Knight. Filmmakers and special effects artists such as Ray Harryhausen were not paleoartists or biologists in their own right, per se, but were deeply influenced by the depictions of the past .
These dinosaurs are Knight brought to real life — Harryhausen fully respects his homage. This, along with increasing knowledge of science and biology, would pave the way to a renewed interest in paleobiology…
4. The dinosaur renaissance — the late 20th century
Increasing influence, pop culture, and science discovery culminated in an explosive revelation: dinosaurs were not lumbering, slow, and cold-blooded. They are birds’ progenitors. In fact — birds are dinosaurs, and the animals were fast, quick, and incredibly diverse.
The dragging tails gone, any lumbering beasts disappeared. Above, we see a dinosaur with a mostly accurate posture — and there’s even a raptor with (a few) feathers!
This new explosion of dinosaur discovery affected the media, and particularly films, as never before.
They were suddenly everywhere by the late 1980s. “The Land Before Time”, which would become a shockingly long multi-film children’s series, held the old apocalyptic visions of Disney, while attempting to be (slightly) more true to new discoveries (such as the lack of dragging tails, although different era species still cohabit).
This led to a marketing rush of dinosaurs for children and families, and soon we had all sorts of dinosaur-related craziness, everywhere in the media.
All of this, of course, exploded by the insane popularity of “Jurassic Park” in 1993.
The BBC documentary, Walking With Dinosaurs, released in 1998 to great acclaim, was the most expensive documentary ever shot in its time:
The fad came and went.
Dinosaurs just…slowly, but suddenly, dropped out of popularity. Until now…
5. The postmodern dinosaur: the modern day
We are at the edge of a new dawn. An era of unparalleled dinosaur creativity and potential.
We know they not only had feathers, but lots of feathers. We’ve come to realize some of our literally century-long misrepresentation, of muscular, skinny dinosaurs, are inapt. You can’t capture fatty cells in skeletons, so dinosaurs can range in shape. Who knows what colors or combinations they really had? The introduction of feathers raises all sorts of creative potential.
Dinosaur paintings are suddenly exploding in quality and popularity, due to the internet. They are no longer exclusively for children, because those children who grew up during the 80s and 90s renaissance suddenly are able to create their own art, using digital tools, easier to disseminate, and to research, than ever.
Artists can now use any of many mediums, and make their dinosaurs as they see fit; feathered or not, realistic or not. But the knowledge is there, and we are at a beautiful point in time for dinosaur art. Digital tools allow for complex shading and texturing.
Of course it has resurged as well in film, given the new “Jurassic World”, and even inspiring “Kong: Skull Island”. In both films we see totally new, fantastical dinosauresque beings. We are at an era in film VFX where there are almost no limits, allowing creators to go wild.
And the modern era has a new medium on the horizon — video games — which are now holding their own with dinosaur art.
The variety is magnificent and it is good to see this medium embrace dinosaurs.
Why does dinosaur art capture my and so many peoples’ imaginations? In this post, rather than dissecting the essence of the animals themselves, I want to capture the humanity I see in this art. How we are riveted by the idea of a primordial world, excited by monstrous beings, or an alternate view of birds, true dinosaurs that they are and were.
We see a resurgence in part because those children who saw Jurassic Park, who were inspired to learn and read about an ancient world, or just to imagine themselves among great beasts, have grown up, and used that inspiration to create. And that is a wonderful thing — for now their art will inspire a new generation of children to be scientists, paleontologists, or artists. Or maybe just to think about ecology, the planet, where we came from, where we’ll go.
Inspiration —and that is what is so beautiful about dinosaur art.
Almost all of my graduate students say that they got interested in dinosaurs because of ‘Jurassic Park.’
— Jack Horner