Book review – Drawing and Painting Dinosaurs: Using Art and Science to Bring the Past to Life

7-minute read

Though I could not paint or draw a dinosaur if my life depended on it, I never tire of reading about palaeoart. What a treat, then, that Crowood Press revisits this subject with this book by US palaeoartist Emily Willoughby. Very much a resource for those already familiar with basic art techniques, it counsels the reader on what goes into making believable and memorable palaeoart. Featuring foremost Willoughby’s favourite subject, feathered dinosaurs, the book also doubles up as a beautiful portfolio of her artwork, showcasing her mastery of a wide range of media.

Drawing and Painting Dinosaurs

Drawing and Painting Dinosaurs: Using Art and Science to Bring the Past to Life, written by Emily Willoughby, published by Crowood Press in October 2021 (paperback, 176 pages)

Willoughby juggles her palaeoart with a passion for bird photography and a research career in behavioural genetics. Her work has graced scientific articles, museum exhibitions, magazines, newspapers, websites, and, of course, books (e.g. in Dinosaur Art 2). To me, a standout feature of Drawing and Painting Dinosaurs is her philosophy. First, palaeoart is not just educational but is a restoration of an individual animal’s life, “a sort of homage to the dead” (p. 8). The artist has an obligation to render an accurate depiction, not just to the public, but also to the fossil that was once alive. “It is our unique responsibility to make sure that these creatures are not forgotten to the dust of time” (p. 19). Second, palaeontology and palaeoartistry are intimately entwined, each having the potential to advance the other field.

Drawing and Painting Dinosaurs internal 1Drawing and Painting Dinosaurs is loosely divided into two parts, both of which are informed by this dedication to realistic and lifelike artwork. The first half covers general principles, while the second half applies these to four groups of dinosaurs. The whole is liberally illustrated with over 250 images, many unique to this book. Willoughby masters a range of techniques: oil paint, gouache, graphite, digital media, watercolour, pencil, and ink. I especially like the graphite works and the family trees, and I love how many of her works are impressionistic rather than photorealistic. The art portfolio is worth the price of admission alone. Admirably, she even includes a few comparisons that show how artwork can quickly become outdated and includes the sobering lesson that “in all probability, and with few exceptions, all palaeoart will one day be shown to be inaccurate as the science of palaeontology marches ever forward. And that is okay” (p. 50).

“palaeoart is not just educational but is a restoration of an individual animal’s life, “a sort of homage to the dead“”

Doing background research is of paramount importance to palaeoart and, uniquely, Willoughby offers readers a guide to parsing the scientific literature. What kinds of academic papers are published in the field of palaeontology? And what kind of information of relevance to palaeoart can you distil from a description of a new dinosaur, a classification paper, or a biomechanical study? The other starting point is the fossils themselves. Willoughby reminds us how much palaeoartists owe museum preparators, whose efforts to piece back together incomplete and deformed fragments are often overlooked. Third, context is everything. By studying the geologic formation in which a fossil is found you can prevent anachronisms and populate your artwork with plants, insects, and other dinosaurs that were alive at the same time as your focal animal.

Drawing and Painting Dinosaurs internal 2Having laid out these general principles, Willoughby then applies this to particular groups. She does this most thoroughly for her favourite subject, the dromaeosaurs: small to mid-sized feathered theropod dinosaurs such as Deinonychus and Velociraptor. Thanks to exquisitely preserved fossils from China, such as the Jehol biota, feathered dinosaurs are no longer controversial. Given their evolutionary relationship, the skeletons and general anatomy of modern birds is a good guide, though there are key differences to keep in mind. Similarly, the colouration of modern birds can function as an inspiration, but Willoughby warns against copying specific patterns, that can “turn into insufferable memes in palaeoart” (p. 89). Here, too, understanding the underlying biology is important. Blue is rare in nature, usually resulting from (micro)morphological structures, while greens or reds result from pigments obtained through diet, so might not be appropriate for the dinosaur you are drawing. And serious thought needs to be given to the behaviour you wish to depict.

“Willoughby explains how to come to a plausible reconstruction using the principles of phylogenetic bracketing and parsimony”

The topic of feathers is of such interest to Willoughby that she returns to their evolution in the last chapter. Their structure ranged from hollow, cylinder-like protofeathers, to messy feathers with filamentous barbs that gave a shaggy appearance, to, ultimately, neatly interlocking flight feathers. The process, meanwhile, was a “non-linear path to aerodynamic feathers and powered flight” (p. 166), complete with evolutionary dead ends, convergent evolution, and secondary loss of flight. This chapter gives an overview of what we know about feather evolution and how it maps onto the dinosaur family tree. Willoughby explains how to come to a plausible reconstruction using the principles of phylogenetic bracketing (looking at an animal’s closest relatives and the traits they did or did not have) and parsimony (minimising the number of assumptions).

Drawing and Painting Dinosaurs internal 3So far, I am mightily impressed and it should be obvious that this book is invaluable to both aspiring and seasoned palaeoartists. That said, there are a few caveats to keep in mind. This book strikes me as a conversational guide to creating palaeoart first, and a hands-on manual second. There are some useful practical tips sprinkled throughout the book (e.g. tracing over images of bones, making simple 3D models, using masking fluid to block part of a painting), while step-by-step examples mostly show you “how to draw dinosaur X from basic shapes” or show digital artwork in various stages. Furthermore, despite the title, this book does not give equal airtime to all groups but focuses on feathered dinosaurs. There is advice for drawing large carnivores, represented by the Tyrannosauroid family, and sauropods, but only brief introductions to the biology of other large herbivores. Simultaneously, the title undersells the book a bit: search for it online and you will find many generic guides which this book patently is not! I guess “The Palaeoartist’s Handbook” was already taken. Speaking of which…

“Willoughby explains how to come to a plausible reconstruction using the principles of phylogenetic bracketing and parsimony”

Drawing and Painting Dinosaurs internal 4I have so far ignored the Triceratops in the room, namely Mark Witton’s 2018 book that was Crowood Press’s first venture into palaeoart. How do the two compare? Both stress thorough background research and originality in subject and composition, but Willoughby, who contributed illustrations to Witton’s book, has been careful to avoid too much overlap. Witton uses many anatomical diagrams to discuss soft-tissue reconstruction in detail and has valuable advice on palaeoart as a paid profession, but he did not cover the actual process of drawing on which Willoughby has some tips. If you already purchased The Palaeoartist’s Handbook then Drawing and Painting Dinosaurs is a very welcome companion. If you have neither you will want to get both.

All said, this book is fantastic value for money and it is a real treat to have another established palaeoartist take the time to write a coherent overview of their methodology. Finally, if you want to know more about the process of making this book, Witton published an interview with Willoughby on his blog while the good folk over at Palaeocast interviewed her for an episode of their podcast.


Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

Drawing and Painting Dinosaurs

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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