giovedì 7 febbraio 2013

Palaeoart interview # 1: Steve White / Dinosaur Art: The World's Greatest Paleoart

White, S. (2012). (ed.). Dinosaur Art: The World’s Greatest Paleoart. London: Titan Books.
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As previously mentioned in A “Palaeoartistic Enlightenment”: Dinosaurs as (Deconstructed) Scientific Iconography (you might want to have a look into the historiographic background before proceeding), palaeoart and dinosaur palaeontology are in the middle of a critical rethinking about dinosaur iconographic conventions.
On that occasion, I concluded that
« [it] is perhaps better to observe the recreation of ancient landscapes, frozen in the deep times of the Earth, from the point of view of the authors themselves».
Today I am delighted to present the first installment in a limited series of interviews concerning palaeoart, dinosaurs, and other assorted topics.
Let's start with Steve White (whom I thank for having accepted to be interviewed), and his Dinosaur Art: The World’s Greatest PaleoartThe book, edited by White, features the amazing artwork of (in alphabetic order) Mauricio Antón, John Conway, Julius Csotonyi, Douglas Henderson, Todd Marshall, Raúl Martín, Robert Nicholls, Gregory S. Paul, Luis Rey and John Sibbick (not to mention Darren Naish as the scientific consultant, the Foreword by Philip J. Currie and an Introduction by Scott D. Sampson).
Happy reading!


1. Four years ago, Brian Switek pointed out that
«An in-depth analysis of how palaeo-art (and paleontology in general) changed in the wake of the “Dinosaur Renaissance” is left wanting».
Your book was welcomed in such a particular context and its organization acts quite like an instant visual encyclopaedia: it collects biographic stories, technical details and memories from some of the most renowned protagonists of the “Dinosaur Renaissance” and its most recent phases. So, in a sense, Dinosaur Art is the opening salvo (so to speak) of the debate concerning the much needed renewal in the understanding of palaeoart.
How do you judge the current debates, from the claim of Gregory S. Paul about “copyrighting” some skeletal or in vivo postures (cf. David Orr, The Great Debate in Paleoart; this decision caused many artists to stand back and/or change their portfolio, as Scott Hartman did), to the spreading of an iconoclastic and more scientific approach to the subjects depicted (cf. Matt Wedel, Pimp my 'pod 2: haids)?

Steve White: It's interesting where you draw the line between reference, homage, parody and plagiarism. I am on deviantART and recently someone posted a piece of artwork on there that was a complete and total steal of a piece by Julius Csotonyi – right down to the colour scheme. The artist was not a professional, just someone who seemed to like drawing dinosaurs for fun, but even so it set my teeth on edge that the artist concerned didn't even mention Julius and if I had been a more vindictive sort I could have posted something to that effect.
While this isn't exactly Greg Paul territory, it is a question of "where do you draw the line"? Could Claude Monet have said to Renoir or Pissarro, "You're stealing my look"? That's a gross over-simplification but Greg has cast a very long and very broad shadow over the field of paleoart. He was one of the first artists I went to when I was formulating the line-up for Dinosaur Art and to be honest I was very surprised when he agreed, but over the moon because he had had a very strong influence on my own development as an artist. I'd also have to say, of all the artists I have worked with, he would be the one that I would most like to do an Art of... book. Whether you like his style or not (and I know many people feel he led the 'shrink-wrap' movement) there is no denying his influence and I would love to look at this in depth. I was actually really surprised when in one review it was suggested I had been wrong in including him – to me, that was insane! That said, I'm with many of the people who thought he might have over-reacted a little. I agree the 'left foot-lifted' pose he came to encapsulate is very much his look, however I'm not sure I'd agree is copyrightable. It is a tough one in some respects. I can imagine it must be very hard to see your work so flagrantly lifted but then again, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. I know he was coming at it from a much more business-orientated perspective and I can imagine his frustration at his other artists who are lifting your style then undercutting you (as he seems to have seen it anyway).
Even so, everyone starts out wearing their influences on their sleeves. I remember when the National Geographic dinosaur book illustrated by Raúl Martín came out; it was, I think, the first time I'd seen his work and I remember thinking, "This guy is good but he's just dropping Greg Paul dinosaurs in a Doug Henderson setting." I remember seeing similar comments on forums. But soon after he really came into his own and now he is perhaps the finest exponent of computer-generated paleoart around. His stuff is just amazing and again he's another I dearly love to do a solo book with. I also think he very much addresses the second part of your question. Paleoart shouldn't be like medical illustration, but I guess in some ways, the paleoartist is caught between the devil and the deep blue sea. Someone illustrating dinosaurs (or any prehistoric animal or plant) usually has very little to go on. To be a true paleoartist, you have to be scientifically vigorous, but equally you have to be a natural history artist in the truest sense – the subject has to look like a living organism and that sense of animation can be lost if that vigour ends up taking all the life out of your illustration. That said, on a personal aside, I find a lot of natural history art to be look like nothing more than glamour shots in Vogue. Lots of static shots of tigers looking magnificent or elephants looking windswept at sunset on the Serengeti. I loved All Yesterdays; a genius idea (and a wonderful book for any readers who may have missed it) but they strongly enforce the point that animals spend a great deal of their time doing nothing – sleeping, resting, whatever. I just think it's ironic that with Paleoart is like you're almost over-compensating - you want the animals to look lively and dynamic to reaffirm that, yes, these were living creatures. 
I also think it's not paleoartists that need to be iconoclastic but those who hire them, bearing in mind that much of the work is commissioned. Another example that appears in All Yesterdays is that of Tenontosaurus and Deinonychus. It's a classic case of how a little knowledge can be a bad thing, especially amongst the paleontologically-illiterate, and then it becomes a self-perpetuating fallacy; that, based on very circumstantial evidence, Deinonychus packed-hunted Tenontosaurus. Editors of popular books seem to think this is some absolute truth and unless they are particularly interested in dinosaurs, most of these editors are going to take the path of least resistance. As such, that image is nothing a complete cliche; dinosaur books are still churning it out. I'm not what I regard as a true paleoartist but I have drawn that image three times for three different publications over the years. If you want another example of why it's the publishers and commissioning editors that are causing the problem, I was once illustrating Pentaceratops. A paper had just been released showing that it had a dip along the top edge of its frill with two downward-projecting epoccipitals. I drew it that way then was told to change it; the publication in question had previously published an illustration of Pentaceratops with the old-style frill and didn't want to handle would have no-doubt been a torrent of outraged letters from readers asking why the two looked different (being sarcastic...). So I changed it. I remember Luis Rey being annoyed with me for amending it, but as I saw it it was their money. But it just proves that in popular books any idiot can draw dinosaurs. There's no one there to say it's wrong and the readership are generally none the wiser. Outside of academia, it's a largely self-enforced discipline.

2. In your concise but accurate Introduction you wrote:
«Just as music was changing in the mid- and late seventies, so was paleoart, and if Bob Bakker was Sex Pistols, Greg Paul was The Clash, one influencing the other to greatness» (Dinosaur Art, p. 9).
I liked that musical definition because it can be easily understood even by someone who is unaware of what the “Dinosaur Renaissance” meant for palaeontology in general, and it also puts in context the “Dinosaur Renaissance”, which was a part of a broader social and cultural renewal. At least, in just one of the interviewees of your book, the link between palaeoart and music is readily apparent (i.e., Todd Marshall), but what if you were to choose and apply a musical parallel to all the other palaeoartists presented in your book?

S.W.:  Hehehe. Good question... That seemed an alliteration that felt very natural. I guess the only other artist in the book who is a recognisable part of the Dinosaur Renaissance is Doug Henderson. I remember first seeing his art in Riddle of the Dinosaurs, one of the better (in my opinion) books to come out of that time. I remember being blown away by the sense of lighting. If I was using the music of the time as a yardstick, I'd have to say Doug was someone like The Stranglers - more cerebral than the average punk band, I thought, more artistic. Not sure if he'd appreciate the comparison but I loved The Stranglers so I hope he'd take it as a compliment. I guess I'd see John Sibbick as the Rolling Stones - hardy perennials still going strong and still doing things in the most traditional of styles. Julius would be someone like Radiohead to me, someone whose adapted to new technology and is still creatively state-of-the-art. I wouldn't see Luis musically really; to me he's the Salvador Dalí of paleoart – really pushing the edge of the envelope with the medium. You can't deny that his dinosaurs have a certain surrealism to them! The others... Well, that's tough. I don't want to shoehorn anyone into a particular band or style – I could end up really insulting somebody. I mean, a lot of people hate Coldplay yet there's a lot of people still buy their albums, but really, honestly, who wants to be Coldplay?

3. We know from your recent interview featured on Dave Hone’s Archosaur Musings (which contains a gorgeous selection of your palaeoartistic portfolio) that in 1991 you worked on a Marvel Comics series about dinosaurs and Luis Rey (whose works are admirably printed in your book) was appointed as a contributor. Did you have previous contacts with the other artists involved in the Dinosaur Art project?
Or, generally speaking, how your artistic and professional background helped you during the different editorial stages of your book?

S.W.: The only other member of the Dinosaur Art cadre I knew before starting the book was Darren Naish. I've known both him and Luis for around 20 years so I've seen Darren grow from bright-eyed dinophile into full-blown Doctor. Luis, meanwhile, remains one of Paleoart's great enigmas - very verbos, very vociferous in his views, but you need someone like that to rattle the pillars of paleo-heaven sometimes. Stir things up. I had met John Sibbick once or twice and knew Bob Nicholls via Facebook. Since working on the book, I'm now on pretty good terms with Bob, Mauricio Antón, John Conway and Julius Csotonyi, again mainly via the wonders of Facebook but it's been great to get to know guys whose work I have long admired. 
In terms of my own experience, I don't want to seem unduly modest but I wouldn't deem to qualify myself as a true paleoartist. I have been lucky to draw a lot of dinosaurs and other prehistoric life on a paying basis and I always think that helps when you're dealing with creators; that they know you know what you're talking about. Some people have even asked me why I didn't have more of my own art in there but to me that would have seemed a little self-serving. I know a reasonable amount about dinosaurs (and sharks) and I'm a decent artist, but the book wasn't about me. It just meant that my own background enabled me to draw up what I hoped were interesting questions for the artists to answer rather that "where do you get your inspiration from?" and "what your favourite dinosaur?" (although I think I skated quite close to the latter...). I wanted to ask about methodology and style, and could because I have a pretty good understanding of what it means to illustrate the subject matter being discussed. I guess I was essentially asking what I wanted to know. I also had a big say in the choice of artwork and, again, because I knew the artists by their work, it helped choose images that hadn't been seen dozens of times before – I wanted to give the dinophile readers something they may not have seen before. In some cases, such as Julius' murals, they'd never even seen print before so that was great, especially being able to use them in the fold outs.

4. In your Introduction you remarked your interest in Internet based palaeoart:
«New paleoartistic stars are already in the ascendant, technically savvy as well as being as enthusiastic about prehistoric animals as the artists in this book. Computers hold no fear for them; they are posting online, on DeviantArt or Facebook. It’s the start of a new golden age» (Dinosaur Art, p. 11).
It is indeed quite impressive the amount of astonishing works of good or even excellent scientific and artistic quality that are being produced and spread through the Internet, in the wake of the new palaeoartistic “Dinosaur Renaissance” (the palaeoartistic milieu in Italy, for instance, is in full bloom: e.g., Marco Auditore, Davide Bonadonna, Michele Dessì, Fabio Manucci, Lukas Panzarin, Fabio Pastori, Loana Riboli and Emiliano Troco are just a few names whose visibility has greatly took advantage from the digital showcase).
Dinosaur Art is a bridge between iconic pictures of the recent past and brilliant & provocative works from the present: do you intend to maintain the same pondered balance in your next book on the same topic (if any is planned), or would you prefer to showcase the most recent, Internet based palaeoart only? Which are the most interesting Internet palaeoartists you have seen so far? 

S.W.: Hehe. Well that would largely depend on what I'm allowed to do! I have a few things in the pipeline although, sadly, I don't think (at least for now) it will be Dinosaur Art 2. I suspect the next volumes will be more 'singular' in their approach. However, hypothetically, if I had a chance to do a second volume, I would still want to mix it up, with a line-up of classics and up-and-comers. The book has actually really thrown the door open for me in terms of the number and quality of creators I have now come across, and I think I'd be genuinely spoilt for choice. I also harbour the desire to do 'The DeviantART Book of Dinosaurs.' I joined DA a few months ago and have been agog at the quality of so many of the artists out there. Through the wonders of social networking, I now follow them on Facebook and even Twitter, and it's like a virus. Usually, when I 'watch' someone on DA, I first go check their 'favourites' and that can lead in so many interesting directions. The number of artists I would love to work with or include in a forthcoming volume is growing exponentially, but if I had to choose a line-up of paleoartists whose work currently impresses me greatly, I'd definitely want to include Andrey Atuchin, Julio Lacerda, Michele-the-Sea, Emily Willoughby, Melissa Frankford, Blair Simpson, and Ville Sinkkonen – and that's to name but a few. Pretty much of all of the names I've mentioned I first came across on DA or Facebook. And, of course, too many, using a computer is second nature. To them, using Photoshop is as natural as using a pencil. The funny thing about that is that, in my eyes at least, it makes their digital work look very natural. With some of the older generation of artists who transited to digital, I've actually felt that the computer-generated stuff isn't as effective as their previous work. I guess it's just what you get used and sometimes the change can be a bit jarring. 

5. What is your own definition of palaeoart – or what should palaeoart be?

S.W.: I guess, to me, the simplest definition of paleoart is illustrating anatomically-correct extinct organisms as living ones; if they are in an environmental setting, that ecosystem should be equally accurate.

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