Saturday, 31 December 2011

Dino-Tourism Part II

Well, the latest news is that I've just returned from a whistle-stop visit to New York, the sole purpose of which was to encounter the 'World's Largest Dinosaurs' exhibit before it closes on Jan 2nd!

This was not my first trip to New York (I visited once as part of a school trip, so that would have been about 10 years ago!), but it was my first visit to the American Museum of Natural History. This was immensely exciting for me, as it has been on my list of top places to see since I was a kid and finally getting to see that beautiful Barosaurus in the entrance hall was a truly spine-tingling moment!

But before covering the museum itself I'd like to talk about the special exhibit that lured me all the way across the Atlantic. I should explain first that the focus of the exhibition was to investigate the engineering of the largest dinosaurs: the Sauropod family. First of all, as an ex-model maker, I have to say the sculptures on display were astounding. The centre-piece of the exhibit is a life-sized model of a Mamenchisaurus (not quite full-grown, but at 18 ft long, not a baby either). One half of the model is cut away to reveal the muscle structure underneath and towards the forelimb this is cast in clear resin (lovingly airbrushed with blood vessels) to show some of the bones that hold the animal aloft. The icing on the cake is an animated sequence projected onto the animal's belly, which shows the life-sized organs of the respiratory and digestive systems.

This incredible centre-piece is surrounded by many other models, showing various aspects of the engineering of Sauropods in closer detail. A painting that runs along the far wall shows several more species of Sauropod at 1x1 scale (from the diminutive Europasaurus to the gigantic Argentinasaurus). The display was housed in a fairly small space, but there was so much information on offer I ended up spending a full hour wandering around a relatively small room and I'm sure I still didn't get to read everything that was on offer!

I had to move on though, because I still had a whole museum to explore. My first stop, naturally, was the dinosaur halls, divided into Sauriscian and Ornithischian groups. The entire third floor is in fact laid out according to a cladistic map, dividing the specimens on display according to where they fit in the evolutionary chain. I thought this was a pretty ingenious idea and it certainly helps to give context to the exhibits as visitors walk around.
By far the most spectacular exhibits in the permanent collection were the rare and beautiful dinosaur mummies! These were both Hadrosaurids: an Anatosaurus and a Corythosaurus, both fossilized in such a manner as to retain preserved portions of their soft-tissue. To see folds of leathery skin enveloping the wasted remains of these creatures was another one of those spine-chiller moments. I even found myself getting a little bit choked up!

My one teensy gripe with my visit to the AMNH (and it is hardly the museum's fault!) is that by midday the entire place was so crowded I was getting quite exhausted and not a little stressed. I guess that's what I get for visiting a Natural History Museum during the school holidays! However, I managed to find some space amidst the heaving throng of excited kids and desperate parents to do some sketches based on the skeletons on display (see below).

I could bore you all with a lot more about the amazing dioramas in the mammalian and marine galleries, but since this is more of a Dino-related blog, I won't waffle on. I can only recommend that if you've never been to the AMNH then you absolutely must go and check it out for yourself! It's a brilliantly well-thought out building (I only got lost once and that's got to be a record for me! I do think it extremely odd that the museum of Natural history would have galleries filled with human artifacts from various cultures, but let's not split hairs on what is largely a semantic issue. In truth it really is more a 'Museum of Everything' and even if you're not a dinosaur nut, the cenozoic displays, particularly the marine gallery, are an absolute must-see.

Many thanks to all the kind and helpful staff at the American Museum of Natural History and the amazing team of scientists who continue working behind the scenes!

Please click on images to view larger:




Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Holiday snaps

It's been a while since I posted any new artwork, so I thought I'd better explain: I'm in one of those annoying phases where I'm working constantly, but it's going to be a while before I can actually present anything new. I've been working on a painting for several weeks and it'll be another month or so before it's finished, so until then I'm going to be MIA. I have also been without a printer/scanner for about four weeks now (the last one blew up in a power surge....aaaaargh!), so that's making things a little difficult too. Hopefully in six weeks time, I'll be freshly tooled-up and have a lot more free time for smaller, more manageable pieces, but until then, I'd like to share some sketches from my trip to Belgium (just click to view in a larger format). Au revoir mes amis!



Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Dino-Tourism Part I

The other week it occurred to me that I haven't had a holiday in about four years - yikes! Alas, I couldn't afford to go away for the weekend, so I decided to hop on the Eurostar and head for Brussels for the day, to see some specimens that are so familiar to me and yet I had never set eyes on before.

I am talking of course, about the wonderful Iguanodons of Bernissart, on display in the Belgian Royal Institute for Natural Sciences. The 'Bernissart Thirty' have been etched into my mind since childhood - I remember gazing mystified at grainy old photos and 19th century drawings of the huge, decrepit-looking creatures, with their hideous grins and broken faces. Strangely, it is just this creepiness that is peculiar to the Bernissart finds of 1878 that I have always found so appealing. I remember having dreams as a child about the silent, sombre statues, with their glistening black sheen, like ossified ghosts. Their cracked surfaces give them the appearance of being just about to crumble to pieces; their gaping eye sockets seem to open into nothing at all and there's something just so beautifully, horrifically Victorian about them.

So, this was a personal pilgrimage for me - thirty specimens of my favourite genus of dinosauria AND such historically important ones too!

I'm happy (and not at all embarrassed) to say that when I first entered the dinosaur hall in the Institut de Sciences Naturelle I allowed myself a little snigger (...OK, so it was a girly giggle. Let me preserve a grain of pride). The exterior of the museum and the entrance hall were rather unassuming; they even reminded me a little of school, but the dinosaur hall itself really took my breath away. The architecture is stunning, with beautiful ornate bannisters and twisting wrought-iron spiral staircases and a wonderfully refreshing sense of open space. I'm a big admirer of taxidermy and was delighted to see multitudes of stuffed birds hanging from the ceiling, ducking and diving in the air above their distant cousins (some could be found wandering around at ground-level as well...no explanation, they were just there).

The hall is also home to a beautifully mounted Tyrannosaur, Diplodocus, Stegosaurus and Crylophosaurus (and many others, but I mustn't waffle!), but the stars of the show for me were the Iguanodons I had got up at a quarter-past five that morning to see:

Firstly, I have to say they are beautifully presented, those that can be mounted standing are arranged in a huge glass case, just as they were in the late 1800s. The mezzanine allows the visitors to walk all around the specimens at about eye-level before going below to experience walking through the glass tunnel that runs beneath. Those that are still set in plaster much as they were found are housed in another room below. This part of the exhibit has a glass floor, so you can walk along with this strange precarious sensation that you're going to fall several feet onto a bed of hard fossils! The lighting is quite stark around the Bernissart Thirty - the natural light is restricted and the fossils are all lit harshly from above, emphasizing their monstrous quality. The final touch is the one Iguanodon on the end who has been mounted on all fours, as if she's just stepped down to wander off somewhere. This is the one animal that is presented outside of the glass enclosure that houses the others, except for her tail, which passes through the glass as if she's just stepped through a forcefield.

The most striking revelation for me, seeing these specimens for the first time after twenty years, was the emotions that the Iquanodons stirred in me. They got me thinking about how important the find in the mines at Bernissart were. Before these guys were discovered, all we had of Iguanodon was a few bits and the best picture of prehistoric life we could deduce from these and other scattered remains were the Waterhouse-Hawkins sculptures at Crystal Palace. I love those sculptures dearly, but they are a poignant illustration of just how much in the dark we were back then. When the Bernissart specimens were unearthed, here at last was a whole herd of animals, almost complete in most cases, providing us with a clear picture of what these creatures actually looked like! Here at last was the silver bullet that gave irrefutable evidence of the existence of large beasts, walking the earth many millions of years before the rise of primates, bolstering the still quite radical theory of evolution and sparking public interest in new science.

But the most potent message written in the sombre, lofty stances of the Bernissart Thirty is the potent reminder that Palaeontology rose out of the blood, sweat and tears of the Industrial Revolution. When I was a child, I thought that their appearence was black and shiny because they came out of a coal mine. The truth is the fossils were filled originally with cores of pyrite when they were found and crumbled upon leaving the atmosphere of the mine. This problem was solved by removing the pyrite in a laboratory environment and boiling the remaining fossils in glue to make them hard. This brutally victorian industrial process is what gives them their Onyx glisten. When there, one cannot help but wonder what the miners must have made of the bone yard that they found. Mining in the nineteenth century, as now, was a perilous profession: Did the miners find the silent beasts to be a macabre reminder of their own lost colleagues and that someday they too may find themselves buried in the dark of the mine?

I left the exhibition hall with a great feeling of gratitude to all the workers who blasted their way through the green and pleasant lands of the nineteenth century and the amateur collectors who gathered the sudden explosion of fossils that the Industrial Revolution unearthed. I was grateful also to the Bernissart Thirty. I know I shouldn't get too sentimental about individual fossils, but I did feel a whimper of sadness for these thirty animals who all died together, along with 600 fish and a crocodile in the depths of a river bed. They had no way of even conceiving that in a hundred million years or so some hairless primates would dig up their remains and put them on display, much less that one particular primate would travel all day just to come and pay homage to them.

Thank you, Bernissart Thirty. RIP.

Monday, 5 September 2011

Just a thought...

In the pub the other day a good friend of ours asked me how I can bear doing palaeo-art when, ultimately, I'll never be able to know if my restorations were anywhere near correct. Where was the sense of reward for me? Didn't I find it unbearable to think about how I'll never know?

This intrigued me. I've never been asked that before and it's honestly never occurred to me to feel in any way upset about it. Sure, I wish I could really see the extinct animals I restore, but I kind of like that sense of mystery about it...Plus, I'd kinda be out of a job if that were the case!

So, I asked my friend to elaborate on his point. He went so say he's become rather disillusioned with scientists of late, in the same way he gets disillusioned with religious creationists (not a creationist himself, I should point out). His point was that our picture of the universe changes with every scientific discovery that's made. Our idea of the world we live in today is very different from what it was even ten short years ago. He finished by saying of scientists that they always seem so certain of what they're saying, but ultimately they "just don't know."

This use of the word 'know' seemed very potent for him, like it annoyed him greatly. It had never occurred to me before, but we do tend to elevate science to an impossible state: as if it's all about knowing things to be true; a place where we can find comfort in facts. Unchanging, irrefutable facts.
Facts are very comforting things to intelligent beings like us - we are afraid of the things we don't understand and cannot predict. The more we know about the universe, the less we have to be afraid of it. It sounds rather primitive when put like that I suppose, but there we have it.

Of course, in palaeontology (and particularly the reconstruction of dead ecosystems) there is precious little absolute certainty for us to find refuge in and I'm sure pretty much all scientific disciplines are just the same. It's true; just six years ago, it was quite dangerous to restore a dromeosaurid with feathers (just look at the BBC's 'Walking with Dinosaurs' series - not very old, and yet not a feathered friend in sight), but now to do otherwise would be quite unthinkable. This is because science is about discovery, exploration and revision. It is a quest for fresh knowledge, true, but it is also in very large part a refining process of what we already know, fueled by peer-reviewed investigation and ongoing inquiry.

In fact, I think it's pretty fair to say that if science teaches us anything at all it is that what we do know is very little and if the pursuit of science is to 'find all the answers', then it is a task that can never be fulfilled. Personally I don't think that's sad or annoying at all; I think it's wonderful!

My reply to my friend's challenge was: "OK, I'll admit, it is all guesswork, but it is thoroughly researched guesswork..."

I think (I hope) that's what makes the difference.

Monday, 8 August 2011

NHM London: After Hours...

So, last week, Kit and I ventured down to the Natural History Museum in South Kensington for our first 'After Hours' event!

I had been so excited about this, it's actually a little embarrassing! For those who don't know, on the last friday of every month, the NHM stays open after normal closing hours and lays on a series of events and entertainments. Visitors can attend quizzes, visit special exhibits without having to push through hordes of kids (and their exasperated parents) or simply wander around enjoying the atmos.

Kit and I arrived at 7pm with a view to simply meandering for a couple of hours before we had to make our way to the 'Age of Dinosaurs' Exhibit (Kit had long since resigned himself to the fact that if we were going to the NHM, then we were going to see the Dinosaurs!). As we entered the hall of the Waterhouse building we found it almost empty save for a harpist serenading the Diplodocus Carnegii with a haunting tune. Kit remarked how the Diplodocus seems to look a little smaller every time you see her. It's true, she does.

From there we followed the signs to the new Darwin centre, which I have not yet been able to explore fully (this was my first time there). The sound of the harp in the Victorian hall faded behind us as the cheerful sound of a jazz quartet flowed up from the modern extension. I hope this effect was intentional...

I wish I could say I sampled one of the tasty-looking picnic baskets that were on offer and the champagne too, but cash was tight on this occasion, so we bought some cheese straws and affordable drinks from the bar and went outside to enjoy what remained of the warmer part of the evening. Although this was late july, we noticed as the next couple of hours rolled by that some in the courtyard had started using their blankets (all provided by the museum) as shawls, but the chill did nothing to spoil the atmosphere, which was very pleasant and festive.
We did think it a shame that there was no entertainment or diversion in the centre of the courtyard (it's basically a oval clearing with small steps all around, almost like an amphitheatre, so would be perfect for theatre, comedy or live music.

After getting pleasantly squiffy in the gardens, we headed inside and came across a brilliant display of pickled specimens in jars! A selection have been presented on display for visitors and you can see through the glass into the storeroom where the hundreds of other jarred specimens are kept. Both having a keen love of creepy things in jars, we spent a good half an hour or so wandering along the exhibit, marveling at lots of guey, grey things with tentacles!

Then, our time was up, we had to make our way to the 'Age of Dinosaurs' exhibit for our allotted 9pm slot (I've promised we'll go see 'Sexual Nature' next time...).

Now, to the important bit! The 'Age of Dinosaurs is informative and interactive, but, it has to be said, not particularly 'spectacular'. The whole thrust of the event is to illustrate relationships between species and provide context. One of the best things I thought was the enormous wall-chart as you go in, which has a timeline showing key species from the earliest life-forms to the latest, all presented pretty much to scale with one another.

Many more exhibits were along these lines, with interactive 'touch-screens' (no doubt trying to woo the iPad generation) that are really large animated screens projected onto black surfaces you can touch to manipulate the display. Another nice touch was the series of fossil replicas displayed without cases, so that visitors can feel parts of the animal (serrated teeth etc) and think about how the animal used its adaptations in life. I don't want to spoil all the surprises, as I thoroughly recommend going, but I will urge you to look out for the amusing stickers on the wall whenever you enter a zone with animatronics in (because I would have missed them if Kit hadn't pointed them out!).

Speaking of the animatronics, I should say a word about them, as they're obviously the star of any show of this kind. Although they were mostly all models I'd seen before, there were a couple of new ones and all in all I felt they were pretty good. I love Kokoro's work and when you consider how complicated animatronics are, some of the works on display are amazing. If you do go, just watch the Tarbosaurus' tiny hands - you'll see what I mean.

I could easily have spent another 30 mins in what is essentially a pretty small display. There's so much information on offer, I'd recommend getting an earlier slot if you can so you've got time to let it all soak in (and don't get squiffy on pink fizzy wine beforehand...*hic!*).

Whilst 'Age of Dinosaurs' doesn't stick out in my mind as one of the best displays I've ever seen (if only  because the animatronic displays were mostly things I'd seen before), it is one of the most info-saturated and whilst I may not go again, it was well worth the entry fee and I'm glad I didn't miss out.

I'm loving the whole 'After Hours' thing and can't wait to go again! Maybe I'll leave it until the new refurbished dinosaur section is completed, which I'm hoping will be sometime soon. If you'd like to visit yourself, you can find out more at http://www.nhm.ac.uk/visit-us/whats-on/after-hours/index.html

My love goes out to the NHM and all that work there - here's a nice little Iguanodon Bernissartensis, just for you! xxx

Friday, 29 July 2011

Amargasaurus Cazaui

KA-ZOW-EE!! Man, I love saying that out loud. It surely has to be one of the most satisfying names in the fossil record!

But the beautiful name is only the start of Amargasaurus' charms, as this little study will hopefully show:


Restoring this chap presented a lot of problems, not least the fact that, as shown in the vector diagram, the only remains we have to go on come from just three known specimens, all incomplete. These have provided a complete picture of the main body of the skeleton, but the head and feet are still missing. Hence, in restoring this species, I have supplanted the skull and foot bones of a close relative: Dicraeosaurus Hansemanni. 

But the shapes of the missing parts aren't nearly so troublesome as the bits that are present. The extraordinary elongated prongs on the cervical vertebrae pose a baffling problem. Traditionally, these have been supposed to act as supports for sail-fins, which presumably would have acted much like the dorsal plates of a Stegosaurus - acting both as an elaborate display to attract mates/deter predators and as a 'central-heating' system; radiating heat away from the body in extreme temperatures.

However, more recent theories propose that Amargasaurus' lengthy spines were more likely to have stood proud of the main trunk of the neck and would have been sheathed in horny tissue'. Hence, I have opted to style this species with bare horns. I have assumed (again, because I have been unable as yet to find any explanation) that the reason for abandoning the sail-fin theory is because such a set-up would have limited the range of motion in the animal's neck, making it a poor and unlikely adaptation (I will post any further information as I find it).

Also, it occurs to me that if you observe large predators (Lions, crocodiles, wolves etc), bringing down large prey, the killing blow is generally struck on the neck. This is because eviscerating an animal until it bleeds to death is a messy, time-consuming and exhausting affair. Crushing the windpipe or suffocating the victim (as lionesses do, by taking the snout of a wildebeest in their own mouth to cut off the air supply) is far more effective.
And when one considers that the neck on most Diplodocids is the most exposed part of the animal, it is tantalyzing to me to think how many diplodocids might have met their ends having their slender necks crushed in the jaws of moderate-to-large sized predators.
Amargasaurus' exposed spines would have acted as an effective deterrent against such attacks.

However, I must admit, I do not wholly agree with the bare-horns restoration either, if only because it also looks so impractical (I know, it's not a very scientific argument, plus there's nothing particularly 'practical' about Amargasaurus in any case!).
Plus, as a student of animal behaviour and evolution, I'm afraid  I just can't resist using the vertebral spines of Amargasaurus to suspend a moderate pair of sail-fins. These would not be so cumbersome as to restrain the movement in the animal's neck and would act as a canvas for elaborate patterns. Such an adaptation would:

a) Allow animals within a group to identify one another by the patterns on the sail (the specimen shown here is male; I have given him a bright blue tinge to his mini-sail so he can really show off to the lay-dees...)
b) Enlarge the animal's silhouette, making it appear larger and more threatening to predators (crowned with bare horns, Amargasaurus would appear even more so)
c) Radiate heat away from the head and neck in extreme weather




Monday, 11 July 2011

Welcome

Welcome to my very first post for this dedicated palaeoart blog. I am currently working towards getting a proper website set up to showcase my work, but in the meantime, I will be posting some of my drawings here and keeping the universe informed (none of us wants to live in an uninformed universe, do we? I mean, what could be more terrifying?!)

We'll begin our Mesozoic safari with this little pencil study of a Protoceratops Andrewsi I did some years ago. She's a little rough, but I still like her.