Do They Really Look Like That? The Science of Dino Art

By John Roach
for National Geographic News
March 11, 2003
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Every few years a dinosaur leaps from the signature yellow border of National Geographic Magazine and captures the fascination of readers. This month a skull of Tyrannosaurus rex shatters a bone of its prey—another dinosaur.

Cool, but is it realistic? Is that picture with T. rex's teeth glistening with the blood of the dinosaur it just devoured a scientifically accurate interpretation of dinnertime 75 million years ago?


Enter Chris Sloan, a senior editor at National Geographic in Washington, D.C. responsible for art and paleobiology. His job is to make sure that every dinosaur picture and illustration published not only engages the eye but is also scientifically accurate.

"It is the job of the paleo artist to reconstruct a believable scene," he said. To accomplish this, artists like Sloan and the stable of painters, photographers, and sculptors he collaborates with have to learn as much as they can about their subject.

They attend paleontology conferences. They read scientific journals. They study dinosaur fossils. They talk with scientists. They go on digs. By keeping their pulse on paleontology, the artists are able to waken a world long gone extinct.

"We are very dependent on constant accumulation of new knowledge," said Mark Hallett, a paleo artist from Salem, Oregon. "One has to keep up with new discoveries and thought on how animals of the past lived."

As the scientists collect more data, publish more papers, and discuss their finds at conferences around the world, artists must pay particular attention to how this information is interpreted, said John Sibbick, a paleo artist from England.

"Everyone has the same science paper in front of them, they all have the fossil evidence, but the way they interpret it is a totally different ballgame," he said.

Since the artwork Sibbick, Hallett, and their colleagues create is ultimately an interpretation of scientific data, the details, inferences, and speculation that the scientists provide to the artists are what make a picture come alive, said Sloan.

"Art really is a reflection of science, and as sound scientific understanding of these animals has increased over the years, the art has changed to reflect that," he said.

Art Through the Years

Sloan and other artists say that one of the most significant impacts on dinosaur art was widespread acceptance in the 1980s of Wyoming-based independent paleontologist Robert Bakker's theory that dinosaurs were warm-blooded.

"You start to see a dramatic change in dinosaur art," said Sloan. "All of the sudden they were running fast, rearing up, charging. That was a very quick change."

More recently, the flood of small and medium sized dinosaurs being unearthed in northeastern China along with insects, fish, plants, and other mammals is giving scientists unprecedented detail on what the environment was like at the time of the dinosaurs.

In addition, a new generation of researchers is delving into areas once considered the fringes of dinosaur science, such as biomechanics where scientists study how dinosaurs walked or with what bite force T. rex splintered bones.

"Adding up all these things allows the artists to show dinosaurs in ways they have never been shown before," said Sloan.

Artwork has evolved from static images of a dinosaur standing around eating a plant to aerial and worm's-eye views of dinosaur communities in action, making the art much more like a natural history documentary than pictures of monsters people half believe in, said Sibbick.

"We are looking at them as more dynamic creatures with more complicated lives and with more complicated behavior than we originally thought," he said.

Creating a Dinosaur

When National Geographic decides to run a feature story on dinosaurs, Sloan rolls up his sleeves and taps into the network of artists he regularly crosses paths with in the paleontology world.

"When we do a dinosaur story we hire dinosaur artists," said Sloan. "There is so much that goes into portraying a dinosaur accurately that you cannot hire someone unless they know what they are doing."

People like Sibbick and Hallett, whose work has appeared in several issues of the yellow-bordered magazine in addition to other popular magazines, scientific journals, and books, are on the top of Sloan's list. They take their work seriously and, like Sloan, are plugged in to the world of paleontology.

"Once I get a clear indication of what animal or environment we will be portraying, I immerse myself in all the information that is available," said Hallett. He reads scientific papers, visits with paleontologists, and sometimes travels to where the dinosaur was found. He wants a direct impression of what the dinosaur's life was really like.

Sibbick too gathers as much information on the dinosaur as possible. He reads the science papers, talks with paleontologists, and looks for modern animals that could serve as a model for how the dinosaur moved and blended into its environment.

In addition, Sibbick pays close attention to his client. "There is a lot more controversy now, so you have to take on board who is saying what, who believes what, especially when working on commission," he said. "You have to know where the client is coming from."

Then, for the next several months, at times for as long as year, the artists, scientists, and Sloan go back and forth, revising and evolving the piece from a rough conceptual pencil sketch to a vibrant, action-packed, and scientifically-accurate scene ready for publication.

"You got to be kind of relaxed about stopping and rethinking," said Sibbick, who has seen deadlines pushed back several months in order to get a piece as accurate as possible. "You got to make sure most people are as happy as they can be."

Sloan says the artists he regularly collaborates with are a unique group who are dedicated to the science that is the basis of their work. "They see their art as being the best way the scientists can communicate the importance of their work to the public," he said.

More National Geographic News Stories on Dinosaurs:
Dinosaur Footprints: Tracks Tell Prehistoric Secrets
Four-Winged Dinosaurs found in China, Experts Announce
Utah Dinos May Have Been Killed By Drought
Cuban Dinosaur: First Confirmed Remains Discovered
Dinosaur Cannibal?—Mystery in New Mexico
Tetrapod Fossil Found—First Ever in Asia
New Picture of Dinosaurs Emerging
Fossil Implies Our Early Kin Lived in Trees, Study Says
Weird Buck-Toothed Dinosaur Found
Dinosaur Tracks Preserved on Scottish Island
Dinosaur Tracks Shed Light on Sauropod Evolution
Comets May Have Led to Birth and Death of Dinosaur Era
Fossil of Dog-Size Horned Dinosaur Unearthed in China
Tyrannosaurus rex Was a Slowpoke
Researchers Rethink Dinosaur Die Off Scenario
Researchers Melt Polar Dinosaur Mysteries
Scientist's Finds Spur New Thinking on Dino Evolution
Dino-Era Vomit Fossil Found in England
Study Paints New Picture of Dinosaur's Nose
Skeleton of New Dinosaur "Titan" Found in Madagascar
"Tidal Giant" Roamed Coastal Swamps of Ancient Africa
"Feathered" Fossil Bolsters Changing Image of Dinosaurs
Oddly Angled Teeth Make Masiakasaurus Stick Out
New Find: Pterosaur Had Strange Crest, Fishing Style
Dinosaur Beak Probably Used to Strain Food, Not Kill Prey

Additional Dinosaur Resources from National Geographic:

Paul Sereno: National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence and Dinosaur Hunter
Wanted: Albertosaurus
Dinosaur Eggs
Destinations: Dinosaur National Monument


Use this National Geographic News article in your classroom with these Xpeditions lesson plans and student activity:
K-2: Dinosaur Bodies
3-5: How Do Scientists Find Dinosaur Fossils?
6-8: The Science of Digging Up Dinosaurs
9-12: The Evolution of Dinosaurs Over Geologic Time
K-2: Those Fussy Dinosaurs!
9-12: Physical Characteristics of Places: The Fossil Record
Activity: A Dinosaur's Neighborhood

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