Thursday, July 21, 2016

Book Review: Recreating an Age of Reptiles

I think we’re all familiar with the work of one Dr. Mark P. Witton. 

If you follow Mesozoic paleontology at all, you’ve probably read some of his papers (this one among many others) and you probably own his wonderful Pterosaurs book. Perhaps you even visited his inspiring 2010 pterosaur show in London. I have to imagine you read his excellent paleo-blog, too. 

Heck, maybe you’ve met him at SVP, perhaps back in 2009, when mutual friend Julia Heathcote introduced you but you were too intimidated and tongue-tied to say anything intelligent. I can tell you, from that brief encounter, that Dr. Mark P. Witton is the only person I’ve ever known who can successfully pull of an ascot.

But aside from his excellent taste in neckwear, Dr. Witton is an excellent artist and writer. In fact, I was puzzled that Titan Books’ otherwise-excellent Dinosaur Art: The World’s Greatest Paleoart didn’t feature his work in some capacity. Well, fear not, because Mark took matters into his own hands, self-publishing a collection of his paintings and associated write-ups in Recreating an Age of Reptiles, now available at all major online book stores (Amazon, B&N, etc.) and discounted at There are other options, too—I recommend reading Mark’s breakdown for the full story.

Mark was kind enough to provide me with a digital copy for review. Rec-a-Rep is an excellent collection of Mark’s art and writing. I’ve always admired his accessible, lightly humorous writing style, and Rec-a-Rep reads like an extended blog post, minus the references. Mark describes his approach to every piece of art in the book, as well as adding new essays about his artistic origin story and timeliness/accuracy in paleoart that bookend the rest of the text. This is all wonderful material—easy to read, insightful, and that Simpsons reference made my day. 

I was a little surprised that Rec-a-Rep doesn’t contain a “step by step” sequence from sketch to finished product of any given piece. This is an aspect of paleoart that I find fascinating—how a painting evolves from initial idea to final product. It’s arguably my favorite part of The Paleoart of Julius Csotonyi and William Stout: Prehistoric Life Murals, so I was disappointed that this sort of discussion wasn’t included. For example, does Mark sketch things out on paper first, or is he 100% digital? How are paintings initially laid out? How many layers are there? These are the sorts of things I wonder about.

So let’s talk about the art. I’ll confess that not even that long ago, I liked— but didn’t love— Mark’s unique, painterly technique. Having been raised on a steady diet of Greg Paul, John Sibbick, Ricardo Delgado and others of that era, I missed the hard lines that are absent in Mark’s work. Imagine my horror when confronted with an artist who separates animals from animals, and animals from backgrounds, with brushstrokes.

But with this digital copy of Rec-a-Rep, I was able to pour over each painting, embiggening where necessary, to appreciate the fine details I’d previously missed. For example, did you know that there are small crocodilians in his Baryonyx piece? Just looking at this image on the Interwebs, I had never noticed. See the differences in color and texture on the different members of his Triceratops family? It’s not really obvious on your monitor, but I’ve always said that art is something I need to be able to hold and put close to my eyeballs. I buy physical collections of digital webcomics because I can’t appreciate the artistry on a computer monitor. For me, Mark's work improves by an order of magnitude upon close inspection.

In fact, I don’t really like his paintings that incorporate hard lines (see his Dimorphodon and Quetzalcoatlus montages). It just doesn't fit his style.

After some thought, I believe the best comparison for Mark’s work is Douglas Henderson. The two share a painterly style and treat the animals as simply a part of their environment, rather than the singular focus. Considering this, I find that the most effective paleoart is that which envisions the entirety of the Mesozoic, not just the occasional conflicts between predator and prey that's become so popular in recent years (decades), and that’s a philosophy that Mark seems to share. I also appreciate his tendency to paint animals doing boring things--like animals tend to do. Even Alaska's most fearsome carnivores are sleeping most of the time.

Several of Mark's pieces give off a Henderson vibe, but these two in particular: his hopping Scleromochlus taylori and wonderful retro Megalosaurus & Iguanodon paintings; in both instances, the animals simply appear in their environments, hopping or lounging into the frame. Having Rec-a-Rep in hand has given me a new appreciation for Mark’s work, and I’m now what you might call a Big Fan. Should I ever find myself in the same room with him, I might work up the courage to ask for an autograph.

I do have one fuddy-duddy concern, however: a couple times in the text, Mark talks about how difficult it is to provide a sense of scale when your subject is, say, a sauropod that’s ten stories tall. I agree that scale is ridiculously difficult to convey with these animals, but I don’t know if Mark has cracked this particular nut. The inherent dilemma is that dinosaurs, themselves, are alien enough that understanding how big (or small) they are is a problem in itself. While his basically-perfect "BrontoSmash" painting (below) captures the Earth-shaking blows these animals traded, for instance, it's difficult to appreciate just how HUGE they are.

Mark's intimidating Deinosuchus painting, however, provides an excellent sense of scale, however, thanks to the birds and lone tree in the foreground, highlighting the Godzilla-esque proportions of the focal reptile. You win some, you lose some. Given the discussion of scale, I was surprised that Mark did not include this old chestnut, from his blog, of Dreadnoughtus; I've always thought it provided an amazing sense of scale. Look at that goddamn thing. In the parlance of our times, I can't even.

Now, this is not so much a critique of the book or even Mark's considerable talent, just a roundabout way of saying "Scale is hard with dinosaurs." It won't bother most people, and in fact I'm not sure why I'm getting so riled up about it. The point is that Rec-a-Rep is a wonderful book, a real treat for both for the specialist and the layperson. Once I procure a physical copy, it will sit proudly on my shelf alongside my other paleoart books or perhaps our hypothetical coffee table, should I ever convince my wife to (a) buy a coffee table; and (b) allow its surface to be littered with art books.

BONUS! It's worth mentioning that Mark has painting my second-favorite piece of paleoart of all time: this wooly Pachyrhinosaurus perotorum

If you're wondering what my FIRST favorite piece of paleoart is, it's this haunting image (found, curiously, on Dave Hone's blog).

ONE MORE THING! Why no love for thyreophorans, Mark? Tons of pterosaurs, sauropods, and even Tyrannosaurus, but just one lonely Polacanthus? For shame. I approve of the paucity of ornithopod material, though. Ornithopods: the best antidote for insomnia I know. 

No comments:

Post a Comment