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Saturday, 6 September 2014

Hey Dreadnoughtus, not so close

I try to avoid hopping on the bandwagons following new discoveries - few internet experiences are more tiresome than seeing social media and inboxes swollen with discussions and pictures of the same new fossil species (tyrannosaurids, for some reason, do this more than anything else). Of course, some new discoveries are just too cool to pass up: Dreadnoughtus schrani Lacovara et al., 2014 is one of them. Not only does it have a fantastically marketable and charismatic name entirely befitting one of the largest land animals to ever exist (take that, naysayers), but the sheer amount of data published on it is really first class (Lacovara et al. 2014) and the fossil is truly spectacular. If you've not done so, check out the Dreadnoughtus description and supplementary material: there's everything from measurements and photographs to interactive 3D scans of every bone for you to look at in fine detail (or spin around like crazy while giggling, if you're comfortable enough with your maturity). And before you can say 'paywall', this is all freely-available, open access information. It's not just a great paper for those interested in sauropods or dinosaurs, but also an important reference point for those interested in the evolution of extreme animal anatomies and gigantism.

How the world met Dreadnoughtus schrani in palaeoart. Left, restoration by Jennifer Hall; right, Mark A. Klingler. Images from the Dreadnoughtus media release hosted at the Drexel News Blog.
I found one aspect of the very good, super-comprehensive and fittingly giant media release for Dreadnoughtus rather unusual, however: the artwork. For a media story principally being sold on the size of a dinosaur, the two 'official' pieces of Dreadnoughtus artwork by Mark A. Klingler and Jennifer Hall (above) have - what seem to me at least - some odd choices as goes composition and posture which might undermine the awesome size of Dreadnoughtus. I'm not saying the images are bad or 'wrong': there's lots of lovely detail and atmosphere in both (note the neat sauropod and titanosaur characteristics like the lack of manual claws, the concave posterior surface of the hand etc.), and this is not a dig at the artists, who have definitely earned the wide success of the Dreadnoughtus press campaign. My problem - and I hope this comes across as the constructive criticism it's intended as - is that I'm a bit underwhelmed by the sense of scale, which I'd say is pretty important for artwork of this animal. To be fair, conveying extinct animal size in art is never straightforward, but peculiar compositional choices in each image prohibit my being fooled into thinking I'm looking at truly giant animals. For example, both position the animals in the foreground, filling the canvas with as much Dreadnoughtus hide as possible. I can understand why - it says "it's so big we can barely contain it in the edges of these illustrations", but it also leaves little room for a point of size reference between us and the animals. It also forces the adoption of stooping postures and requires significant foreshortening to fit the animals into view, the former reducing their apparent size and the latter obscuring proportions we intuitively recognise as characteristic of large animals (e.g. the relatively small heads of large animals). Hall's illustration also sets the point of view at shoulder height so we're actually looking across and somewhat down at the subject animal - not necessarily what you might want to suggest this thing was bigger and taller than us. Both images feature trees immediately alongside their animals as a means of conveying scale, but I find the rest of the composition overpowers their effect. In all, while the other aspects of the images are effective, I'm just not sold on the size.

I find these decisions interesting because I think they represent a case of a modern palaeoart convention overruling 'classical' artistic approaches. Traditionally, artists use the same basic techniques for making subjects look big and important when placing them in a scene. They stress proportional extremes (including small head size - this even occurs in renditions of royal or divine human figures), use low points of view so that the the top of the subject clears the horizon line along with other elements in the composition, and place items to give an appropriate sense of scale. Positioning smaller items in the foreground can help the viewer find their position in the scene and ground their sense of size, but these need to be placed carefully: cluttered compositions tend to dwarf their subjects. A consequence of these methods is that giant subjects are often no closer than the mid-ground. An obvious exception to this are images with points of view positioned at the very base of a subject, looking up, so it looms above the viewer (below). This is a slightly different approach to the problem, though, almost treating the subject as the landscape rather than an entity within a background.

A cockroach-eye view of a titanosaur.
Palaeoart produced before the 1970s/1980s stuck to the classic rules of depicting giant animals: Zallinger, Knight, Burian et al. rarely deviated from 'standard' methods of conveying large size when drawing sauropods and other big extinct animals. The scientific transformation of dinosaurs into dynamic, active animals in the late 20th century also brought on a artistic shift where some artists abandoned 'classic' compositions in favour of more exciting, convention-defying and 'extreme' images. One consequence of this was some artists moving (frequently giant) animals closer to the foreground, turning them to face viewers and sometimes, through their body language, 'interacting' with those looking at them. The first seeds of this were probably sown by by the likes of Robert Bakker who, in many of his illustrations, fills every possible square inch with his animals to the point of using extreme postures - particularly arching backs and curving tails - to do so (e.g. illustrations in Bakker 1986). Bakker's works frequently lack the context of backgrounds however, leaving other artists to bring dynamically posed, big extinct animals closer and closer in landscaped works. I think Mark Hallett may have be particularly instrumental here, with works such as his famous 1984 'Dawn of a New Day', and the 1985 paintings 'Awakening of Hunger' and 'Ancient One' leaning towards, or perhaps even pioneering, an 'in your face' style of palaeoart where the subjects are looking at, sometimes menacing, their viewers (if anyone did this earlier, please let me know). Such artworks would become common in the 1990s, with Luis Rey famously combining these compositions with extremes of colour, perspective and pose to produce a style which has since been widely imitated. It's from such imagery that 'slasher' palaeoart arose, those images were animals are rushing, teeth and claws bared, at the viewer from within the painting.

Attitudes towards these foreground-emphasised, perspective heavy images are often divisive among palaeoart aficionados - some love them, others hate them. Fans of such works point out their utility for outreach, in that they're relatively novel, different, fun and striking, while detractors note their distortion of proportion, not to mention that many look, well, silly (I've argued elsewhere that this may have negatively skewed public perception of feathered dinosaurs). The most relevant common complaint to our discussion is that they lose all sense of scale, essentially for all the reasons listed above: unfamiliar proportions, a lack of foreground space to place 'scaling' elements, and often the loss of height associated with moving the anatomy into a position where it can all be seen behind the head (for many infamous examples, see Brusatte and Benton's enormous book Dinosaurs (2008)). Whatever your opinion, we can't deny their success and influence. such images are now a standard palaeoart convention, particularly in children's books, and have been used to showcase virtually any prehistoric animal you can think of. In this respect, the arching, frame-filling Dreadnoughtus images released last week are just following this now familiar palaeoart convention.

Thing is, I'm not sure if this practise works for all palaeoart, and especially in images where conveying size and anatomical details are important. Of course, the ultimate success of a composition is a matter of taste, and there is no actual 'right' or 'wrong' to palaeoart so long as it obeys basic laws of anatomy. But here's the beef: palaeoartworks often have a purpose - very commonly to convey the anatomy and size of a new species - but 'full frame' animal compositions are probably the worst composition to demonstrate these attributes, for reasons discussed above. Moreover, and fundamentally related to the goal of palaeoart being realistic portraiture of extinct species - how do we rationalise the adoption of the contorted postures required to fit the animals into frame? Why would these animals be condensing themselves into such weird shapes? And what do these poses look like from other angles? Wouldn't they look, at best, a bit odd? For me, seeing a restored animal in an unconventional, maybe even biomechanically implausible pose so it can take up more of the canvas is jarring, a reminder than I'm looking at an reconstructed animal rather than one an artist saw with their own eyes.

For art where proportions and a sense of scale is important, pushing our subjects back to the tried and tested middle distance would alleviate these problems, without jeopardising their excitement. Palaeoart was just as inspirational and exciting to audiences before we started rendering animals right under our viewer's noses, after all. Ultimately, while there's nothing inherently 'wrong' with any composition in palaeoart, some compositions suit certain scenes and animals more than others, and some are definitely more informative and educational than others. 'Full frame' compositions certainly have their place within palaeoart, but they're probably more limiting artistically and educationally than the alternatives.

I'll leave you with my own take on Dreadnoughtus, a quick painting done as the end result of my spate of fanboyism on Thursday night. And if you like sauropods, stay tuned, because there's more on the way...

The mighty Late Cretaceous titanosaur Dreadnoughtus schrani, making a mockery of two abelisaurids just by existing. Abelisaurids aren't known from the same formation as Dreadnoughtus, but are the most likely theropods to have occurred there given their abundance in the other Late Cretaceous South America. These are loosely based on Aucasaurus.

Update: 07/09/2014, well past bedtime

Not many moments after posting this, arty chum Jon Davies (@SovanJedi) responded with an image on Twitter which sums up the few thousand words above into one image:

It's funny because it's true.


  • Bakker, R. T. (1986). The Dinosaur Heresies. London, Penguin.
  • Brusatte, S. and Benton, M. J. (2008). Dinosaurs. Quercus.
  • Lacovara, K. J., Lamanna, M. C, Ibiricu, L. M., Poole, J. C., Schroeter, E. R., Ullmann, P. V., Voegele, K. K., Boles, Z. M., Carter, A. M., Fowler, E. K., Egerton, V. M., Moyer, A. E., Coughenour, C. L., Schein, J. P., Harris, J. D., Martínez, R. D., and Novas, F. E. (2014). A gigantic, exceptionally complete titanosaurian sauropod dinosaur from Southern Patagonia, Argentina. Scientific Reports. 4, 6196; DOI:10.1038/srep06196.


  1. There was just something about that brown Dreadnoughtus that never felt right to me. Thanks for prettifying it up.

  2. Your painting of Dreadnoughtus reminds me of the reveal of "Brachiosaurus" from Jurassic Park.

    1. You're not the first person to say that. The similarities is unintentional, but I guess there are the same tricks at play - low point of view, sparse trees for scale, animal in the mid-far distance etc. - to make the animal look big.

    2. "I'll leave you with my own take on Dreadnoughtus..."

      Oh that's bootiful.

      Excellent article, with a lot of artistic as well as palaeontological instruction. It felt like reading James Gurney's blog for a minute! Immediately brings to mind another recent example: visiting Brian Switek's blog, I didn't grasp the degree of Spinosaurus' new look until I scrolled past the art to the skeletal reconstruction:

      Also, chalk up another one getting a Jurassic Park vibe; but besides the initial brachiosaur reveal (which has it's own worm's-eye problems at times, IMO) I'm getting some of the much more pastoral scene in the in the other direction.

      I think it's the abelisaurs standing in for the parasaurolophi...

  3. Interesting how you curve the horizon... the trees also fan out - even the angle of the weensy therapods, so it seems to really be curved and not a hill that buff guy is standing on... which of course makes the scale seem even more planetary. Intentional?
    Very cool, very astute! (And refreshing to see so much color in a Witton! But hey, darker tones also convey closeness, so...)

    1. Interesting perspective. I didn't plan it to play out as you've interpreted it - it just seemed appropriate to the sauropod on a hill, because it elevates it further above everything else in the picture and the landscape helps draw your eyes to the colossus at it's apex. I can see what you mean however, and I'm sure - whether consciously or not - we process details like that help with conveying giant size.

      You're spot on with the colours, though. I figured the scene had to play out at distance, and thus with muted colours, to be seen in entirety. This is also why there's not much detail (well, that, and limited time).

  4. Good article; points all well made and, in my opinion, quite true. Excellent pic of your version! Looks gigantic!

  5. Mark,

    Thank you for your very kind remarks on the paper and the additional data we provided. We’ve all experienced the frustration of needing a view not figured or a measurement not listed, so we tried to be as thorough as possible. No doubt we missed some things too, but we hope the format is a step in the right direction.

    I also appreciate your constructive criticisms regarding the two Dreadnoughtus reconstructions released with our study by Jennifer Hall and Mark Klingler. I think you make a number of good points. As you no doubt realize, however, the two reconstructions were not wholly artistic endeavors and were designed for specific purposes. Our main goal was to provide useful images to the media, not to create stand alone art. (That will come later.) As such, the subjects needed to be close up, clear, and ready to fit into a newspaper sidebar or television graphic. This necessitated filling the frame with a wrap around pose. And this is why we made versions of Jenn’s illustration available with and without the background. The sans background version proved very popular with the media because it satisfied their requirements. Here are a few examples that illustrate the functional and successful design of Jenn’s reconstruction:

    So, I think it is appropriate to evaluate the reconstructions created by Jenn and Mark within this context. They were not commissioned to create stand-alone gallery art (although I would love that.) Additionally, they were constrained by input from the scientists and our desire to feature various parts of the anatomy of Dreadnoughtus. Certainly, this led the artists to make different choices than they otherwise would have. From our perspective, based on the wide dissemination of these illustrations, both were hugely successful.

    Thus, we are very grateful to the artists. Both completed their commissions on a tight schedule and both worked very hard over numerous iterations to incorporate input from all the scientists. Mark is an employee of the Carnegie Museum and squeezed us into his busy schedule, and Jenn graciously took time away from her myriad other endeavors to donate her immense talents to this project. I was particularly astounded by the thoughtful nuances in her reconstruction, which, to my eye, really helped bring this creature to life, for example, the wounds and scars on the legs, the moisture around the nares, the baleful gaze, the gnarly skin textures, the birds on Dread’s back for scale, and a sky fit for a naval epic (or metal album cover).

    It is certainly not easy to squeeze a titanic beast into a tiny frame, while providing appropriate clues for scale and representing subtle anatomical features. I suppose any portrayal of this animal will always be a compromise between perspective and detail. Given the specific function intended for these illustrations, we intentionally favored the latter. Both Jenn’s and Mark’s work have resonated tremendously with the public and we couldn’t have been happier to come out of the gate with such fine images illustrating our many years of work.

    I like what you’ve started in your own take on Dreadnoughtus. If you need additional information, please be in touch.

    Best regards,

    Ken Lacovara

  6. Two more examples of why the Hall illustration is doing its job:

    1. Thanks for the comment, Ken, and congratulations on the success of the paper and coverage - all fully deserved. It's great to have a new animal land with such a data splash.

      Just to be clear, I hope this is taken in the spirit it's intended - that is, using the Dreadnoughtus art as a launching pad for a wider discussion, not an attack on the art itself (which, as I said in the article, is strong in many respects). I know all too well the constraints of time on PR artwork and the need to make the artwork tick as many boxes as possible - including some boxes which contradict others - and you guys did a good job with that, as evidenced by the success of the PR campaign.

      If I might make one response to your comment "As such, the subjects needed to be close up, clear, and ready to fit into a newspaper sidebar or television graphic. This necessitated filling the frame with a wrap around pose." I agree that having a straightforward, clear image is essential in any PR work, but (in my experience at least) providing a larger picture with easily cropped elements can be more effective than providing one 'animal dense' picture. Space is only really a concern for printed media, which is increasingly redundant in conveying news, so it needn't constrain the composition of a picture as much as it once did (good news for imagery of a 26 m long animal!). You'll still get a minority of outlets removing landscapes and accessory animals to show a condensed 'core image' which may loose something of what you're trying to convey (hopefully nothing important), but others - especially the online news sites - will make use of the whole thing, and you've not had to restrict your composition into something so 'print friendly'. Mark provided a great example of this sort of thing with his 2006 Castorocauda piece, where the animal could tightly cropped to simply show 'here it is', or floating in at the base of the painting in his wonderfully rendered water, where it's suddenly part of a bigger world. As mentioned above, there's certainly no right or wrong here, and both approaches have their merits: I just mention this as food for thought.

      Thanks for stopping by, and looking forward to hearing more about Dreadnoughtus in the future!

    2. Thanks, Mark. All good points and food for thought for further work.

  7. Love the painting, evokes a sense of aloof grandeur. Plus a "Welcome to Jurassic Park vibe"

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