Dinosaurs are imaginary. Hear me out…
When people ask me why I love dinosaurs (and they always ask), I usually end up saying, “Well, dinosaurs are imaginary.” It’s a statement that leads to some raised eyebrows, but what I mean is not that dinosaurs never existed in the real world. Of course they did. It’s just that, in the present, dinosaurs exist largely in our imaginations, and the images we have of them are always subject to change. New scientific data, and fresh interpretations of old data, can lead to massive shifts in our understanding of the past. I love dinosaurs precisely for that reason, not in spite of it. I adore hearing people say things like “Well, now all the dinosaurs have feathers!” because of course now dinosaurs don’t have anything at all. It’s a perfect illustration of the fact that our understanding of the past is anything but static.
In a 1996 episode of the popular radio show This American Life titled “Simulated Worlds,” writer and journalist Jack Hitt delved into the always-evolving world of dinosaurs. Hitt’s segment, called simply “Dinosaur Exhibit,” sheds some surprising light on why dinosaurs seem to look different than they used to. According to Hitt and dino expert Jack Horner, part of the reason dinosaurs were once considered to be lumbering giants (as opposed to the more agile birdlike creatures we see today) was the very unscientific nature of everything from fossil hunting to museum curation.
It’s a beautiful piece, but as an artist I couldn’t help but think there was a lot missing from the story. Part of how we form our images of prehistoric animals is through, well, images. Where were the people who drew the dinosaurs?
Called paleoartists, they are the people who draw, paint, sculpt and otherwise create the visual representations of our beloved prehistoric creatures. In my research, I was unable to find a clear path to a paleoart career. If you want to be a paleoartist, you don’t just major in paleoart in college and walk away with a paleoart degree. Instead, the people who make our dinosaurs have found their way to their current work in a variety of ways. Some have backgrounds in fine art and illustration, and Gregory S. Paul is a scientist. But I also found paleoartists with backgrounds in movie special effects, and at least one who used to be a pastry artist.
Paleoartists are tasked with creating scientifically accurate images of prehistoric creatures (not only dinosaurs). They don’t just make up dinosaurs and other creatures out of thin air. They work alongside paleontologists who supervise them and make sure everything is as accurate as it can be. Of course, because paleontology is a field of science in which new discoveries are constantly being made, the information upon which a paleoartist must base their work is always changing. But paleoartists are also artists, and we artists have an intense desire to exercise creativity and put our own stamp on our creations.
We can’t really talk about images of dinosaurs in our culture without talking about Charles R. Knight. Knight was born in 1874 and apparently deeply resented the modern art world and such greats as Picasso and Matisse, preferring to create art through observing the natural world. He would go on to create beautiful works of art of not only real-live animals but also creatures from the distant past. It would be an understatement to say his work influenced the way the public thought of dinosaurs. When I looked through his paintings, it was clear these were the dinosaurs — the ones I remembered from the earliest parts of my own childhood. Knight died in 1953, but it’s not hard to see how his illustrations of dinosaurs inspired and held sway over a generation (or more) of paleoartists.
The website for paleoartist Gregory S. Paul says that he “set the standard” for modern dinosaur art and goes on to say his “‘new look’ in dinosaur art replaced the traditional art of Charles R. Knight, Rudolph Zallinger and Zdenek Burian.” He was born in 1954, the year after Charles R. Knight passed. Paul’s dinosaurs are indeed much different from Knight’s. They’re more angular and active, and at times they seem to exist in a perpetual state of running. Gregory S. Paul is indeed influential. He’s inspired many a young paleoartist and even was one of the paleoartists who worked on the Jurassic Park movies. You know his work, whether you realize it or not. Close your eyes and picture a predatory dino, shown in profile and running. The dinosaur you are picturing right now was created by either Gregory S. Paul or someone who was inspired by his work.
And now we come to the meat of it. Paleoartists may work closely with paleontologists. They may take great pains to make sure their art is scientifically accurate, but they’re still artists. They still want to leave a mark on this world. They want to contribute something to the field they love. They aren’t changing the science, and they aren’t necessarily more invested in their own creativity than in the science, but they definitely are invested in creativity. Paleoartists want the creatures they create to be as scientifically accurate as possible based on the data, but they also want to have their say. In this way, dinosaurs are born in the imagination of human beings, which is why I sometimes refer to dinos as imaginary.
I grew up in the ’90s, and my conception of dinosaurs changed throughout my own childhood. I can remember being incredibly young and watching The Land Before Time on repeat, fascinated with the beautiful “longneck” dinosaurs, their necks arching gracefully up into the ancient trees. They were weighty and slow, laboring to move their bulk through a world so old it appeared positively alien. Looking at them now, it’s easy to see them as almost a direct homage to the work of Charles R. Knight himself. And then Jurassic Park came along, and suddenly through the work of Gregory S. Paul, dinosaurs were changing rapidly. The fact that we couldn’t know what they looked like for sure captivated me, and I found myself poring over books of dinosaur facts, wondering about the people who made the pictures.
The ’90s and their dinosaurs are now long gone. Digging through recent paleoart brings up dinosaurs that don’t merely have “birdlike features.” They straight-up look like birds. In a TED Talk from November 2011, Jack Horner explains how better classification of dinosaurs has led us to have less distinctive species than we did previously. We all remember the triceratops headlines! As more information becomes available, it seems there is less and less wiggle room for artists to make their mark on these creatures of the past. In an interview with Scientific American, paleoartist Julius Csotonyi said, “Slowly but surely, those pesky paleontologists are taking away our artistic license in assigning colors to dinosaurs.” With more and more information from the past, it would appear that there is less and less room for creativity. Maybe with time, dinosaurs will cease to be imaginary at all.
Yet somehow, I can’t really believe it. Short of time travel, what information we have about dinosaurs will always be in fragments. Even in a case like the incredibly well-preserved nodosaur fossil (which included fossilized skin!) the discovery, which was unveiled in May 2017, was still very different from finding a living creature: there was still reconstructing to do. Exquisitely preserved fossils aren’t the norm in paleontology. Much of what’s found is bits and pieces. As long as human beings — with their own rich imaginations and inner worlds — are tasked with putting those fragments together again, the dinosaurs we have will be marked by human artistry and inspiration.