National Geographic recently released a slew of gorgeous new paleoart and other press images with the announcement of a new paper on the awesome and enigmatic dinosaur Spinosaurus aegyptiacus. Though the imagery is awesome, the paper and the new reconstruction of Spinosaurus has proven somewhat controversial, and in discussing the new paleo art with a friend, he pointed out to me that one of the illustrations bears remarkable similarities to one of my own…
…and here is my old Spinosaur image I did for Tor Bertin’s 2010 paper reviewing the Spinosauridae which can be found on PalArch here:
I think the new piece is technically gorgeous, and I’m pretty smug about the fact that my first published piece of paleo-art is the first image ever made (to my knowledge) of a Spinosaur hunting while swimming in an underwater ecosystem and that it might be influencing (some say even getting ripped off by?) the good people at National Geographic (who I’ve looked up to for years!). Admittedly, the similarities get me a little riled up, but I know all too well that, as an artist, an image or sound that took someone else hours or days or years to create can so easily be dropped into a folder full of reference material where it dissolves into the sea of human experience that everything we do is drawn from. That’s just part of the process, and partially derivative works naturally result.
Like most paleoartists, when I do an illustration I amass piles of images of wildlife and fossils taken or prepared by hard working and skilled photographers and paleontologists and museum staff and I never even think to give any of those people credit if I don’t know them personally. For example, here’s an awesome image of a crocodile, gleaned from somewhere in the sprawling reaches of the internet that definitely influenced my Spinosaurus illustration to some degree…
So, whether something is derivative doesn’t really matter right? Maybe not. But there is a distinction to be made with regards to how directly derived a work is. To me at least, the more directly derived an image is from a previous work of the same or similar creative medium, then the less artistic integrity that piece has. When that photographer took that picture of a crocodile their end-goal was presumably to take a picture of a crocodile. When I grabbed that Image I wasn’t thinking “ooh goody, I’ll paint this crocodile almost exactly as I see it!” Rather, I absorbed information from that image into my imagination in order to accomplish a completely different end goal: depict something nobody has ever seen before.
Reference images of living animals and fossils weren’t the only information I took in. In an attempt to figure out the ideal perspective I also made a quick little sculpture of a Spinosaurus out of polymer clay, and then photographed it in a little aquarium partially submerged in water. Here are a few of those shots.
Then, to figure out the lighting, and get a really good feel for the environment, I went to a river near my house with a GoPro camera and took a bunch of video footage of fish and turtles and light coming through the water. Here are a few frames that directly translated into the look of various parts of my image:
It was a great day, I saw amazing things that filled me with ideas and surprised me, like this male Western Pond Turtle (Actinemys marmorata) who was so focused on trying to mate with a hunkered down female that I was able to put my camera right next to them to take this video (please forgive the blurriness, the early generations of GoPro had a major design flaw such that they couldn’t record clear images under water):
Going outside to explore a modern riparian environment with my Spinosaurus illustration in mind inspired me to incorporate snails feeding on algae, fish feeding (the one in the foreground of my illustration is eyeing a snail), as well as the turtles hanging out casually, despite large predators cruising through. If I moved slowly, like the Spinosaurus in my illustration, carp and turtles would swim all around me, even brushing past my legs and arms. One western pond turtle even tried to eat me!
The curved fish-eye lens perspective was also inspired by the ultra-wide angle lens of my little GoPro camera.
The reason I share all of this is because it was all essential to making my illustration different from any illustration of Spinosaurus that came before it. I’m not smart enough to just blast out a totally new perspective on an extinct animal without first doing a ton of research and exploration first. Yet finding that new perspective, and breathing life into new hypothesis is exactly my goal. Credit, reference, payment and financial security are all nice, but I really don’t care that much about any of that stuff (possibly to the detriment of my career). What’s important is art and science, and pushing both to the next level by gathering more evidence, exploring deeper into the imagination, and coming back with new ideas, insights and questions. The problem with the new Spinosaurus art is that it doesn’t do anything I didn’t do four years ago, other than display a slightly newer (albeit questionable) reconstruction of the animal. As people who enjoy science and art you all should be disappointed not that my image (maybe) got copied, but that the new image fails to contribute a new perspective or idea to the body of Spinosaurus paleo art. You could be looking at something totally new, from a different angle, or depicting a different hunting strategy, or at least with a substantially different composition. Instead you’re looking at a bluer, slightly better drawn version of my old ideas.
But at least lots of people get to see it.
To any paleontologists reading this: if you discover something new I hope you will consider contacting me to do a reconstruction or life restoration for you. If you are limited by budget but have a fascinating paper, article or discovery that would benefit from a compelling illustration I will still work with you. Also, bear in mind, I am four years better at art than I was when I made that Spinosaurus illustration, and I am brimming with new ideas I haven’t yet had the opportunity to illustrate. I have some new stuff in the works that I’ll be posting on when it’s published, and in the meantime here are a few of my more recent works.