Monday, January 23, 2012

Paleo-Art: When Creativity and Logic Marry

I have decided to do a little tutorial on how to use both science and art when producing paleoart (a fancy professional sounding term for drawing dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures).  The subject that I have chosen to show you today is actually not a dinosaur at all, but a giant marine lizard called a mosasaur.  Mosasaurs lived in the shallow warm oceans of the late Cretaceous and are known from fossils all over the world including many found right here in New Jersey.  

The reasons why I chose a mosasaur today are:

1) They are a well studied kind of animal known from many fossil specimens.  The more complete the fossil data is for an organism, the easier it is to create a reconstruction that’s as scientifically accurate as possible.

2) They have modern day close relatives.  Mosasaurs are very closely related to monitor lizards and snakes, both of which are very much alive today and both of which I can observe to gather any ideas about soft tissue, colors, movement etc. 

3) They are from New Jersey!  Duh!  Believe it or not, the Jersey shore had even scarier characters living on it during the Cretaceous than it does today (I’m looking at you, Guidos). 

When I reconstruct dinosaurs (or in this case, mosasaurs) I like to start from the skeleton and work my way out.  This is simple enough since the science community has plenty of mosasaur bones to look at for reference.  Remember reason #1- well documented animals are much better to illustrate than ones that are known from only a few fragmentary bits.  The less you have to make up, the more accurate your reconstruction can be.  Luckily for me I have the Rutgers Geology Museum in New Brunswick, NJ to go to for observing mosasaur remains.  It’s always best to use references from real life rather than a picture (easier said than done, I know.)  If going to an actual museum is out of the question then I would opt for photographs of actual fossils rather than another person’s illustrations.  If and when you do get the chance to visit a museum where there are fossil bones on display, I highly recommend taking many photographs of them to store and use as reference for future art projects.  

Mosasaur skull from the New Brunswick Geology Museum in New Jersey

If I plan on drawing the whole animal and not just the skeleton, I don’t draw every bone.  I prefer to lightly sketch a rough plan of the animal’s body just so I can get the proportions right.  For my drawing tool I just use a simple mechanical pencil.  I like this because it’s easy to do fine lines for details and I never have to sharpen it.

Next I add the flesh to the frame.  This can get a little confusing since nobody has actually seen a living breathing version of this animal before.  This is where reason #2 starts to come in.  We DO know what monitor lizards and snakes look like so looking at their body plan is a decent starting point.  However, it is important to keep in mind that despite being related, mosasaurs were still quite different from their modern relatives in that they were marine animals.  Consider this; fish and whales are not closely related at all (whales are air-breathing, milk-drinking mammals and fish are…fish).  However, they both possess very similar body plans because they both live in the same environment.  So despite the fact that a whale is actually more closely related to something like a bat or a porcupine, it still superficially more resembles a fish because of its lifestyle.  This concept is called convergent evolution where two unrelated animals have similar body plans because they live similar lifestyles.

Tuna: fish
Beluga: whale

So let’s apply this to to our mosasaur drawing.  Despite the fact that it’s more closely related to modern squamates (fancy scientific term for lizards and snakes), mosasaurs probably behaved and may have at least from a distance resembled large fish as far as their body shape is concerned.  We know for a fact that unlike monitor lizards, mosasaurs had very short necks with respect to their bodies according to fossil skeletons that have been discovered.  This is consistent with the bodies of other large marine animals like sharks and whales.  It can also be inferred that mosasaurs had modified hands and feet in the form of flippers.  Again, something observable in whales and to some degree seals, sea lions and certain turtles.  Finally, it is known from one very well preserved fossil discovered recently that mosasaurs carried the ends of their tails at a steep decline.  Looking at other marine fossil reptiles that have been discovered holding their tails the same way like ichthiosaurs it can be inferred that mosasaurs probably had some sort of fin-like projection or fluke on their tails as well.  Once again this is also a feature seen in animals like whales and sharks.   All this being said I decided to make my mosasaur have a body shape similar to large marine animals rather than land reptiles. 

Next details such as eyes, teeth, scales and such should be added to the drawing.  Generally there is a fair amount of creative freedom for the artist when doing this but there are certainly options that are more logical than others.  I first like to start with the head and move my way down the animal.  Let me draw your attention to the mouth.  We know for a fact that mosasaur teeth were huge and sharp because of the skulls that have been discovered.  As an artist my first instinct would be to emphasize this in my drawing.  However let’s go back to the modern relatives, the squamates for reference.  Monitor lizards and snakes both have large teeth as well and like mosasaurs probably did, use them for holding prey in the mouth when feeding.  However, when looking at a living monitor or snake, the teeth aren’t visible at all when the mouth is closed.  Even when the mouth is opened the teeth are barely visible.  

Komodo Dragon: a monitor lizard
Komodo Dragon Skull

 Let’s look at our convergent evolution animals too while we are at it.  Toothed whales and sharks are also predators much like mosasaurs were and likewise also possess large pointed teeth.  Yet looking at the living animal, it can be observed that the teeth are safely hidden inside the mouth. 

Orca Whale
Orca Whale Skull

Despite the fact that it was an ocean animal, mosasaurs were still reptiles and therefore had scaly skin like their living relatives.  Plus thanks to that same fossil I mentioned earlier, there are mosasaur skin impressions known to science and it should be no surprise that indeed they are scaly.  Drawing scales on an animal’s body can seem intimidating at first for a lot of artists.  There are so many little individual scales how is one expected to draw them all without going insane!  Well in some cases there is really no way around this especially when the subject is viewed up close and the scales are relatively large (this is the case with animals like ceratopsids but I’ll save that for another post).  In the case of the mosasaur, thanks to the fossilized impressions, we know that mosasaur scales, at least those on the parts that left impressions for scientists to observe, were quite small.  Chances are looking at this animal from a distance not every scale would even be visible.  To help me prove my point let me show you a photograph of my buddy, Rocky, whom I work with at Outragehisss Pets.

Add caption
Rocky is a Cuban Rock Iguana and is therefore a lizard, and thus a reptile complete with scales all over.  Looking at this photograph you can see that rocky has some very large scales on his face and neck but on other parts of his body, especially as it gets farther away from the camera the scales aren’t really individually visible at all.  It’s not until I get my camera a few inches away from his body that I can get a shot where you can see individual scales.

Like the iguana, the known mosasaur skin impressions show scales that aren’t very big and really can only be spotted clearly when viewed up close.  That being said I don’t need to draw every single individual scale on my mosasaur.  It should be noted, however that not all scaly animals are the same.  If we were looking at something like a crocodile, the scales would me much more prominent and therefore need to be drawn as such.  On the other end of the spectrum most snakes, despite being scaly as well, appear totally smooth at most distances. 

There are other things that can be applied too but I would be writing forever if I were to include them all.  Like I said earlier there is freedom with this just make sure you think about what you are adding and why. 

Next I apply color.  I’m going to color this drawing with simple colored pencils you can get at any craft store or anywhere that sells art supplies really.  Color is probably where the paleoartist has the most freedom with creativity (with a few exceptions but again lets save that for a future post).  I still like to stay logical with my color choices though.  For instance I would never make an animal like this hot pink.  It simply doesn’t make sense.  Do I know for a fact that living mosasaurs weren’t hot pink?  No I have never seen one alive but I’m pretty sure there are a lot of other more likely color schemes out there that they could have been instead.  Once again I decide to look at animals that live the same lifestyle instead of family ties when looking at colors.  Monitors and most snakes live on the land and therefore have colors and patterns that help them live there.  Mosasaurs lived in the ocean and should probably be colored as such.  Even so, there is plenty of freedom here.  Could it be black and white like an orca?  Perhaps brown with light spots like a whale shark?  The possibilities go on and on.  One thing seems to be consistent with pretty much all ocean dwellers is having a light colored ventral side (belly) and darker colored dorsal side (back).  This is so when being viewed from either above or below the animal can camouflage with either the darker water below or the light from the surface of the water.  This camouflage adaptation is called countershading and is utilized by many animals that swim often.  

Lastly I add shading.  Shading can be done many different ways to produce a myriad of effects.  When using colored pencils some artists prefer to press harder with the colors already used or perhaps mixing colors with darker shades of blue or black.  I prefer to go back to the graphite pencil.  There is no right or wrong way though.  At this point I also like to go back with the graphite and make any details that may have been lost in the colored pencil bold again. 

So that ends my little tutorial on drawing a mosasaur!  I hope you learned some things about both science and art and strongly encourage you to try producing some paleoart of your own!  The only way to get better is to practice of course.  Every month I will be writing something for Gary but it may not always be about art.  Working at facilities with so many wonderful exotic animals I plan on doing some posts on dinosaur’s modern day relatives as well!  We’ll see how things pan out and I will write accordingly.  Farewell until next time!

Works Cited

Klappenbach, Laura. "Counter Shading - What Is Counter Shading." Animals Wildlife - Animal Facts, Animal Pictures, Habitat Facts, Evolution and Zoology. Web. 12 Jan. 2012. <>.

Lindgren, Johan, Caldwell W. Michael, Takuya Konoshi, and Luis M. Chiappe. "Convergent Evolution in Aquatic Tetrapods: Insights from an Exceptional Fossil Mosasaur." Plosone. 9 Aug. 2010. Web. 12 Jan. 2012. <>.

Stearns, S. & Hoekstra, R. 2005. Evolution: An introduction.

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