Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Interview with Artist: Vladimir Nikolov

Today will be an interview with Bulgarian artist, Vladimir Nikolov! 

Born in 1988, I became interested in dinosaurs and paleontology in 1993, due to a certain movie featuring dinosaurs. My first attempts of drawing random stuff, mostly trains actually, predate my obsession with extinct animals by at least a couple of years, and in fact some of my first memories involve making of “art”.
In 2008 I got my art education, by graduating from National High School of Stage and Film Design, Plovdiv (Bulgaria), with speciality "Theatrical, Cinema and Television scenery". Right after that, I went to university, and in 2012 I got B.Sc. degree in “Geology”, from Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”, Sofia (Bulgaria). Currently I’m student in M.Sc. program “Geology and Paleontology” at the same University.
My artworks have appeared on various websites and blogs (although I’ve not always been credited for my work), as well as being published in “Prehistoric Times” magazine (Issues 84 to 87). I worked on several art projects for the Department of Geology, Paleontology and Fossil fuels, where I was student, and a constant paleontographical exhibition with 30 of my artworks is at display in the Museum of Paleontology and Historical Geology, at Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”. My watercolor reconstruction of Apatosauruswas featured in exhibition at the St. George Dinosaur Center, Utah (U.S.A.). Few of my reconstructions of extinct animals will eventually appear in the new edition of "Missing Links: Evolutionary Concepts and Transitions Through Time" by Prof. Robert A. Martin, and in the Attica Evolution Centre, Athens, Greece.

me during the “Geology mapping” field practice in 2011, measuring the dip of sandstone bed, part of flysch sedimentary sequence from the lower Maastrichtian of Central Srednogorie (Bulgaria).

Question 1: At what age did you become interested in dinosaurs?  Were they always a subject of your art?

VN: My interest in dinosaurs (and paleontology) started in 1993, when I incidentally caught the trailer of “Jurassic Park” on TV. From the moment I saw these animals on screen, I became fascinated by them and the world they lived in, and decided that I want to learn as much as possible about them. It wasn’t until 3 years later, when I watched “Jurassic Park” for first time, but by then I was already deep into dinosaurian stuff, as much as 7 years old can be. Even though my family didn’t took seriously my paleo enthusiasm at first, this did not affected my efforts in learning more about dinosaurs, on the contrary – it motivated me to be more serious about it. Eventually, I couldn’t heal from the dino-mania sickness, so it stuck with me, and ever since it has been a major part of my life. I actually like to think about my interest in dinosaur as a “love from first sight”. If such thing exists, then this should be it!

My attempts of producing “art” actually pre-date my interest in extinct animals, and some of my first memories are about how I’m doodling random stuff, mostly trains. As a kid I drew mostly dinosaurs, but also variety of other things like cars, trains, spaceships, aliens… basically what kid’s draw. Knowing how much time I spent in drawing stuff each day and how much paper I’ve used for this, I suspect that I’m the reason for the deforestation of big portion of Amazonia. With the time passing I focused more and more on dinosaurs and other extinct animals, leaving other subject out of my art. For me drawing (or making of any kind of art) has always been about personal expression and doing something you like, so slowly moving to drawing only dinosaurs was the most natural thing to me. It was also a great way to fuel my interest in the more technical understanding of the prehistoric world, which later fueled my art, and so on. Later, I had problems with this kind of artistic thinking in high-school, because being student in art school requires working on different subjects. Of course I learnt a lot about how to improve my art skills, the different art techniques, the history of art, etc., and tried to use all of this in my art, but the attitude most of my art teachers had towards paleoart (or paleontography) and my interest in it, only alienated me from the other types of art. I got to a point when I just didn’t care about non-paleoart art. Unfortunately I still haven’t overcome this problem. Currently I’m making only paleontography, with very few exceptions here and there, and as you may correctly guess, the majority of my work is dedicated to dinosaurs.

Dryptosaurus aquilunguis – Pencil on yellow paper, 2012.

Question 2: What medium do you most prefer to use for your art?  Any particular reason why?

VN: I’m traditional artist and in my work I use various traditional media, my favorites being pencil/graphite, ink and watercolors, and these are the ones I’ve been using the most in the last 6 years. In the past I’ve worked a lot with tempera (it’s similar to acrylics) and colored pencils, but now I rarely use these traditional media. Had a short period of doing oil paintings but it wasn’t nothing serious, although I’m really wanting to work on some big oil paintings in future.

I’m not sure I can give particular reason why I’m using the media I usually use. Maybe, it’s because I like traditional art, this being the kind of art I grew with and studied in school, and this resulted in my affection to traditional media. Also I feel most comfortable and sure in my skills when working with pencil, ink or watercolors. Pencil and ink in particular give me the chance to produce highly detailed art (I like the photorealistic approach in art). Watercolors are a kind of a paradox to me though. I don’t think color artworks are my strong side, because I lack what I call “intuition for painting”. Behind this made up term stays the ability of particular artist to “feel” the colors, to mix them in the right way, and recreate the play of lights and shadows in one painting. This applies really hard to watercolors, because they are medium intolerant to artist’s mistakes. It’s not like working with oils, where you can put layer over layer, over layer, correcting things you don’t like. With watercolors you have one chance to got things the right way. I guess the pressure of knowing you have no right to make mistakes I get when working with this medium, motivates me of giving my best, and that’s why I like it.

I’ve tried to make digital art too, but it’s not my cup of tea. Unfortunately (in my opinion), many artists move to digital art and this creates a pressure for traditional artists to acquire more digital approach in their work. As much as I don’t like this change, I really enjoy the work of some digital (paleo)artists, and their work inspires me to become better with this kind of medium. Maybe in future I’ll try to learn how to do digital art, but not for now. Traditional paleoartists should not follow the path that non-avian dinosaurs were forced to take some 66 million years ago. lol. 

Eosinopteryx brevipenna – Speculative paleoart depicting an albino specimen and two “normal” individuals. Pencil, 2013.

Question 3: Is there any particular artist who particularly inspired you growing up?  How about today?

VN: I don’t think that there is any modern paleoartist who will answer to this question with “No”. I was inspired by many paleoartists during the years, most notably Eleanor (Ely) Kish, Douglas Henderson, Robert Bakker, John Sibbick, Gregory Paul, Todd Marshall, Raul Martin, and Michael Skrepnik. Of course I enjoyed the work of the pre-Dino Renaissance paleoartists like Charles Knight and Zdenek Burian too, but even then I didn’t like the effect and influence they had on artists who were working on the popular dinosaur books during the 80’s and 90’s.

I think most influential to me were (in chronological order) Eleanor Kish, Robert Bakker and later Todd Marshall. Kish’s work was the one to introduce me to the paleoart, and her beautiful paintings showed me a world I otherwise couldn’t imagine once existed. The atmosphere in her paintings is unique and in my eyes, it’s rivaled only by the work Douglas Henderson. The only time I have had dream about paleoart, was about her paleoart - me been right there, in her Pleurocoelus painting. It was that influential to me. Some years after that, I found inspiration from Bakker’s art in his “The Dinosaur Heresies”. His work on composition and posture of the depicted animals, as well as his ink style, captured my imagination and made me copying his way of drawing dinosaurs. Even today, I find my ink style to be kind of reminiscent of his mixed with just a little bit of Sibbick’s. The third big influence for me was Todd Marshall and his rock-and-roll dinosaurs. Thanks to him I was introduced to speculative keratinous and soft-tissue ornamentations.

A paleoartist can’t do their work properly without certain references, so the paleoartists who make skeletal drawings are of great importance. Despite Gregory Paul’s dominance in the field during the last 2 decades, to me the best skeletal drawing artist out here is Scott Hartman. His work is the base for most of my reconstructions, and it’s the one I trust the most when it comes to this kind of references. Another great artist working on skeletal drawings, as well as on life-reconstructions, who’s art I like, is Jaime Headden.

From the newer generation of paleoartists I love the work of  Julius Csotonyi (amazing watercolor paleoartist, and he’s also left-handed like me), Andrey Atuchin (also brilliant with watercolors as well as the digital media), John Conway, Felipe Elias, Alain Beneteau, Tuomas Koivurinne, Emily Willoughby, and many others. Those others are the fellow paleoartists from the paleoart community at DeviantArt, as well as those on various paleo-blogs and websites. The list is just too long and I can’t mention each one of those artists separately, thus I’m just going to say “Thank you guys an gals, your work is inspiration for me!”.

Ichtyostega – Pencil, 2008.

Question 4: When did you decide to pursue a career in illustration?

VN: I have never had intentions to seriously pursue career in illustration. Since the moment I got interested into dinosaurs and paleontology I wanted to be paleontologist who is also good artist. That’s the reason why after I graduated high-school, I dropped off further art education, and went after B.Sc. degree in “Geology”, which I hope will ultimately lead me to career in Paleontology. To me paleoillustrations are just an opportunity to have a side job. Of course this doesn’t mean I don’t want to illustrate books and build a name in paleoart circles. I want to see my paleontography in actual book someday, preferable more serious, even technical paleontological/dinosaur literature. Currently I’m not involved in any illustrating projects, but I hope this will change in future, and I’ll get my chance. Until then, I’m going to give my best in improving my art skills, expanding my knowledge in paleontology, and creating good paleoart.
I know it’s drifting away from the original question, but have you noticed that many paleontologists are also good artists/illustrators? The first names which come to my mind are those of Gregory Paul, Robert Bakker, Paul Sereno and Mark Witton, but I’m sure there are many more. Even few of the paleontologists and geologists in my University, draw or paint as a hobby. I find the link between art and paleontology on individual level, and the fact that it’s relatively frequently encountered, for fascinating. Maybe some psychologist can study this connection in their PhD thesis?

Kaatedocus siberi – Recently described diplodocid saurpod. Brown ink on yellow paper, 2012.

Question 5: Art and illustration is such a diverse field.  It has also changed dramatically within the past decade or so.  What advice would you have to give an aspiring artist today?

VN: You’re very right about two things – art and particularly scientific illustration is diverse field, and it’s constantly changing, now more than ever. Paleoart, being one of the directions in scientific illustration, cannot avoid the impact and consequences of these dynamics. For an outsider it may seems it’s easy to be paleoartist, because paleoart is narrow field, but such thinking couldn’t be farther from the truth! Now, there are more professional paleontographers then ever before, as well as hordes of semi-professional and amateur paleoartists who are constantly producing tons of new artworks every day. Not that there is something bad about having so many people doing paleoart, we can’t get enough of those, it’s just really hard for a paleoartist to find it’s place in this crowded place.

Being aspiring artist myself, I don’t think I’m the right person to give advice to others. But I can share what I think and I did learn from personal experience about paleontography (I guess this could apply to other fields of art too). Firstly, if you’re seriously considering going into paleontography, then you should learn how to do good paleontography. To make quality paleoart, young artists need to expand their knowledge in paleontology, biology, ecology, geology, and other Earth and natural sciences. Reading scientific papers and studies is crucial part of reconstructing any extinct animal. Get as many references as possible, and always use skeletal drawings when possible (this doesn’t mean simply to copy them by putting some flesh over the bones). Being lazy in collecting and reading available information can lead only to poorly executed product, and I’m saying this from experience. Secondly, develop your own distinctive style. The easiest way to understand how important the distinctive art style is, is when you see an artwork and even before you read the name of the artist you already know who it is. There is nothing wrong in copying the works and/or style of other artists while growing up and learning how to draw, but this have to stop soon or later. If you’re still doing it by the age of 18-20, then you seriously need to reconsider what’s the point of being illustrator if you can’t draw your own stuff. The best option is to take bits of the style of different artists you admire, mixing them together, and putting the mixture trough your own personal perception of what art is supposed to be. Personally, I took the tour of establishing my own style in 2007, and this was the time when I stopped to rely on the paintings and drawings of other paleoartists for my reconstructions. If one takes the time and go through my gallery at DeviantArt, they will see how many times I’ve changed my technique, slowly moving forward to my current state. Thirdly, practice is the way to improve your work. Sketch as much as you can, and everything you can. A lot of drawing/sketching helps artists to improve their skills, as well as allows them to experiment with new techniques and medium. Fourthly, find a way to promote your art and become part of the on-line paleoart community. Internet gives a lot of opportunities for promoting and even selling art, so it’s up to the artists to bring their work to the wide public. As it was mentioned by numerous paleontographers already, clients and commissioners look for artists through the internet, by searching the tons of artworks uploaded online. Any artist who has covered the previous three steps, wouldn’t have difficulties in grabbing their attention. Now, I get that not everyone have the sense of promoting themselves, I’m not good at this too, so if you have any friends who understand advertising or PR just ask them for help. Fifthly, don’t listen to anyone who’s telling you that doing paleontography is waste of time or artistic skills, and there is no point of it. Talks like this only show how ignorant some people are. One of the main goals of art is the expression of our personal feelings and our view for the world around us, and if paleontography is your way to do this, then do it without caring about what people say. Paleontography is not about making money, but educating people about the wonders of the deep past of our planet.

And for the last – learn to always give credit to people whose work you have been using to make your art. This is the way to show them your respect. I assure it’s really annoying to see your work stolen or ripped-off by people who claim it’s their original art. Not cool at all! 

Massospondylus and Megapnosaurus – Pencils on yellow paper, 2013.

Question 6: What was your favorite dinosaur growing up?  How about today?

VN: I can’t say that I had one favorite dinosaur while growing up. As a kid I was most interested in Tyrannosaurus rex and Velociraptor mongoliensis, due to their appearance in “Jurassic Park”, as well as in the long-necked dinosaurs (as I called sauropods back then). Today I still cannot pick favorite dinosaur, or other prehistoric animal for that matter. I like Dinosauria in general, though I admit that I like saurischians a little bit more than ornithischians. To me it’s really a tie between Sauropoda and Theropoda.

Omeisaurus and generic sinraptorid – Watercolors, 2012.

Question 7: Jurassic Park and Land Before Time (opposite ends of the spectrum I know) were the movies I remember as a kid that fueled my passion for dinosaurs. What was your most memorable movie?

VN: “Jurassic Park” was the movie which ignited my interest in dinosaurs and paleontology, and its two sequels played major role in keeping this interest up. This is definitely my most memorable movie, and the fact I’ve watched it about 150 times speaks for itself. “Land Before Time” was also very important for me when I was a kid. It’s unusually dark and depressing as animation aimed to kids, but in the same time it have great story and teach children a lot of important lessons about the life through the dinosaurs characters. Of course when I was younger what concerned me most were the dinosaurs, and “Land Before Time” got plenty of them, so I was more than happy. I’ve seen most of its sequels but only the second movie in the series deserves to be mentioned.

To me very important part of learning more about prehistoric animals was the documentary series “PaleoWorld” (known as “Jurassica” in some parts of Europe). Even today, I think this series is one of the best documentaries about paleontology ever made. I remember how I woke up 5AM once per week, only to watch the first airing of new episode on Discovery Channel, before heading to school. Of course the episodes re-aired in the afternoon, and then I had the chance to watch them again, this time with notebook and pen in my hands. I was writing down all the facts I could get – names of the animals, when they lived, the locations they were found, etc. “PaleoWorld” also fueled my interest by introducing me to paleoartists like Douglas Henderson, Gregory Paul and Mark Hallet. It was great that they used paleoart to accompany the narrative, and I think this is something modern programs miss a lot. How can be a poorly done CGI, better than high quality art? I just don’t get it.

Of course, I loved “Walking With Dinosaurs” when it hit the TV screens. To me it was the biggest dinosaur event since “Jurassic Park”, and “The Lost World: Jurassic Park”. This show is another example of how dino-documentaries should be done in my opinion. I find its sequels “Walking With Beasts” and “Walking With Monsters” to be superb even with their flaws, and the several spin-offs of the original were also very decent. The “Walking With…” franchise was definitely a fuel for my interest.

I also liked a lot the shows “When Dinosaurs Roamed America” and “Dinosaur Planet”, and to lesser degree “Prehistoric Park”. After “Dinosaur Planet” I gradually stopped to pay attention to documentaries with paleontological theme, because the quality of such programs fell drastically. In more recent times it was nice to see projects like “Dinosaur Revolution” and “Planet Dinosaur”, because both were steps in the right direction, though in the end they also had their flaws. If not else, “Dinosaur Revolution” showed why paleoartists should work on similar projects, instead of general artists who know next to nothing about extinct animals.

Xiongguanlong baimoensis – Watercolors, 2009.

Question 8: Dinosaurs and the animals that lived at the same time as them were amazing creatures. Why do you feel dinosaurs continue to fascinate us?

VN: Now that’s tough question. I guess the reason why (non-avian) dinosaurs continue to fascinate people more than any other group of extinct animals, is psychological. People tend to get fascinated or interested by big size, flashy things, things we can’t see or touch, power, mystery, old stuff. Dinosaurs appear to be all of the things in this list at once. I’m sure the reason is probably more complex but this is my short explanation. What’s more interesting to me is that it’s usually the kids, who are most fascinated by dinosaurs, and in most cases this childhood interest is the reason why many paleontologists became paleontologists. The way I see it, children just don’t carry the burden of the everyday problems as adults do, which allows them to be more open to the wonders of the world, and what’s more wondrous than realizing the existence of lost worlds filled with amazing animals lived millions of years ago.

Barosaurus and Allosaurus – Watercolors, 2009.

Question 9: What is your favorite time period?

VN: I can’t think of any particular time period which is favorite of mine. Considering my greatest interest in dinosaurs, in comparison with the rest of the paleontology science, I’m most interested in the Mesozoic in general. I also find interesting some time intervals in the Paleozoic, such as the Cambrian explosion (even though I don’t know much about it), the life moving onto dry land, the rise and fall of “coal” forests in the Carboniferous. Due to my geological education I cannot help but being fascinated by some Precambrian events, like the “Snowball Earth” glacial events of the Cryogenian period and their mechanics, the start of the photosynthesis and its effects on ocean’s chemistry, the differences of Pre-Phanerozoic plate-tectonics, etc. Subject of interest to me are the time intervals of consolidation and break-up of supercontinents, and the effects of these events on life and climate. Most people forget or simply don’t know that Pangaea is not the only one supercontinent in Earth’s history, but only the last of many. The periods of mass-extinctions are also of interest to me. The only part of the geochronological time scale I’m not really into, is the Cenozoic, although the Paleocene-Eocene thermal maximum and Messinian salinity crisis frequently catch my attention.

Tullimonstrum gregarium – Ink, 2011.

Question 10: Do you have any other hobbies (paleo or non paleo related)?

VN: I don’t know if it’s really a hobby, but I’ve always liked astronomy, and several years ago I even bought myself a small telescope suitable for observing space objects like the Moon or the Orion nebula. I occasionally observe some of the bigger meteor showers, especially the Perseids in August, but also love to just sit and watch the night sky and remind myself how small and insignificant we are compared to the vast space of the Universe. Nowdays it’s easy to forget how beautiful night sky is. Also, looking at the stars is the closest we can get to time traveling for the moment. From time to time I catch myself watching documentaries about astronomy and space, but I rarely bother to read more about astro-stuff as much as I did as a kid.

In my free time I also like to watch or read science-fiction. I consider myself fan of the Stargate franchise (especially SG: Universe), but also really enjoy “Battlestar Galactica”, the universe of “Star trek”, and to lesser degree “Star Wars”. Unfortunately in the last few years I don’t read much, which is terrible, but from time to time I pick up some novels, and remember the times when I consumed dozens of books per year. Looking back I don’t know how I managed to read so much because back then I spent considerable amount of time playing computer and video games. Gaming was something like a hobby, but not anymore. 

 Thank you Vladimir!  If you are interested in seeing more of his work check out his website here or his DeviantArt Gallery here