Friday, February 7, 2014

Dinosaur Color Scheme: Modern Inspiration

Sometimes people ask me where I get the ideas for the color schemes on my dinosaur illustrations.  I'm usually not all for copying color schemes exactly but it is always a lot of fun to get inspiration from living animals.  Of course a lot of my color schemes aren't directly inspired by anything.  Others however I definitely do get some help from nature on.  Honestly, any paleo-artist who says that all of his/her color scheme ideas are 100% original all the time is lying in some form or another.  Below are some of my paintings that I have shared on this site before and the real life animal color schemes that helped me paint them. 

Here is Deinonychus.  Its colors were inspired by the Martial Eagle from Africa.  Dromaeosaurs with bird of prey colors are pretty common in paleo-art actually.  

At the zoo I work with a beautiful Wood Turtle.  I wanted to do an ankylosaur with wood turtle colors for a long time but never really got the opportunity.  Then time came for me to illustrate the armored pseudosuchian, Desmatosuchus, and I decided to apply the Wood Turtle's pallet there instead.  I think it fits him nicely. 

I used the patterns from the Australian Military Dragon on my Eocursor

My Ornithocheirus were based on the Great Frigate Bird.  I didn't give them inflatable neck pouches though.  I actually like the look of a large almost-black pterosaur. 

I keep a Fire Skink for a pet. (Her name is Ruby.)  She sometimes comes to events with me to show kids an example of a non-dinosaur reptile.  She also has GORGEOUS colors.  I really wanted to paint a dinosaur that looked like that.  Europelta was discovered soon after and I took that as a great opportunity to try it out. 

I also always wanted to do a predatory dinosaur with alternating dark and light colored bands like the Black-headed Python from Australia has.  Liliensternus has that nice long neck, tail, and legs so I decided it would be a perfect candidate to try this out on.

 When I decided to do a Tylosaurus I actually was struggling with ideas for an interesting, yet plausible color scheme that hadn't been done already.  There are a lot of whale and shark inspired mosasaurs but then I realized that there weren't many with sea snake colors.  I found this odd since mosasaurs and snakes are actually pretty closely related.  Here is my Tylosaurus with a Sea Crate pattern.

A lot of times when paleo-art uses modern animals as inspiration, the animals chosen usually have some sort of connection to the prehistoric creature that is being modeled after them.  Also, birds and reptiles are used more often than not when depicting dinosaurs.  The reality is, however, we still have never seen the colors on the vast majority of these creatures and there really is nothing wrong with using some more obscure models for color ideas especially if the end result still makes sense and/or looks good.  I do this also sometimes.

Using fish and amphibians as models for dinosaurs?  This guy is nuts!

Also let's be honest, if I never revealed to you that I used a Lionfish as inspiration for my Amargasaurus colors would you have noticed and/or said anything?  

I know some people who's heads explode at the thought of using mammals as inspiration for dinosaurs as well.  Camouflage is camouflage I say.  Check out Concavenator.

Another one of my pets, a Iranian Spotted Newt has the most beautiful colors of any amphibian (It toally gives dart frogs a run for their money.)  I took inspiration from that little guy's skin as well as the head of the Horned Grebe to make my Tsintaosaurus.  

That's all for today!  Keep in mind that I still do a lot of more or less original color schemes too, but sometimes nature is just too awesome to pass up on some of its pallets.  What sort of color schemes did you think certain prehistoric animals had?  Do you think they exhibited a lot of the same colors as animals do today or were they more or less completely different? 


  1. Sorry for the late comment, but I only just read this post. It's always good to know the reasoning for a paleoartist's color schemes (especially when there's more to it than just whatever looks good).

    "I used the patterns from the Australian Military Dragon on my Eocursor."

    I would've guessed Thomson's gazelle, but now that you mention it, a lot of speedy prey animals have (for lack of a better term) racing stripes. Any idea why that is?

    "Using fish and amphibians as models for dinosaurs? This guy is nuts!"

    That reminds me of this awesomely awesome video (which I think you'll like if you haven't already seen it):

    "I know some people who's heads explode at the thought of using mammals as inspiration for dinosaurs as well. Camouflage is camouflage I say."

    I concur. In fact, it reminds me of the following quotes (which are good examples of how mammal-like camouflage would've made sense in certain dinos).


    Quoting Lambert ( ): "With the agile, predatory lifestyle of a cat, Velociraptor might have had catlike camouflage to help it hide while it crept up on prey. Tigers have black stripes to hide in grass, but there was no grass in Velociraptor's time so this pattern seems unlikely. Lizardlike green skin is even more far-fetched because Velociraptor lived in a desert and vegetation was sparse. A more likely possibility is pale skin with dark blotches, like a leopard. A light, dusty color would have matched the surroundings, and spots would have broken up its outline and helped it hide in dappled shade under shrubs."

    Quoting Gardom/Milner ( ): "Bold countershading is the disguise used by the mainly nocturnal okapi browsing in areas of dense undergrowth. The dark back, and its striped and light rump and upper/lower legs, serve to break up the body shape when seen from a distance, providing protection against predators like leopards that hunt by sight. Perhaps the fast moving hunter Troodon had similar colouring in order to conceal itself."

  2. "a lot of speedy prey animals have (for lack of a better term) racing stripes. Any idea why that is?"

    It's countershading! When on land animals, remember that the sun illuminates and makes lighter the top of all objects and creates a shadow below them. This is what makes us able to tell they have depth visually. Countershading colors counter that (get it? counter...shading!) and make the animal appear more flat and therefore more difficult to see in it's environment. The black stripe along the lateral midline further breaks up the animal's shape, especially when it is moving.

    Animals that typically want to stand out (warning coloration) have what we call reverse countershading which is lighter on top and darker on the bottom. Think about skunks and certain species of dart frogs as good examples of this.

  3. What a coincidence, I often use animals for inspiration as well! I'm surprised that this strategy hasn't been used more...