Thursday, February 7, 2013

Interview with Artist and Paleontologist: Scott Hartman

Scott has been producing professional paleo art for 17 years. Best known for his skeletal reconstructions, he has supplied skeletal and life reconstructions for numerous books and museums. With his background in anatomy his skeletals often form a starting point for other paleo artists, and he has served as a consultant for TV and film. Scott is also a publishing paleontologist, including papers on Supersaurus, Archaeopteryx, and Medusaceratops. He currently resides in Madison, WI with his wife and daughter, and can appear yakking on cable TV from time to time on shows such as Dinosaur Revolution and Jurassic Fight Club.
Scott hard at work.  I'm not exactly sure what he is doing but it sure looks tedious.  Fun.  But tedious.

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

SH: One of the first books I can recall having read to me as a child was Dinosaurs from The Little Golden Book series. I can remember sitting on the laps of relatives (sometimes several times a day) asking for it to be read to me. We tend to forget the “brilliance” of repetition as we get older, so looking back I’m  amazed at the patience (tolerance?) my interest was shown. Once I went to kindergarten the school library had more books on dinosaurs, and each of them made the trip home with me several times.

Oddly enough dinosaurs were almost never the topic of my childhood art. I seem to recall lots of horses and cats when I younger. I was given a “How to Draw Dinosaurs” type of book when I was perhaps 10, and I recall following through most of the lessons (The dinosaurs were the usual 1980’s bleh when it came to anatomy, but at least I was drawing!), but that’s the only example of early dinosaur art I can recall. Despite having received encouragement from my family and good marks in art class I really drifted away from it during my preteen and early teen years. During that time I wanted to be (among other things) a magician!

Unenlagia fishing at sunrise

Question 2: You are most known for your skeletal drawings.  What kind of work and/or prior research goes into creating something that needs to be so exact?

SH: Whoo boy...I’ve been meaning to work on some tutorials to explain this in greater depth, but here is the short(ish) and sweet version: When I tackle a new skeletal I create a folder on my computer that will hold all relevant materials. I prefer to take my own photos and measurements of the specimens - this was easier to do when I was working at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center and travelled more frequently - otherwise I have to rely on photos and measurements taken by others (preferably one of the main researchers). Alongside the primary data I add any and all pdfs of relevant publications, generally including any paper that was written as a description of the taxa in question (if it’s an already known species) as well as phylogenetic and descriptive papers for close relatives.

Then...I read them. It helps that I keep up with the literature as a matter of course, but even still I’ll sometimes review the material several times to make sure it’s nice and fresh in my head. The main goal is to avoid having to “fill in” missing bones with a generic placeholder, or simply copying the best-known relative (I see this happen a lot in skeletal reconstructions). Instead I want to try and understand how anatomical characters are changing across the group (through phylogenetic space, if you will) so that I can make a more informed inference about how a missing bone should look. Sometimes this predictive methodology has been remarkably successful, other times...not as much as I’d like. Dinosaurs whose family relationships are unclear are obviously not as amenable to this method, in which case I muddle through with whatever supporting references I can muster.

One thing I love about doing skeletal reconstructions for other people is that I often find myself forced to do a lot of research on a group of animals that are peripheral to my own interests. I always love being forced to broaden myself, and a deep dive into a less-familiar part of the the paleo literature is always exciting.

Skeletal reconstruction of Deinonychus antirrhopus

Question 3: What medium do you most prefer to use for your art?  Any particular reason why?

SH: I’ve done quite a bit of pencil on coquille board work in prior decades (gah, how awful is it to write THAT sentence?), and did several color pencil pieces on dark board (mimicking black velvet paintings). Early on I produced a few paintings in oils, acrylics, and especially airbrushed paintings. This was all years ago however, and frankly the color works weren’t very good except as learning experiences. I decided in my early college years that I probably wouldn’t make a good paleo artist, and resigned myself to concentrating on skeletal reconstructions and the occasional pencil drawing.

I originally did skeletal reconstructions with pencil and tracing paper followed by pen and ink to finish them. Personal scanners were rare and really pricey then, so I had to take the finished pieces to a local imaging store to reproduce them photographically - only then could I make a copy of the reproduced photograph to get a finished skeletal I could share. Don’t let anyone fool you, those were NOT the good old days.

Over the years I slowly started to work in Adobe’s Photoshop. After learning how to use version 3 (Not CS3...I mean “3”) in a college course it occurred to me that I could use it to make corrections to my pen and ink skeletals - this was a lot better than using white out, or worse yet starting over again. Over time the scale of the corrections got larger, and finally it dawned on me that I could draw parts of the dinosaurs, like the pelvis, the skull, and the vertebral column in separate parts and then assemble them in digital space. I also finally learned to leave my layers intact at the end rather than flattening the entire image, which made it easier to make more alterations at a later date.

This process evolved until there was little point in starting out with a pencil sketch, so I set about developing brush techniques to allow myself to get accurate curves in Photoshop (by the way, this is why I don’t do vector-based skeletals - I can’t get them as accurate as I can with a brush in Photoshop). I work exclusively within the digital realm now. When it comes to skeletals I wouldn’t go any other route; I can be far more precise (especially with the measure tool baked right in), I’m much faster, and the final version (with layers intact) are much more versatile. I can’t speak for others, but for me the switch to layered digital skeletal reconstructions has let me stop worrying about the methodology and spend a lot more time considering the data (and concurrent assumptions) that underlie each skeletal.

Having previously given up on color life reconstructions altogether, I decided to try again after I’d made the transition to doing skeletal reconstructions in Photoshop. I had actually learned a lot more about art technique by then (even though I wasn’t producing any) and by this time had spent over a decade working with digital media for skeletals, and to my utter astonishment I hit upon a successful technique right off the bat. I’ve continued to refine it, but I started getting commissions for book and museum work at that time, and the rest has been history. 

Juravenator leaps for a snack

Question 4: Is there any particular artist who inspired you growing up?  How about today?

SH: I got fed a steady diet of Zallinger, in particular I loved the Giant Golden Book of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Dinosaurs, and read it dozens of times (apparently I was inundated by Golden Books as a child?). I was also impressed with the gritty realism of John Sibbick’s illustrations in David Norman’s When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth. I was given a copy of Joseph Wallace’s The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaur in the late ‘80s, when my interest in dinosaurs was starting to share time with other hobbies, sports, and the novel discovery that girls were more interesting than I’d previously realized. Even though I didn’t spend as much time reading and rereading that book as I did some earlier ones, I was struck by the quality and seeming strangeness of the dinosaur art, which included works from a bunch of new (to me) artists like Mark Hallet, Doug Henderson, and Greg Paul.

When the movie Jurassic Park came out I got back into reading dinosaur books (I devoured Bob Bakker’s The Dinosaur Heresies, and reread all my childhood books). On a fateful dino-book-finding mission to a public library I discovered a copy of Greg Paul’s Predatory Dinosaurs of the World hidden away in a special reference and technical section (not with the other paleontology books). I was amazed by all of the dinosaurs I simply hadn’t been aware of, enchanted by his take on dinosaur biology (which I would have described as Bakker+), and was particularly taken by the quality and standardization of his numerous skeletal reconstructions. Rather obviously that interest stuck with me, and while I don’t always find myself on the same side of a scientific or paleo art debate with my inspirations, I am eternally grateful for their role in setting me on this path.

I should also give a couple of shout-outs to artists who helped me through their personal interactions. Pat Redman, who has done many illustrations for Bob Bakker, Russell Hawley of the Tate Geological Museum, and the fabulous Luis Rey. Their art and friendship made me strive to learn more about art technique, composition, and lighting, which was important because I lacked any formal art training (any continued failure at those subjects is my own doing).

These days I generally draw inspiration from a wide range of artwork and photography regardless of subject. Restricting my comments to paleo art, I really like what John Conway has been doing to break new stylistic and theoretical ground, especially with the All Yesterdays project. I also really like the artwork of David Krentz - especially the motion he imparts to his 3D sculptures in ZBrush. That said, there are a ton of talented young paleo artists out there today (many of them members of the DeviantArt community) and I’m more concerned about sins of omission if I were to try and make a comprehensive list of those I really like, so I’m going to stop right there.

Pteranodon longiceps taking off

Question 5: When did you decide to pursue a career in illustration? 

SH: I didn’t actually; it pursued me. I had decided to pursue a career in paleontology and (as I mentioned above) I had largely given up producing life reconstructions. I continued to refine my skeletal reconstructions for my own research purposes, and eventually found myself getting asked (and sometimes paid) to do them for other people. It was only after I took over as the Science Director at the Wyoming Dinosaur Center that I decided to once again try my hand at life reconstructions, mostly out of desperation to find artwork we could afford for the museum displays. Being happy with the results, I posted them to my website.

I had the good fortune of being approached to do several projects after that, including working with several publishers and museums (in particular I’d like to note the UMNH’s new display hall, and the ROM’s recent exhibit on Gondwanan dinosaurs, both of which are truly superb above and beyond my own contributions). Not long ago I was commissioned to work on an iPad app with Daily Interactive, and I expect that content for mobile devices will occupy a larger amount of my time in the future. Due to my anatomical background I have also had the opportunity to combine science and illustration when consulting for various media projects.

The odd titanosaur Rapetosaurus krausei

Question 6: 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?

SH: Given the circuitous route I took I’m not sure how good my advice will be, outside of “marry rich” or “try to be in the right place at the right time”. Since financial success is not guaranteed, even for talented artists, I think I would advise aspiring artists to really take ownership of their work - that is, work to find a purpose and style that satisfies you, as you may or may not get anything more than personal satisfaction out of it. Also, I’d recommend creating a good web presence and online portfolio. Most people turn to the web when making hiring decisions, so this is the closest thing you can come to in terms of making your own luck. I also feel that developing your own technical understanding of paleontology, anatomy, geology, etc., can only help distinguish you (and may open other doors in museum or educational work).

If all else fails apply to Disney, or perhaps Blizzard.

Tyrannosaurus rex in a hurry

Question 7: What was your favorite dinosaur growing up?  How about today?

SH: As a kid my favorite dinosaurs hands down was Triceratops. I actually resented the heck out of Tyrannosaurus because of how often it was portrayed as killing or eating my favorite dinosaur. I’ve since gotten over this, but no doubt there is hidden emotional scarring still. When dinosaurs recaptured my imagination in high school Deinonychus and Velociraptor were my favorite dinosaurs (an interest that led to me to work on bird origins). I don’t really have a favorite dinosaur now (although the trite answer would be “whichever one I’m working on”). I think it’s sort of like asking an artist for a favorite color - at a certain point you become more concerned about getting your current project right (whether scientific or artistic) rather than burden yourself with favorites. Of course this isn’t a hard and fast rule. See: Tom Holtz and “tyrannosaurs”.

A Triceratops that needs some quills!

Question 8: 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 or media that inspired you about dinosaurs?

SH: Honestly there weren’t many during my childhood. I remember when A&E’s DINOSAUR! hit in 1991, but I was already 15 by then. My childhood interest was really kindled by books rather than TV or movies. To clarify for our younger audience, “books” were like analog versions of iPad apps that we printed on the rolled carcasses of trees.

Velociraptor: Everyone's favorite "raptor" dressed up like a Cape hunting dog

Question 9: Dinosaurs and the animals that lived at the same time as them were amazing creatures. Why do you feel dinosaurs continue to fascinate us?

SH: I don’t know if they are really more interesting than living or recently extinct animals (there are some pretty crazy things alive today), but I do think that they become a bit more mysterious as they recede into the mists of time. There is probably also some truth to the idea that, especially for kids, they are like real-life monsters that would have been terrifying (some of them, anyhow), but thanks to Father Time we are safely out of their reach.

As for the public at large, I’m going to take a somewhat contrarian stance and say that when it comes to mass fascination dinosaurs haven’t had as much staying power as we like to think.  They were the toast of late 19th century Europe and the U.S., but after the economic depression and world wars they hit a multi-decade lull where interest was scant, punctuated only by a small number of workers or artists; in fact it was the scarcity of articles like Charles Knights 1942 piece for National Geographic, or the 1953 Life magazine series that make them such icons today.

I think the resurgence in public interest went hand in hand with the long-needed updating of dinosaurs (and their art) following the dinosaur renaissance. It really didn’t enter the public consciousness until the late 1980s. Jurassic Park (the book and the movies) came out just as the attendant controversies were being partially resolved (at least in terms of updating the appearance of dinosaurs), leading to a public that saw “real” dinosaurs for the first time. There also was a lot of drama in those controversies; scientists berating other scientists in popular books and magazines, artists and scientists debating who was too quick (or too slow) to jump the gun on some new data about how dinosaurs looked. And the whole time the visual results were historically counter-intuitive (in that they looked nothing like your father’s Brontosaurus) yet almost self-evidently more plausible as real animals.

While dinosaurs will always be fairly popular, I don’t know that we can ever recapture and sustain the frenzied popularity of the 1990s. While it’s great (and long overdue) that we are seeing some degree of consensus on issues that shouldn’t be controversial within paleo art, I think there is also a risk if we artificially make dinosaur reconstructions look too similar; as we drain the mystery out of paleo art we may also lose some of the genre’s sexiness.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t rigorously follow the data - we need to do a much better job of doing so than happens today. But we need to be equally vigilant about creating false consensus - what happens when one look is repeated by everyone else (or what can happen when “conservative” means “copying what came before unless specifically contradicted by new evidence). In this regard I’m not merely happy to have played a small role in the All Yesterday’s book, I actually think the authors are tackling an issue that is vital to health of paleo art moving forward.

Question 10: What is your favorite time period?

SH: The week between Christmas and New Years. Sooo many deals on electronics! Err wait, you mean in prehistory, right? The Triassic is my favorite period by a wide margin. So much happened in such a (relatively) short amount of time; proto-mammal synapsids recovered from the Permo/Triassic extinction event, croc-line archosaurs largely unseat our ancestors and hit their peak of phenotypic diversity, the major clades that make up the modern ecosystem largely appear, then there’s a bit of a ruckus at the end and the dinosaurs emerge as the sole large-bodied clade to dominate terrestrial ecosystems for the rest of the Mesozoic. I have to say that I’m quite interested in spending more time investigating the environmental and ecological factors that contributed to such evolutionary upheaval. Probably I’d do some skeletal reconstructions as well...

The prosauropod Yunnanosaurus - they can't all be theropods!

Question 11: Do you have any other hobbies (paleo or non paleo related)?

SH: My paleo-related hobbies include keeping tabs on the literature regarding hominids, cetaceans, and Devonian tetrapods (or proto-tetrapods, depending on how you classify them). There’s a theme there - I’ve always been interested in major transitions (this explains my interest in the Triassic). Also I’ve had to learn quite a bit of web programming to maintain my website and design templates for blogs and such (although I’ve repeatedly fallen prey to getting my website overhaul 90% done and then started over with a newer technology).

Outside of paleo I read a lot about history and archaeology (also linguistics, which is obviously related), I’m something of a movie buff, I root for the Green Bay Packers (that would be American football), and I’ve enjoyed my share of console and PC games over the years. Most of these things have given way though since my the birth of my daughter - you truly don’t realize how much free time you had until you become a parent.

Thank you so much, Scott!  If you are interested in seeing more of Scott's work check out his website here.  So long for now!  

1 comment:

  1. Durbed's Revisiting T. rex doesn't follow Scott Hartman's work