The Portuguese DISASTER...

Posted by Nima On Thursday, September 17, 2009 95 comments

Ahoy Paleo Fans! It's been a hectic past few months in the Paleo Kingdom, and the fruits of my labor will soon be posted here for all to see.

But first I think the more loyal ones among you will be interested in something that was far more hidden - indeed, it's a piece of paleo-art that ALMOST didn't get made.

Back in April I first heard of the 9th International Dinosaur Illustration contest sponsored by the Museu da Lourinhã in Portugal. Now of course I was ecstatic. Paleo-art (or if you prefer, paleontography, though that term apparently means something else in cheesy online dictionaries) is not often the subject of a real competition. Serious paleo-art contests open to anyone above 15 years of age are extremely rare and hard to come by.

I don't know why this is (and I certainly don't approve of this dismal state of affairs) but it may be that the mainstream art world has yet to truly understand dinosaurs as high art. To you and I, Bakker and Paul may be the Michelangelos of our time (and to some, Raúl Martín would undoubtedly be our modern Vasari), but you would never know it from the scores of snobbish art critics that pay them no mind. Dinosaurs ARE high art if they are done right and with style, the problem is that so few people do them right to begin with, before you can even GET to the style issue - especially illustrators that get PAID to fill the pages of dinosaur books for big publishers. Most of them are part-time nature artists with very little knowledge of dinosaur anatomy or ecosystems... so they simply copy older books, the paleontologist who works as "consultant" or "author" for the book doesn't bother to correct them (yes I have a wall of shame but I won't post it here... I can't exhaust all the fun just now!) - and then we end up with silly but persistent follies like sauropods with elephants' hands, T.rexes dragging their tails, duckbills with webbed feet, ceratopsians with the tail FAR too long, and diplodocids with a camarasaur head (yes, some artists STILL draw them this way - i.e. look for Barosaurus in Dr. Michael Benton's Dinosaur Factfinder...)

So naturally when I did find a contest where SERIOUS dinosaur art was seriously considered to win prize money, I thought this must be my lucky day! Now as it turned out it wasn't that easy.

You basically have to mail your drawings to the Museu da Lourinhã... which means -you guessed it - INTERNATIONAL POSTAGE. I don't want to go into debates about the nuances of the special shipping deals of Priority Mail vs. UPS vs. DHL... I don't have ANY interest in quibbling over corporate differences, so don't say "you could have used these guys, they make it easy..." as I've already looked at the options and it's a hassle any way you cut it.

But it was a worthy hassle, I thought. I could win 1000 Euros... which would be more when you convert them into dollars... and even though that's hardly a fortune, simply winning first prize would guarantee a bit of fame... since this is THE only international dinosaur art competition open to all adults worldwide, it's a good way to make a name for yourself... previous contestants have included Alain Bénéteau and Andrei Atuchin, as well as the ever more popular Luis Rey.

So I started the drawing with a little over a month left till that ominous deadline... But I hadn't factored in that the month in question was also a month of nerve-wracking studying and memorization to prepare for college finals! And as any of you who have been to a big public university know, professors and T.A.'s are overwhelmed and don't really have much time to answer EVERY student's every question... (plus I could swear that some of mine were stoned... you couldn't even get a straight answer out of them by offering to sleep with the dean and get them that precious raise they've been craving even more than their pot, in exchange for one measly practice final solution* - not that I would do such a thing, nor have any of our deans, at any rate, had even a trace of the extreme beauty needed to tempt one to risk it!)

*A word to the not-so-wise: "practice final solution" in this context means a solution to a problem on a practice final exam, not some macabre test run for a second holocaust... sheesh, you wouldn't believe how many pathologically sick people there are on teh interwebz these days.

Now putting the academic stuff aside for a minute, there was also the driving factor that the judges of the contest would prefer either dinosaurs in their natural habitat, OR Portuguese dinosaurs. So I decided to do a combination of both. I ended up researching a bunch of Portuguese dinosaurs from the Late Jurassic Lourinhã formation, and even doing several rough profile sketches of them. One was this baby right here - you may have seen this Dacentrurus in a previous post (albeit with a better scale bar and any hints of the creature's identity erased):
I almost NEVER do rough sketches of dinosaurs unless I TRULY have no immediate plans for them... These days, after years of experience learning the ins and outs of paleo-art, I usually visualize the completed work for a while and then simply draw it without errors (at least for the species I'm familiar with)... some friends have compared me to Mozart, but I won't be that boastful. Though I DO prefer to have things done right (or close to it) the first time, as even having to make major corrections is less tedious to me than starting again from scratch. Nevertheless, I did several very rough and preliminary sketches of Dacentrurus and Torvosaurus, and even of Lusotitan, which I assume wasn't all that different from Brachiosaurus.

And because of the messy situation with studying for finals (compounded by a MAJOR unforeseen shortage in the supply of textbooks at the start of that quarter, the price of whose mismanagement by negligent administrators we were still paying for...) ...... most of my time was ruthlessly devoured by academics, and all I was able to produce by the time finals rolled around was THIS:

Two Dacentrurus armatus face down an attack by three Torvosaurus tanneri near the edge of a forest in Lourinhã... (well, it was supposed to be a forest... I only had a couple of conifers done by finals week). The rear perspective was quite tricky, especially with the foreshortening of the tail on the individual on the right - but this served as a good study for future rear perspective drawings. Of course, my "studies" are not content simply to be studies, but often inexorably end up as finished products in their own right.

There were a lot of challenges present in this piece - from drawing the oddly proportioned Torvosaurs (which I had never drawn or even studied before) to getting the correct perspective and angles for the Dacentrurus tail spikes. And then there was the whole crazy "splattering flesh" effect from a deadly Dacentrurus blow. How were the physics of such a tearing impact supposed to work? I wrangled with the idea on and off for over a week. However, after finals there was much more free time to work on this drawing and really make it presentable.

Okay, NOW there are more trees, lots of dust, some big Lusotitans and a Miragaia in the background. I really used eraser techniques to the max here. You have to with this crazy printer paper, it has next to no texture so to avoid "clutter" you have to lighten the "foggier" background with "eraser tamping". I swore this was the last time I'd use cheap, textureless printer paper for a paleo drawing, but then I realized my store of textured heavy paper had run out, and I ended up using this same annoying paper for two of my three recent pterosaur drawings! They came out looking good, but would have almost certainly been better on heavy paper. I later went out and bought a new sketchbook with detachable sheets, but I still prefer the texture of the slightly pricier heavy printer paper (the sort used for legal documents and the like). Every scale, every detail proved FAR more difficult to draw realistically on this cheap printer paper. And once you start drawing in one style, you can't skimp out and finish the rest in plain gray tones without scales! For my Styracosaurus herd drawing I'd had plenty of time to prepare, and lots of free hours without looming exams approaching. No such good fortune here.

But then, another problem reared its ugly head to bite me. The mother of all setbacks... I had passed the deadline for the submission, May 31. Man I HATE all the stress that final exams put you through. It's as if the rest of life gets put on hold, normally important things become a waste of valuable time and everything begins to balk - especially your notebooks, calculator batteries, and neurons. The deadline passed before the finals themselves did. And the prep work ate up all of my time (though it certainly paid off).

Now in hindsight, missing that deadline was not the end of the world, and it's not exactly vital to anyone's future... but at that exact moment I felt like burning the damn drawing that had taken so long to progress! I slowly had to accept the fact that the submission would have to wait until next year's contest. And it's not exactly like there are a lot of other serious dino-art contests during the year open to people my age and not dependent on where I live. (Lol, what would we competitive-spirited paleo-artists do without the Museum of Lourinhã?) Yet I wish they had chosen a better date. Something a bit more college-friendly... So this drawing almost sat idle to be forgotten, when I had the not-so-eccentric idea of just finishing it ANYWAY.

It was already half-done. I was already in the mood for drawing all those tiny scales (a decision whose tedious execution had almost made me regret the whole thing at first)... so I figured, what the hell, stop complaining and finish that sucker! And before long, this "Portuguese disaster" actually came out pretty good!

Here's the final version. And it's a very detailed piece in its own right, but it would have totally made my day to be able to mail it to Portugal on time and find that it at least won an honorable mention or something of the sort. I did not even count the scales. Merely to look at them now makes my head spin. It would have been a breeze by comparison, if I'd had better paper. Now that I have it in spades, things should go a lot faster and easier and with better results - though despite the initial disaster with the contest's deadline and the rush of finals, the results here are actually pretty nice. It could use a slight touch up (which I may get around to soon) - but still, it came out way better than I expected.

And what's the story behind the story? Dacentrurus was a fairly primitive and long-surviving genus of stegosaur. It was possibly also the largest member of the family, with some specimens apparently exceeding Stegosaurus by around half a meter. It's thus odd that many artists (John Sibbick is a notable example) restore it as a dwarf stegosaur in light of this stark fact. It's also unlikely that Dacentrurus was entirely armed with spikes - its front half likely also had small plates and shoulder spikes like those of its smaller cousin Kentrosaurus (painting by Jim Robins). In fact I drew the armor configuration very similar to Kentrosaurus, except that there are four thick "anvil" spikes over the hips having uniform enlarged thickness and being very unlike the plates, and also unlike the tail spikes. Also the body plan is different from Kentrosaurus, having longer front legs and a straighter back. As stegosaurs continued to evolve, they seem to have reduced the arms and shortened the torso, putting more emphasis on the hips. But it's likely that even the big, longer-armed Dacentrurus was capable of rearing much like its more light-fronted successors. The tail was definitely a more effective all-purpose weapon against big predators than that of Stegosaurus - it had nearly four times as many spikes! This may explain why Dacentrurus survived so long, but there's another possibility:

All of the rather fragmentary remains of Dacentrurus may belong to several separate genera of stegosaurs that lived at different times in the mid to late Jurassic. That's right, this guy's not that well understood, and that's a welcome challenge. Not everybody draws Dacentrurus, and far fewer draw it well. These dinosaurs will have their day, as next year's competition draws near... and better late than never, they're finally done.

Anomalocaris - the FIRST super-predator!

Posted by Nima On Friday, September 4, 2009 8 comments

A lot of times I notice most people are at a loss to explain what exactly was on Earth before the dinosaurs... ask them and they just freeze up and draw a blank. Draw a few therapsids and pelycosaurs and you get odd stares and questions like "wait, so that's NOT a dinosaur"? Phytosaurs and rauisuchians: "heh cool, a big gator".

Draw early amphibians of the Coal Age and you get "oh, a big newt. Wait we still have them today, what's so special about that?..." And go back to the Devonian and I swear somebody will mistake a Dunkleosteus for an overgrown Sheepshead or Mahi Mahi. Tell them it ate sharks for breakfast, and watch the eyes roll...

But now take a look at some TRULY ancient creatures. Some of the oldest animal fossils known are from a formation called the Burgess Shale, dating back to the Cambrian period over 500 million years ago. The Burgess Shale provides a valuable window into the ecosystem of some of the first animals. Back then, all life was in the seas. The atmosphere was still far too devoid of oxygen to allow much more than bacteria to survive. Few of the creatures preserved in Burgess bear any resemblance to animals living today, but the Cambrian does have one BIG distinguishing feature - it was the time of the world's first super-predator.

Anomalocaris, the "strange shrimp" of the Cambrian, was an early arthropod distantly related to true shrimps and scorpions. Arthropods would later diversify into insects, arachnids, centipedes and so on, but their first "legend" was this creature. Nearly a meter long (not counting the long tail filaments of some species) it was many times larger than any other Cambrian life form.

Anomalocaris by John Sibbick.
It is rumored that this painting is actually based on Laggania,
a smaller relative of Anomalocaris. At top left you can see Pikaia,
the translucent ancestor of vertebrates. That's right, look at our humble beginnings ;)

And this was possibly the ONLY time that a predator dwarfed all other species by such a huge margin. Anomalocaris had no legs, only rows of undulating fins on its sides. Two huge spiny "jaws" raked food into its disk-shaped mouth. It was insatiable, eating anything its monstrous jaws could capture and kill.

Ironically, the first specimens of Anomalocaris were only small parts of it, and were actually described as several different animals! Decades after its initial discovery, the errors were resolved and it turned out Anomalocaris was truly the Godzilla of the ancient seas, dwarfing everything else in sight - it was fifty times larger than the next largest creature of that time (its relative Laggania). Indeed, with the possible exception of the Devonian fish Dunkleosteus, it's probably the only REAL "Godzilla" predator that ever existed in terms of relative scale.

So here for your enjoyment is a somewhat hasty, minimalist scene from the Cambrian, a few hundred miles south of the Burgess Shale.

Deadly Stalkers of a Crystal Sea

Two Anomalocaris, hunting for food, seem to soar in an iridescent shallow sea over smaller arthropods like the flat-bodied Helmetia and the compact trilobite Brachyaspidia, as well as a few smaller forms. Also seen are early sponges, the spiky worm Hallucigenia, the strange, urchin-like Wiwaxia and the ten-jawed ambush predator Sanctacaris. There were even odder creatures not pictured here such as Opabinia, a finned "worm" with five eyes and tiny toothed jaws at the end of a long "trunk", and Aysheaia, a soft caterpillar-like creature related to Velvet Worms, that likely ate sponges. (I'm too impatient to post links to these critters. Google them if you're curious!)

Yeah. It was a VERY weird world. Where only the seas had life, the air was toxic, multi-celled plants didn't exist, and a "shrimp" was the undisputed King of Beasts. How's THAT for a romantic time-travel getaway spot!