Is Paleo-Art Dead?!

Posted by Nima On Wednesday, March 16, 2011 11 comments

I've been keeping track of the great Paleo-art debate on the Dinosaur Mailing List for a while now. It's generating a lot of buzz, and even my original blog post is getting some attention (and outside of ArtEvolved at that!) yet there are some very disturbing issues that remain.

For those of you who have read my posts on SVP 2010 in Pittsburgh, you may remember that I asked Greg Paul for advice on how to be successful in the paleo-art business. His response at the time seemed dismissive and even a bit antisocial - but now I'm shocked at how honest and realistic he was being. He got into this thing decades ago, and in his words, "would have no idea how to make a name in it today" were he to start over.

I have now a sinking gut feeling that what he really meant, in so many words, is that he's stuck in this profession and can't get out even if he wanted to. And it was a warning - think really hard about how badly you want paleoart to be your career. You think I'm kidding? Read this comment of his on the DML: it actually is NOT draconian or megalomaniac, and it's actually quite a tearful dose of reality.

An unfortunate problem with these discussions is that persons who just do 
not know about the issue seem to be obsessed with making arguments that are 
so disconnected from reality that they are from a galaxy far, far away. This 
has been happening with some really silly notions on what and how 
paleoartists can earn. This is bad because then those in paleontology may have 
a major misimpression of what is going on with the paleoartists they often work 

Some fellow actually suggested that a certain noted artist might earn, say 
a quarter million on a single painting. Let me be clear about this. There is 
absolutely no significant adult market for original paleo paintings in 
existence. There was one briefly after the first JP came out in Japan and some 
artists earned modest amounts, but then their economy went belly up. 
Lazendorf, a famed hair dresser with top level clientele packed his high rise 
apartment to the gills for a few years, and then sold it off for a lot of money 
and switched I hear to Asian art. 

There are a number of fellow paleo nerds who would love to have Hallett, 
Gurchie or Paul on their walls. And they can only afford posters. Considering 
the time etc involved it does not make sense to sell an original color of 
say 3x4 ft for less than some thousands of dollars. I have a website and I am 
easy to contact and have not sold an original to a private collector for 
years. As far as I know much the same applies to other paleoartists. Many a 
time I have been asked if I sell originals and when I tell them how much they 
are unable to proceed (also, because I modify old work a lot selling it off 
is not the best). 

A quarter million for a dinosaur painting, come on.  And I wish. 

Now, maybe setting up a paleoartist site that includes a venue for 
promoting original art will improve matters. One can doubt that it will, but it 
it might work and is worth a try. Even if it does it will take years to build up 
clientele and no one will get rich that way.  

Books. Back when I did PDW, repped by top NY agent Brockman to a top NY 
publisher, it was the last few years that that was possible. The only adult 
dino books a major publisher will even come close to considering these days is 
a narrative tradebook, and the publishers actually require that it include 
minimal illustrations to keep down production costs and because they fear 
they turn off readers. If you do not believe this then you contact the 
tradebook agents and see what they tell you. I know the business. In general 
only university presses pick up those kinds of books these days and they 
cannot pay useful advances and sales are so limited that they are in effect 
vanity books. 

But what about kidsbooks? I and others have approached a number of juvenile 
book publishers and agents and no takers. (Maybe you noticed I have not 
done kidsbooks, that's why). Am not entirely sure why this is, probably has to 
do with publishers keeping costs down by using derivative art that basically 
rips some of us off. I was once on the verge of a big deal but the 
publisher at that moment decided to concentrate on fiction works due to changing 
market forces. 

Kids products and other licensing. A couple of agents repped my work and 
got nowhere. Again producers prefer to keep their costs down rather than pay 
significant up front fees or royalties. 

I have been told by product representatives that art derivative of mine 
seriously impairs my ability to get work, and that I need to do something about 
it. Which I am doing. 

Exhibits. This remains an important source of income. But musuem and 
science center exhibits managers chronically plead poverty (because they 
overdesign their exhibits relative to their budgets) and drive down payments to 
below acceptable levels. Because there are so many paleoartists willing to work 
for peanuts many are taking advantage of this situation. Also, there just are 
not that many paleoexhibits in production at a given time. 

Dino docs. Because cable programming is marginally funded the producers 
always plead poverty. Because of under cost competition -- some derivative of 
my work, some not -- I don't get that sort of work these days. 

How about selling stuff on the web? Ha, ha, ha, ha. That's one of the great 
jokes of the digital era. 

Someone was going on about how some paleoartists can charge lower prices 
because they are "more efficient." What a disconnect from reality and plain 
common sense. Doing dinosaur art is not following Moore's Law. Using copiers 
to quickly resize elements does help a little. But doing ORIGINAL dinosaur 
restorations is ALWAYS a long, tedious process that takes lots and lots of 
research including digging through often old and hard to get publications and 
travel. Using computers for rendering basic skeletons does not seem to save 
time (and I seem to catch more errors when using old analog methods, and the 
computer produced skeletons out there seem prone to low levesl of fidelity). 
I am as efficient as anyone when it comes to doing real paleoart. The one 
way to seem to become more efficient in this specialty is to be derivative 
rather than original, and basically use the published work of others to gain 
an edge on those very artists. 

And someone was giving us paleoartists wise and sage advice about how 
perhaps we should understand that because there is so much competition (much of 
which is derivative) that we should accept it being mere part time work that 
we do on the side. Aside from making us into mere amateurs, if I did that 
then I could not have produced all those nice skeletal restorations so many 
seem to really like (and in some cases use for their paleoart that then 
competes with mines). 

Think about. Really, think it through. 

To be blunt about it, if you are considering getting into paleoart, think 
about it twice, three, times and then four. The paleomarket will always be 
too small to sustain a large number of artists. Even so, I do think that the 
situation can be significantly improved if certain steps are taken.  

These discussions on these lists, although far more extensive than I 
thought they would be and perhaps tedious to those not involved in the issue 
(rather tedious to me for that matter), are very important to the field of vert 
paleo, and should have occurred long ago -- I have perhaps been tardy in 
waiting to bring up these issues. But one reason the discussion is longer -- 
and more vehment -- than it perhaps needs to be is because some who are not 
familiar with the paleoart facts continue to feel obliged to lecture us 
paleoartists, sometimes harshly -- about what we should to. Don't do that. And 
if you are going to debate me remember that I have long had contacts with top 
agents, attorneys etc, and of course I have little patience for tendentious 
arguments from those who lack sufficient knowledge to dispute the facts that I 
lay out. Treat me and others who have been in the bizz awhile with some  

And never tell me, "but Greg, your work is so good, surely there is big 
demand for it if you just get the right agent" or so forth. Have heard that one 

G Paul 
This was one of those crash and burn moments. Or at least it looked that way. One of those "Coyote chasing roadrunner realizes he's just walked off a cliff onto thin air" moments. I though to myself.... certainly Greg Paul's statements can't be true, can they? Paleo-art has no potential whatsoever for large profits? Do other artists agree? Is Greg Paul's situation unique to Greg Paul, or do other veterans of paleo-art have a similar testimony? Why have they not spoken up?

But if you thought this was just a negative complaining rant by an artist who's a victim of both the bad economy and his own success, you're wrong. There IS a strong basis to his arguments in this post. Other artists have had pretty much the same frustrations.

Tess Kissinger, whom I greatly respect as an experienced insider of the field, responded to Greg's comment with essentially perfect agreement:

What Greg says about the market is essentially true. I appraised the Lanzendorf collection. The average price for a large painting was $1000 - $5000.
Without collectors there is no chance of moving that average up.
Maybe the "bottom line" about paleoart is that, as a full time job, as a field, it does not support a lower middleclass existence. Artists are notoriously capable of living on little - we don't require new cars, fancy homes, plasma screens - but paleoart is still a precarious way to make a living.
Is there any way to change this?  I don't know.
The field gets better than it pays for.


If Greg Paul's demands about not using his poses and so forth sound desperate, that's probably because they are. The man's struggling to eke out an existence and literally is going unappreciated by most people who think they have taste in art. Now obviously making money in any art field is difficult. There is always more supply than demand. There are so many artists of every sort that nobody's heard of before. Even just looking at DeviantArt, the number of professional portrait painters, photographers, etc. is beyond belief. The situation is even worse in paleo-art, where a private art market is virtually non-existence. You cannot simply build a business empire on the back of Lanzendorf. So what's left is doing art for books. And and even with good agents, publishing your art is an uphill struggle.

Not only that, but it seems like book publishers are actually dictating what the style of the paintings should be, as if they know dinosaurs better than the artists! And they pay them barely liveable wages. It's a catch-22. Maybe there would be a bigger market for dinosaur art, at least in book form, if publishers actually allowed good art onto their pages! Artist Luis Rey had this to say:

...what I see these days is not Greg Paul inspiration. It is a bunch of professional artists (and many not that good even as professionals) that continue to be hired to do monstrosities and anatomy-nil dinosaurs. The main trends seem to be: a) To be very "realistic" (photoshop skin or effects over rubbish anatomical reconstructions is and will always be: realistic garbage... Darren Naish and myself know a lot about this). b) Over use of dramatic Jurassic Fight Club rubbish... if that in itself is painful to watch...just imagine that without the anatomical knowledge! c) Multicoloured clowns pretending to be dinosaurs (lamentably -most probably- inspired by yours truly... mea culpa).
...And yes, you've guessed it: not a single dinosaur I have seen for years in these plethora of Jurassic Park rip-offs (and worst) have been really inspired by Greg Paul's anatomy master classes... lots of Jurassic Park half-digested rubbish, but not a lot more (Or wait! It may be that some of the JP reconstructions were in their time also inspired by Greg Paul...!) >These< are the people to whom MOST if not "all" the jobs go to. And these people most probably never have considered themselves "paleoartists", paleontologists or anatomists either... they are just opportunists feeding on a trend. 

It makes you just wish they at least had copied Greg Paul or simply have learned from his anatomical lessons... this thread also makes you wary of the concept of "tribute" or "homage"(like Ralph Chapman was saying)... or even parody or interpretation... a homage to your favourite inspiration could cost you an arm and a leg in the near future! 

So what is the use then for a "statement from paleoartists" when the jobs will keep going to whoever the publishing houses want (or can afford)? Publishing companies (with the honourable exception) most of the time want malleable and docile artists that will do whatever they have in mind or else... that means you don't get the job... I have lost jobs because i refused to do Deinonychus without feathers... or "John Sibbicks"!

So based on what the pros have said, publishers want no-name artists without a distinctive style who will just copy whatever the executives think looks good. It's a crisis disturbingly similar to what Frank Zappa described regarding the music industry (warning - not for the easily offended) - sometimes, an old boring cigar-chomping executive who can admit that he doesn't know beans about a new product, but is willing to take an initial risk on new ideas like a real entrepeneur (hell if I know what it is, lets make a few thousand copies and see if it sells!) is the best thing for an industry - but sadly, we don't see that anymore.

Now publishers are crowded with self-righteous yuppies who are convinced they know what's best for you and me in the bookstore - they normally make meager marginal profits off of such crappy dinosaur books that you'd literally be better off buying used dinosaur books from 30 years ago, which for all their cold-blooded flaws were actually more accurate and more artistic than 90% of the digitally repackaged trash on the market today. Is it any surprise why publishers complain they are "chronically low on money" and have to hire the lowest bidder? The person in the executive chair can not dictate the taste of an entire population. When they think they have the right to do this, what they put out is often absolute garbage, and real artists go out of business. All these self-proclaimed experts of the corporate world who seem to think they know everything, as actually ruining and dumbing down the market to the point that good art/music/etc. becomes a foreign entity to the consumer. If you produce high-quality original work with some real effort and creativity, you won't get jobs. Or you will lose a lot more than you get. And then members of the general public who do know of people like Greg Paul will preach: "but you're so good, there must be millions of people lining up to buy your art, if only you could market this or that differently..." without knowing that these millions of people (apparently) don't exist because publishers essentially marketed them out of existence with a flood of bad books with dumbed-down wrong information and bad pictures, so that well-to-do connoisseurs of art assume that dinosaur art has no worth and just ignore it altogether.

And Greg Paul has a very nice website with professional flash animations, it's easy to find and very well-designed, easy on the eyes, shows his best work for all to see - yet still no private clients? We're long past the days of the Medicis, where artists were few in number and worked in guilds and schools, almost as a secret society of sorts, and were hooked up by their masters and well-paid by the wealthy, rather than scrounging for every potential crumb - and so imitating a master's style was respected, not reviled, and quality was increased over the years rather than diluted. Now "artists" are a dime a dozen, and nobody gives a hoot if you're a master with 20 years experience or just a thoughtless imitator without understanding and knowledge.

So here's this thing - what are your thoughts on this issue? In this age of affordable art classes, large numbers of artists, and free exchange of information on the internet, is paleo-art dead? 

Is there potentially a bigger market for high-quality stuff that artists are just not reaching? And are book publishers just idiots for offering a pittance and even dictating what the art should look like (i.e. crappy Jurassic Park and Land before Time ripoffs redone with digital skin)? Would they sell more books if they took a chance on better artists who actually know what the heck they're doing (and therefore justify paying them what they truly deserve?) Can a bigger market actually be created (or reached, if it exists?) Is there a more efficient way of marketing art that nobody in paleo-art has tried? Ebooks? Kindle/nook? Communal online galleries? Online royalty licensing of images via Paypal or credit card? Any constructive ideas and thoughts are welcome.


Andy said...

The days of paleo-artist as only a paleo-artist are probably dead (for all but a lucky few). Then again, did those days ever really exist in the first place for more than a handful of people?

Speaking as an art outsider, there seem to be parallels between paleo-artists and paleontologists. Very, very few of the latter are full time in that profession (me included, although I'm lucky to be in a position where most of my time is spent on paleo). We teach, sit on committees, process paperwork, etc., etc. I was advised early on that to restrict my skills and interest to paleontology alone was a virtual death sentence for a paying career. I am so glad I followed that wisdom! Not only did it make me a better scientist, but it opened up many more job options (all of which would allow me to stay in the paleo game). I suspect parallel advice would apply to aspiring paleo-artists.

David Orr said...

I think that Mark Witton hit it on the head, for as much as Paul doesn't want to admit it. Be well-rounded. Indulge in many artistic passions. Let the paleoart and other genres you practice feed each other.

We all admire and respect Paul's art, but it's not above critique, is it? Is technical accuracy and fidelity the ultimate gauge of good paleoart? I am more emotionally stirred by the wildly varying styles of the new blood. And for me personally, that is what leads to new insights. That's how I learn best. It's not by poring over a tome like Paul's Predatory Dinosaurs.

I'm not as keen on his website. To me, it's *stodgy.* The music. The way he controls the viewer. As I said in another comment thread, I guess it's just GSP being GSP. I'd argue that he'd have an easier time if instead of barricading himself in his own little fortress, he was more open. Write a blog. Share WIPs on Flickr or Deviantart. There are other ways to do it, and his bull-headedness just starts grating on me.

While I've been keen to express sympathy for his problem, I think we also need to be critical of his methods. Just because the career isn't working the way he wants it to right now, and he's too stubborn to accept new ways of networking, sharing work, and otherwise navigating the shiny digital future doesn't mean we need to entertain every one of his gripes. If the market's not there, the market's not there. But paleo is STILL going to need talented artists, and I think the genre as a whole will continue to improve on the hard work and dedication of folks like you. It's not your fault that he's painted himself into a corner, however much is his fault.

Sorry if this was a bit ranty. I'm just tiring of his bitching and ready for the new blood to make their voices heard. Well, ready for the old farts to be more willing to hear them, I'm working out how to do a post about this, more tactfully than what I've said here.

davidmaas said...

Andy was faster than I was... I echo those thoughts.
If you look at the communities, paleo-art has probably never been more alive. If you look at the commerce, it's probably the same as always, only that there are many more potential contractors for jobs.
I feel the discussion - in order to remain productive - has to propose strategies of exploiting existing interest in paleontology in the general public and this needs the scientist, the artist and the entrepreneur to mingle and create. Make your own jobs, so to speak.

David Orr said...

Oh, damn. I wrote really long comment but it must not have saved. Ugh. I'll have to remember what I wrote and try again.

David Orr said...

Okay. It's coming back to me, thought I don't have the time I did earlier. Here's a bit of what I wrote.

I have a different take on Paul's website. I think it kind of reflects his overall attitude- he's trying to control the viewer. The "slideshows" off the viewer no chance to view his work at their own pace, besides the annoying music that you have no choice but to listen to. The work of younger artists on the web is so accessible - and they actually interact with their viewers and other artists! It's a relationship, rather than a one-way conversation. Which is what GSP does.

It's a perfect representation of the generation gap, really.

He wrote off Witton's comments about the need to diversify ones' efforts. But Mark was dead right. As expressed very well by David and Andy above.

I had more, but I need to earn some money now!

Zach Armstrong said...

As an art form, paleo-art is not dead, but as a full-time, professional form of work that one can live off of, my unqualified opinion is: yes, it is dead.

The problem is, as you noted, that the field is supersaturated with talent--and very good talent at that in many cases. It's basic economics that if supply is higher than demand, prices for the product/service tend to fall. In the case of paleo-art, that means full-time professional paleoartists are unlikely going to be able to support themselves on their paleo-art alone. If it makes you feel any better, this is the case for most art niches at the moment, and is probably exacerbated by the depressed economy we have right now.

Nima said...

All very great points.

On the one hand, we need to find new ways of exploiting the interest in dinosaurs and paleontology, look for new niches, etc.

On the other hand we also need to look for other career options because there have been so few paleoartists that rely only on paleoart to make a living. I've asked others for tips, here's the gist of it; If you're an artist, you can learn to paint portraits for commission as more of a "main job". You're more likely to make money, and make it reasonably fast at that. If you're more on the mathematical side of things but still into art, get into things like robotics and mechanical engineering. Dinosaur schematics and skeletals can be a part of your portfolio since they are as much measurement as art.

Of course it goes without saying that this subject needs to be explored more. The idea of opening new niches is a very seductive one, though at the very least it will take constant attention to the evolving technology over the next few years. and yes, the economy indeed sucks for all sorts of niches. One trick might be to reach people who have money to buy art, and can see the value in something as rare and detailed as some of the better paleoart out there. We're marketing to people who can't even afford to pay - why not find a way to market to the rich? All these private collectors who buy dinosaur fossils for a start - the field largely hates them, but consider that they'd also be willing to pay top dollar for some top-notch live scene paintings of those same dinosaurs. And they're just the tip of the iceberg. This will take (I think) a lot of sales skills, some bravado, and really good paintings to show that this is not some crappy textbook "illustration".

Matt said...

The whole illustration market is flooded with talent and people unprepared to pay. Illustration and art are generally undervalued to begin with because of the ignorance of people who think it requires no effort to make an artwork. It' not 'real' work, 'anyone' can pick up a paintbrush. This is compounded by the ease of copying the digital age has brought, further devaluing the work of artists.

To be honest, I think it's naive to expect original works by Paleo'artists' to sell in the mainstream Art market. Even standard wildlife art is considered a niche market, albeit a popular one.
(Gallery)'A'rt is a humanist pursuit, and while there's a reasonably significant market for 'traditional' realism, portraits, landscapes etc. 'A'rt is interested in progression, interpretation and politics. Big purchasers want an individual statement in the art which will accrue value over time.

STEVIE said...

First off, Great Article, Great Blog, and Great Comments. Now my take;

I don't think that Paeloart is dead anymore than Art itself is dead, although some folks have been trying to preach the end times of both for an eternity. Why will it never be dead, the question I ask is, are we going to stop finding fossils and are they going to magically artistically restore themselves???

Paleoart as Fine art has always been spotty I would guess and Scientific Illustration has always been a competitive field, this is not news. There will always only be so much market for the abundant supply and I think a mixture of work ethic, networking, and talent all factor into it.

Now for Mr. Paul. I must admit that I was very influenced by Mr. Paul from an early age. Although I think his restorations are too skinny now that I am a little older, he did revolutionize the dinosaurs image along with advances in the scientific sector. I still thus respect him as an artist and researcher and I also appreciate his hard work in doing skeletal reconstructions that have helped out so many artists.

That being said I agree with several comments here that Mr. Paul is getting a bit out of line by trying to copyright a little too much. As an aritst, fine art and paleoart, I understand completely how one can be protective, even overprotective of their work, but I think he is asking a bit much. Any artist should have the right to use skeletons as references for their restorations, you can't copyright science and discovery, the entire concept is ludicrous.

As far as the complaints Mr. Paul makes, I think that he needs to up his game plain and simple. You can't expect to rest on your laurels forever and simply continue to get gigs. The international market has affected all artists, not just Mr. Paul, and I haven't seem much coming from him lately (am I missing something?) while I constantly see all sorts of new stuff coning from many other great artists. So, yes, he is a victim of his own hubris in my opinion, the market determines the value, not him, and I would take a more proactive approach to defend my position if I were him rather than being threatening and negative. Thats just my take.

Mark W said...

Great points Nima,

I think Paleo Art is alive and thriving. Specially now with the maturing of Paleontology. The Paleo Art world will blowup once geneticist clone dino's. Probably 8-10 years out to get the first one out. From there on, people will be so infatuated with these beast, Photography and Art will soon follow.

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