Paleoart and Authenticity - A response to Rieppel

*Responses are short posts engaging with a previous post - do you want to write one? Get in touch!*

Michael W. Skrepnick is an award winning artist / illustrator specializing in palaeontological reconstruction of extinct vertebrates, often collaborating with academics in an attempt to visualize the evolutionary progression of natural history on planet earth. His work has been published in a variety of scientific journals, popular books, magazines, documentaries, and online media releases.

In response to Lukas Rieppel's post, Michael writes...

I concur with most of the insightful comments made by Lukas Rieppel (and of Don Brinkman) concerning the display of fossil casts, and can only embellish these observations by offering a few random thoughts from my perspective as an artist who specializes in palaeoreconstruction illustration.  The point of museum gallery displays is to educate and inform, by making academic research accessible to the general public.  The factual information contained in fossil specimens can be showcased behind glass where limited size of smaller specimens makes this a practical approach, and thereby viewing actual specimens adds a perceived layer of authenticity to the visitor experience (similar to standing before an old masters painting, wherein the experience of “proximity” to an artist of note through their original work, transcends observing a second generation facsimile reproduction of the image, in print format, online, etc . . . ). As to the impressive new sauropod installation at the AMNH, the imposing size of many of these extinct taxa does not readily allow for exhibition of the actual material as an articulated skeletal mount that would not automatically create potential hazards to both the fragile specimen itself, and in certain cases to the public that interacts with it.  

The solution is to be found in high fidelity castings, that are for all intents and purposes perfect replicas of the original, lighter in physical weight, more durable, and somewhat expendable (easily replaced with another copy, should it be broken or vandalized). In some cases when partial skeletons are put out on display, casts of the missing elements are incorporated into the mount, and unless they are purposely left unpainted, in order to differentiate cast elements from original material, would never be identified as casts by the majority of the visiting public. The use of casts not only means fossils of particular interest can be widely distributed to museums and institutions of learning around the world, for study and appreciation by an inquisitive public, but more importantly, original and often rare specimens can remain in the protective environment of museum collections, where they are readily available to academics for further comparative analysis and study. As a result, the original irreplaceable objects are held safe for future generations, while the technically faithful reproductions, inspire and impress a public that is fascinated by the diversity of ongoing progressive evolutionary transformation on this planet.

In addition, artists may often be charged with the task of interpreting the factual fossil evidence, into realistic, fleshed out reconstructions and environments that allow the visitor to momentarily enter a state of “suspension of disbelief” that effectively allows transport of their imaginations “back in time”. . . the only effective alternative to actual time travel, which for the foreseeable future is not a viable option.  In addition to fossilized bone, associated tracks and traces, preserved soft anatomy (outer integument, internal organs) and complementary research in sedimentology, taphonomy, palynology, palaeobotany, and other related fields of study, provide helpful information in establishing a cohesive vision of ancient palaeoenvironments. Frustrating gaps in the fossil record and at times ambiguities in identification by academics in an attempt to interpret specimens and data, can lead to heated debate, often unresolved, awaiting the potential discovery of new evidence that will allow the process to move ever forward. In the interest of accuracy, most professional palaeo artists establish ongoing discussions and dialogue with palaeontologists, forging collaborative arrangements in order to translate research into reasonable visual depictions of subject matter under current study. There of course must be varying degrees of subjective artistic license and latitude employed in order to compensate for critical missing information, that may eventually (or never, as the case may be) come to light. Sometimes, curious evidence is uncovered that goes beyond rudimentary description, seeming to suggest complex behaviours... apparent tooth marks on bone infer hunting-scavenging, trackways sometimes indicate specific interactions between individuals or herd movements, inclusions in coprolites may reveal diet, and the list goes on... All are intriguing possibilities for artistic expression, that hint at the lives and activities of species long absent from the earth, but perhaps not so far removed from the nature of extant wild species living with us today. Through the mechanism of convergence, and other repetitive forces in biological function, we can appreciate a similarity of physical traits that express recurring themes in evolutionary continuity and connection... an odd sense of the familiar, we recognize in the abstract (a sauropod is far removed from an elephant in evolutionary terms, however both share certain adaptations for moving massive weight on columnar limbs, and thus create an association in our minds)... Is wildlife in our world today, in many respects, that much different from wildlife in the Mesozoic ?  While the entertainment industry loves to exploit the “monster-like” attributes of dinosaurs within popular culture, coloring our perception, distorting context by envisioning hypothetical fictions based on human vs dinosaur conflicts contrived and designed purely for dramatic effect (and further at the expense of science, manipulating anatomical features to achieve sensationalized effects)... The reality of the Mesozoic is simply a world (devoid of any human presence) teeming with  life in an unending expanse, trending from a gymnosperm dominant forests to an angiosperm dominant flora over time. Often with a striking resemblance to modern habitats, the variety of landscapes included swampy bayous, coastal rainforest, dense mixed hardwood forests with interbraided rivers, lakes, riparian zones bordering on arid tracts land , all of which was populated with an array of diverse vertebrates, sometimes congregating into massive herds akin to that found on the Serengeti... think conceptually in terms of organic, abundant, majestic, natural wildlife (not the default hyperbole of “ biggest / baddest / fiercest”, the press, media and movie studios routinely seize upon, in order to capture market share)... back to the point, the purpose of the palaeo artist, in my view, is to act as an advocate for extinct life, providing artistic visual reconstructions based upon limited fossilized evidence, in an accurate and responsible manner, in support of the science and research that endeavors to describe and understand the natural history of this planet.

Science gives us evidence to describe and document... imagination and art provides a platform to investigate and expand upon ideas generated by the science.  Imagination fuels children’s interest in dinosaurs and palaeontological research, and eventually public approval of funding for museums and a continuation of scientific discovery... we need to encourage more of it. While there will always be limitations to a complete understanding of our ancient earth history, I believe that in addition to the hard science, the inclusion of thoughtful artistic interpretation becomes a meaningful component, a bridge between academia and a general public that wants to grasp the significance and wonder of palaeontological discovery, relative to our own evolutionary progress. Scientific fact and information described in the literature, conveyed publicly by the integration and display of original fossil material, specimen casts, and artistic interpretation, all contribute to a comprehensive understanding and expanding interest in the natural history of our world, and our place within it.