Prehistoric Beasts or Movie Monsters? Why Paleoart Matters

Let’s imagine I have two pictures in hand. In one, a photo of a lion with his lips pulled back into a snarl. Canines like steak knives glisten with saliva, and he stares straight at you with hungry yellow eyes…What’s your first impression?




Now let’s take a look at the other photo. Here we have a portrait of another lion. This one lays on a rock, at peace. He looks off towards the sunset, and the warm light of late afternoon highlights his soft mane. What’s your take on this one? How do you feel about this calm lion vs. The snarling one?





Images and art have power to shape how we think and feel about things. Imagine you’ve never seen a real lion before, and the only thing you know about lions is that snarling picture above.  Now let’s bring a real lion into the picture.  Just for fun.  What happens?  How do you react?

Yeah, it’s not gonna be pretty.  I’d like to think I wouldn’t make a big deal out of it either, but that’s just wishful thinking. 😛

Now think about how much power art has to shape our image of animals gone for centuries. Ask anyone, and chances are that when you say dinosaur, many people think Jurassic Park. Now I love the original Jurassic Park. It fueled my interest in dinosaurs! But those things- sorry to break it to you, if you didn’t know- are not dinosaurs. Those are monsters.

No matter how many times Chris Pratt says “These animals.”

Dinosaurs are so often written off as a “kid” thing. An interest that’s only a phase kids have, like unicorns and dragons. I’ve gotta be honest though. I don’t really blame anyone who says dinosaurs don’t matter.  I so often see bad computer models of some random predator with blood dripping from its claws.  Toys that claim “museum quality” portray the same predators with mouth wide open, teeth gleaming as they roar to the universe.

Even in museums, the skeletons and painted reconstructions are usually in the same style.  The predator (usually T-rex or something big and scary) has one three-toed foot over the throat of some hapless victim as it roars in triumph.  Or is seconds away from making the death strike.

Put that way, what makes dinosaurs any different from dragons and other fantasy critters? (well, aside from the whole fire-breathing magic thing)

It’s so easy to emphasize a predator’s size and power.  Sharp teeth, scaly skin, stomping feet…all great bits to exaggerate into something totally unreal.  Just look at all the hoaky B-rated monster movies on sharks, crocs, snakes, spiders…you name it!  Same principle.

We don’t need monster sharks, crocs, or dinosaurs. That only breeds misunderstanding and fear for the animal itself.

If all we see is this…


Then how does that shape how we think about gators?  This big guy looks mean and scary, and then all those stories of alligator attacks in the everglades come to mind.

If we see more of this…


Then this mama gator and her hitchhiking baby all of a sudden look almost endearing.  They look normal, and we can see them for the animals they are, vs. the potential killer monster in the toothy picture above.

Now how can we use this in our art?

Should we draw a predatory dinosaur with mouth open wide, teeth glistening, every skull opening visible as it roars at its helpless victim? Or perhaps we can illustrate the predator resting in the shade of a tree, maybe watching a herd of herbivores in the distance.

Of course, I’m not dictating what you should draw.  But not every moment is a life & death struggle, and animals get bored too.  They do things that surprise us, and pictures like this show little snapshots in the everyday lives of these animals. (lol, didn’t realize I did that until after I said it 😀 )

Art has power, and the public’s view of dinosaurs is slowly changing to keep up with the science.  Dinosaurs aren’t dumb lugs doomed for extinction anymore, or bloodthirsty killing machines. Now they are as normal, wonderful, and beautiful as today’s birds.

Just take a look at the beautiful birdiness of Emily Willoughby’s art, and the crazy normal, everydayness John Conway portrays in his art. (I don’t get anything for saying this.  I just love their work!)

We can highlight the wonders of today by illustrating the wonders of the past. How cool is that? 😀

So here’s my question to you.  What do you like to see in paleoart?  Do you think it has the power to shape how we see prehistoric animals?  I’d love to hear from you in the comments!

7 thoughts on “Prehistoric Beasts or Movie Monsters? Why Paleoart Matters

  1. Hi Brownie, thank you for dropping by! 🙂

    A frigate bird microraptor is pretty cool, and the snowy owl troodon is especially cool. Sometimes artists can get a little too dependent on modern animals by copying patterns exactly. But inspiration from modern animals based on research (like nocturnal troodons) makes for some really awesome paleoart! 😀


  2. Heh, only dinosaurs can pull off that dramatic “roar” so well!

    I always find it interesting when paleoartists experiment using certain bird-like characteristics on dinosaurs. For example, a microraptor with a great frigatebird chest, or a troodon with snowy owl feathers. Of course, those probably never existed, but at least it’s fun to look at. 😛


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