The Art & Science of Pete’s Paleo Petshop

So there’s a long and a short way to go about this.  I do something really tedious and boring, and pull out the scientific papers, fossils, diagrams, anatomy jargon, and articles written by people much smarter and more knowledgeable than me in all things paleontology…



I can save you the big snore (because the technical stuff is tough to read, and I like this sort of thing!) and have an excuse to draw yet more cute critters, while sneaking in a few quick fossil facts in a bite-size post or convenient picture. 🙂

Why am I doing this?

The truth is that I got a little frustrated.  All the dinosaur books for kids fall into one of two categories-

Super cute story and dinosaurs, but no science.  For example, “Pteradactyls” lumped in with the dinosaurs, and dinos stuck with the appearance of rubber toys from the 80s.


“Educational”, but tough to read.  Because after reading a list of names like Tyrannosaurus rex, Euplocephalosaurus, and Parasaurolophus 20 nights in a row, I know that book is going to put aside for “some other time”.  Plus the computer graphics always look a bit unpleasant to me.

Pete’s Paleo Petshop is the best of both worlds.  A cute story with illustrations based on the latest scientific research I can find.  But I also want to make clear what part of the illustration is something we actually know as fact, or really just an educated guess.  Speculation.  A hypothesis. 🙂

So this is the start of a new series called The Art & Science of Pete’s Paleo Petshop. That’s super long though, so I’ll have to shorten it somehow. 🙂

For your convenience, I’ll keep a list of all posts in the series here on this page, and I’ll update the list with links as we go along.  I’ll begin with the main cast, and we’ll see where we go from there. 🙂


chibi critters color.jpg

Main Cast:


Bonus Question: Any special requests?  I’ll be going over these critters in no particular order, so if there’s one you really want to see first, let me know.  First one to answer in the comments gets first pick! 🙂

Critter of the Week: Brachiosaurus

Meet Elmer. He’s a little shy, and likes staying in his comfort zone, but he’ll be your best giant friend if you give him some greens and a big hug.



The best way to a dino’s heart is through his stomach, as they say.  Well, that’s not really the phrase, but I’m sure it’s just as true, especially when it comes to these long-necked sauropods. 🙂  I think the rough estimate is a solid cube- 5ft x 5ft – of vegetation in a single day to feed one of these guys.

Speaking of feeding longnecks…it reminds me of that scene in Jurassic Park.  The one where Dr. Grant and the kids are enjoying a few moments not running away from hungry Rexy, and they get a chance to pat the brachiosaurus (totally my inspiration for paleo pets, by the way).

If you’ve ever watched Jurassic Park, you may notice that Elmer’s head looks a little strange…that’s because the longneck in Jurassic Park is an African cousin of this guy (and until recently the critter with more complete fossils).  There’s a few differences between the two even a novice dino enthusiast like me can easily recognize…

  • Completely different head.  The African cousin (Giraffatitan) has a head like the one in Jurassic Park.  The American Brachiosaurus (Elmer here) has a much gentler slope to his forehead, and longer snout.
  • Body shape is different. The African Giraffatitan has a shorter torso and overall more stocky build.  While Elmer the Brachiosaurus has a longer body, and generally is a bit more slender.  Not skinny, just not as stocky as his African cousin.
  • They live on entirely different continents.  The Atlantic ocean was already forming in the Jurassic period, so Brachiosaurus and Giraffatitan were separated by a lot of water. 🙂  That leads to the same sort of thing that makes a mountain lion (cougar, puma, etc…) in the Americas different from a lion in Africa.


Also on the subject of greenery, I tried experimenting with something different this time.  All these critter profiles are an experiment in style really, as I practice how I want to illustrate the pictures in the book.

This time I really focused on making my shadows dark and my highlights light.  It sounds obvious and hard to mess up, I know, but you’d be surprised how hard it is!  Especially working with color, it gets really easy to let the color do all the work, and not see how dull and gray everything is.   So I changed the whole picture to grayscale, so I could see how it looked in black, white, and gray tones.

It all looked about the same shade of gray.  Not good.  I like it much better now after I added more light and shadow. 🙂 So I’ll do that test from now on.

Another experiment is the vague hint of background.  I don’t generally paint backgrounds, so this is me dipping my toes in the river to see how cold the water is.  I like to ease my way into things.  Baby steps. 😀

Do you like the profile pictures better this way, or are they better with simple painted color?  Let me know in the comments! 🙂


Making progress…

I’m having fun experimenting with new artsy techniques.  As an artist, it’s always a joy and a challenge to improve my work.  Plus it’s an important bonus that I can give you something better and better each time you stop by. 🙂

On a related sidenote, I think I’m getting into the swing of these little profile pictures.  I think I’m getting a little faster at it, or at least not as many starts-&-stops as before. 🙂


Coming Next Week…

Look up to see this critter, before he nabs that sandwich out of your hand! 🙂

Share your guess in the comments! She’s one of the critters over on the critter page. 🙂

The World’s Toughest Jigsaw Puzzle

A six-year-old walks down the hall, eyes wide as he stares open mouthed at the skeletons towering high above him.  Dagger teeth, gleaming claws, curving necks and long, sweeping tails…It’s almost surreal how the bones are suspended in the air, as if the skin around them was just invisible.

Of course, now I know about the armature of steel.  How each bone has it’s own pocket to nestle in.  If one bone needs cleaning or repairs, then there’s no need to take down the whole skeleton.  But how do we know what the skeletons looked like?

In the last post, we talked about how unlikely it is to find a complete skeleton, or even a mostly complete skeleton.  If you haven’t read it yet, then check it out, because it’s pretty amazing what happens between dead dinosaur and museum. 🙂

But kid’s books and movies always show the whole dinosaur under some random hill.  It’s gotten downright ridiculous, so that Bob the Builder and his team can dig into a hill, find a complete skeleton of a brontosaurus “standing” in the dirt, and then simply leave it there to be the entrance to their dinosaur themed amusement park.


articulated brachiosaur color copy.png
Every paleontologist’s dream.  Please excuse the ugly sloppiness.  I was practicing speed. 🙂

Truth is, building the complete skeleton is only the first part of figuring out just what these critters looked like.

It’s like the world’s toughest jigsaw puzzle, with a few minor complications…

  • No box with the picture to get a clue on what you’re building
  • No idea how many pieces there are supposed to be, just that there should be at least oh, 2,000 or so…right?  Just how many bones does your average dino have anyway?
  • After a summer spent combing the hills, maybe this is what you end up with…

fossil bits color.png

So what do you do?

Luckily, bones can tell you a lot, especially teeth.  An expert can tell you these are sauropod bones.  Even better, an expert can tell you these belong in the family brachiosauridae .


Now here comes the fun part…putting the puzzle together.

You look at all the other fossils in the family.  Maybe there are more of the same “genus”, brachiosaurus.  Maybe these bones are enough to tell which species of brachiosaurus you’re looking at, and you can look at those for reference.  And so on and so forth until you and your colleagues have determined what a complete skeleton of your brachiosaur might look like.

Of course, the whole process is a long, drawn out, very complicated business.  This is just my humble rundown. 🙂

Long story short- except in very few cases where paleontologists discover an articulated skeleton, like the lovely dilophosaurus here- then most skeletal reconstructions have at least a few missing parts, which are then filled in by educated guesses based on closely related animals.

wikipedia commons.

Now that you have all the pieces, how do they fit together?

Knowing where all the pieces go relies on reference to other skeletons, research, and a great deal of know-how on the bones themselves.

Bones can tell us a lot, because the soft and squishy bits that hold them together leave scars.  Knowing how to interpret these scars is where dry bones get interesting, because this is the beginning of figuring out how the animal looked in life.

Next post we’ll talk about muscles, tendons, and all the soft stuff under the skin that we don’t usually see in the museum.

Quick Question: Did you like to see fossil exhibits as a kid?  What impressed you the most about them?  I’d love to hear your answer in the comments! 🙂


Fleshing out the Bones Series:

Behind the Scenes: From Thumbnail to Draft Sketch

It’s time for a behind-the-scenes sneak peak on the first installment in the series of Pete’s Paleo Petshop, where anyone can go to find a prehistoric friend to take home.  Time has stopped in the Jurassic Period, the “golden age” of dinosaurs, and Danny and his family have come to the shop to find a quiet, little dinosaur.  Hard to find in an age of giants!


Now here we have a few thumbnails.  Thumbnails are small, quick sketches that are used to give the artist an idea for the composition of an image.  In this case, thumbnails are useful for getting an idea for the layout of the illustrations.  Which characters to use, where words might go, how the picture will help the words tell the story…it all starts gelling together in the thumbnail.  Keeping thumbnails small helps force you to leave out detail, which helps to focus on the basic shapes.

flyers thumbnailssauropod thumbnailssteggy thumbnails

Once I figured out which thumbnail I liked best I made it larger and cleaned it up a little.  These drawings are mostly to figure out exactly what I need to find references for.

flyers page

For example.  I looked at a couple of pictures of flying birds to help me with Tango and his buddy on the left here (learn more about him here).  It’s not known if these dinosaurs could actually fly or just glide, so this is speculation on my part.  Short, broad wings are great for maneuvering thick forest, and you don’t need a lot of muscle for short bursts of flight. 🙂

In this case, I needed pictures to get ideas for poses!  And for Terry and her friends on the right…well I needed a few reference pictures to have a clue what I was drawing.  These critters are tough if you don’t draw the classic “silhouette from above/below” pose. 😛

Which makes a great example of what happens in the sketch stage.

In the thumbnail, I had one pterosaur (teh-roh-saw-r) flying past the corner of the page.  An overhead flying view is so overdone I decided to have them perch on the branch instead.  I also changed the species to pterodactylus (teh-roh-dak-tih-lus) since they worked out better for what I needed.  Bonus that these guys are the poster children of the pterosaur group. 🙂

sauropods page

Here we have three famous giants of the Jurassic.

  • Ajax the Apatosaurus (ah-pat-oh-saw-rus)
  • Dippy the Diplodocus (dip-loh-dok-us)
  • Elmer the Brachiosaurus (brak-ee-oh-saw-rus).  Yep, his head is the right shape.  The critter in Jurassic Park is actually a Giraffatitan (giraffe-ah-ty-tan).  I’ll write a post on that at some point.  For now, let’s just say that the Jurassic Park variety is the African breed, and this is the American breed.  They’re completely different species, and have lots of things that make them unique, not just head shape. 🙂

I’ve been doing lots of research on the necks for these guys, so that awesome snakey neck is not random.  And yes, it is an awesome python neck (though this is about the limit of its bendiness.)

Also, can I just say how awesome it is to use a toy as a reference?  Yes, you heard me.  I went out and got a few toys (as accurate as possible) and I’m using those for pose reference.  I don’t have the dippy, but for that one I got pictures of the toy online. 😛

Steggy page

Here we have Steggy the Stegosaurus (steg-oh-saw-rus).  Original name, I know 😛

I used a toy I have for reference here too, but this one isn’t the best model, so I’ll be doing research to make sure I correct those inaccuracies.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this sneak preview!  I’m starting to get an idea of what things will actually look like, and that’s pretty exciting after it’s been stuck in my head for so long!  The words need a lot of work (they kinda suck at the moment), but the gist of the story is there.

I’ll never be fooled into thinking a picture book is easy again! 😀

Now my question for you is…Do you have any questions?  Anything you want to know about what happens behind the scenes? Let me know in the comments!  I’d love to hear from you! 🙂