Monday, December 10, 2012

All Yesterdays: Paleoart Enters A New Era

For me, one of the biggest biggest paleoart revelations in recent memory was seeing John Conway's digital painting of Diplodocus longus. Its Charles Knight-like "retro" atmosphere, scaly, lizard-like hide, and drooping tail betrayed every piece of received wisdom from the modern paleoart era, which Darren Naish has dubbed the "Age of Paul." Conway himself wrote in the description that the painting represented a "betrayal of the dinosaur renaissance" -- a move away from the sleek, slim, hyperkinetic dinosaurs of Bob Bakker and Gregory S. Paul and back toward a more subdued, naturalistic interpretation of prehistoric life.

In some ways, the pendulum of the dinosaur revolution has swung too far in the hot-blooded direction. Certainly dinosaurs were not the cold-blooded swamp dwellers of the 19th Century, but guess what--many of them probably did live in swamps (including the swampy backwater environments preserved in the Jiufotang Formation) and I bet a lot of them relented to gravity and let their distal tails sag every once in a while; indeed, many of them may even have slept, and I'm not just talking about Mei long! While these statements may seem obvious, such scenarios are rarely portrayed in art.

Sleeping Tyrannosaurus rex by John Conway, from All Yesterdays
In their new book All Yesterdays, Conway, Naish, and C.M. Kosemen usher in a new age of paleoart, and solidify a paradigm shift that makes Paul's classic book Predatory Dinosaurs of the World look as, if not inaccurate, as outdated-seeming as 19th Century dinosaur artwork. The book points out that the anorexic zombie dinosaurs of the Paulian Age are not necessarily the most accurate portrayals of dinosaurs, and that depending on the vagaries of soft tissue preservation and the range of unusual and atypical behaviors found in modern animals, dinosaurs may have looked and acted quite differently from the way they've been shown for the past few decades.

I've long been a proponent of this kind of re-imagining myself. When I first published my recent recon of Archaeopteryx, for example, many of the comments centered on how bird-like it looked relative to most other reconstructions. Really though, I thought it was pretty conservative--all I'd done was give it a reasonable amount of feathering, in an attempt to move it away from the half-bird half-lizard chimeras we usually see. But the stunning artwork presented in All Yesterdays is where the real avant-garde action is, from the tree-climbing protoceratopsids of the cover to the now-infamous, stylized painting of a rutting stegosaur attempting to mount a sauropod!

The final section of the book is even more fascinating and often hilarious. Subtitled "All Todays," it imagines a world in which Quaternary period species are known only from fossils, and future paleoartists try to imagine what they would have looked like in life, mostly from a Paulian-style aesthetic of retaining skeletal outlines wherever possible with minimal soft tissue.

All in all, All Yesterdays is an absolute must-have for anyone interested in the life appearance of dinosaurs and in the cultural context/assumptions inherent in how we reconstruct the past. The book is conveniently available in both eBook and print formats. I personally used the ibooks version for this review, which looks really great, but will definitely be buying a dead tree version in the future, as I think the gorgeous artwork it contains demands a place on my coffee table in all its large-format glory.

All Yesterdays is available in paperback and eBook editions (the Kindle edition seems to come highly recommended on social media, and can be viewed with the Kindle app on iOS and desktop even if you don't have the e-reader).


  1. I have bought the Kindle versions and it is gorgeous, it's obviously somewhat more muted in the grayscale of the classic Kindle (but still beautiful) and spectacular on my Android tablet.

  2. The "All Todays" bit was both disturbing and hilarious. While the reconstructions look like creepy mutant zombies, incredibly wrong assumptions like "The Hummingbird used its needle-like beak to pierce the hides of its victims and drain them of blood" or "The Cow was a lithe, graceful herbivore that ran swiftly" all provide a generous dose of laughs.