By Mark P Witton
I like palaeoart. A while ago, I went to the ‘Dinosaurs of China’ exhibition in Nottingham and bought myself a copy of the Chinese palaeoartist, Zhao Chuang’s The Age of Dinosaurs – a veritable picture-fest of up-to-date reconstructions of ancient beasts and plants, complete with fuzzy raptors and other bird-like therapods.
Mark Witton’s book, Recreating an age of reptiles, is another excellent example of this genera. His pictures are a chronicle of the extinct animals that fascinate him, both great and small, and are enjoyable in themselves. However, reading the text as you look at them allows a greater understanding of what is being presented, because the author explains the decisions he has made in reconstructing the scene.
And, of course, this presents him with a contemporary dilemma. Palaeoart is usually judged through a combination of artistic merit and scientific accuracy, with the latter being a very modern concept to apply. However, he asks the question: How many ways can extinct animals be reconstructed? In relatively recent years, there has been a ‘one species, one reconstruction’ view – that there is only one way to reconstruct an extinct animal. However, this seems unlikely. I remember reading Dr Tom Rich, of Polar dinosaur fame and sometime contributor to this magazine, who suggests that palaeoart presents the viewer with testable scientific hypotheses.
Mark Witton spells out his view in some detail. For him, nothing done in palaeoart can be considered accurate – the fossil record does not allow it and new means of analysing fossil data can, at any time, upend hypotheses originally considered sound. Therefore, for him, palaeoart is not about scientific accuracy but rather “credibility”. That is, palaeoartists and their audience need to acknowledge that a work will only ever be a snapshot of contemporary thinking.
And this is what makes this book so entertaining. It allows the reader not just to try to imagine what ancient life was like, but to understand that they are looking at the current scientific understanding of that life and an interpretation by the artist as a scientist.
Mark Witton is an author, palaeoartist and researcher, who has worked with major museums and universities to understand and reconstruct extinct animals. He has also been a consultant to several dinosaur documentaries, including Walking with Dinosaurs and Planet Dinosaur. His work can also be seen at: http://www.markwitton.com/.
Recreating an age of reptiles, by Mark P Witton, The Crowood Press Ltd, Marlborough (2017), 110 pages (paperback), ISBN: 9781785003349