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Leaping Laelaps by Charles R. Knight, 1896

Paleoart (also spelled palaeoart, paleo-art, or paleo art) is any original artistic work that attempts to reconstruct or depict prehistoric life according to the current knowledge and scientific evidence at the moment of creating the artwork.[1] The term paleoart was introduced in the late 1980s by Mark Hallett for art that depicts subjects related to paleontology.[2] These may be representations of fossil remains or depictions of the living creatures and their ecosystems. The term is a portmanteau of “art” and the ancient Greek word for old.


Duria Antiquior - A more Ancient Dorset is a watercolour painted in 1830 by the geologist Henry De la Beche based on fossils found by Mary Anning, and was the first pictorial representation of a scene from deep time based on fossil evidence.
The Primitive World by Adolphe François Pannemaker (1857)

The work of paleoartists is not mere fantasy of an artist's imagination but rather consists of cooperative discussions among experts and artists.[3][4] When attempting to reconstruct an extinct animal, the artist must utilise an almost equal mixture of artistry and scientific knowledge. The artist James Gurney, known for the Dinotopia series of fiction books, has described the interaction between scientists and artists as the artist being the eyes of the scientist, since his illustrations bring shape to the theories; palaeoart determines how the public perceives long extinct animals.[5]



Art of extinct animals has existed since before the creation of the study of paleontology. Although Henry De la Beche's 1830 painting Duria Antiquior is often credited as the first paleontological artwork,[6] there are numerous examples of art based on extinct creatures beforehand. These include sketches, paintings and detailed anatomical restorations, dating back to at least 1800. There are also possible examples of "proto-paleoart" from long before the 19th century, sometimes considered to include artwork from Before Current Era. However, as Mark Witton discussed, artwork of griffins and cyclopes do not appear to take inspiration from any extinct animals, instead most likely being purely speculative creations. The 560-540 BCE artwork of the Monster of Troy has been considered as the earliest "proto-paleoart" as well, the only known depiction resembling the skull of the giraffid Samotherium. Witton considered that because the painting has significant differences from the skull it is supposedly representing (lack of horns, sharp teeth) there is no reason to assume it represents "proto-paleoart". The earliest definitive work of "proto-paleoart" is a statue of a Lindwurm in Klagenfurt, Austria. Writings from the time of its creation specifically identify the skull of Coelodonta antiquitatis, the woolly rhinoceros, as the basis for the head in the restoration.[7]

Early scientific paleoart[edit]

Extinct marine animals were some of the first to be realistically restored as in life.[8] Art has been important in disseminating knowledge of dinosaurs since the term was introduced by Sir Richard Owen in 1842. With Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins, Owen helped create the first life-size sculptures depicting dinosaurs as he thought they may have appeared. Some models were initially created for the Great Exhibition of 1851, but 33 were eventually produced when the Crystal Palace was relocated to Sydenham, in South London. Owen famously hosted a dinner for 21 prominent men of science inside the hollow concrete Iguanodon on New Year's Eve 1853. However, in 1849, a few years before his death in 1852, Gideon Mantell had realised that Iguanodon, of which he was the discoverer, was not a heavy, pachyderm-like animal,[9] as Owen was putting forward, but had slender forelimbs; his death left him unable to participate in the creation of the Crystal Palace dinosaur sculptures, and so Owen's vision of dinosaurs became that seen by the public. He had nearly two dozen life-sized sculptures of various prehistoric animals built out of concrete sculpted over a steel and brick framework; two Iguanodon, one standing and one resting on its belly, were included. The dinosaurs remain in place in the park, but their depictions are now outdated in many respects.

'Classic' paleoart (1900–1960s)[edit]

As the western frontier was further opened up in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the rapidly increasing pace of dinosaur discoveries in the bone-rich badlands of the American Midwest and the Canadian wilderness brought with it a renewed interest in artistic reconstructions of paleontological findings. This 'classic' period saw the emergence of Charles R. Knight, Rudolph Zallinger, and Zdenek Burian as the three most prominent exponents of paleoart. During this time, dinosaurs were popularly reconstructed as tail-dragging, cold-blooded, sluggish 'Great Reptiles' that became a byword for evolutionary failure in the minds of the public.[10]

The Dinosaur Renaissance (1960s–1990s)[edit]

While these artists' style and their artistic mastery of beauty and composition are still lauded today, this classic depiction of dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals remained the status quo until the 1960s, when a minor scientific revolution began changing these perceptions following the 1964 discovery of Deinonychus by paleontologist John Ostrom. Ostrom's description of this nearly-complete birdlike dinosaur, published in 1969, challenged the presupposition of dinosaurs as cold-blooded, slow-moving reptiles, and the artistic reconstructions of Deinonychus by his student, Robert Bakker, remain iconic of what came to be known as the Dinosaur Renaissance.[10]

Bakker's influence during this period on then-fledgling paleoartists, such as Gregory S. Paul, as well as on public consciousness brought about a paradigm shift in how dinosaurs were perceived by artist, scientist and layman alike. This influence affected the presentation of museum displays and eventually found its way into popular culture, with the culmination of this period perhaps best marked by the 1990 novel and 1993 film Jurassic Park.[10]

Modern paleoart (post-1990s)[edit]

Gregory Paul's high-fidelity archosaur skeletal reconstructions provided a basis for ushering in the modern age of paleoart, which is perhaps best characterized by rigorous, anatomically-conscious work balanced with speculative flair. Alongside and subsequent to Paul, other paleoartists typified this anatomically-rigorous new paleoart outside of archosaurs, including reconstructions of fossil hominids by Jay Matternes and Alfons and Adrie Kennis, as well as of fossil mammals by artists such as Mauricio Antón. Other modern paleoartists of the 'anatomically rigorous' movement include Jason Brougham, Mark Hallett, Scott Hartman, Bob Nicholls, Emily Willoughby and Mark Witton.[11]

A 2013 study found that older paleoart was still influential in popular culture long after new discoveries made them obsolete. This was explained as cultural inertia.[12] In a 2014 paper, Mark P. Witton, Darren Naish, and John Conway outlined the historical significance of paleoart, and lamented its current state.[13]


Since 1999, the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology has awarded the John J. Lanzendorf PaleoArt Prize for achievement in the field. The society says that paleoart "is one of the most important vehicles for communicating discoveries and data among paleontologists, and is critical to promulgating vertebrate paleontology across disciplines and to lay audiences".[14] The SVP is also the site of the occasional/annual "PaleoArt Poster Exhibit", a juried poster show at the opening reception of the annual SVP meetings.

The Museu da Lourinhã organizes the annual International Dinosaur Illustration Contest[15] for promoting the art of dinosaur and other fossils.

Notable, influential paleoartists[edit]

Past (pre-dinosaur renaissance) paleoartists[edit]

2D artists

3D artists

Modern (post-dinosaur renaissance) paleoartists[edit]

2D artists

3D artists



  1. ^ Ansón et al., (2015) Paleoart: term and conditions (A survey among paleontologists) in: Current trends in Paleontology and Evolution, 28-24 pp.
  2. ^ Hallett M (1986) The scientific approach of the art of bringing dinosaurs back to life, in: Czerkas SJ, Olson EC (Eds.), Dinosaurs Past and Present 1. Natural History Museum of Los Angeles Count in association with University of Washington Press, 97-113 pp.
  3. ^ Catherine Thimmesh: Scaly Spotted Feathered Frilled: How Do We Know What Dinosaurs Really Looked Like? Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013, 57 pages with paleoart illustrations by John Sibbick, Greg Paul, Mark Hallett et al., ISBN 978-0-547-99134-4
  4. ^ Hone, Dave (3 September 2012). "Drawing dinosaurs: how is palaeoart produced?". The Guardian. 
  5. ^ Gurney J. (2009) Imaginative Realism: How to Paint What Doesn't Exist. Andrews McMeels Publishing. p. 78.
  6. ^ Lescaze, Zoë (2017). Paleoart: Visions of the prehistoric past. Taschen. ISBN 978-3836555111. 
  7. ^ Witton, Mark P. (2018-04-27). "Unicorns, dragons, monsters and giants: palaeoart before palaeontology". Mark Blog. Retrieved 2018-05-07. 
  8. ^ Davidson, J. P. (2015). "Misunderstood Marine Reptiles: Late Nineteenth-Century Artistic Reconstructions of Prehistoric Marine Life". Transactions of the Kansas Academy of Science. 118: 53–67. doi:10.1660/062.118.0107. 
  9. ^ Mantell, Gideon A. (1851). Petrifications and their teachings: or, a handbook to the gallery of organic remains of the British Museum. London: H. G. Bohn. OCLC 8415138. 
  10. ^ a b c White, Steve (2012). Dinosaur Art: The World's Greatest Paleoart. London: Titan Books. 
  11. ^ Conway, John; Kosemen, C.M.; Naish, Darren (2012). All Yesterdays. London: Irregular Books. ISBN 978-1291177121. 
  12. ^ Ross, R. M.; Duggan-Haas, D.; Allmon, W. D. (2013). "The Posture of Tyrannosaurus rex: Why Do Student Views Lag Behind the Science?". Journal of Geoscience Education. 61: 145. Bibcode:2013JGeEd..61..145R. doi:10.5408/11-259.1. 
  13. ^ Witton, M. P., Naish, D. and Conway, J. (2014). State of the Palaeoart. Palaeontologia Electronica Vol. 17, Issue 3; 5E: 10p
  14. ^ Lanzendorf PaleoArt Prize Archived 2016-03-05 at the Wayback Machine.. Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. Retrieved on February 14, 2014.
  15. ^ International Dinosaur Illustration Contest Archived 2009-02-06 at the Wayback Machine.

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