Yesterday’s more or less paleontology art themed post (DinoMixer: on creating art for an iPhone app) reminded me that I have been wanting for some time to write a post about Chezk artist Zdeněk Burian, a pioneering paleontological reconstruction artist, natural history painter and book and magazine illustrator.
Zdeněk Burian (pronounced, according to William Stout via Jim Vadeboncoeur: “Zeh-DEN-yeck BURR-ee-yahn”), was, along with Charles R. Knight and Rudolph Zallinger, one of the most influential paleontological artists in the history of the field.
His detailed compositions showed prehistoric landscapes populated by fantastical animals that were simultaneously dramatic and, given the scientific knowledge at the time, painstakingly accurate. In spite of their attention to scientific detail, his paintings are lively, colorful and painterly, often with dramatic skies alive with roiling clouds.
Many of his dinosaur paintings have become iconic, well known even beyond the paleo art community; and he created images of many other periods of prehistoric life, including prehistoric mammals, extinct giant birds, ancient seas, early humans and human ancestors.
Burian studied at the Academy of Graphic Arts in Prague and begain selling illustrations while still in his second year, though not successfully enough to support himself or to prevent dropping out of school. Taking up odd jobs to support himself, he continued his own study, working on “adventure illustrations’ and eventually getting work illustrating western adventure fiction.
He was apparently not only prolific, but quite fast, a fact that was exploited by unscrupulous publishers, who demanded much and paid little.
Burian’s early interest in prehistoric life and paleontology, fueled in part by an admiration for Charles R. Knight’s paintings, bloomed when he partnered with paleontologist Josef Augusta to do prehistoric life reconstructions that provided art for numerous books, articles and museum exhibits.
It’s estimated that Burian created over 15,000 works — drawings in various media, paintings and illustrations, including illustrations for over 500 books.
Burian’s work was not widely seen outside Czechoslovakia until the 1960’s, when a series of books, many of them aimed at a popular audience, were published in the U.S. A number of his books are still available in various states of new or used.
Those who are mostly familiar with modern images of prehistoric animals, particularly dinosaurs, will find his images of upright iguanodons, tail-dragging tyrannosaurs and and giant sauropods with languorously curved necks and ground-hugging tails oddly quaint, but they were rigorously correct according to the best paleontological reconstructions of the day (interpretations of the appearance of long-extinct animals based on fragmentary fossilized bones, trackways and bone fragments is a constantly shifting landscape, new evidence is literally being uncovered daily).
What doesn’t get outdated, however, is Burian’s command of painting technique, his dramatic compositions, evocative landscapes and viscerally tactile suggestions of the textures of prehistoric life.
William Stout, himself a paleo artist of note (see my posts on William Stout) has published a Zdenek Burian Sketchbook – Volume One: Prehistoric Life, a nice companion to his Charles R. Knight Sketchbooks (here’s a mention of both on Paleoblog).