Lines and Colors art blog

The Hell Creek Mural

Hell Creek Mural, Bob Walters, Tess Kissinger, Laura Fields
Every field of artistic endeavor has its own limitations, but it’s often within those limitations, rather than in spite of them, that artists do their best work.

In gallery art, artists who wish to survive on the sale of their art must produce work that finds an appreciative audience of buyers, and must often please gallery owners first in order to receive exposure.

Illustration has a special limitation in that the work must accompany and help express the themes, scenes or intention of a literary work, and must please editors as well as the public.

Scientific illustration brings with it the often stringent restriction that, in addition many of the challenges inherent in creating representational art, the work must adhere to scientific accuracy. This includes fields like botanical illustration, medical illustration, and that most popularly recognized branch of scientific art, paleontological illustration.

Paleo art carries even more restrictions, in that the artists are attempting to create realistic and scientifically accurate reconstructions of animals that no one has ever seen.

The importance of scientific accuracy in paleo art has led to a the creation of a special prize, awarded by the scientists themselves, for “outstanding achievement in paleontological scientific illustration and naturalistic art”. Named after, and partly supported by, noted paleo art collector John J. Lanzendorf, the Lanzendorf Paleoart Prize is awarded each year in October by the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology.

The 2-Dimensional Art category of the Lanzendorf Prize was most recently awarded to the “Hell Creek” mural at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.

Created by Robert F. Walters, who I previously profiled here, and his partner, Tess Kissinger, with help from artist Laura Fields, the 92 ft long and 15 ft high (28 x 4.5 metre) mural depicts a scene from the end of the Cretaceous Period, just before the extinction of the non-avian dinosaurs. It is named for the Hell Creek Formation in South Dakota, where fossils of many of the species portrayed have been found.

You can read an article, Hell Creek Mural Wins Lanzendorf Prize, on Discovery News, and see the accompanying large image of the entire mural here.

You can also see images from the mural on the Walters & Kissinger website.

Walters and Kissinger head one of the worlds premier dinosaur art studios, as well as the more broad-based Walters & Kissinger Museum Illustration Studio. The prize comes just two years after they were awarded the 2007 Lanzendorf prize for the Morrison Foundation mural that is part of the same exhibit, and is also, at 180 ft x 15 ft (54 x 4.5 metres) the largest dinosaur mural in the world.

I’ve known Walters and Kissinger for a number of years, so I was privy to some of the additional challenges presented by the scale and scope of the mural in much more detail than usual.

Installed in the newly redesigned Dinosaurs in their Time installation of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, the mural was required to incorporate a number of species of animals and prehistoric plants that existed at the time in a single panoramic scene (paleo artists, in addition to the portrayal of prehistoric animals, often must serve as botanical artists as well).

The mural also had to work within the physical structure of the museum building and the layout of the exhibit design. Also, in a way perhaps analogous to the Renaissance artists who had to answer to the Church in terms of the specific and minute details of how a scene was to be portrayed, modern paleo artists answer to the rigorous analysis of the scientists who study the animals and plants to be portrayed.

The specifications of the Hell Creek mural, as outlined by the scientists working on the project, required not only specific plants and animals, but required that the animals reflect the skeleton mountings in the museum’s collection. In many cases these skeletons are mounted directly in front of the section of the mural showing that animal, and the painting must accommodate the skeleton, as well as physical models of plants, as though they were extensions of the mural, working together to create an illusionistic space for the visitor (image above, bottom).

In addition, the mural incorporates the latest scientific findings in terms of the probable physical appearance of the animals, something that is constantly changing as new discoveries are made. The triceratops (the familiar three-horned dinosaurs that are the stars of the mural) incorporate a skin texture interpreted from a fossil impression of triceratops skin discovered less than a year before. Likewise the oviraptorosaur, the animal with a beak and bony crest on it’s head in the middle image, incorporates feathers from research on an earlier oviraptorosaur find in China.

So in addition to working within the restrictions of scientific accuracy, paleo artists must also play detective, piecing together bits of knowledge from scattered sources to recreate the best possible vision of the animal.

The artists were able to incorporate some elements to surprise and delight, as well. Almost hidden in the foliage away from the more dramatic animals, are smaller creatures, like the avisaurus, a primitive bird with teeth that flies through the forest canopy just above and to the right of the triceratops, and the didelphodon, a badger-sized marsupial mammal moving through the underbrush, almost unnoticed at the right of the triceratops’ feet.

The late Cretaceous Period was a time when flowering plants came to prominence, and Walters told me that he took special delight in the portrayal of the group of edmontosaurs (the “duck-billed” dinosaurs to the left of the triceratops) in a field of flowers that resembled modern buttercups. Much of the other flora displayed is also recognizable as familiar modern plants that began to appear in that period.

Paleo artists have help, of course, in the reconstruction of extinct animals, working with the paleontologists who discover and study them, but even that has its limitations. The definition of paleontologist is one who studies ancient life, but not all paleontologists are anatomists, knowledgeable about the skeletal and muscular functioning of modern animals.

Having studied human anatomy in sessions at the medical college of Thomas Jefferson University while a student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Walters places a great deal of emphasis on accurate animal anatomy in his paleontological life reconstruction art.

The challenge, of course, was to take all of these considerations, scientific restrictions and requirements and mold them into a dynamic composition that immerses us in another time, in the orange glow of a sunset that presages the end of the reign of the dinosaurs.

So when artists think they are working within too many restrictions, they might consider the additional challenges in artistic fields where science is the salon jury.


One response to “The Hell Creek Mural”

  1. Wow! Thanks for the post. For anyone born before CGI these kind of images were what introduced dinosaurs, and work of this caliber insures that painting is still an influential media. I love the whole installation.