Dinosaurs get all the attention in paleo art, and not surprisingly so. What else is so dramatic and visually arresting? But paleontological artists deal with many other aspects of recreating the appearance of prehistoric life.
There are numerous other prehistoric animals that preceded, followed or co-existed with the dinosaurs. (The main animal in the image above, rutidon lithodendrorum, is not a dinosaur but a phytosaur, a group of animals that shared a common ancestor with modern crocodiles.) In addition, most prehistoric animals that are recreated in scientific illustrations need to be portrayed in relationship to their environment. That requires a painstaking recreation of prehistoric landscapes and ancient plants.
On top of scientific accuracy and the challenge of representing the animals and plants in a way that makes their unique characteristics clear to the viewer, scientific and nature artists face the same challenges as other other artists: creating a successful composition, issues of draughtsmanship and rendering, controlling light and shade and blending the disparate elements into a unified whole.
Paleo artist Douglas Henderson is so good at this that I often think of his illustrations as beautifully rendered landscapes that happen to have prehistoric animals in them. I think Henderson himself must feel somewhat that way. He started out drawing landscapes and his scientific illustrations have compositions that emphasize putting the animals in relationship with their surroundings, often portraying them as relatively small in the landscape. This is actually a more realistic view than the artificial compositions that focus on the animals and feature a little bit of the environment as background.
Henderson does beautiful color work, but what I find particularly appealing are his black and white illustrations. There is no information about techniques on the site, (“The art of Paleo Illustration” section has been “under construction” for several years.), but I assume the black and white illustrations are done in charcoal because of their rich, deep blacks and soft gray tones. His compositions often feature silhouetted foreground elements, like tree trunks or fallen logs, as a framing device for the animals and primary landscape area, further emphasizing that the animals are in the landscape, not just in front of it. This approach also allows him to utilize a very broad range of tones in the drawings.
Henderson’s work appears in museums across the country and he has illustrated or contributed to numerous books on prehistoric life.