Lines and Colors art blog

Zdeněk Burian

Zdenek Burian
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).


7 responses to “Zdeněk Burian”

  1. Thanks for putting a name — ZdenÄ›k Burian — to these iconic paintings I remember from my youth. Beautiful work from an artistic standpoint, and I love the vintage “classic” dinosaur look.

  2. I thought you might be interested in these old dinosaur images I put up on Flickr:

    1. Wow, thanks, Norman, these are great!

      For the benefit of other readers, I’ll point out that the link Norman has posted is to a treasure trove of older dinosaur paintings, illustrations and book covers, including some by Burian.

      Readers may also want to check out Norman Felchle’s web site, which includes galleries of his character design, concept art, comics and illustrations; not to mention a gallery of his own very cool dinosaur drawings.

  3. Damian Waller Avatar
    Damian Waller

    allways loved this guys work! I was wondering if anyone knew if he did artwork for arthur conan doyles “The Lost World”.There was a great book in my library back in the 70’s with a scene of a pteradactyl stealing a meal from a campsite in the amazon. Can’t find the artwork anywhere!

  4. @Damian

    Two pictures of Burian for Doyles “The Lost World” are published in the 1961 “Prehistoric Reptiles and Birds” by Josef Augusta, again displayed in Peter Wellhofers Encyclopedia of Pterosaurs from 1991.
    Moreover, pictures can be seen here:

  5. caroline peterson Avatar
    caroline peterson

    i love Znenek’s paintings and I’ve been looking all over for prints of his work. Does anyone know where i could perches a print of the terror birds that are shown on this page, or the one with two mammoths in a fall like setting called “mammuthus primigenius fraasi”?
    (i think)

  6. Burian’s work certainly formed my first impression of pre-history. His work was so exciting to me as a youth. It was the first thing to inspire me to draw. As jp said above, it is wonderful to be able to put a name to his wonderous body of work. Betty