Dinosaur Art Images of a Prehistoric World

Douglas Henderson is probably the most important living paleoartist. Influenced by 19th-century landscape painting, he depicts a long-disappeared world. He tells SPIEGEL ONLINE about the stigma attached to his art -- and the trouble with ever-changing science.

Douglas Henderson

Interview Conducted By


SPIEGEL ONLINE: Mr. Henderson, as a paleoartist you exist between two communities: the scientific world and the art scene. How do they treat paleoart and its makers?

Douglas Henderson: The fine arts and the sciences are of different planets. Neither camp seems eager to welcome you and call you one of their own. Scientists see an association with the arts as something that diminishes academic standing, and I've gathered from comments of some science-oriented folks that they view artists' interest in illustrating dinosaurs as an invasion of their personal turf.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Do you experience a warmer welcome in the art scene?

Henderson: It is generally death to walk into a commercial art gallery on your own with a dinosaur illustration under your arm. Little distinction seems to be made in the art world between fantasy and a scientific illustration of Earth's history. And people who view fine art as an investment don't see paleoart as an asset.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Sounds tough…

Henderson: I once told someone that to be an illustrator, you had to be kind of dumb, meaning you had to be willingly blind to the work's context -- whatever the questions of money, its prospects, its reception or whatever craziness or ineptitude it might be delivered into. I've done most projects with earnest, inviting and talented people, so I don't mean to say it's all a hornet's nest.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Some of the most famous works by influential paleoartist Charles R. Knight were the result of his cooperation with paleontologist Edward Drinker Cope. Did you have a "Cope?"

Henderson: I worked with several paleontologists for a time -- and each contributed to what might be called a total Cope experience. I bumbled into John Horner's baby dinosaur discoveries, and insisted on doing images related to his current finds, and eventually the staff at the Museum of the Rockies decided the body of work might be useful and commissioned more. I worked with (paleontologist) Robert Long related to his interests in the Triassic, and the Petrified Forest National Park. I liked trying to represent the idea of complete communities of plants and animals within a variety of related landscapes. Most of my collection of scientific illustrations and book illustrations arose from working with paleontologists and the ideas and data they handed me.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And how do you see the role of paleoart yourself? What does it mean to you?

Henderson: Paleoillustration, as much as it is a form of storytelling, is a step-child of science. It presents a visual representation of scientific ideas to the general public.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: That makes you a kind of translator…

Henderson: Paleoart also is a personal attempt to come to understand these ideas and suggested realms for myself -- I've usually had to wade into the scientific material to begin working with it and appreciate the images that are conjured up. I came to drawing by walking into wild places with pencil and paper, and learned about visual language and composition in the pace and place of natural settings. These places always suggested an almost mysterious continuum with the distant past and I wondered how spectacular features of the landscape must have come and gone over geologic time. I've tried to bring something of this muse and these particular experiences of drawing to the often dry paleontological material I came to work with.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: A very artistic approach. How important is it to you that your pictures are perceived as scientifically valid or "right?"

Henderson: I try to do work that respects the science, though often it comes to respect a science that has since moved on. I did most of my small dinosaur illustrations before feathers came to be an accepted norm. New discoveries turn my work into fossil illustrations. I learned recently the plates were mounted backwards or too flat on aetosaurs -- and so everything I've done (featuring them) over the years is wrong. It can't be helped.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: And how do you cope with your work suddenly being shown to be false?

Henderson: There's nothing you can do but follow the general consensus of what is accurate or more likely. It's always nice to know the sky was probably blue, trees grew straight up and water ran downhill - those tenants in larger landscapes will always provide a trusted stage. If the images still work as artwork, I don't make too much of whether something is right or wrong, for my work or others.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Many of your pictures have an almost classic quality; they are reminiscent of English or German landscape painters.

Henderson: Once I began drawing landscapes, I was attracted to the works of 19th-century landscape painters -- including Thomas Moran, Albert Bierstadt, Frederick Church and William Turner, among others. I was especially interested in the role that field sketches played in their work and I made a concerted effort to follow their example for a few years, spending summers sketching in Yellowstone and especially the Sierra Nevada -- places where I enjoyed hiking. The drawings had a real influence on the finished illustration work I did years later.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: The dominant trend in paleoart is near-photorealism, often accomplished with the help of digital tools.

Henderson: I'm not really interested in photorealism or serious digital work. One reason being that I can't do it and another that I'm far more partial to a mechanical drawing approach, using simple tools: pencils, ink, watercolor, pastel, paper, etc. I suppose I associate working this way with the slow, sometimes careful studies I did in the field in grand places -- and it's an effort to preserve an emotional link to things done and seen.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: So do you not appreciate digital paleoart at all?

Henderson: Digital technology vastly increases storytelling potential. But it doesn't appeal to me -- it often seems to result in images that look too much alike, too perfect and outside of natural experience, sometimes cold, or cluttered. Though I have to say, in the hands of a craftsman, digital technology can make beautiful images. I realize I'm becoming the dinosaur now, but so be it.

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michelep 10/24/2013
1. optional
Nice article.
harry.haddad 10/24/2013
2. Such beautiful art...
This is such wondrous art....amazing how the new can recreate the old...
RUrz 10/24/2013
3. Well done!
Amazing job. Congrats. Images 4, 7 and 9 are fantastic.
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