Saturday, January 7, 2012

OFF-TOPIC: Mark Witton’s handy-dandy guide to making it as a palaeoartist

OR A most unexpected dose of possibly unsolicited, hopefully none-too-preachy advice

Not long ago I received an Email from ex-University of Portsmouth student Dominic Shaw asking for some pointers of how to get involved in palaeoartistry. As my reply got longer and longer, I wondered if anyone had ever published any general guidelines online as to how break into palaeoartistry and, to my surprise, I found nothing. Hence, I thought I could share my reply here – punctuated with a few pterosaur piccies to keep in with the décor of Pterosaur.Net – for all to see (reconstruction, above, shows Tupuxuara leonardii). Apologies to those understandably expecting something pterosaury from this post, and to my colleagues for abusing Pterosaur.Net’s status, but I figure this will reach a wider audience here than elsewhere, along with allowing free commentary below (something not afforded at other venues I regularly post in).

Before we begin though, a quick caveat. While I’ve had some success as a palaeoartist, my palaeoart has largely been done on the side of other employment. I’ve had an 18 month stint as a designer/sculptor with the UoP London pterosaur project and enjoyed brief periods in 2011 as a designer for the BBC’s upcoming Walking with Dinosaurs 3D movie, but I’ve never had to support myself for sustained periods with palaeoart commissions. Please bear this in mind as you read the words below: others may paint a very different picture of the palaeoart industry to my own. The points made here aren’t given in any particular order.

1. Develop a portfolio, and get it online

In this day and age, if you don’t own a website as a creative professional, you may as well not exist. Deviantart is probably the best first step: a limited service is free and it’s designed for viewing artwork, so it’s a good place to start building up a portfolio and start making a splash. Make sure your palaeoart work is kept distinct from anything else you do: there’s nothing wrong with having other work on the same site, but you want to make it easy for palaeoart aficionados to home in on their target.

Eventually, it’s probably worth transferring your portfolio to your own personal webspace. Make it stylish, but let people enjoy it in their own time: flashy movies of your portfolio seem like a good idea, but they tend to be more frustrating than dynamic. Visitors are there to see your work, after all, and having it whizz past while some ‘atmospheric’ music plays (which probably just makes most people turn the volume knob down) means your audience cannot appreciate what they logged on to see. Watermarks, restricted image resolutions or other means of blocking downloads are a much better way to showcase your work without it being ripped off.

2. Get in with the community

Perhaps one of the most important things you can do as an aspiring palaeoartist is to become integrated with the internet palaeocommunity. A truly international institution, it’s a terrific place where well-known professionals converse and rub shoulders with amateurs of all levels. As someone trying to get their work noticed, you need to get involved with it. Why not start a blog about your work, and keep visitors turning up with regular updates? To my mind, an ‘in progress’ shot of a painting or sculpture is the perfect excuse for a blog and invites discussion and advice from others about aspects of the reconstruction. Use forums like the Dinosaur Mailing List or ARTEvolved to keep people informed with what you’re up to. That way, when someone has an image in mind to be drawn, your work will be fresh in their mind. This, ultimately, is what you want: when a palaeontologist needs a reconstruction of species X or landscape Y for whatever reason, you want to be the guy they consider as the only person for that job.

Plus, these sites are great ways to directly talk to experts about any aspect of a reconstruction you’re having problems with (the Ask a Biologist website may also be of use in this regard) and keep up to date with the latest discoveries. Speaking of which…

3. Keep up to date with the latest discoveries, and do your homework

Others may disagree, but I think there’s definitely a ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ aspect to palaeoart. Your work should reflect the most up to date thoughts on the appearance and habits of whatever organism you’re depicting. If it doesn’t, it’s incorrect relative to our knowledge of that time. One of my favourite examples of glaringly inaccurate palaeoart is not a vertebrate at all, but stalked crinoids. These chaps, which should be ten-a-penny in some scenes of Mesozoic seas, are always shown with their brachials arranged in a cup-shape, waiting for detritus to fall from the seas above. The majority of modern stalked crinoids, by contrast, do quite the opposite when feeding, angling their calyx into currents with their arms fanning out behind them. Despite being known for decades (Macruder and Meyer 1973), this rather glaring error has yet to filter out of mainstream palaeoart. As such, we could most crinoid reconstructions as ‘incorrect’ with respect to our current knowledge of rheophilic crinoids*. Likewise, there is little excuse for getting the proportions of well-known species wrong, drawing soft-tissues volumes that could not fit their skeleton , depicting the wrong form of integument or, essentially, contradicting things that we have considerable evidence for. Learn and understand anatomy from modern animals (I particularly endorse this book in this regard) and apply it appropriately to fossil species: the trained eye can easily spot palaeoartists who appreciate relationships between skeletons and soft-tissues and those who’re making it up on the fly. It’s important that you do this to be taken seriously by the scientists you may one day be working with: they want to know that you’re keen on reconstructing extinct critters with as much accuracy as they are with their science. (Below: not a pterosaur)

*A get-out clause, I suppose, could be that a minority of modern stalked crinoids do feed in the ‘classic’ pose. Still, the fact that hardly any crinoids in palaeoart behave like the majority of extant crinoids is a bit of an oversight. Hmm… best stop talking about crinoids before I get lynched by my tetrapodophile colleagues.

4. Be your own PR agent

If the sniff of an opportunity wafts past your nose for high-profile or paid work, make sure you get an offer of your services in. Work is hard to come by in palaeoartistry (see below), so you want to grab opportunities with both hands if they’re available. The only reason I ended up working on Walking with Dinosaurs 3D is because, when approached as a consultant for their pterosaurs, I said I can also draw pretty pictures and was available for hire if they needed me. There’s obviously a need for tact in your approach to this (you don’t want to annoy any potential employers or commissioners) but be sure to seize any opportunities that come your way.

5. Go to conferences, and pimp yourself out

Palaeo conferences are terrific: day after day of interesting talks, the chance to catch up with rarely seen friends, a plethora of beer and, most importantly, the chance to meet lots of new contacts at the same time. Whatever aspect of palaeo you’re into, there’s a conference for you somewhere. Most palaeoartists, I suspect, are more interested in vertebrates than invertebrate fossils, so dates for SVPCA (held annually and almost exclusively in Britain) and SVP (annually and almost exclusively in the US) are dates to pop into your diaries. Take a portfolio of work along and show yourself off a little. Have some business cards made up (it doesn’t cost much if you design them yourself: I had mine printed for around £15) and distribute them accordingly. Talk to scientists about their work and, if they’re interested, offer your services for a PR image or whatever. Again, be tactful - be sure not to push yourself too hard on potentially interested parties (conferences are busy places: if someone looks distracted and busy, choose another time) – but make the most of these rare chances to meet people who you may one day be working with. Don’t forget: you can make much more of an impression in person than you can as a faceless Email.

UPDATE: 07/01/12: Having never done it myself, it slipped my mind that a number of palaeoartists use conferences to showcase and sell their work. Most palaeoartists I can think of that do this are, admittedly, fairly big names, but this may not necessarily mean relative newcomers are unwelcome or unable to have their own stalls. This may be a really worthwhile pursuit if you're looking to make it big: it provides an opporunity for people to introduce themselves to your cataglogue without it being pushed directly to them, and nothing says 'I've arrived' more than having your own little piece of real estate at a big international conference. In addition, these stalls are a great opportunity to track down and ask advice from other palaeoartists, who are nothing but friendly in my experience.

6. Be unique

A good way to get some attention is to reconstruct some critters that the rest of the world ignores. Lovely as they are, there are probably enough pictures of Tyrannosaurus and Velociraptor now that, laid end to end, they’d stretch to the Moon and back. Other animals - even well-known beasties within charismatic clades like Dinosauria – are frustratingly neglected. Fill your portfolio with good restorations of ignored critters (many of which do cool things that would make for ace pictures: where are all the images of burrowing ornithischians, head-butting schizotherines or virtually anything outside of the Mesozoic?) and you may stand out from the crowd of artists presenting the umpteenth picture of theropod X attacking dinosaur Y.

Of course, this is something of a double edged sword: there are probably so many images of certain animals because some critters are very popular. Perhaps, then, it may be good to have a few well-known critters scattered through your portfolio as well: it’ll keep the masses happy and, more importantly, has the benefit of web surfers being more likely to pick up your artwork. Far more people will stumble across your site by Googling ‘Camarasaurus’ than ‘Baculites’. Ultimately, an increase in web traffic can’t damage your profile.

Additionally, let yourself develop your own distinctive style: don’t merely imitate others or, even worse, copy them outright. I think this can take some years to do (I notice that my own style has changed a lot over the years – for the better, I reckon - judge for yourself with the reconstructions of Tupandactylus, above) but it’s worth it: your work will stand out a lot more and be recognisable even without reading your name scrawled at the bottom.

7. Make sure you’re credited

It sounds obvious, but politely insist that whoever displays your work makes it clear who the artist is. A lot of palaeoart is commissioned for press work, and successful press releases can run and run: this is a great opportunity for your name to be seen and generate more buzz about your work. Most folks are very happy to whack your name next to an image, save for newspapers. It’s all ‘an artist’s reconstruction of so-and-so’ instead of the artists actual name. Still, there’s no point putting your work out there to attract attention if people don’t know who drew it, so make sure it’s clear that it belongs to you.

8. Do not quit your day job, and be aware that you may never be able to

Professional and amateur palaeonerds surround ourselves with palaeoart: it’s plastered on our office walls, throughout the books in our libraries, on computer desktop backgrounds and wherever our better halves will let us have it around the house. This gives the impression that the market for this stuff must be lucrative, but the truth is quite the opposite. The number of employers who can pay reasonably for good palaeoart (primarily some museums, a minority of magazines and books, some film makers) is tiny compared to the number of people who could supply it. The internet has revealed just how many excellent palaeoartists there are around the world, and the market is being increasingly diluted with easily contactable talent. For an idea of your competition, take a look at Wikipedia’s list of palaeoartists working nowadays: it’s huge. With such a large amount of competition, it’s going to be a while before you land enough commissions to stand out from the crowd and start demanding the big bucks that you can make an honest living off, and even longer if you’re a grown up with dependents and financial obligations.

Finally, and at the risk of sounding overly negative, it’s worth considering that the career of dedicated palaeoartist may be on its way out. A heated exchange on the Dinosaur Mailing List in 2011 hinted at this: established professionals stated that the number of modern palaeoartists working for lower wages was seriously undermining their livelihoods. The opinion of some folks in this discussion was that a lot of modern palaeoart is done by kids working in their parent’s basements, not functioning adults with mortgages and families, and that said children should either charge sensible money (which is difficult for young upstarts to do without a reputation to barter with) or quit professional palaeoart altogether.

Such an attitude, though, does not consider that palaeoart may not be the sole livelihood of many modern practitioners, meaning they can afford to take the financial hit of a low-cost commission. After all, it’s extremely flattering and exciting to be asked to reconstruct a new taxon or an exciting new behavioural hypothesis, and why should these artists not be allowed that opportunity? It’s not the 1990s any more: excellent palaeoart is no-longer synonymous with Sibbick, Paul, Henderson and a smattering of others in the way it was two decades ago. There’s a world of artists, each with their own style and expertise, that are slowly dispersing the contents of the palaeoart moneypot far and wide, which ultimately means a less reliable income for each individual. This is not to say that it’s not worth chasing the ambition of being a professional, dedicated palaeoartist, but you will be in a very lucky, and very tiny, minority if you achieve that goal. The take-home message here, then, is that aspiring palaeoartists, and perhaps palaeoartists in general, have to be realistic about the scant nature of our work in our field.

UPDATE: 07/01/12
9. Let’s talk money

The sticky topic of money is one that palaeoartists are a little cagey about: I suppose people are afraid of giving their costs away for fear of being undercut by others. It’s one that we should discuss a little more openly, however, to ensure that we’re being treated fairly by commissioners. So, when should you start charging, and how much? I don’t think there’s a straight answer to either of those. For reasons mentioned above, a new artist may not be able to charge anything of note: until you have something of a reputation, it may be better to think of establishing yourself than putting people off with high price tags for your unproven, unknown art. Some folks will, no doubt, scoff at this idea, but it’s no different from being in a band: you have to do a lot of free or poorly-paid gigs before there’s enough buzz about your show to start demanding higher fees.

Perhaps the time to start charging is when requests for your work start appearing frequently (and your time, therefore, is increasingly valuable to others), and definitely when you’re approached by Big Names with large amounts of funding. These, to my mind, includes film companies, larger magazines and publishing houses, and perhaps large research labs. While the latter may irk some – palaeontological science is hardly overfunded even in the best instances – I’m sure the scientists working in these labs appreciate that budding artists need to earn a living too, and, though they’re basically being paid for drawing a pretty picture (and probably having a ball doing it), they’re still executing a piece of work that can represent a substantial time investment, and should be reimbursed (for the record, I’ve a number of commissions from research labs and often been offered money before asking for any). In all instances, once you’re a known name, do not be afraid to ask for money: sometimes bringing this issue up yourself is the only way you’ll get paid. Money may not be the deal-clincher in your decision to take on a commission (it’s not for me, for one) but it’s good to ensure that you’re financially rewarded where possible.

Still, this doesn’t answer the big question: how much can you expect to make as a palaeoartist? There’s a lot to consider here, which means there may not be a straightforward answer for many scenarios. Are you merely being asked for the right to print an older image, or is the commission entirely new? How complex is the piece (considering backgrounds, number of taxa and individuals, use of colour, size etc.)? What is the timeframe you’ve got to work with? Importantly, are you retaining the copyright to the work? And where are you in your career? Is your name established yet? The bigger your name, the larger your price tag can be. As someone with perhaps some reputation as an artist (though still several country miles from the big leagues), my rough guide for imagery use and commissions is thus. The right to print an image in a profitable magazine should fetch you at least £100 – 200, the exact cost really depending on who’s asking you. If the magazine is a tiny one with small circulation, you may have to forgo any money at all. In an ideal world, the price of new commissions should fetch you many hundreds of pounds at least, and thousands if the work is particularly large, complicated or you’re surrendering your copyright with the work. The latter point is an important one: once the copyright has left your hands, that image will never make you any money again. Generally speaking, I suggest retaining the copyright to your work unless you have no choice: a successful press release image can turn into a little money spinner if popular, and you also get more control over what your work is associated with. Because I’ve never made a sculpture to order, I’ll refrain from commenting on their costings. In all instances, be friendly, sympathetic but assertive in your negotiations for money: you may be doing your hobby in exchange for cash, but that doesn’t give people a right to take you for granted.


  • Macurda, D. B. and Meyer, D. L. 1974. Feeding posture of modern stalked crinoids. Nature, 247, 394-396.


  1. An excellent post filled with great advice!

    Also thanks for the shout out to ART Evolved ;)

    What are your thoughts on doing art for free?

    I personally only see myself doing most of my palaeo-art as voluntary work and that the paying market is a very limited one indeed. The majority of scientists and grad students I talk to about reconstructions can't even dream of paying for a commission (despite their institute or supervisor wanting a press release for their findings). So bascially they seek voluntary artistic help...

    I don't mind doing my work for free though, as I have based my on livelihood the "stable" job of teaching, and so palaeo-art is just my hobby. I'd be doing it anyways, and so if it gets published bonus. Also as I hold science education to be critical in the modern era I don't mind doing I bit to help out. I volunteer at museums and zoos doing it anyways.

    However, what does a trained palaeontologist and semi professional palaeoartists such as yourself think of this budding trend of free art in the palaeoart world?

  2. Fantastic article, and good to hear from you again!
    Its also worth noting that it's never been easier to make a living as an illustrator, animator, comic-artist, etc. And palaeo-illustration can complement that work nicely. So, while not quitting the day job is sound advice, you can also make your day job look suspiciously compatible with your geek alter-ego.

  3. Traumador, good question. To me (as a writer, not an artist) it depends on who you do it for. If it were a small regional museum that had trouble keeping its head up, I would much prefer them having freely supplied but good reconstructions than misinforming the public with outdated ones. But I could imagine your fellow artists being slightly mift if you were to volunteer your services for free to an outfit like Scientific American, who would otherwise have paid good money.

    David Maas' comment relate to something which has amazed me for some time. Whereas other scientific illustrators do all sorts of illustrations and often individual artwork as well, many paleo-artists seem to be almost exclusively engaged in paleo-art. One might explain that keeping up with the latest insights requires a lot of work (and it does), but that does not explain how the paleo-art community can be so much more involved in the science part than, for instance, medical illustrators are in medicine. The paleo community is a welcoming one, in general. The danger is that the artist may spend too much time in discussions and work that aren't really financially worth his while.

  4. Chaps,

    Thanks for the comments.

    Traumador: I'm with you on that one, basically. I've done free artwork for individuals who simply can't afford to pay because they're working with tiny grants (it's worth making it clear that many research grants aren't huge: they may be as little as the cost of an airfare) or no funding at all, so they'd be paying me out of their own pockets if I demanded money. In all liklihood, asking for a large salery in such instances would mean losing the commission, which would then go to someone else doing it for free anyway. Hence, where no money is available at all, I'm happy with retaining my copyright (as noted above, that can pay the cost for a picture if picked up by popular science organs) and, if they're feeling generous, a pint of beer to say thank you.

  5. Whoops: forgot to mention that a more detailed discussion of payment and money is now included (section 9). Some of Traumador's questions may be answered in there, too.

  6. As always with topics like this, the mildly out-dated overview of contracts, payment and all those comissiony things is a valuable read:
    Thanks to Tess Kissinger (I believe) for compiling this, and to all the individual authors.

    I say outdated because digital workflows are changing some of the specifics of how an artist can budget and deliver a job, and where the value lies. When I budget illustration jobs, I differentiate between assets and one-offs, assets being investments in things that I'll be able to use again in the future. Animation jobs take this to an extreme.

    In terms of dinosaurs, one presentation-quality illustration is a massive investment (actually, afte 1 1/2 years, I've yet to get this far.) If one contract pays only half of this expenditure, I'm still happy to do it... my next job re-uses large parts of this effort. The third job turns into profit. And suddenly, I'll be competitive with prices that seem like dumping prices to my guaoche and acrylic colleagues. I wont have a painting to sell, but I will be able to print sculptures ad infitum, ala david krentz.

    So - pricing has gotten more complicated than previous portrayals would indicate.

    To express this as advice in keeping with your article: there are huge opportunities for palaeo-animations, palaeo-games and palaeo-content presented in ways that tablets and eBooks make possible. Don't run after the bandwagon if you can build up your own.

  7. Thanks for that, David: really insightful, and makes a really good point about the current state of palaeoart. Whereas professional palaeoart has classically only open to those with the right equipment (and years of training and experience) and a huge library of dead-tree papers, the digital revolution has brought those libraries and the means of producing high quality work into the hands of us all. The required publications necessary for many palaeoartistic endevours can now be found for free and, for a small sum of money, a Wacom tablet and Photoshop allows us to create masterpieces without the need for an expensive studio. In this respect, this digital age has not only brought palaeoartists together with online forums and networks, but actually allows more of us to be competative palaeoartists in the first place.

  8. This is, in fact, a very good number of posts I must say....nice how nonprofessional independent artists these days are being so unique in their styles.

  9. If the pterosaurs will permit, a reason crinoids would be protrayed looking differently than in that pic above is that their fossils rarely depict that posture but usually have them with the arms held together as if they're reacting to a threat like whatever killed them. The only ones I've seen that show the crinoid in the spread out 'daisy' like posture are some that I've seen recently from Bolivia. Not sure why they're preserved that way.

    So, the paleoartists are likely simply accurately portraying what they see in the fossils. When a whole animal is preserved articulated and pretty much undistorted, it's easy to assume that is its normal life posture. Vertebrate paleo does't feature many such fossils but they're dead common in crinoids and trilobites.

  10. Not sure I agree with you there: articulated vertebrate fossils are preserved in all manner of postures dependent on specific taphonomic histories. Palaeoartists don't just copy those: if they did, we'd have some pretty surreal bits of artwork! Moreover, the postures of some fossil animals (including pterosaurs, a relevant example here) have been the subject of considerable debate despite a plethora of articulated specimens. For vertebrates, it's well established that some postures shown in preservation were not common - or even possible - in life. Just because lots of crinoids are preserved with their highly flexible brachials spreading out above the calyx means little for their feeding habits: we know better than that now, and have done for nearly 40 years.

    Because observations on modern stalked crinoids incontrovertibly show their feeding methods, there's far less excuse for drawing filtering crinoids incorrectly than there is, for instance, reconstructing a stegosaur with splayed forelimbs. Unlike crinoids, there's no stegosaurs around today to demonstrate their postures, so we have to work from (often controversial) hypotheses of their stance. The same applies to most exotic fossil species, but not for stalked crinoids: palaeoartists just have to copy the living ones. In a nutshell, there's no excuse for getting them wrong nowadays, in my reckoning.

    Incidentally, those into crinoids and/or palaeoart may find the following paper of interest.

    Donovan, S.K. 2011: The poorly illustrated crinoid. Lethaia, DOI: 10.1111⁄ j.1502-

  11. Get off my lawn you kids!!!

    ...I mean, excellent post Mark.

  12. is it possible something like the above still exist in the world today?
    and most importantly if it's all real or just fiction?
    truly tragic if this all a mere story, our grandchildren can only hear stories about it over without being able to see and find out the amazing animals such Harga BlackBerry Terbaru