The Paleontology of Chris Wildrick Is Overrated: Artist Interviews: John Sibbick, 2007
Email interview with John Sibbick, the acclaimed paleo-artist who has worked with National Geographic, the BBC, and the National History Museum in London, as well as being the illustrator on many books such as The Illustrated Book of Dinosaurs and The Evolution and Extinction of Dinosaurs.
Mr. Sibbick answered Chris’ questions by email over a period of a few weeks. He was EXTREMELY patient and generous with his replies.
PERSONAL HISTORY AND THOUGHTS
Q. At what age did you first become interested in dinosaurs?
A. I was a very young kid, it was when I learnt to read. Also at the same time we visited London and the Natural History Museum as a family to see the fossil collections, which fascinated me to such a degree that I still get goose bumps thinking about it now. Naturally, the sheer size of the dinosaur skeletons were pretty overwhelming and I started collecting postcards and small affordable books on the subject of fossils in general, usually illustrated by UK illustrators Neave Parker, and Maurice Wilson- and usually in black and white in those days.
Q. At what period in your life were you most interested in dinosaurs?
A. There has been no change in my interest in the subject, only in the way I respond to it – At the beginning it was just a thrill to learn about astronomy, the Earth, evolution – life before humans. I loved books and read all I could, and did a project on evolution for school in my spare time. Now I have to concentrate on the detail and work out how to attract others to the subject in print, exhibitions, etc. It is more calculated and focused, but still a fun, learning experience, as a lot more research and discoveries are being made now than in the past
Q. Were you an only child?
A. No, I have a sister – a year older than me.
Q. What is your level of interest in dinosaurs, from 1-5, with 1 being totally disinterested and 5 being totally head over heels about dinosaurs?
A. 5 – Equally for the whole fossil record, including dinosaurs.
Q. Why do you think dinosaurs are so popular?
A. Mostly because they are beyond reach – believable but not quite – mythic, but actually existed. They are safely in the past and are conveniently scary in a wholesome way. Their size seems unnatural and dangerous, and a lot of them are monstrous in appearance, some exotic and ornate. Basically fascinating to ponder on…
Q. Through what sources do you think most people get exposed to dinosaurs? (Books, movies, TV, games, museums, comic books, internet, plays, toys, food, amusement parks, etc.)
A. From my conversations with people outside the business, I can only presume that it is through their children, their books, games, movies, toys, etc. When the subject comes up at an exhibition of mine or meeting socially, the response is nearly always, ‘my children would love to see your work or talk to you about dinosaurs’ – swiftly dismissing the danger of having to have an opinion themselves. So I think that dinosaurs are in the popular culture, especially where children may spend money.
Q. What do you look for when you look at other people’s dinosaur art?
A. I know that the best work is instantly obvious – beautiful draughtsmanship, a great composition [not necessarily dramatic] and a confidence that indicates that the illustrator knows a lot more about his subject than he/she is showing, and the research for the work is not everywhere on show. Most animals give off a smell, so a sense of proximity, a presence is a nice touch, and is most possible in CGI where you can give sense of bulk and weight in the extra dimension of movement. It is really all about making the subject believable.
Q. What do you think the general public looks for when they look at dinosaur art?
A. Who knows? They are fascinated by detail, the time it takes to do, how I go about reconstructing them, what we know about skin colour, and behaviour – the assumption being that all this is buried in the rocks, along with a manual on how to work it all out. I think that with all representational work the viewer likes to be drawn in to the subject and have an experience they had not expected – and maybe even learn something on the way.
Q. What do you think scientists look for when they look at dinosaur art?
A. If the dinosaur art is being commissioned by the scientist, then the artwork should reflect the long road to publication, the painstaking restoration involved, the drama of a new discovery, the prestige of new data made available and a great indication that the dinosaur subject will upstage and overturn previous theories and scenarios. The main thing to the scientist is that the restoration is accurate, hopefully dramatic and illustrates the main points of his research and interpretation of the fossil material, and hopefully may become a logo for his publishing career. As you would expect scientists vary greatly and cannot be generalised in any way…
Q. Do you see any trends in the way people are treating dinosaurs in the visual arts today, in contrast to, say, 5 or 10 or 25 years ago, such as making them more or less illusionistic, more or less violent, more or less educational, more or less anthropomorphic, etc.?
A. I think the obvious trend visually is that dinosaurs are beginning to be portrayed in the same way as wildlife art – realistic environments, a good sense of ambient lighting [and not the overly dramatic cinematic scenarios] and more natural compositions devoid of confrontation – Animals going about their business. This is all very well but freelance illustrators are not always given the freedom to work in their own way. Publishers can approach an artist with the text written, the book laid out, and the space for the pictures ready to be filled and compromise comes into play. The balance is to have your own voice amidst the commercial work on offer, as well as producing original ideas in personal projects.
Q. Why are you interested in dinosaurs?
A. Dinosaurs were hugely successful contrary to the cliche, and lived for a span of about 165 million years, compared to humans’ 6-7 million. They evolved into many groups, and grew to the extremes of weight and size, and developed into some of the most bizarre looking creatures imaginable. To us they are a little unreachable…..you can build a picture from bones, sometimes skin texture and animal traces, like trackways, faeces, and nests. You can reconstruct the skeleton and construct lifestyles and behaviours from them…..but still not imagine them standing on your lawn – They come from another place.
Q. Why are you interested in illustrating dinosaurs?
A. I illustrate them for the above reasons, plus I can make a modest income from them, I have fun and enjoy the process, so why wouldn’t I?
Q. Your work obviously holds scientific accuracy in high regard. What specific things do you focus on in trying to be accurate, and to communicate that accuracy? Are there any areas where you feel you have more room for invention without sacrificing the overall effect of accuracy?
A. I start listing all the things we know or have decided we think we know. Scientific accuracy is paramount – we need to know what holds the beast up – the skeleton, the muscles, which give it shape, and which can be reconstructed by the muscle attachment scars on the bones. If the skeleton is incomplete, perhaps the missing elements can be compared to similar related species. If you have one of each limb, pelvic and shoulder girdles, you can duplicate a mirror image of the missing pieces. With the muscles you have a shape and can hopefully work out the stance and walking pattern, and maybe the weight and speed of walking. With trackways this can be confirmed, and can also add clues to behaviour – multiple parallel footprints could hint at social grouping and migratory habits. You may be lucky to have traces of skin but will never know the colour or pattern – that is guesswork and artistic license. Armoured spikes and horns had a horny covering adding up to 25% to the size and were equally likely to be for display as a defense from attack, and may have been brightly coloured, like a bird’s beak made of keratin. The sequence of reconstruction is a build up of data, like a forensic enquiry – a body and maybe a possible cause of death, like traces of damage to a limb from an attack or scarring, indicating disease. It could have been an old specimen or was drowned in a flash flood. These symptoms could be a scenario for a painting. When the facts run out you get guesswork, and this is where you invent – colour, skin pattern, a dramatic cause of death, and bad behaviour.
Q. What drives your artistic style other than scientific accuracy?
A. Working the animal out is one thing, making an interesting image is another. Quite often you can be limited by the shape of the area you have to fill, – on a page or in a case in a museum. You sometimes can be asked to paint the animal in the death position, giving you little dramatic license. Apart from accuracy you need to art direct the scene – the viewpoint, is it low down to emphasise size, or flying over the action to emphasise the environment. Maybe you play around with lighting – boiling sun, mist, or an impending storm all give you different elements of drama. The balance of the picture can be radically altered by the composition – where is the eye drawn to first, strong diagonals for drama, or calming open horizons. The driving point of any reconstruction is what am I trying to say: Is it merely, look at the animal, or this is where and how it lived. Maybe you want to say: this is maybe what it did and why, and who it did it with. For this you can use as little or as much theatre as you want, after all you hold the artistic licence.
Q. What leads you to make your color and pattern choices for dinosaurs’ skin?
A. Colour can be a real nuisance…mono is a lot easier. The brief may demand colour to demonstrate a theory – perhaps male display, camouflage or disruptive patterns. All you can do is consult living animals to see how nature works. If the dinosaur is feathered and bird like, look at birds, and if the subject is a plant eater and vulnerable to attack you research how nature provides patterns that obscure the body outline, or dazzle the predator during a chase. It is 90% about what you can glean from living creatures and environments and 10% design.
Q. How and why do you choose a particular dinosaur’s posture?
A. Posture is worked out by the size and shape of the muscles and how they attach to the bones and the general shape of the animal indicates the possibilities and limitations of movement. The personality is indicated by visual clues of the lifestyle: Most plant eaters are four legged and if they have long necks and tails it is unlikely that they could vary their mode of standing and walking too much, perhaps rearing up onto back legs to defend themselves or feed on higher plants. To dramatise this scenario you can show different personalities by changing the viewpoint, i.e. a scene of a large sauropod dinosaur feeding from a tree can be shown from a tree top vantage point, where you emphasise the head and neck showing a calm grazing animal spending hours filling its belly by moving to one tree after another. The same scene from ground level with raised dust, great branches crashing down, massive limbs passing close by with the head hidden in the foliage indicates a threat from a monster. A meat eater is easier to show personality as it is more aggressively active and the posture is more dramatic – usually bipedal, with the centre of gravity down through the hips it can be tracking with head low, or sniffing the air by raising its head, running, jumping, and crouching over the victim. The dinosaur has no personality but the way it holds and uses the body indicates purpose and intent – The viewer can be manipulated to react to the drama by the position and attitude of the dinosaur, how it can be cropped close to make fear and entrapment more heightened or whether the eyes make contact with the viewer. The posture can be the same, but different viewpoints can change the dinosaur from a hungry mother T rex looking for a meal or a crazed killer out to get you.
Q. Do you believe you endow your dinosaurs with personalities?
A. I try not to…As above, the personality or character is perceived by how you display them. We as the viewer seem to be programmed to need human characteristics for animals and need to believe that aggression means brave, or frightening or nasty and running away is cowardly, fearful or pitiful. In the end it is dog eat dog and animals can’t talk themselves out of a situation so they react. In some modern animal communities you have dominant males and females which may change behaviour within the group, and this could also relate to some dinosaurs, but I think in a more primitive way.
Q. Are you consistent in your depiction of a particular species from book to book?
A. I hope so, but reassessing colour or pattern etc. is valid if you need to demonstrate a point or you need to experiment further…Also over the years you may just change your mind!
Q. Regarding My Favorite Dinosaurs, how did you choose which dinosaurs to include in the book?
A. The publisher approached me for the opportunity to produce a book, as a showcase for my work – They had done the same with other artists…After many months and different ideas being rejected, they came up with MFD and went ahead, choosing images from the many samples I had sent them. So I had little input in the selection and had no contact with the author. But if it stimulates young readers to ask questions and read further then the book was well worth doing.
Q. What scientific and artistic sources do you use for your illustrations? Do you have people you work with over and over, or do you seek out new specialists for each project? Do they advise you on specific illustrations or models, do you communicate with them on a regular informal basis to talk about what’s going on in the field or to get ideas for projects?
A. The simple answer is everything available….But this does depend on the project: For books, magazine work, TV and museum projects, I may have a consultant on board well before I’m involved. If I’m lucky it may be the person who found the evidence at the fossil site, and has maybe written and published the paper and is very personally involved. In this case I am a brush for hire, chosen I presume because they like my work and appear to know what I’m doing. I will be illustrating and reconstructing his work, his theories, and will be totally influenced by him/her [mostly him].
Sometimes there may be 3 or 4 expert consultants, for example The National Geographic Magazine likes a good cross section of opinions so that with a broad subject like dinosaur behaviour, it is not biased one way or the other and all get their voices heard. For my own projects I read the papers and articles and absorb the general background noise of the subject in the scientific press. I will begin drawing and working out the anatomy in sketch form and contact expert advise and information from scientists connected with the subject, or opinionated experts who will discuss the drawings as I produce them. Over the years one builds up a relationship with paleontologists whom I have worked with and who are willing to help. I don’t pay for advice but they know that I would be willing to produce drawings for their projects for fairly meagre fees! They may mention other illustrations or models in circulation to help compare with what they want to say in a reconstruction.
At a certain stage I may make a small model to work out the animal’s shape from all angles and photograph it in different light effects, to help work with the composition. From this I will produce more detailed drawings until I am happy with the result before I start painting.
For subjects that I am less knowledgeable about – new dinosaur types, marine invertebrates, plants, and early reptiles for example, the process is much more intense and will take much longer, but can be far more satisfying. The learning curve is much steeper…
I don’t have regular get-togethers with scientists to discuss new stuff as time is money and they are usually out in the field in remote places, but contact can be maintained if I need information.
Because I run my own picture library for hire on my website, http://www.johnsibbick.com, I become very aware of subjects that I need to cover for my own projects, – in fact I feel that I haven’t scratched the surface. My interests go beyond the mesozoic period of the dinosaurs, and some areas I have not looked at yet!
Now with the internet age, information is easily available and there can be a temptation to rely on the data found there, too much. But in the end there are few short cuts and no ultimate truths, as theories can be wiped out by the latest discovery and the new look can be reversed, as in the recent muscular ‘mummified’ Edmontosaur – will this mean that T rex is no longer the slim, beautifully honed specimen, or more like a weighty version similar to the 1950’s model?