Palaeoart is the artistic interpretation of prehistoric animals and environments based on the fossil record. It is an increasingly complex and challenging art form. As new palaeontological discoveries are made, our view of the world in the deep past changes. Often, through scientific palaeo illustration—whether for a life-sized exhibit mural or a scientific press release—the ancient world is brought to life.
Julius Csotonyi is a Canadian palaeoartist who has been working with the Royal Tyrrell Museum for a decade. His incredible artwork is seen in major museums around the world and in numerous scientific publications. As a palaeoartist, Csotonyi uses both traditional techniques and digital media, and works with our scientists who contribute their knowledge and perspectives to achieve the greatest degree of accuracy possible.
The Royal Tyrrell Museum commissioned Csotonyi to illustrate Regaliceratops peterhewsi, a new species of horned dinosaur announced in 2015. Regaliceratops is notably different from other ceratopsian relatives in both the size and shape of the horns on its face and the distinctive, crown-like frill at the back of its skull. Nicknamed “Hellboy”, due to the combination of difficult excavation conditions and hardness of the rock surrounding the skull, this specimen has provided exciting new information about the evolution of horned dinosaurs. These sketches of Regaliceratops were illustrated with feedback from Drs. Caleb Brown and Donald Henderson, and demonstrate the collaboration between art and science when illustrating dinosaurs and other extinct animals. When animated, these sketches illustrate the process, research, and amount of detail that goes into palaeoart to create a scientifically accurate depiction of the animal as it may have looked in life.
Palaeoart starts with the basics; using photographs of the specimen, scientific line drawings, and measurements to establish the basic anatomy and proportions. This is where the greatest back and forth discourse occurs between artist and scientist. Special attention is paid to unique or diagnostic parts of the animal. Any missing areas are inferred based on animals that are alive today. The reconstruction usually starts with the skeleton and the palaeoartist adds layers of muscle and skin to approximate the look of the animal. A pose and scene is chosen to reflect the nature of the animal and any important aspects of the animal’s behaviour. The environment depicted is also important, as well as any information about the climate, plants, and other animals that can be incorporated to realistically represent the ancient ecosystem.
Colour is perhaps the most speculative aspect of the palaeoartistic life reconstructions. In rare cases, pigments and colour have been identified in fossils. More often, however, colour choice in palaeoart is inferred from the ecological niche that the animal occupied, the function of colour in modern environments, and the colouration of modern relatives (if any exist). In general, both predators and prey use colour for camouflage. Contrasting this, many animals use vibrant colour in visual display, either to attract mates or intimidate rivals, with birds, the living descendants of dinosaurs, being one of the best examples of this. The use of colour is therefore a balance between the desire to be seen, and the desire not to be seen.
More of Csotonyi’s art can be seen in his book The Paleoart of Julius Csotonyi: Dinosaurs, Sabre-Tooths and Beyond or on his website. “Hellboy” is currently on display in the Royal Tyrrell Museum’s Fossil in Focus exhibit but will be coming off display soon to make way for new specimens. “Hellboy” will be moved to a new permanent home in Dinosaur Hall next year.