Paleoart: Earth Science, Biology, & Fine Art
What is Paleoart?
Paleoart is any original artistic work that attempts to reconstruct or depict prehistoric life according to the current knowledge and scientific evidence at the moment of creating the artwork (Anson et al., 2015).
Paleoart is not merely the fanciful renditions of mythical creatures from imagination, but is a media that is used by artists and researchers alike to best recreate extinct organisms from the fossil record from several lines of evidence.
Paleoartists must literally draw from their knowledge of a specimen's fossil bearing formation and understanding of the anatomies and behaviors of modern organisms and how they biomechanically function and their niches in their ecosystems in recreating a fairly accurate representation of extinet organisms.
Research & Lines of Evidence in Paleoart
From the fossilized sediment formations that specimens originate from, paleoartists work alongside researchers and modern biologists to recreate an organism's environment from understanding the sediment types that could indicate the differences between a riverbed, lakebed, ocean floor or a bog, or fossilized desert sand dunes.
In addition, the chemical composition of these sediments can also inform specific details about that environment, such as salinity or oxygen levels at the time of deposition.
Also, other fossilized organisms from the same formation(s) are crucial in reconstructing the environment of a particular specimen, whether they are pollen and fossil flora, shed teeth, ichnofossils such as trackways, ambers that have trapped small gas bubbles or that have caught small organisms and other organic materials from insects to small vertebrates to skin, feathers and other integuments.
From the evidence available from the geologic record, a paleoartist can begin to recreate a fossilize organism's world.
However, seldom are soft bodied features preserved in the fossil record, and in the case of vertebrate paleontology, very rarely a full skeletons ever discovered, thus paleoartists and researchers work closely in filling in the missing elements from available data.
When it comes to fragmentary specimens, paleoartists and researchers must draw the best educated inferences at to what the missing elements were probably like, such as the numbers of specific bones in the bodies, extremities and skulls of fragmentary specimens as well as the shapes, morphologies, and articulation of the fragmented and missing elements, based on what is available from the present materials, the data from the closest known relatives and other modern analogues (ie: the Tyrannosaurus skeletal diagrams, right, & Spinosaurus reconstruction, below).
Coupled with the data gathered from the fossil bearing sediments, paleoartists and researchers can also infer other potential details about a specimen and how it may have functioned in its habitat.
Media & Applications
Whether reconstructing a fragmented specimen's missing elements or a lifelike rendering of a living specimen itself, paleoartists have a number of media available to breathe life back into fossil taxa for both researchers and the general public alike.
Paleoartists can physically or digitally draw, illustrate or paint 2-dimensional renderings skeletal materials or the living organisms themselves.
For physical representations, paleoartists can sculpt or print 3-dimensional representations of restored elements or entire specimens and models from foams, clays, plaster, resins, metals and other media.
Many skeletons on display at museums around the globe actually have restored elements integrated among the fossil material of their skeletal mounts.