Julius Csotonyi, an ecologist and microbiologist by training, is also the go-to artist for paleontologists looking to bring their discoveries to life. His new book, The Paleoart of Julius Csotonyi, showcases over 150 renderings of creatures that lived during the Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic eras.
Csotonyi occupies a singular place between art and science, using scientist’s papers, finds, and photos, and his own imagination, to illustrate, and create narratives for prehistoric creatures. “When I was much younger I was just sketching for a hobby,” says Csotonyi, whose first drawing at age three was purportedly a dinosaur. Now he is asked to create artwork based on specific papers and studies. If he can’t see a fossil in person, scientists will send him 3-D images or photographs taken from multiple angles. But it’s up to Csotonyi to create a scene around the illustration that is both scientifically accurate and visually compelling.
In one assignment, Csotonyi was asked to render the skull of an Acheroraptor, a creature similar to the Velociraptors featured in Jurassic Park. To highlight the skull, he drew a lateral view of the animal’s head. Then he created a dramatic scene in which the smallish, nimble Acheroraptor beats a T. Rex to the carcass of a Triceratops. In the picture, the T. Rex “has a surprised look,” says Csotonyi, “Like ‘Hey? How did you beat me to this food?'” Knowledge of how these dinosaurs might have interacted is important to creating this scene, but so is Csotonyi’s artistic flourish. “Dinosaurs didn’t have the kind of muscles that allowed them to make expressions like we do,” he explains. “But perhaps surprise was still possible to convey.”
Also apparent here are the Acheroraptor’s feathers. “There’s still some debate about the prevalence of feathers versus scales, but we know that the Acheroraptors were feathered,” says Csotonyi. In fact, this is the main criticism against the Spielberg’s Velociraptors: they were too scaley. (“I’m okay with letting that slide,” Csotonyi says. “As long as it’s clear that it’s fiction.”) Csotonyi also covered the T. Rex in a downy-feathery coat, based on increasing evidence that the beast also lacked scales. The Triceratops, meanwhile, definitely had large scales. And because the scales of living animals often feature alternating bands of color, the same thing might have been true for the Triceratops. The creature also lived in the forest, so Csotonyi imagined a camouflaged palate, like “a splash of sunlight through the trees: yellowish on a gray background.”
But he’s the first person to acknowledge that this is only guesswork. “The Triceratops was a large animal and had horns, so it was probably safer against other species.” In other words, maybe it didn’t need camouflage at all.
Csotonyi works with line drawings, painting, and photographic compositing, but digital illustration has become the focus of his work. It’s much easier to edit when using an interactive LCD display and stylus–especially important when scientists are constantly revising their understanding of the past. Csotonyi once painted an Anchiornis huxleyi–a bird-like dinosaur–in vibrant red and blues. Then a paper came out, which made Csotonyi rethink the plausibility of his choices. He revised the image with a new color pattern based on the new research. “It was much easier to change on a digital than traditional medium,” he says. And yet he says there isn’t much lost when working in digital. “It’s just like working with a paintbrush and a canvas,” he says. “When I make contact with the screen, it’s just like applying paint.”