Paleontological Profiles: Michael Skrepnick


Paleo-artist Michael Skrepnick

It is difficult for me to pick up a book about dinosaurs and not find some gorgeous artwork by artist Michael Skrepnick gracing the pages, if not the cover, of the book. He has created beautiful restorations of the distant past for Nature, National Geographic, Project Exploration, and many books about prehistoric life, making him one of the most hard-working and well-known paleo-illustrators around today. (For those who have been itching to see some of his new artwork, Michael has some good news for you. His website is going to be rebuilt and stocked up with new images later this year.) Michael has also allowed me to use his wonderful painting of Suchomimus in this blog's banner, and I am certainly glad to say that I consider him a friend as well as a great artist. This past week he took the time to answer some questions about his work, and I'm proud to present his responses below;

  • [Brian Switek] What first drew you to dinosaurs and other creatures as subjects for your work? Are there any artists or paintings that initially inspired you to pick up the brush yourself?

[Michael Skrepnick] I've had an interest in dinosaurs as far back as I can remember. As a young kid in the 1960's up here in Canada, Life released a 3 volume set entitled " The World We Live In " which showcased a reproduction of the famous Peabody Museum " Age of Reptiles " mural.

Around the same time Red Rose Tea Co. ( Brooke Bond in the States ) released a series of 48 collectors cards ( by Zallinger ), a couple of cellophane wrapped cards available in each box of tea. I pretty much insisted my parents buy tea every week when out grocery shopping, and soon even had a couple of the checkout people conscripted to my tea card cause, adding to my collection. I managed to amass most of the set, except for 2 elusive cards that never seemed to show up.

Some 35 years later, I had the opportunity to see the original mural at the Yale Peabody and while in Connecticut, Brian Franczak ( another paleoartist colleague ) who also had collected these cards, had extras of the 2 missing cards I needed, and I finally completed my set !

Early on, I also happened upon paleo art by Charles Knight, Zdenek Burian and others, but no one captivated my attention and interest more so than Zallinger. His application of paint always impressed me as being close to photo realistic, and thereby instilled "suspension of disbelief " which allowed me to believe I was looking through a "plate glass window " rather than at a painted mural reconstruction of ancient environments.

I had no idea in my formative years, that one day I would make paleo art my career, but must acknowledge the strong influence the imagery of these artists played in fueling my interest in dinosaurs and paleontology.


Painting by Michael Skrepnick

  • [Switek] Many of your paintings involve placing dinosaurs in their environmental context, some of my favorites being the painting of Suchomimus featured in my blog banner and one featuring a Tyrannosaurus defending a meal from a rival. How do you go about creating these scenes, translating a concept into a finished product?

[Skrepnick] First and foremost is the development of a central idea ( an interaction, behaviour or perspective ) which will visually enhance a premise or hypothesis. Research in the literature and / or discussion with paleontologists helps flesh out the idea and provide reference upon which to build the anatomical reconstruction and environment. While paleontologists and academics remain formally tied to specimen description and analysis, within the context of the greater paleontological "galaxy", I suppose I might be one of the stars located in the " outer rim ". In addition to the weight of fossil evidence and associated modern analogs, artistic liberties and speculation are still requisite in " filling in the gaps " in order to reconstruct ancient worlds.

My crude attempt at drawing an analogy, of how I view this science from an artists perspective, is generally as follow. . . as I understand it, paleontologists are restricted by the methodology of science to a prescribed "sand box" with defined x / y ( and z ) axes. As new information is steadily "uncovered " internally and around the perimeter, the area / volume of the "sandbox " ( cumulative knowledge ), continues to expand exponentially. While limited to study, organization, and reorganization of " known " elements within the sandbox ( and with perhaps an undeniable curiosity about what potentially lays beyond the sandbox ), scientific verification and process is inextricably tied to tangible discoveries and known factors within the acknowledged space of the defined " box " only.

As a paleo artist, I'm often able to get away with dipping my toes into the void beyond the box, coupling the "known" with the "unknown", and hoping the result seems feasible and aligned within acceptable tolerances of scientific scrutiny.

  • [Switek] Is there a particular animal (or group of animals) that you enjoy illustrating most? Are there any that are particularly difficult?

[Skrepnick] I like the big carnivores, but am most interested in the challenge of reconstructing new / previously undescribed specimens. There is real excitement for me at the prospect of "seeing / bringing to life " an extinct, unknown creature for the first time. . . comparable to discovering / uncovering new fossil material in the field, that hasn't seen the light of day for millions of years.

There are always difficulties in trying to render representations of animals you can't actually see in life. Painting portrayals of modern wildlife through first hand observation and relying on supplementary reference materials, is fairly straight forward, relative to calculating and rendering a " 3 dimensional " representation of a dinosaur. Further complications of partial / missing / distorted skeletal elements make the process all the more difficult. In cases where only fragmentary / minimal fossil evidence is preserved, I prefer to wait ( when possible ) until more related specimens are discovered, in order to maintain some level of confidence in respect to the anatomy.

In addition to the challenges of reconstructing extinct animals, I've gained a whole new appreciation and respect for interpreting plants and environments. I think paleobotanists / palynologists often face far greater frustrations in trying to understand extinct plant communities, than paleontologists do in dealing with animal remain

  • [Switek] During the course of your career you have often been commissioned by paleontologists to illustrate new dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures. How does the process of reconstructing ancient life differ when working with a scientist?

[Skrepnick] That is often dependent upon whom I'm collaborating with. Some paleontologists are very demonstrative and express a lot of ideas and direction about how they envision the animal / environment under discussion. Others are more introspective and often will leave the interpretation more in my hands, sometimes offering thoughts about modification or correction as the process is underway. If there are " grey " areas, often these can be resolved in the preliminary drawing / sketch stage of our interaction. Along with the mechanical "nuts and bolts " of skeletal elements, I often also try to extract an intuitive impression or random thoughts of how they perceive the creature in question might have looked or behaved in life. Sometimes very interesting observations are brought to the fore, that may directly impact and alter the outcome of the final illustration.

  • [Switek] Although museums are full of fully articulated and impressive skeletons, the actual fossil material of any given species is often extremely scrappy. How do you go about reconstructing an animal where much (if not most) of the skeleton might be missing?

[Skrepnick] As mentioned above, this can at best be tricky. In worst case scenarios, hopefully the preserved elements contain enough morphological clues to warrant hypothetical association with related known forms to get us in the ball park. Hopefully more material is subsequently located, upon which illustrations can be updated, and redescriptions added to the literature.

  • [Switek] How do you go about determining the color and body covering/skin texture of the dinosaurs you illustrate?

[Skrepnick] I typically look to modern analogs, crocs and birds, etc. . . I think I'm relatively conservative in utilizing color / markings and generally subscribe to the notion that large vertebrates favor earthtone coloration ( with possible accentuation in crests, horns and other external topography ) but by virtue of size alone, don't necessarily require distinctive markings to get noticed. Alternatively, smaller animals may adopt and take full advantage of brighter, more flamboyant displays in coloration and identification as characters used in establishing sexuality / hierarchy, or may employ cryptic patterning as camouflage and deliberately break up the body outline to elude predators. I see no particular reason why these strategies utilized in todays diverse animal populations should be any different than one would expect in extinct regimes. . . same system, different times, convergence likely plays a role and thus nature repeats itself. . .

Although dinosaurs may initially appear to be bizarre and strange compared to modern animals, primarily because separation in time hasn't allowed us the luxury to experience them on a daily basis in nature, the bottom line is " wildlife is still wildlife ". When I'm commissioned to produce a painting, I hope that apart from the dinosaurs being impressive in their own right as dinosaurs, that I'm also able to convey in the work, a sense that what is being depicted, is merely a " snapshot in time, of wildlife ". . . not really so far removed from the sort of encounters one might expect in visiting the modern Serengeti.

  • [Switek] This past January you provided readers of the blog Tetrapod Zoology with a "sneak peek" of some images of children playing with dinosaurs. Can you tell us a little more about that project?

[Skrepnick] Within a series of mural displays for an expansion at the Field Station / Visitor Center at Dinosaur Provincial Park here in Alberta, I was given quite a bit of latitude in terms of imagery that would help reinforce the ideas and mandate of the Park. Along with reconstructions of paleoenviroments and paintings featuring highlights of the modern Park ecosystem, I decided to produce a series of panels with encounters between children and dinosaurs. These would help to establish a sense of size and scale of dinosaurs relative to humans, and add a playful aspect of imagining what it might be like to have some of these creatures as pets. The kids and dinos are suspended on a white background, and include a young girl feeding lettuce to a Parasaurolophus, a boy out walking his Stegoceras on a leash, a girl snuggled up next to an ornithomimid while reading a book, etc. . . It was a fun diversion, that apparently has generated a lot of positive feedback from visitors.

  • [Switek] A number of the readers on this blog are aspiring paleo-artists. Do you have any recommendations for those who want to illustrate dinosaurs but are just starting out?

[Skrepnick] I have been asked this question on quite a few occasions. Basically my advice is as follows:

- develop your artistic skills / rendering abilities to a level you feel is comparable to work being produced by paleo artists / technical illustrators you see published in todays science literature / popular books. Reference books and / or courses on scientific illustration can be a great help assisting in your instruction / development.

- decide if your particular interests and skills are best suited to technical illustration / specimen rendering, 2d life reconstruction, or 3d sculpting.

- put together a portfolio ( physical and / or online ) of your work showcasing your talent and abilities ( for sample technical renderings, if fossil specimens are not readily accessible for study, work from extant material, ie cow bones, etc. . . that will still reveal your style and technique ).

- approach via email or in person, palaeontogists / academics at local museums, universities, etc. . . and offer to VOLUNTEER your artistic services in assisting their ongoing programs and research. In exchange you will gain invaluable information and direction in how to work within the scientific community, and eventually gain opportunities to produce work that may appear in print and help establish your presence as a credible and reliable artistic asset. Referrals and positive reviews by the scientists you are working with, ultimately may lead to assignments and projects with a budget, that will compensate you for your time and effort, and raise your level of exposure commercially.

- over time, with increasing notoriety, you may either accept a position as an illustrator with an established museum / institution, or develop an ongoing, independent freelance career.

Having said all that, please note the following. . .

- the "transitional learning period " may take several years, and you may have to support yourself by alternative means, while working on your illustration career in your " off hours ".

- a career in paleontology / paleo art requires ongoing perseverance, determination and patience. If you are singularly dedicated and prepared for ongoing personal sacrifice for the love of this particular science, you will eventually create a space for yourself in this niche market.

- bear in mind that while myself and other paleoartists look forward to being your future colleagues, we will also be your competition in the market !

  • [Switek] You have been illustrating prehistoric life for many years, and every year we know more about prehistoric life than the one previous. How has paleo art changed during the time that you have been working as an illustrator, and how has your own work changed as a result of new scientific discoveries?

[Skrepnick] I've been working full time, professionally as a paleo artist for 15 years so far, and the pivotal defining moment in my career remains accompanying Phil Currie while in Bejing in 1996 to observe the then recently excavated specimen of the now well known, small feathered theropod Sinosauropteryx. After years of discussion regarding the relationship of birds and dinosaurs, as the first North Americans to be confronted with the first actual specimen of a non avian feathered dinosaur, that would fundamentally change the course of vertebrate paleontology, was the experience of a lifetime. Within 2 weeks, we were in New York for the annual SVP meeting, and the underlaying " buzz " was almost palpable. The story broke, and a somewhat crude, first attempt at a reconstruction I executed in my Beijing hotel room (for a press conference held in China ), made its way onto the front cover of the Saturday edition of the New York times, and the rest is now history. . .

I think the largest visible change in paleo art over the last 20 years, has been the introduction of computer generated art and animation, which has created an entirely new facet to paleo reconstruction. 3 d modeling / rendering of articulated skeletal elements and animated simulations of limb excursions, movement and locomotion have added another dynamic to our understanding and appreciation of extinct vertebrates.

Interestingly, I was approached recently by one publisher ( amongst others ) in New York, looking for dinosaur illustrations for a new series of children's books, and while receptive to most styles and media of artwork, there was a stipulation that any CG art submissions would NOT be considered. Perhaps computer generated renderings in some respects, are now reaching a saturation point.

  • [Switek] Finally, reconstructing "scenes from deep time" has a long tradition, stemming back to the early 19th century. Despite this long history, however, paintings and illustrations of prehistoric creatures are often viewed as kitsch or pop-art, not worthy of critical praise. I certainly disagree with this view, and I'd like to ask how you see your work in relation to both the broader categories of art & science.

[Skrepnick] I believe the thing that makes dinosaurs so popular, is that unlike fantasy "monsters" conjured up in our imagination, dinosaurs have the additional " thrill "of not only being amazing and bizarre and cool, but of also being " real " ! We didn't make them up, they are an intrinsic part of the history of this planet, and yet we still have to
"imagine" what they were like in life ! As such, they lend themselves as easily to the plot of a science fiction novel, comic book, or movie, as they do to a science textbook. That same degree of lattitude is what " muddies " the distinction between evolutionary science and pulp fiction. This wide range of acceptance in popular culture also means that the general public, book publishers, movie producers and others, are neither invested nor interested in the "science" of paleontology, as we who work within this field. While everyone knows what a dinosaur is, most people have little knowledge or understanding of what separates a careful, " considered " reconstruction of a dinosaur, from media induced exploitation, spawned from substandard / outdated reference materials ( when used at all ! ).

Throughout the history of paleontology, paleo art has provided a reliable visual record, and essentially a "mirror" of progress within the science. Greater advances in technology, related disciplines, sheer volume of specimens and research, all reinforce an increasingly accurate assessment of ancient life on earth.

Not so very long ago, snarling, upright theropods stalked slow, lumbering, swamp dwelling sauropods, incapable of walking unsupported on dry land. At the time, it was accepted, " cutting edge " science, today we have a much revised understanding of diversity and extremes in dinosaur evolution. Barriers have been broken, sauropods twice the size walk freely on land, tyrannosaurs have "tipped " forward, small theropods have feathers, psittacosaurs have "quills", etc. . .

Is our understanding now refined enough to offer a realistic vision of lost worlds ?

What I wonder, will todays " cutting edge " look like, in 2108 ? . . .

Other interviews in this series

Dr. Robert Bakker

Dr. Jack Horner

Dr. Jerry Harris

Mike Taylor

Dr. Robert Bakker (reply)


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Wow, great interview Brian! Michael has been an inspiration to my own artwork, his method of capturing the light in his paintings is particularly vivid.

By Alexander L (not verified) on 27 May 2008 #permalink

Right on! Thanks for the tips, Mike. I'll have to put together some of my crap and starting sending it to people. :-) I suppose I already do work for the Alaska Museum of Natural History but...let's not go there.

I agree about the turning point in dino-art. The second Dinosaur Renaissance changed forever how I reconstructed dinosaurs, to the point where, when I see a modern paleo-artist NOT using feathers (*glares at Ray Troll*) I get a little irate!

I reconstruct dinosaurs for much the same reason as Mike--it's such a rush to look at the bones and come up with a drawing of an animal that nobody's ever seen! But additionally, I draw fossil animals in order to better understand them. I can look at a skeleton of Thalattosaurus all day, but the bones mean very little to me. When I draw the animal, in doing so, I learn about its musculature, how it moved, and what it looked like in life. You can start building from there, placing it in an environment, watching it interact with other's a learning experience. I'm frustrated when papers don't include skeletal reconstructions, because merely looking at drawings of individual bones doesn't allow me to reconstruct the animal, know what it looks like, and understand it.

Great interview, Brian! I love this series!

I agree, fantastic interview, Brian! (Did you and Bora graduate from "interview school" or something?)

As an illustrator emerging from the "transitional phase", it was interesting to hear Mr. Skrepnick's advice about volunteering. So often we're told never do anything for free, but I have to agree that to make a mark, you need to put yourself out there.

Gorgeous work, and it's always an inspiration. Looking at Carl Buell's and Michael Skrepnick's work (among others) makes me try harder. I love that lens-eye view on the painting above!

As ever, an awesome interview (and filled in particular with advice I intend taking to heart)!

I'm looking forward to seeing more from other paleoartists as well (or perhaps just wildflife artists in general).

I agree about the turning point in dino-art. The second Dinosaur Renaissance changed forever how I reconstructed dinosaurs, to the point where, when I see a modern paleo-artist NOT using feathers (*glares at Ray Troll*) I get a little irate! the post is very good...

the "transitional learning period " may take several years, and you may have to support yourself by alternative means, while working on your illustration career in your " off hours