Lynn: So I'm going to ask you about your dinosaur art, which I'm addicted to.
Lynn: A lot of the creatures you're painting don't really look like dinosaurs, or at least not the kind of dinosaurs I'm used to seeing. So, you know, why is that?
John: Hmm, well there's probably a lot of reasons, but I think the biggest one is that the popular depictions of dinosaurs are generally pretty inaccurate.
Lynn: How so?
John: Artists copy each other and end up re-enforcing each other's errors. To take the example of feathering on dinosaurs: there was actually never a reason to think that bird-line dinosaurs were naked and scaly. It was just the tradition. When we discovered feathered dinos in the 90’s, people were still really slow to adapt. You got all these weird things with a minimal amount of feathers sort of glued on. If we strip away all those years of tradition in how dinosaurs are depicted, and go back to reconstructing them from the raw evidence, what emerges is far stranger and more fascinating.
Lynn: Showing my ignorance here I guess, but how did the feathers get discovered?
John: Fossil beds in China were discovered that preserved soft tissue very well. Heaps and heaps of little feathered dinosaurs have come out of there. Actually the best beds of that type are in Germany, where Archaeopteryx was discovered—which of course could be called the first feathered dinosaur discovery.
Lynn: Were there actually little imprints of feathers in the ground?
John: Yes! If you look at these fossils, they are just like little flattened animals. You can see the imprints and chemical traces of the fur or feathers all around them. Some still have the patterning.
Lynn: Oh, wow. What kind of patterning?
John: Striping on tails is the one that seems to crop up—probably because it was very marked and contrasted.
John: There's been a lot of work in extracting colour from these sorts of fossils recently, but it's proving to be a very complicated problem. Full of biochemistry I don't understand.
Lynn: Are there specific qualifications an animal needs to meet to be a dinosaur, other than having lived at the right time?
John: Yes, absolutely. The current definition of Dinosauria is...sorry this is actually a bit of a complicated question...
John: Basically, groups are defined by their ancestry. Anything descended from the original dinosaur is a dinosaur. We haven't found the original dinosaur though, so we use a different method to get to that. We specify a few animals that seem to be incontrovertibly linked to the word dinosaur—at the moment I think we are using Triceratops, Iguanodon, and Megalosaurus—and we say the original dinosaur is the most recent common ancestor of those animals. It’s called a clade.
Lynn: That is a great word.
John: This is why paleontologists say birds are dinosaurs—because they belong in that clade. It doesn't matter one whit how different they look (or not!). The concept works all the way down to actual individuals, so you and [your] siblings are a clade with each parent.
Lynn: Are the creatures you paint all dinosaurs?
John: No, many are different sorts of animals. Pterosaurs, for example, are pretty closely related to dinosaurs, but fall just outside the clade. I paint them a lot.
Lynn: What are they like?
John: Pterosaurs are a funny bunch! It's only recently that they have come into the spotlight. They are very diverse animals. You have tiny little fuzz-ball insect eaters and huge long-necked animals the height of a giraffe. They all seem to be able to fly—no flightless pterosaurs so far. They also all seem to have had fur. Their wings are complex membranes stretched from the fourth finger to the body, which has all sort of cool stuff going on inside it.
Lynn: So how do you make these paintings—what do you use for models? It's not exactly like doing a still life of a vase.
John: Heh, no. I start by getting a skeletal diagram, sometimes I make them myself from photos of the bones, often I use someone else's (from someone I trust). Scott Hartman should get a plug here. Then I get a bunch of photo references for bits and pieces [of the landscape] and try to stitch it all together. There are very few landscapes around now that you can just take and paint. Too many new plants! Stupid plants and their rapid evolution!
Lynn: And how do you decide on colors and patterns for the animals?
John: There are parameters to work in. Animal patterning has a certain feel when you do it right. Also, although there has been a fashion for showing dinosaurs with very bright colours and patterns recently, most animals have pretty dull colouration—dinosaurs were probably similar. Mostly dull, with some flashes of colour.
Lynn: Like robins, say.
John: Yeah. I mean just think about birds you see every day in the wild. Also, larger animals tend towards drabber colours. Not always, but usually.
Lynn: Do you ever wonder about other sensory details? Like, what did dinosaurs smell like? Or sound like...I have trouble hearing anything other than Jurassic Park in my head.
John: Well, for some duck-billed dinosaurs you can blow air through their crests and approximate some of the sounds they make. Tooting!
Lynn: That's too damn cool. Do they sound like modern ducks?
John: Parasaurolophus crests sound something like a trombone, I've heard tell. That's this chappy:
Lynn: Kind of looks like a trombone, at least in spirit.
John: Shaped like a trombone inside, too.
All images courtesy of John Conway. John, along with some other interesting people, made a book called All Yesterdays, which is “an illustrated survey of possibilities and details we might be overlooking in contemporary reconstructions of extinct animals.” Here it is.