Dinosaurs were living, breathing, moving animals, but that’s sometimes hard to visualise when standing in front of a skeleton. We may not be able to reincarnate dinosaurs in the style of Jurassic World, but an excellent illustration of the animals in their environment can go a long way to bringing them back to life.
When Earth Collections Manager Hilary Ketchum and I set out to update the labels for our free-standing dinosaur skeletons, we wanted to present current science alongside scientifically accurate illustrations. They should be beautiful and show the dinosaurs as dynamic animals. We found just the person for the job. Julius Csotonyi is a paleoartist, wildlife artist and scientific illustrator who specialises in life-like restorations of prehistoric animals and habitats. He understood exactly what we wanted and set to work researching featured specimens.
After several rounds of checks and suggestions from scientists in the Museum and the University, the illustrations are all complete and the new labels are on display in the Museum. So I asked Julius a few questions about his work and how he felt having completed the project.
How do you ensure your representations of dinosaurs are accurate?
Ultimately, all of my reference material comes from palaeontologists’ research. For all reconstructions, I rely heavily on published scientific literature. For reconstructions of newly discovered taxa, of which I am commissioned to do quite a few for press releases and scientific papers, I also have discussions with the palaeontologists who have made the discoveries, since the material is not yet published. This latter process is some of the most exciting, because I am able to participate in the process of scientific discovery, keeping a foot in both camps of science and art.
How important do you think the dinosaur’s environment is in the representation?
The environmental context provides the opportunity to tell a more detailed story of the animal’s role in the biological community, its position in the food web, or interesting aspects of its behaviour. Depicting the animal’s environment provides me the opportunity to employ creative and interesting lighting conditions and composition to generate an image that is as aesthetically appealing as possible – this is art, after all, and I feel it’s important to make it as beautiful as I can.
How did you become a paleoartist and what do you enjoy about it?
I absolutely love my job. It’s wonderful to play a part in piecing together and visualizing worlds that are millions of times older than I am. It was during the completion of my PhD in the microbiology of extreme environments that my work in scientific illustration and paleoart really took off, when I was first contacted to help illustrate a book about dinosaurs by author Dougal Dixon. Ultimately I realized that scientific illustration provided me with a more consistent enjoyment, so I made scientific artwork my full time work as soon as I completed my degree. I know that I am in the right field of work because even when I am juggling projects under the extreme pressure of impending deadlines, I still find great enjoyment in the act of painting.
How do you feel about your work being on permanent display here?
I feel greatly honoured to have my illustrations incorporated into a permanent display in this renowned and respected institution. It is my hope that my work will help in a small way to interest the public in the intriguing field of palaeontology, and this excites me, for I feel strongly about contributing to scientific outreach. Many thanks to the museum team for allowing me to participate!
Next time you call by the Museum, stand in front of a dinosaur, have a good look at its new label and see if it comes to life before your eyes.
Rachel Parle, Interpretation and Education Officer
All images are copyright Oxford University Museum of Natural History and Julius Csotonyi.