Drawing on science to illustrate dinosaurs

One of Julius Csotonyi's murals can be seen in the new "Deep Time" exhibit at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History in Washington.

A deep dive into a topic of interest

Most people know what a Tyrannosaurus rex looked like. Its snarling teeth, slashing tail and tiny arms make it one of the most recognizable dinosaurs that roamed the planet. Yet if it weren't for paleoartists, the T. rex would be just another fossilized skeleton in museums.

Paleoartists specialize in using scientific data to make images or models of long-extinct animals. In the process, they take the prehistoric world out of the abstract and bring it to life for the rest of us.

Julius Csotonyi's paleoart has been used in scientific papers, coins, postage stamps and murals — including many at the Smithsonian's David H. Koch Hall of Fossils, which is reopening June 8. In addition to his artistic skills, he has a doctorate in microbiology and a master's degree in ecology. He considers his scientific background crucial to his job.

It "helps me understand how animals in their environment interact and how to accurately restore prehistoric ecosystems," Csotonyi says.

Paleoart usually starts with a fossil. If the actual dinosaur fossil is unavailable, artists can use a 3D rotatable digital model or photographs.

Paleoartists then work with the scientists to learn details about the dinosaur's diet, behaviors and environment. From there, the artists build the image in stages. First, they might settle on the overall shape of the animal, then work outward from the skeleton, adding muscles, soft tissue and finally distinctive features such as skin, horns or crests.

Of course, dinosaurs are still mysterious and largely unknown. Paleoartists' challenge is to fill in the missing pieces as realistically as possible. To do this, they use a combination of direct evidence — what's known for sure — and indirect evidence from known environments.

Jennifer Hall, whose work has been in Scientific American magazine and on the History Channel, looks for clues in similar living animals. For example, birdlike dinosaurs might have had bright colors like modern-day birds. But if a dinosaur was frequently hunted, then "you probably want something that you would see in our modern prey animals," she says. "Whether it's mule deer, which are more sandy in color and blend into the dry landscape, or zebras, which have stripes to blend in with the vertical savanna."

Today, we're learning more about dinosaurs than ever before. Previously unknown species are being discovered regularly. We're also learning more about what they looked like. Fossilized feathers have been found in rock and amber. Electron microscopy is revealing patterns found on dinosaur skin. In some cases, it's even possible to know what colors they were.

The paleoartist's job is to render these discoveries in a way that sparks the imagination. Sometimes, that means using a bit of artistic flair — and even a dash of fun.

"I always think back to when I was visiting a particular aquarium, and there was a fish that was blue, and its lips were blue with pink polka dots," Csotonyi said. "It was real and it looked so ridiculous. It makes me feel okay to come up with an outlandish idea every once in a while, because these things do exist in nature."

Commenting is limited to Omaha World-Herald subscribers. To sign up, click here.

If you're already a subscriber and need to activate your access or log in, click here.

Load comments

You must be a full digital subscriber to read this article You must be a digital subscriber to view this article.