Dinosaurs (St. Martin’s Press) – Part 1 – Love in the Time of Chasmosaurs

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You know how we’re always reviewing books that are so big that our scanners have trouble with them? We always have to scrape our images together from two, sometimes four, separate scans. It’s getting tiresome. Let’s do a small book. I found a book that is absolutely teeny tiny, smaller than my hand. Scanning this one was no trouble at all, look. The scan probably appears bigger on your screen than the real thing. I’ve said nothing at all about the quality of the book, but I like it already.

Okay. So it suffers a little bit from having this butt-ugly model rex on the cover. Nevermind. The rest of the book, hailing from 1990, written by the AMNH’s Eugene S. Gaffney and illustrated by John D. Dawson (you can tell it’s American by the middle initials everywhere), is a little bit better than both the cover and its modest stature suggest. It appears in the so-called Golden Guide-series, which I am otherwise unfamiliar with, but are allegedly “easy to use”. It’s a handy book to keep in your pocket to help you identify any dinosaurs you might run into.

John Dawson is a prolific dinosaur and wildlife artist whose work from the 80s has been covered on these pages several times before. His 80s work is retro and fun. As you can see, as the 90s were taking off, his work took on a decidedly Sibbickian vibe, with intricate, hyperreal textures, elephantine skin and sharp countershading. It reminds me quite a bit of the stuff that graced the pages of our beloved Dinosaurs! Magazine. The ghost of John Sibbick was all over that series, and it’s all over this book. That doesn’t mean Dawson copies him directly; he’s just inspired by his style, as so many of his contemporaries were. It’s what the publishers wanted.

Here’s a Jurassic spread, the busiest piece in the book. Sauropods, stegosaurs and ornithopods having a splash, while the lurking ceratosaur stage left adds the promise of danger. The colour schemes are kind of outlandish on this one. A yellow Ceratosaurus with purple blotches, we’ve got it for you. The Stegosaurus and Ornitholestes on the right are also quite flamboyant – interestingly, in the Stegosaurus‘ case, the plates are less intricately coloured than its body itself. Sadly, Dawson never reused his colour schemes – when all these guys appear later, they will look different. The way the Ornitholestes is looking over its shoulder is such a Sibbick thing.

The first half of this well-written book covers the basics of palaeontology. Eugene Gaffney really sets himself apart by being an early adopter of the “birds are dinosaurs” mantra; a few bridges too far for stuff line Dinosaurs! Magazine. The book also stands out for using modern cladistics and explicitly clades like “Theropods including birds”. It wouldn’t be until the 2000s when that sort of terminology would enter my life, so kudos.

Most of Dawson’s work appears in the second half of the book, which is a nicely illustrated Identity Parade. Sauropodomorphs open the parade, so here’s Plateosaurus. It’s fairly typical for its day; the Triassic looks typically barren. The choice to give the dinosaur a lizard ear is unfortunate, but I like that it’s red. I also like the turtle. Eugene Gaffney is a turtle expert. I wonder if that’s explicitly meant to be some specific Triassic turtle.

It’s a mixed bag. Dawson reconstructs a pretty awesome Diplodocus. I love the red markings on its face and back over a white body, so much nicer than the standard grey ‘pod. It looks imposing, sleek and dynamic in a way that Sibbick’s doesn’t. It looks a bit dangerous, too. Not exactly a “gentle giant”. Great stuff. The one in the background isn’t quite up to the standard of the other one, but it’s not in focus.

By contrast, this is just the Sibbick Normanpedia Apatosaurus, except all dull grey, so worse. Okay, it’s not as bad as all that. It’s got its tail off the ground and the claw seems to be more up to date. Still, I feel something better could have been done.

This Camarasaurus triptych is kind of odd. Nowhere else in the book does Dawson divide a page into three like this. Gaffney uses this page to comment on the myth of the aquatic sauropod, stating for the record that these animals were perfectly capable of carrying their own weight on dry land thankyouverymuch, but also that sauropods seemed to move through the water by “poling”, using their front legs to push themselves through the water as illustrated in the middle row. Man, that Camarasaurus sure has one big, buff arm. The bottom illustration seems to show an immature Camarasaurus (mentioned in the text) duel a Ceratosaurus.

After the sauropods, it’s the theropods’ turn. Dilo here is a lot more bulky and stout than we now understand it to be, as carried over from you-know-who. Again though; nice colours here, with those darker-and-lighter bars loosely divided by uneven streaks of black. That skeletal is a bit weird though. Where’s its ribs?

The thing is, Dawson does seem to follow the skeletals quite well. That certainly wasn’t a given during this time. It all reflects rather well on Eugene Gaffney. He seems to have been more hands-on where the art was concerned than some authors were – I’m looking at you, David Norman!

We’ve seen Ceratosaurus cameo a few times already, but here it is in all its glory. The colour scheme, with blacks and reds offset by swathes of white, reminds me of nothing so much as a piebald python. I like that so many of his dinosaurs are partially white, that’s a nice touch. Dawson also seems to have broadly gotten the four-fingered hands right. The horns on this one are curiously undercooked, with the lacrimosal horns looking more like eyebrows. A modern palaeoartist will definitely put some keratin on that thing. Oddly, the top dog of the Jurassic, Allosaurus, is not reconstructed by Dawson anywhere. The book uses the old painting by Charles Knight!

Tyrannosaurus also doesn’t get a full reconstruction, though Dawson does do a few head studies. Albertosaurus is here representing the tyrannosaurid side, and doing a good job of it. It’s just snuck up on some hadrosaurs, and its feet splash in the mud as it gives chase. Conveying the motion of a running animal is always a bit tricky, and I’m not sure Dawson fully convinces me here. I think its right foot needs to stretch out a little further. I love a good muddy splash, though. I like how Albert’s arms and shoulders are in no way humanoid; a pitfall that affects too many people who attempt to illustrate a big theropod. Again, reason to believe Dawson was given solid scientific advice.

Compsognathus of all things has been given a nice full colour, full page illustration here, combing the beach of its German archipelago. Compsognathus was briefly thought to have two fingers like some sort of miniature T. rex, but with long-ish arms, which just looks wrong. I’m still not sure if the overall shape of this compy completely convinces me, but Dawson’s colour game is again on point. I love those little red lizards hiding under that tree. It seems the compy has caught one. The interesting thing about Compsognathus was that, even though it’s famous for being one of the smallest known dinosaurs, it was an apex predator; the largest terrestrial carnivore from the Solnhofen limestone.

Also given a full colour page is Herrerasaurus, which, for being one of the earliest dinosaurs, is oddly the last theropod that is introduced in the book (if indeed a theropod it be, the book certainly places it there). It’s a nice composition. It’s facing away from us, chasing a mammal and climbing all over the place to do so. Here, Dawson’s sense of motion and action completely convinces me. While the countershading is once again very Sibbick, the composition and technique here also remind me a lot of Jan Sovák, who worked around the same time. The little detail of the other mammal hiding out in the rock is a very Sovák-like touch, as is the lovingly rendered environment.

Next time, we’ll explore what John Dawson does with ornithischians! The Golden Guide of Dinosaurs will return.

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