The artistic reconstruction of palaeoenvironments

Life on Earth has been affected and shaped by geological and astronomical events during the 4.5 billion years since it was formed. Scientists study geological and palaeontological processes to answer some rather fundamental questions. What did the animals and plants look like and how did they interact? What were the environment and ecology like? What about the climate? Was it dry, wet, cold or humid? Scientific descriptions of fossil species and published descriptions of fossil assemblages are the first steps in recreating theoretical reconstructions of the palaeoenvironments of the past. These normally take the form of descriptive prose in academic papers, only occasionally accompanied by an interpretative sketch. My interest lies in bringing the palaeoenvironments to life much more vividly.

B) DevonianFig. 1. Devonian of Scotland. One of the earliest known terrestrial ecosystems is from Scotland near Rhynie, where beautifully preserved fossils have been found in Rhynie Cherts. This palaeoenvironmental reconstruction is approx 400myrs ago. There were geysers, with water runoffs. Along the fringes of the runoffs and ponds, there were bacterial mats (which I have painted in reddish/pinkish colours). First terrestrial plants were small and here I’ve shown Horneophyton lignieri (Horneophytopsida), these grew approx 20cm high. Occasionally, hot silicated water from the geysers would flood the area, coating, killing and preserving the life forms. They would be covered with whitish silicated material (sinter). In the extreme foreground is a pair of springtail (Collembola: Ryniella praecursor). These were only between 1 and 2mm in length. Behind this an extinct arachnid, trigonotarbid (Palaeocharinus rhyniensis), approx 5mm long about to attack another collembola. As an artist, I find it extraordinarily fascinating that this is the first known terrestrial ecosystem and already there are carnivorea and saprophagous animals (living off dead organic, particularly plant, matter) (collembolas). It is possible that collembolas were responsible for producing soil, which in turn enabled plants to grow.

I paint a wide range of subjects, but concentrate mainly on palaeontology and astronomy. It is a fascinating challenge to create scenes that are no longer present. My interest in a wide range of subjects is a big help with my art and I often spot things that others might not notice. For example, a while ago, I was walking in the island of Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands and came across a striking and sun-baked, dried-out lake with cracked mud, which I was later able to incorporate into a painting. I bring my camera whenever I am travelling, in the UK and abroad, taking photographs of all sorts of things. These have included anything from volcanoes and calderas, to gingko tree trunks and insects’ wings.

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