Artistic reconstructions of palaeoenvironments: A unique fusion of science and art
Richard Bizley (UK)
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.
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.
Being a general scientific artist, I cannot specialise in every field, so I research when I can, depending on what I am working on. One of the biggest problems I have is access to affordable information. Many specialist books are incredibly expensive and, as I cover so many subjects, I have to choose books carefully.
The Internet is of course a vital tool, but information is not always easy to find and may not be reliable. Therefore, it is very rewarding to get the chance to collaborate with a scientist specialising in the field I am working on, to enable me to produce a painting which is as accurate as possible. It is also mutually satisfying, as the scientist will have the information I need and in return they will see the subject come to life in front of their eyes on the canvas. This is especially true as my images are painted in a stepwise process, which allows the scientist to examine the painting at each stage to comment on accuracy, potential changes and so on.
The final images are valuable as they enable scientists to show the general public what has been discovered or is currently being worked on. They are also particularly useful as teaching resources, especially in university palaeontology teaching laboratories as they allow the students to contextualise the fossils they are learning about (which may consist only of fragments).
The same is true of the general public examining museum displays. I like to think of myself as a translator, interpreting visually the wonderful world of science from the minds of scientists, for others to see. It is marvellous to look at fossils and how they have been preserved so beautifully. These can be used to show how the creatures might have looked when they were alive, which is very exciting. In this sense, a graphic reconstruction of the sort I specialise in also represents a testable scientific hypothesis, as well as an explanation.
Many artists have ‘gone digital’, that is, using computers to create images. Although this is very effective, I have continued to use traditional paints, simply because working in this way gives me so much pleasure. There is something magical about seeing a blank canvas come alive when paints are applied. Luckily, with prehistoric and space art, traditional paints work very well. For example, when painting tree ferns, swamps, horsetails and so on, I add lots of water to the canvas, add paint with brushes and sponges, and paint fallen logs, stems, plants and so forth, until the image begins to look lush and realistic.
Many palaeoartists paint dinosaurs, which of course were dominant in the Mesozoic period, but I find myself drawn to other creatures that are often ignored or overshadowed by these thundering beasts. For instance, evidence for one of the very first terrestrial ecosystems derives from fossils in the Rhynie Chert of Aberdeenshire, Scotland from the Devonian, which include arachnids (trigonotarbids) and springtails (collembolas) (see Fig. 1).
Recently, I consulted an expert palaeoentomologist/arachnologist and together we created seven palaeoenvironmental reconstructions of each of the major periods from the Devonian through to the Tertiary, highlighting for the first time long vanished arthropods that lived among the plants, together with some of the larger animals that lived at the time. In most cases, these represented the first artistic reconstructions of the relevant palaeohabitat and included fossil species based on the most recent scientific taxonomic descriptions (see Figs. 2 and 3).
To make the animals in my paintings look realistic, I create models in clay using scientific drawings, pictures of fossils and so on. I then study them and take photographs, seeing how the light behaves. When reconstructing fossil insect species, special attention needs to be paid to important diagnostic features, such as the wing venation patterns, relative lengths of appendage segments and so on.
The fact that many fossil insect species are known only from isolated wings poses additional problems. This is where collaboration with experts becomes very useful and we are normally able to work together to produce what we consider to be an accurate reconstruction based on the comparative study of both fossil and extant insects. Plants can be difficult, especially as we are unsure how some of them looked, such as seed ferns. It is rare to get a fossil of a whole plant, so I have to paint according to the best estimation of how they looked, using the evidence available. Fortunately, scientists have learnt enough to provide some good ideas. And many living plants are closely related to those that have become extinct, so these can supply valuable information.
I feel it is vitally important that more people are made aware of exactly where we came from, how life began and the fact that we are all riding on a dynamic planet speeding along at 30km a second (67,000km an hour) as it orbits the sun, with a thin veneer of air. Most life on Earth shared a common ancestor, probably arising from geothermal vents, and has been evolving for eons since. The present day concern, that biodiversity is under a terrible and irreversible threat due to man’s ceaseless activities, is of great concern. My hope is that my art will eventually play a small part in creating an awareness of just how magical and amazing our planet is and has been for a very long time – and that it will help us to learn how to live and respect life. After all, we all exist together on this one and only spaceship we call Earth, which we need to manage with respect for future generations.
Richard’s paintings can be viewed at www.bizleyart.com. He runs a gallery in Lyme Regis, Dorset (12a Coombe Street), where he paints and sells pictures. He is always happy to receive enquiries for new commissions. Richard is a Fellow of the IAAA (International Association of Astronomical Artists).