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.

A) Brazil, Cretaceous Fig. 2. Cretaceous of Brazil (Crato Formation). The environmental setting is semi-arid at the shores of a lagoon. A mayfly (Coxoplectoptera) rests on a shoot of a flowering plant. One of the flowers is being pollinated by a wasp Cretosphex parvus (hymenoptera: Sphecidae). The reconstruction of this plant is based on a fossil of an unidentified angiosperm, possibly related to Magnolias. At bottom left is an arachnid, camel spider (solifugae) about to eat a cricket, which was itself in the middle of eating a plant (a Crato monocotyledon plant Kitzschophyllites flabellate. These plants branched into threes (trifurcated) and had single leaves on each branch with serrated margins). At lower right, two antlions (Baisopardus cryptohymen) showing distinctive wing margins. I have painted one with wings ‘open’ and the other ‘closed’, showing how the wing patterns differ when they overlap in the ‘closed’ position. You can just make out two water-striders on the water. Behind, a small raptor (Santanaraptor) looks out across the lagoon, while two pterosaurs (Lacusovagus magnifens) wheel overhead. The reed-like plants are quillworts (isoetes). The ferns are Ruffordia. There are also some water lilies near the Santaraptor, but they are too far away for any anatomical details to be seen.

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.

Model of Solifuge spider Fig. 3. Model of a solifugae spider.

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.

C) Earth Through the Ages Fig. 4 Earth through the ages: a. 4.5Ga (1Ga = 1 thousand million years) molten ball of rock growing in primordial dust: b. 4.5Ga molten ball of rock, being bombarded; c. 4Ga Arrival of water (from meteorites & comets), showing continued bombardment bringing water; d. 3.5Ga cloudy Earth, due to steam from hot rocks, volcanoes and so on; e. 3Ga Earth covered with oceans, with scattering of small volcanic islands. Microscopic life flourishes; f. 2.5Ga ‘Snowball Earth’; g. 1-2Ga long interval of microscopic life in the ocean; h. 0.75Ga Snowball Earth again; i. 0.35Ga Carboniferous continental period; and j. 0Ga modern Earth.

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).

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Fig. 5. Sequence of stages showing how a painting progresses to completion.

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).

E) Permian in RussiaFig. 6. Permian of Russia. In this somewhat dry setting near a lake, there is a group of Araucaria trees and, in the middle distance, some proto-gymnosperm trees (‘noeggerathialian’). There are also some cycads and equisetums. A pair of Dimedrodon (Synapsids) bask in the sun. In the extreme foreground resting on the growing tip of a horsetail (Equisetum) is a caloneurodean (these grew to 24mm). Below left, resting on a rock, there is a small arachnid of the Order: Uraraneida. These spiders had a tail (flagellum). Flying above is another insect, Sylvohymen sibericus. (Order: Megasecoptera).

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.

Fig. 7. Some examples of how I get inspiration by visiting other places. Photos of a crater (Timanfaya Visitors’ centre, Lanzarote) and towering rock formations (near mount Teide, Tenerife) inspired me to paint this alien volcanic scene, complete with hypothetical life forms.

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.

G) T.Rex & Impending Doom2Fig. 8. T Rex and impending doom. It is the end of the Cretaceous Period. An asteroid looms large and will soon impact the earth. The T Rex was about to scavenge a dead hadrosaur (Parasaurolophus), when it looks up sensing impending doom. The storm clouds are closing in, symbolising the end of an era.

Richard’s paintings can be viewed at http://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).


Buy Fossils, Crystals, Tools
Subscribe to Deposits
Join Fossil Hunts
UK Fossil Locations