Four million year old Ardipithecus ramidus is the currently oldest known bipedal hominin. Csotonyi put a lot of himself into this digital painting, using heavily remastered photos of himself for visual reference of ape anatomy.

Acheroraptor beats T. Rex to a fresh carcass. Acheroraptor is a Deinonychus-sized velociraptorine dromaeosaur from the Hell Creek Formation.

A four-foot tall backlit panel in the enormous new Hall of Paleontology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. This image depicts a rare but plausible encounter between the giant shark C. Megalodon (jaw diameter estimated at 11 feet) and a medium-sized proboscidean, Platybelodon. Whereas adult sharks likely dined over deep water, relegating their young to the safety of nurseries in shallow lagoons, it is plausible that an adult could enter shallow water occasionally, especially under stress.

Crocodilians have a far more diverse history than their few living representatives suggest. Not all were carnivores, as the herbivorous and armored Desmatosuchus from the Triassic illustrates.

A collaborative painting with Csotonyi's wife, Alexandra Lefort (a planetary scientist and wildlife painter). Hoplophoneus is a 35 million-year-old nimravid, a group of mammals closely related to cats but not cats themselves.

Between dry spells, synapsid predators such as Secondontosaurus and several species of Dimetrodon take advantage of the xenacanthid shark- and amphibian-choked streams in a dynamic ecosystem investigated by Dr. Robert Bakker’s team near Seymour, Texas.

This Rhamphorhynchus hypothetically feeding by gleaning squid from near the surface of the ocean, is based on discussions with palaeontologist, Dr. David Hone.

In a reversal of the more commonly portrayed attack, the spinosaurid Suchomimus snags a young Sarcosuchus by the tail in Cretaceous Niger as a young Kryptops drinks.

Inspired by research of Dr. James Kirkland, this image reenacts a moment in the last few hours of life of a pack of Utahraptor and the Hippodraco that lured them to their miry fate in a patch of Early Cretaceous Utah quicksand.

From the Oligocene, an epoch of the Cenozoic known for its bizarre fauna. Ruled by sauropod-sized rhinos, fierce hyaenodontids (left), enigmatic oreodonts, and the near-cat sabre-toothed nimravids (right), it was also a time when the gigantic toothy hippo relatives called enteledonts (e.g. Archaeotherium) may have hunted diminutive early horses (e.g. Mesohippus) (center).

Co.Create

Stunning Works of Paleoart Bring Dinosaurs To Life

Artist Julius Cotonyi talks about the art and science of giving shape, color, and scales to dinosaurs.

Julius Csotonyi, an ecologist and microbiologist by training, is also the go-to artist for paleontologists looking to bring their discoveries to life. His new book, The Paleoart of Julius Csotonyi, showcases over 150 renderings of creatures that lived during the Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic eras.

Csotonyi occupies a singular place between art and science, using scientist's papers, finds, and photos, and his own imagination, to illustrate, and create narratives for prehistoric creatures. "When I was much younger I was just sketching for a hobby," says Csotonyi, whose first drawing at age three was purportedly a dinosaur. Now he is asked to create artwork based on specific papers and studies. If he can't see a fossil in person, scientists will send him 3-D images or photographs taken from multiple angles. But it's up to Csotonyi to create a scene around the illustration that is both scientifically accurate and visually compelling.

In one assignment, Csotonyi was asked to render the skull of an Acheroraptor, a creature similar to the Velociraptors featured in Jurassic Park. To highlight the skull, he drew a lateral view of the animal's head. Then he created a dramatic scene in which the smallish, nimble Acheroraptor beats a T. Rex to the carcass of a Triceratops. In the picture, the T. Rex "has a surprised look," says Csotonyi, "Like 'Hey? How did you beat me to this food?'" Knowledge of how these dinosaurs might have interacted is important to creating this scene, but so is Csotonyi's artistic flourish. "Dinosaurs didn’t have the kind of muscles that allowed them to make expressions like we do," he explains. "But perhaps surprise was still possible to convey."

Also apparent here are the Acheroraptor's feathers. "There's still some debate about the prevalence of feathers versus scales, but we know that the Acheroraptors were feathered," says Csotonyi. In fact, this is the main criticism against the Spielberg's Velociraptors: they were too scaley. ("I’m okay with letting that slide," Csotonyi says. "As long as it’s clear that it’s fiction.") Csotonyi also covered the T. Rex in a downy-feathery coat, based on increasing evidence that the beast also lacked scales. The Triceratops, meanwhile, definitely had large scales. And because the scales of living animals often feature alternating bands of color, the same thing might have been true for the Triceratops. The creature also lived in the forest, so Csotonyi imagined a camouflaged palate, like "a splash of sunlight through the trees: yellowish on a gray background."

But he's the first person to acknowledge that this is only guesswork. "The Triceratops was a large animal and had horns, so it was probably safer against other species." In other words, maybe it didn't need camouflage at all.

Csotonyi works with line drawings, painting, and photographic compositing, but digital illustration has become the focus of his work. It's much easier to edit when using an interactive LCD display and stylus--especially important when scientists are constantly revising their understanding of the past. Csotonyi once painted an Anchiornis huxleyi--a bird-like dinosaur--in vibrant red and blues. Then a paper came out, which made Csotonyi rethink the plausibility of his choices. He revised the image with a new color pattern based on the new research. "It was much easier to change on a digital than traditional medium," he says. And yet he says there isn't much lost when working in digital. "It's just like working with a paintbrush and a canvas," he says. "When I make contact with the screen, it’s just like applying paint."

[Illustrations by Julius Csotonyi]

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