Ceratopsian Cornucopia Print

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Due to popular demand, I have made available as a print (on paper, canvas, metal print, framed or unframed, etc.) an updated version of the “Ceratopsian Cornucopia” image that appears in the recent book of my artwork, “The Paleoart of Julius Csotonyi” (2014), by Julius Csotonyi and Steve White; Titan Publishing.

Also, for the month of October 2014, I’ll be donating 70% of the profits from all print sales on the site to a biological conservation foundation, such as the Nature Conservancy (http://www.nature.org). Paleontology reveals the amazing diversity of life forms that our planet has hosted in the past, but I’d like to work toward keeping as many species and ecosystems extant as we can!

Just a note: The prints available on my print sales website (http://csotonyi.artistwebsites.com/art/all/all/all) are for private end-users only, and any image use for commercial purposes needs to be arranged directly through me (feel free to email me through the Contact link on this website).

Wayward Goldilocks Worlds

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This is a new digital painting that I have completed, depicting a hypothetical planetary system at the fringes of a red dwarf star system. Here, an icy moon (foreground planetary body) orbits a tenuously ringed gas giant (the larger planet behind). Internal tidal flexing caused by an elliptical orbit around the gas giant has melted some of the moon’s ice to form an internal ocean. This subsurface water is under extremely high pressure beneath a thick ice crust, and when tidal flexing causes the crust to fracture intermittently near the southern pole, a geyser of liquid erupts hundreds of kilometers into the vacuum of space above the moon’s surface, becoming visible as the thin plume or jet near the lower edge of the moon. This is based on a very real phenomenon: in our own solar system, Saturn’s moon Enceladus exhibits just this sort of plume. Even more excitingly, direct sampling and chemical analysis of the plume by the Cassini orbiter as it passed through the plume yielded a suite of complex organic compounds as part of the plume composition (Combi et al. 2006).

So why am I posting a digital painting of space art instead of paleoart today? Well, four reasons, actually.

1. As a scientific illustrator, my work covers a broader scope than just paleoart — I know, shocking, isn’t it? In fact astronomical artwork is another one of my favourite subjects. I especially enjoy studying and depicting things that are difficult or impossible to image directly, either because they are too small (hence my research in microbiology), or too old (paleoart fits here) or too far away (hence space art).

2. I’m married to a planetary scientist, so there’s that bit of influence. My wife, Dr. Alexandra Lefort (yes, that would be the same Alexandra Lefort whose name appears at the bottom of this website’s pages, because she designed and built my website) studies the traces of ancient water that once flowed across the surface of Mars when it was warmer and wetter (Lefort et al., 2012), at a time over 3 billion years ago when there were at least two habitable planets in our solar system, and when an ocean hung more than 54 million km above Earth’s first life forms. This painting was a small anniversary project, as today is our anniversary.

3. Speaking of important dates, today, July 14, 2014, marks a year to the day until the next great interplanetary mission, the New Horizons spacecraft, reaches the Pluto system for a quick flyby of this perplexing little world that may have lost its planetary status but none of its mystique. Pluto may be distant, but its ruddy surface  shows patterns of irregular reflectance (Stern et al., 2012) that could indicate the presence of organic compounds. Therefore, a depiction of a planetary body with signs of habitability far from its parent star seemed appropriate today.

4. And speaking of habitability, I really wanted to underscore an important point about what is commonly known as “the Goldilocks zone”, in reference to “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”. This is that region of space in star systems that is not too far from the parent star (where it would be frigid) and not to near (where it would be too toasty), but in the middle where the temperature is just right for life to develop and persist on planets whose orbit resides in this habitable zone. This is where liquid water, critical to life as we know it, would be stable at the surface of an atmosphere-bearing planet, and not freeze solid or boil away. We normally think of the habitable zone as tracing out a fuzzy edged ring around the parent star, its diameter and thickness depending on factors such as the temperature of the star. However, it’s important to remember that the extent of the habitable zone is influenced by more than just the distance from the parent star. Moons such as Enceladus or Europa or Titan are far beyond the habitable zone for planets in our solar system. However, as the subsurface oceans of all of these moons demonstrate, factors such as tidal flexing caused by the peculiarities of their orbits around their parent planets can establish little habitable oases for life at distances from the parent star to which we would not normally expect the habitable zone to extend. This demonstrates that in our search for extrasolar habitable planets and ultimately life, we must be careful not to rule out environments before we can gain sufficient information about the fine structure of each planetary system.

References

Combi, M.R., Ip, W., Cravens, T.E., McNutt, R.L. Jr., Kasprzak, W., Yelle, R, Luhmann, J., Niemann, H., Gell, D., Magee, B., Fletcher, G., Lunine, J., Tseng, W. (2006) Cassini Ion and Neutral Mass Spectrometer: Enceladus plume composition and structure. Science. 311:1419-1422. DOI: 10.1126/science.1121290

Lefort, A., Burr, D.M., Beyer, R.A., Howard, A.D. (2012) Inverted fluvial features in the Aeolis-Zephyria Plana, western Medusae Fossae Formation, Mars: Evidence for post-formation modification. Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets. 117: E3. DOI: 10.1029/2011JE004008

Stern, S.A., Cunningham, N.J., Hain, M.J., Spencer, J.R., Shinn, A. (2012) First ultraviolet reflectance spectra of Pluto and Charon by the Hubble Space Telescope Cosmic Origins Spectrograph: Detection of absorption features and evidence for temporal change. The Astronomical Journal. 143(1):22. doi:10.1088/0004-6256/143/1/22

Eocene mammals and insects from Driftwood Canyon

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Heptodon, Silvacola and friends in a restoration of the Eocene paleoenvironment of Driftwood Canyon, Britich Columbia, Canada.

ujvp20_v034_i04_coverRecently, I was commissioned to prepare an illustration to accompany the press release for research conducted by Drs. Jaelyn Eberle, Natalia Rybczynski, and David Greenwood on new mammalian material discovered in Eocene strata in Driftwood Canyon, central British Columbia, Canada. The discovery centered on new material from a tiny early hedgehog called Silvacola acares and the small tapiroid Heptodon (Eberle et al., 2014). It is an additional honour that the image was selected to appear on the cover of the current issue of the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology, in which the research is published as the featured article (volume 34, issue 4).

The artwork depicts the typical Eocene paleoenvironment preserved in the Driftwood Canyon fossil beds. In the image, a Heptodon has been startled from drinking by a sound off to the right, while a small Silvacola acares on a moss-covered surface stalks the green lacewing (Pseudochrysopa harveyi) in the foreground. A water strider floats at lower left, while a march fly rests on a stalk of Equisetum at upper left. A damselfly flutters above the hedgehog at upper right under red autumn leaves of Alnus. Other plants depicted include water fern (Azolla) and waterlilies (Nuphar) (both floating), and the terrestrial plants Thuja, Metasequoia, Sassafras and saw palmettos.

This piece of artwork is an example of photographic compositing, in which I rely on photographic material of plant, animal and background elements, merging and artistically adjusting them in such a way that they become integrated into a single image. For this, I rely on my own photographic library of about 250,000 images from many locations worldwide, from the west coast of British Columbia to Texas, Florida, France and many more exotic locations that contain analogues of ecological communities in the deep past. There is usually no environment that perfectly represents an extinct one, given how complex biological communities are, but some come pretty close, and I can therefore target certain locations for trips to acquire images that will require the least modification to build up a restoration. For example, regions in Texas, Louisiana and Florida contain environments that resemble the Eocene communities of British Columbia’s Driftwood Canyon, or at least some of the same major groups of plants.

Still, even when I manage to acquire photographs of the most similar extant communities, I cannot simple plunk restorations of animals into a single photograph. The botanical species composition will still differ substantially enough for me to have to build up an image from dozens to hundreds of extracted parts of individual photographs. Also, I need to adjust the anatomy of extant plants to match that of the target extinct taxa, which often requires a great deal of work.

In the end, each image such as the one representing this research is built up from scores of parts of photographs, modified by additional painting and morphological and lighting modification afterward. I still sometimes encounter the misconception that photographic compositing is as easy as striking a few keys to render an image, and this could not be farther from the truth. The plants are complicated enough to integrate and modify, but the animal buildups are an order of magnitude more complicated (and much more like painting, actually). In short, there is no CTRL-SHIFT-H shortcut to generate a Heptodon. In many ways, I prefer painting images from scratch with a paintbrush or stylus because successful photographic compositing requires a great deal of a very different kind of work (more akin to programming) than does painting. Truth to tell, I find painting more relaxing.

Still, successful photographic compositing results in the most photographically realistic quality of image, resulting in perhaps the easiest suspension of disbelief for the viewer. Since some of my greatest motivation for paleoart stems from a desire to contribute to public education about the wonders of the prehistoric past, I find photographic compositing to be a very effective means of achieving this goal.

This project is also a great example of the often mutualistic relationship between paleontology and paleoart that I frequently rave about. As a paleoartist, I absolutely depend upon paleontological scientific literature to reliably inform my restorations. However, from the opposite perspective, supporting a scientific publication with works of paleoart can also help to enhance its visibility, both in the scientific literature (especially in cases like this, with the added exposure associated with journal cover art) and in the broader public eye (in news media stories that are more visible when accompanied by colorful artwork). Therefore, both parties clearly benefit from the collaboration, and I hope that this will help to encourage more such interactive endeavors between paleontologists and paleoartists in the future.

References

Eberle, J.J., N. Rybczynski, and D.R. Greenwood. 2014. Early Eocene mammals from the Driftwood Creek beds, Driftwood Canyon Provincial Park, northern British Columbia. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology 34(4): 739-746. DOI:10.1080/02724634.2014.838175

Up to the Eyeballs in acrylics. Part 1: Digital draft

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“Up to the Eyeballs”, digital painting rough draft in preparation for acrylic painting. The image features Pachyrhinosaurus lakustai from the Wapiti Formation, Alberta, Canada.

Today I begin a several-part post in which I follow a painting from start to completion in acrylics. The posts will not necessarily be immediately consecutive, so I will add links as they accumulate to make navigation easier.

Most of my work these days is digital, but sometimes I experiment with techniques in traditional media, in this case, acrylics. I enjoy digital painting, but although the techniques required for digital painting are similar to those used in traditional painting, I think that it is beneficial for even a purely digital artist to practice techniques with a brush, pencil or pen. Plus, it’s extremely enjoyable to get covered in paint.

In this first post of the series, I set out the subject of the painting and demonstrate how I created the digital painting that will serve as the rough draft for the subsequent acrylic work.

For this piece of paleoart, I wanted to focus on something that is less bloody and violent and more along the lines of something that we might see while out on a Cretaceous safari. The piece features Pachyrhinosaurus lakustai from the Wapiti Formation, near Grande Prairie, Alberta in Canada, around 73 to 75 million years ago. This environment was a low-gradient, waterlogged alluvial plain that was rich in wetlands, including oxbow lakes, bogs and marshes (Fanti and Miyashita, 2009). Therefore, it is likely that dinosaurs such as Pachyrhinosaurus would have had to cross water bodies on their journeys from time to time.

The painting was inspired by pictures of elephants that have waded partly out into lakes or rivers; when they emerge, there is a sharp horizontal dichotomy boundary between the rough, dry and low-lustre skin above and the wet, glistening, water-darkened skin below this line.

Young elephants — like the juvenile Pachyrhinosaurus in this image — sink farther into water of any given wading depth than do adults, and the water line recorded on their skin is consequently higher on their bodies. Presumably, young dinosaurs would have had to float and swim through some waters that their parents may have been able to wade through. In such cases, only the tops of their heads and backs would have protruded from the water surface, and in such cases, they would consequently have been literally up to their eyeballs in the stream or lake.

The painting depicts a juvenile and adult pair emerging after such a crossing, and the piece is entitled “Up to the Eyeballs”. Although a diverse ichnofossil assemblage has been discovered in the Wapiti Formation (Fanti et al., 2013), I am unaware of avian skeletal remains or other bird ichnofossils having been found there yet. However, Currie (1981) has reported characteristic bird tracks (ichnotaxon Aquatilavipes swiboldae, possibly an early shore bird) from the older (Aptian, Early Cretaceous) Gething Formation in eastern British Columbia, not too terribly far from the Pipestone Creek bone beds of the Wapiti Formation that have yielded Pachyrhinosaurus lakustai. It’s therefore reasonable to hypothesize the presence of shorebirds in the Wapiti Formation, of which I have painted three individuals buzzing the Pachyrhinosaurus pair.

I enjoy painting scenes that include water, either on the surface of subjects in a thin film, or in pools, because it allows the exploration of a wide range of lustre, and the associated reflective phenomena such as coherent image formation and flare points from reflected sunlight. In addition, I have depicted the scene a short time before sunset, with the low sun generating not only interesting distributions of shadow, but also an interesting contrast between warm incident light from the sun and cool bluish scattered light from the sky. Below is a sequence of images showing several stages in the progression of the digital rough from outline to completion.

1. Outline.

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2. Beginning the dry skin.

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3. Adjusting values and adding more skin detail.

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4. Starting on the wet skin.

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5. Complete digital draft.

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References

Currie, P.J. 1981. Bird footprints from the Gething Formation (Aptian, Lower Cretaceous) of Northeastern British Columbia, Canada. Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology. 1: 257-264.

Fanti, F. and Miyashita, T. 2009. A high latitude vertebrate fossil assemblage from the Late Cretaceous of west-central Alberta, Canada: evidence for dinosaur nesting and vertebrate latitudinal gradient. Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology. 275:37-53.

Fanti, F., Bell, P.R. and Sissons, R.L. 2013. A diverse, high-latitude ichnofauna from the Late Cretaceous Wapiti Formation, Alberta, Canada. Cretaceous Research. 41:256-269.

Paleoart contest and Palaeocast interview

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Palaeocast Episode 30 paleoart contest advertisement. Image: Dave Marshall.

Recently, Dave Marshall interviewed me about my paleoart work for Episode 30 of on his award-winning paleontology podcast series, “Palaeocast“. You can listen to the audio online at the Episode 30 link, where we chat for just under an hour on everything from what possesses me to paint dinosaurs; to dirty secrets about how I pull it off; our new book (“The Paleoart of Julius Csotonyi” by Steve White and myself); favourite dinosaurs (of course!); the good, the bad and the ugly in paleoart today; how paleoart relies on scientific research; my own research on crazy life at the bottom of the ocean and extreme microbiology; paleoart competitions; and fish-eye views of Apatosaurus. If on the interview I  sound like I’m rambling, or redundant, or redundant, or inebriated, it’s because the we recorded the Skype interview at the pre-coffee time of 7 a.m. my time and I’m not a morning person. Disclaimer made.

One really funky aspect of this Palaeocast episode (apart from the “brilliant” artwork that accompanies it :-) ) is that Dave Marshall is hosting a paleoart competition (see below) for anyone who is not a professional paleoartist (I’m still terribly bitter about the fact that I cannot compete in it! :-) ). Until midnight (U.K. time) on July 31, 2014, you can upload your own paleoart via Facebook or Twitter using the hashtag:

#palaeocastart

Check Dave’s Palaeocast site for the specific rules of the contest, but three winners, based on the cumulative number of likes and favourites, will be awarded a copy of “The Paleoart of Julius Csotonyi” by Steve White and Julius Csotonyi, courtesy of Titan Books. So get on board, have fun drawing or painting some paleontology themed subjects, upload them and good luck!

New Dinosaur Book for Kids

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“Why Did T. rex Have Short Arms”, by Melissa Stewart; Illustrated by Julius T. Csotonyi. (Released July 1, 2014) Image: Sterling Children’s Books.

Recently, I illustrated a new book about dinosaurs authored by children’s book writer Melissa Stewart. The book, entitled “Why Did T. rex Have Short Arms?”, was released yesterday by Sterling Children’s Books.

Although it is aimed at children 6 years old and up, the book is intended to be educational, so I strove to paint not cartoonish but realistic looking dinosaurs. (For those who are interested, the tyrannosaurs that appear in the book do have a thin coat of feathers.) There’s even an Acheroraptor on the cover. Therefore, even though the book is aimed at children, it may be of interest to adults who collect paleoart.

Unlike a lot of my previous work, the artwork that I created for this book is not photographic compositing, but digital paintings, which look a lot like acrylic paintings and are accomplished in very much the same way, adding color one brushstroke at a time. I have strived to make use of unusual viewing angles and interesting lighting conditions to depict 13 scenes of dinosaurs in their natural environments. These include a faceoff between Tarbosaurus and a mother Therizinosaurus, a Maiasaura nesting colony, a browsing herd of Argentinosaurus, Anabisetia slipping past the maw of Giganotosaurus, a careless and now muddy-faced Daspletosaurus succumbing to the business end of a Euoplocephalus, and the rapidly approaching plume of the K-Pg impact event at the southern tip of Laramidia.

New dinosaur coin: Xenoceratops

One of the class of projects in which I have participated is the illustration of prehistoric-themed coins for the Royal Canadian Mint. These have included the popular glow-in-the-dark series (Pachyrhinosaurus lakustai, Quetzalcoatlus sp., Tylosaurus pembinensis and Tiktaalik roseae) and the silver engraved coin series (Bathygnathus borealis and Scutellosaurus).

Today, immediately following Canada Day, the Mint has released a new dinosaur-themed coin, which means I can now talk about the artwork that I did for it. The new coin is also in the silver engraved series, and features the relatively newly discovered ceratopsian dinosaur, Xenoceratops foremostensis (Ryan et al., 2012). A total of 8500 coins of this design have been minted.

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Screen capture of the Royal Canadian Mint’s website showing the new silver engraved coin featuring Xenoceratops foremostensis.

The lead author of the paper describing the dinosaur, Dr. Michael J. Ryan, was also the scientific consultant on the coin’s design. Xenoceratops, a 78 million year old centrosaurine, was described as the oldest known Canadian ceratopsid, 0.5 million years older than Albertaceratops, and only 1 million years younger than the Utah taxon Diabloceratops. Earlier, I was also commissioned by Dr. Ryan to create the press release image for the dinosaur (below). Xenoceratops makes an impactful impression because of the distinctive epiparietal and squamosal spikes on its frill.

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Xenoceratops foremostensis press release image accompanying the announcement of Ryan et al. (2012). Image: Julius T. Csotonyi.

References

Ryan, Michael J.; Evans, David C.; Shepherd, Kieran M. (2012). “A new ceratopsid from the Foremost Formation (middle Campanian) of Alberta”. Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences 49 (11): 1251–1262. doi:10.1139/e2012-056.

Launch of csotonyi.com 2.0

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Welcome to the launch of a completely rebooted version of my art website, csotonyi.com. The look is updated, there are plenty of new art pieces that weren’t viewable on the old site, and the artwork is organized differently, according to broad geochronological categories of eras, and additionally periods within the Mesozoic era. Credit for the web design goes to the tireless efforts and web design skills of Alexandra Lefort. Without her, I’d still be procrastinating on the update.

In addition, this art blog is a brand new addition to my website. Finally, a place where I can bore all of you with cogitation about new pieces of paleoart that I produce. My aim for this blog is to share tips or reflections on the artistic process, call attention to new events or exhibits featuring my work and introduce new pieces of artwork as I complete them, with some thoughts about their development or inspiration. As I complete new pieces, the various galleries will fill out, and new galleries will be added to accommodate the expansion of the portfolio.

Enjoy your visit!