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