A painting of a tyrannosaurus rex chasing two smaller theropod dinosaurs in an open plain

The History and Evolution of Dinosaurs in the Art World

A Brief History of Dinosaur Paleontology

When people think about extinct animals, they tend to think of dinosaurs. These legendary beasts are considered by many paleontologists to be one of the most successful animal groups in our planet’s history, ruling the planet for about 172 million years from 237 to 65 million years BCE. Despite their long run, all that remains of them today is their bird descendants and fossil remains buried deep underground. Fossils are the preserved results of dead animals’ bones that have turned into stone. The bones have been covered by layers of sediment and water and, as time progressed over thousands and millions of years, these sediment layers stacked up and covered the bones, preventing the natural elements of the remains from degrading into dust. Fossilization, however, is very rare.  There is a less than one percent chance that an animal’s bones will fossilize and the process requires a combination of very specific environments and events to occur. Additionally, most discovered fossils are either broken, incomplete, or both. These issues make the tasks of finding fossils, putting them together to create full skeletons, and then trying to represent what the original creatures looked like very difficult.

With such limited information, the exact appearance of dinosaurs has always been a mystery. Indeed, many paleontologists and archeologists now believe that the idea and appearance of dragons in many cultures found all over the world were inspired by dinosaur fossils. It wasn’t until the early 19th century that dinosaurs first got their name and serious research into these prehistoric animals began. In 1824, British geologist William Buckland was the first to write a scientific paper on a dinosaur: the large, carnivorous theropod he named Megalosaurus (translated to “great lizard”). Two more dinosaur species were discovered by the British paleontologist Gideon Mantell: the Iguanodon (translated to “iguana tooth”) in 1822 and the Hylaeosaurus (translated to “belonging to the forest lizard”) in 1832. The word “dinosaur” (meaning “terrible lizard”) was later coined by British biologist Richard Owen in 1841. Owen sought to categorize these three newly discovered animals into a new clade because he realized their teeth and bones were so different from anything else that had been discovered. He characterized this new clade as composed of gigantic, lumbering, reptilians. Dinosaurs would continue from then on to fascinate and challenge the minds of scientists and artists alike as they tried to imagine and recreate these animals from a bygone era.

A watercolor painting called Duria Antiquior, depicting various prehistoric reptiles in the air, on the ground, and in the water
Artist: Henry De la Beche

Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins

One of the first major breakthroughs in the depiction of dinosaurs came from the famous British sculptor Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. Born in 1807, Hawkins grew up in London with a great love and fascination for animals, drawing, painting, and sculpting. In 1852, Hawkins was commissioned by the Crystal Palace company to create giant, life-sized models of dinosaurs and other extinct animals. These sculptures would be placed in the Crystal Palace Park in London, both to attract tourists and to educate people as to what dinosaurs “actually” looked like. Drawing upon the research of earlier paleontologists, including Mantell’s early illustrations, and benefiting from the direct oversight of Richard Owen, Hawkins set out to create his masterpieces. His several-ton sculptures were opened to the public in 1854 and drew crowds from all over the world. His sculptures are still in the Crystal Palace Park and can be seen to this day.

Without any complete skeletons and only a few teeth, jawbones, and other small fossils, Hawkins didn’t have much to go on. Even so, through the process of estimating size proportionality, it was clear to paleontologists at that time that these animals were enormous. Hawkins’ main inspiration for his designs was lizards and other modern-day reptiles. His most famous interpretation was of the Iguanodon, which was heavily influenced by Mantell’s original concept art. His version of the Iguanodon was a massive, lumbering, four-legged herbivore with scaly skin, a long tail that dragged on the ground, thick legs, a big stomach and, most iconically, a small horn on its nose like that of a rhinoceros. Other ideas he presented included the Megalosaurus walking on four legs and the Hylaeosaurus having a row of spikes running down its back like those of iguanas.

Hawkins’ ideas about the appearance of these dinosaurs didn’t prevail for very long. As more fossils began to be dug up, the less and less they supported the representations of dinosaurs Hawkins had created for the Crystal Palace exhibit. For example, in 1878, a goldmine of Iguanodon fossils was found in Bernissart, Belgium. The fossils revealed that the Iguanodon’s “horn” was in fact located on the animal’s hand like a spiked thumb. The fossils also suggest that the Iguanodon was much leaner than Hawkins had envisioned and that the Iguanodon walked on two legs instead of four. Other new fossil discoveries similarly found that large, predatory dinosaurs like the Megalosaurus walked on two legs, not four, and had much smaller forelimbs. While Hawkins’ dinosaurs became outdated, many people still attribute his art to inspiring a generation of new scientists and spurring the discovery of new dinosaur species.

Two sculptures of early Iguanodon concepts in the Crystal Palace Park in London
Artist: Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins

Charles R. Knight

The field of paleontology and its depiction in art went through another major change with American wildlife artist Charles R. Knight and his world-famous paleoart. While Knight wasn’t the first person to make art depicting prehistoric animals, he was one of the most skilled and detailed in his work of his time. Knight was born in New York in 1874 and grew up fascinated by nature and art. Even though he suffered from astigmatism and an injury to his right eye and was considered legally blind, Knight made vibrant and highly detailed artwork of many animals and their environments. His first major commission was from the American Museum of Natural History to create a restoration painting of a fossilized pig. After the success of this painting, museums and scientists around the world commissioned him to make paintings of dinosaurs for their exhibits and books. Knight’s paintings provided a never-before seen level of realism and attention to detail. His most famous works include Leaping Laelaps and Agathaumas Sphenocerus in 1897 and Cretaceous Period, Alberta in 1931.

Knight used the most current knowledge of dinosaurs and of other prehistoric animals available to him. Similar to some previous images of dinosaurs, Knight’s paintings depicted large, scaly, often slow animals with tails dragging on the ground. However, Knight was able to incorporate new and more accurate details into his paintings based on recent discoveries by paleontologists. For example, Knight placed the Iguanodon’s spike as a spiked thumb on the Iguanodon’s hand rather than a horn on the top of its snout as Hawkins had shown it. In another example, Knight painted some dinosaurs walking upright, reflecting the discovery that certain dinosaurs walked bipedally with a more vertical-like posture rather than on all fours. However, consistent with the thinking of paleontologists at this time, Knight did continue to paint bipedal dinosaurs with their tails still dragging behind them like those of kangaroos. Knight’s depictions of dinosaurs would influence the popular imagination of dinosaurs and such movies as the original 1933 version of King Kong and Fantasia in 1940.

A mural painting depicting a savannah during the Cretacous period with various dinosaurs present
Artist: Charles R. Knight

Dinosaur Renaissance

Nineteenth and early to mid-twentieth century notions about the appearance and habits of dinosaurs persisted until a renaissance of knowledge about dinosaurs began in the late 1960s, which continues to this day. Not surprisingly, this era of renewed interest in the study of dinosaurs corresponds with a similar rise of interest in the scientific field of paleontology. Before the 1960s, as shown by the paleoarts of the time, dinosaurs were mostly thought to be sluggish, cold-blooded reptiles with scaly skin. In the late 1960s, with the emergence of newer discoveries and theories regarding dinosaurs, paleontologists became more and more skeptical about these earlier depictions of dinosaurs. How people looked at dinosaurs once again went through a major shift.

A complete tyrannosaurus rex skeleton on display at a science center with children looking at it

Image source: Orlando Science Center

Robert Bakker

One of the most prominent and impactful paleontologists who was a main driver of the dinosaur renaissance was the American paleontologist and author Robert Bakker. Bakker was in fact the scientist who described the current escalation in people’s interest in paleontology as the dinosaur renaissance. In his 1986 book The Dinosaur Heresies: New Theories Unlocking the Mystery of the Dinosaurs and their Extinction, Bakker described his theory that dinosaurs weren’t cold-blooded at all, but rather warm-blooded creatures like modern mammals and birds. This was a game-changer. The assumption that dinosaurs moved slowly and sluggishly was based on the previous understanding that dinosaurs were cold-blooded animals and, therefore, their energy level correlated directly with the environment’s temperature. By looking at evidence such as the growth rates of dinosaurs as well as the shapes of certain bones, Bakker argued that dinosaurs were fast, agile animals with warm blood that allowed them to self-regulate their body temperature. Moreover, further fossil discoveries about the placement of hip joints and lack of tail-tracks also suggest that these prehistoric creatures didn’t drag their tails on the ground behind them but instead were able to support their tails in the air. This revelation also led to the hypothesis that bipedal dinosaurs stood more horizontally than vertically to maintain their balance. Based on these new discoveries about dinosaur anatomy and Bakker’s own theories about warm-blooded dinosaurs, he created multiple images of these faster and stronger dinosaurs. As a result of the renown of Bakker’s work, he became an advisor for the Jurassic Park movies, helping to guide the depiction of how these animals would have looked and moved.

A black and white illustration of a sprinting raptor
Artist: Robert Bakker

Dinosaurs with Feathers

Along with the new theory of warm-blooded dinosaurs, paleontologists began to take another look at the dinosaurs’ closest living relatives. Evidence of dinosaurs having feathers first appeared in the 1860s with the discovery of the Archaeopteryx (translated to “first bird”) in 1861. Nonetheless, most paleontologists discounted that evidence and believed that dinosaurs were not the ancestors of birds. Perhaps influenced in part by the success and popularity of the artist’s renditions of dinosaurs as slow, scaled reptiles, they rejected the arguments that were made which posited that dinosaurs were related to birds. However, in the 1960s, a century after the discovery of the Archaeopteryx, the American paleontologist John Ostrom, who was Bakker’s mentor, brought the bird-dinosaur debate back into the foreground of paleontology. Bakker’s new theory that dinosaurs were warm-blooded and active animals lent more credibility to the idea that dinosaurs and birds were related species.

These new ideas about warm-bloodied, bird-like dinosaurs led to an explosion of new artistic representations of dinosaurs. In addition, further discoveries were made of fossilized imprints of feathers on various species of dinosaurs. Feathers were found to be especially prevalent with predatory therapod dinosaurs of the late Jurassic period and Cretaceous period. Even the well-known dinosaurs, such as the mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex (translated to “tyrannical lizard king”) were discovered to also have short, fur-like feathers around their bodies. As a result of these new discoveries, instead of looking to modern reptiles, artists began looking to modern birds with their bright and colorful plumage for inspiration. Dinosaurs began to be depicted as colorful animals with a wide variety of pigmented colors and patterns.

A painting of a raptor covered in feathers running through the forest
Artist: Chuang Zhao

Skin-Wrapping Controversy

From the 1960s on, as knowledge about dinosaurs increased, they began to be depicted in paleoarts as fast, colorful, and powerful animals. However, a new issue arose in the 2010’s concerning their artistic representations. Many artists used the fossilized skeletons of dinosaurs as their only guide to recreate what dinosaurs looked like. The result of this sole reliance on bones was that artists’ representations of dinosaurs only tended to show a painted skeletal frame of the dinosaur with a relatively thin outermost skin and sometimes covered by feathers. These illustrations left out much of the animal’s musculature, fat, and other bodily tissues. As a result, the artists often depicted dinosaurs as though they were extremely malnourished, virtually emaciated animals, with their bones pressing up against their skin and with sunken eyes. Certainly, it is a challenge to portray an animal from the distant past based on an incomplete record of bones. However, ignoring the almost certain existence of multiple layers of an animal’s anatomy represented a serious imaginative limitation that created disturbing and likely distorted images of dinosaurs.

A painting of a tyrannosaurus rex chasing two smaller theropod dinosaurs in an open plain
Artist: Mohammad Haghani

John Conway, C. M. Kösemen, and Darren Naish

The trend of “skin wrapping,” as it’s referred to, was most famously addressed by an  international cadre of artists and paleontologists. Australian illustrator John Conway, Turkish artist C. M. Kösemen, and British paleontologist Darren Naish published in 2012 the book All Yesterdays, which detailed their problems with current artistic renderings of dinosaurs as nothing but bags of skin and bone. The book is filled with illustrations of dinosaurs and other prehistoric reptiles with what they believed to be more true-to-life representations, including large guts, lips, and less pronounced bone structures. To drive their point home as to the absurdity of modern dinosaur art, they created several illustrations of modern-day animals such as swans, baboons, and hippos, applying the same skin-wrapping techniques being used to depict dinosaurs. The resulting images of modern-day animals were startling and looked nothing like what they do in real life. These drawings were so effective that they encouraged many paleoartists to begin to imagine the fats, muscles, and tissues that dinosaurs would likely have.

A painting depicting a tyrannosaurus rex chasing two therapod dinosaurs in a forest
Artist: John Conway

Future of Dinosaur Art

         We will most likely never truly know what dinosaurs actually looked like when they were alive. Fossil records do not preserve things such as pigmentation, muscles, and skin. The best that can be done is to make educated guesses based on what little remains of them. New discoveries concerning dinosaurs are uncovered every day, with many of them drastically changing how we imagine certain dinosaur species must have looked and acted. Thus, future renditions of dinosaurs may be significantly different from their current representations in our science and children’s books. Nevertheless, no matter how inaccurate artistic representations of these prehistoric creatures might have been, or still are, all the same they have managed to captivate the imaginations of entire generations, inspiring both further learning and the making new discoveries about dinosaurs.

Make sure to read other articles by me, including:


One thought on “The History and Evolution of Dinosaurs in the Art World

Leave a Reply