Review: All Yesterdays (Conway, Kosemen and Naish)

November 29, 2012

[Note added in press: Matt published his last post just as I was finishing this one up, so I am posting it without having read his beyond seeing that he also mentions All Yesterdays.]

It was back at the Lyme Regis SVPCA in 2011 that I first saw the material that’s now available as the new palaeoart book All Yesterdays []. It was the first talk of the conference, billed as an ice-breaker, and presented by John Conway with typical eccentricity using an old-fashioned slide-projector. In a pub.

In his talk, Conway presented beautiful paintings he had done of extinct animals — mostly dinosaurs — restored in ways very different from what we’re used to seeing.

Conway’s stated goal was to make the animals look as unconventional as possible – consistent with his speculations not actually being contradicted by the evidence. The result was a sequence of strangely beautiful and very memorable images.

You could argue that a pub in a seaside town on the first night of a conference is not the ideal time and place to launch a dozen novel palaeobiological hypotheses, but actually I suspect it worked well. As best I remember, the general response to the presentation was a lot of laughter, and some dismissive head-shaking, but also some thoughtful nodding — people thinking to themsleves “that might not be too far off, actually”.

And so we saw lekking elasmosaurs, their necks extending vertically into the air; we saw camarasaurs rolling in the mud like elephants; we saw tree-climbing goat-mimic protoceratopsids; we saw therizinosaurus looking more like triffids than dinosaurs. Lots of ideas, most of them perfectly reasonable but — it maybe seemed at the time — a little far-fetched.

Having opened SVPCA 2011 with his All Yesterdays presentation, it fell to Conway to close 2012’s meeting with All Todays — a complementary talk in which he showed paintings of modern animals as they might be reconstructed by far-future palaeontologists if they had only fossilised bones to work from.

So we had shrink-wrapped reptilian-looking cats, their jugal arches picked out in dermal scutes; we had hornless rhinos with sails; we had vultures reconstructed not with feathers (who would even come with such an idea, if we didn’t have modern birds as a reference point?) but with a much more obvious wing construction — a simple membrane.

Again, the timing of the talk encouraged delegates to see it as something lighthearted — a dessert to follow all the solid meat of the main sessions. But a few months on, now that the ideas have had time to percolate, they seem to me to be much more powerful. All Todays was an important reframing of All Yesterdays, a demonstration of just how easy it can be to misinterpret fossils — or, rather, to misinterpret live animals when working from fossils. In light of the shrink-wrapped cat, the fat Parasaurolophus from the earlier presentation seemed much more believable. In light of the naked-skinned vulture, the little-ball-of-fluff Leallynosaura didn’t feel like a stretch.

That’s why I am particularly delighted that the new book combines John Conway’s art  from both of these presentations (along with new pieces and text by Memo Kosemen, an introduction by Darren Naish and skeletal reconstructions by Scott Hartman). They belong together, complementing each other and making the whole more than the sum of its parts.

What’s happening here is in fact something much more significant than fodder for beer-fuelled discussions. It’s nothing less than a radical and wholly feasible re-imagining of prehistoric life. The quick, agile dinosaurs illustrated by Bakker and his followers in the late 1960s and 1970s revolutionised the ponderous image that had been perpetuated by Knight, Zallinger and Burian. But Bakkerian dinosaurs quickly became a new orthodoxy, adhered to just as strongly as the old had been. The Jurassic Park raptors of 1993 were direct descendants of Bakker’s 1969 drawing (above). And although details have changed since then — orientation of the hands, the addition of feathers — the general body shape has survived largely unchanged in all nearly all palaeoart.

It takes art as radical as that of All Yesterdays to show us just how locked-in we have all become to the Bakker-and-Paul school of life restoration. I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that Conway’s work is the first truly new approach to depicting extinct animals since Bakker’s — which means that All Yesterdays is not only the most beautiful but also the most important palaeoart book of the last four decades. Up to this point in history, we’ve had two dynasties of dinosaur art. I think All Yesterdays is the launch of the third.

And it is beautiful. There are some superb palaeoartists working in the field at the moment — it’s never been more dynamic and, in the best sense, competitive. But while the work even of some excellent practitioners is rather interchangeable, Conway’s work is always instantly recognisable because he is an artist first and a palaeoartist second. Others may be more accomplished or have better technique, but for my money Conway’s palaeoart has an evocative and even poignant quality that is very rare, maybe unique.

Of course, none of this is to say that all the speculation in All Yesterdays is correct. But the crucial point is this: neither is the speculation in all the other palaeoart of the last forty years. It encodes assumptions and speculations just as much as Conway’s does: but those assumptions and speculations have been invisible precisely because they have been so ubiquitous. Part of the value of All Yesterdays is that it gives us a proper perspective, for the first time, on ideas that we’ve accepted too readily through repetition and lack of challenge. So even when All Yesterdays is wrong, it performs a valuable function. Hopefully it will push the second-dynasty artists to raise their games.

Anyone who loves dinosaurs, science or art will find this book intensely rewarding. Anyone who loves all three will find it a necessity. Enthusiasts will probably want a printed copy rather than the e-Book.

The more I think about All Yesterdays, the more I think it’s the book of which, in 20 years’ time, freshly minted Ph.Ds being interviewed on blogs will say “That was the book that got me started as a kid.”

19 Responses to “Review: All Yesterdays (Conway, Kosemen and Naish)”

  1. Well, you’ve certainly hooked me. This book is going on my Xmas list.

  2. Kattato Garu Says:

    When’s the dead-tree edition coming out? I don’t ‘do’ ebooks.

  3. Mike Taylor Says:

    The dead-tree edition IS out — see the link for “a printed copy” in the penultimate paragraph of the review.

  4. I recall briefly discuss with Darren Naish early this month, in his review of the book ‘Dinosaur Art’ book, how the majority of dinosaur life-reconstructions don’t have that much “life” in them at all.

    Speculation is needed, I believe, to bring a certain believability to life-reconstructions and I’m sure to grab a printed copy once it hits Amazon.

    Wonderful review and I utterly agree.

  5. Henrique Niza Says:

    Uh, I confused myself typing that comment for whatever reason and wrote twice “life-reconstructions” instead of “live-reconstructions”.

  6. […] Review: All Yesterdays (Conway, Kosemen and Naish). SVPO overview on this new that might change the way we look at the past. […]

  7. Warren B Says:

    “therizinosaurus looking more like triffids than dinosaurs”

    Therizinosaurs are weird enough IMO, but I looked at the image and immediately thought “Wow – it looks like the Groke!”

    Took me a while to notice it’s inherited the giraffe-tongue from old Iguanodon speculations, too. I’m not complaining, though. It’s all masterfully done anyway.

    “I recall briefly discuss with Darren Naish early this month, in his review of the book ‘Dinosaur Art’ book, how the majority of dinosaur life-reconstructions don’t have that much “life” in them at all.”

    This might not be exactly what you mean, but I’ve often thought that ‘accuracy’ is more important to palaeoart (or some palaeoartists) than ‘realism’. I.e. immense and undeniable influence on palaeoart he may be, but ever since I got my hands on a copy of the Sci-Am Book of Dinosaurs, I’ve been a bit disillusioned by the cardboard cut-out look that occurs to a greater or lesser degree in a lot of GSP’s pieces, and how it’s been spread around. Maybe moreso in amateur than pro palaeoart, but still.
    I’m glad it’s shifted in the last few years – especially with the anti-shrink-wrap crowd and having to address the ‘lizard-faced monsters in gorilla suits’ problem, IMO. I agree with Mike that this book’s a very important landmark for that, at the least; and as he says above, I think the ‘artist first’ situation is important here.

    Now it needs to be put into kids’ and popular books to replace all the shonky, texture-smeared CGI. But anyway. There are two new and excellent palaeoart books out there, and in the space of a few months. I’m getting giddy…

  8. Henrique Niza Says:

    “… but I’ve often thought that ‘accuracy’ is more important to palaeoart than ‘realism’.”

    Exactly! It’s the mistake of blurring the line between science and art. Science make claims it can support while fossil live-reconstructions can’t nor should.

  9. Dean Says:

    X-mas item #1!!!

  10. Nick Says:

    I think John Conway is my new favorite dino illustrator. I particularly like the Troodon image with the flowering trees on his site.

    I thought I would also comment on the shrink wrapped head cat head mentioned above. Here is picture of a hairless cat complete with jugal process visible:

    I’m all for properly bulking out dinosaurs heads, but let’s not forget that the bony landmarks underneath the skin often dictate what’s visible on the outside. I completely understand where you are coming from though. I do sculptures and those shrink wrapped heads “and bodies” never look right in 3D. Also, scale really makes a difference. A good looking sculpture at say 1/35 scale looks great, but if you scale it up to even 1/8 scale it looks awful.

    And on a similar note, if we take illustrations of dinosaurs similar to G. Paul, and S. Hartman “both of which I love by the way” and flesh them out using the black outline around the skeletals you end up with a very emaciated looking animal.

    That’s it from me by the way. I will probably gift the book to myself for Christmas. Was also thinking a print of that Troodon illustration.

  11. […] yet bought the book, though you can get many insights from some of the following links: here, here, here, here, here, here, and here (I am not quite sure why, but I found it amusing to do it that […]

  12. […] contrary to the long-running tradition of “shrink-wrapping” dinosaurs in a minimum of muscle and skin, the skulls of sauropods and the anatomy of living […]

  13. […] contrary to the long-running tradition of “shrink-wrapping” dinosaurs in a minimum of muscle and skin, the skulls of sauropods and the anatomy of living […]

  14. […] should encourage palaeoartists involved in the All Yesterdays movement to dramatically bulk up at least some of their sauropod […]

  15. Bryan Riolo Says:

    Knight’s ponderous restorations? Some people ask WHY I have some problems with paleontologists’ speculations and conclusions and here is a perfect illustration. While some of Knight’s restorations are ponderous, many are full of life and action…and movement. When I think of his work, the leaping dryptosaurs and leaping/hunting Ornitholestes comes to mind. The T-rex and Triceratops confrontation also pops into my head. Other illustrations come to mind, but look up Glut’s book on Knight’s work and please LOOK!

    Charles R. Knight could put more life into a sleeping lizard than most modern paleoartists can put into a running dinosaur.

    And now we are needing to move into a new paradigm???? Bakker’s art is full of life, while Paul’s work has revolutionized the way many artists look at restoring prehistoric animals, even in our fantasy work.

    So now the new paradigm is dinosaurs doing different things than “we” had imagined before. I have nothing at all against John Conway. Or his art. But new, in the sense of a NEW style? Okay, Mr. Scientist types. Sigh…I’ll type out two names. They are fantasy artists. Please look up their work, especially their sketches. Frank Frazetta and Roy G. Krengkel. Many stylistic similarities. And they way pre-date Conway. I applaud his work, but new?

    To people who haven’t been out of the alleyway of science, yes. To those of us who explore art…nope. Paleontology and the incredible work you scientists have done has been an amazing boon and inspiration to those of us who are creative artists. I LOVE science. I’ve been marinated in science since I was a little child.

    Why not take a LOOK at the stuff you’ve often inspired? We who do fantasy would be happy as raptors gobbling up tenontosaur guts to see you!

  16. Mike Taylor Says:

    Well, Bryan, it was no part of my purpose to criticise Knight as an artist. I think he did a great job of imbuing his prehistoric creatures with the quality of life that he believed characterised them. His problem is that he was working in a context where the animals were thought to be ponderous, so that’s what he portrayed. Yes, there are exceptions including the Ornitholestes and the Laelaps pair — but that’s the point; they are exceptions. The Tyrannosaurus-vs.-Triceratops painting that you cite is a fine example of a very static tableau. More relevant to this blog, of course, his Brontosaurus is the epitome of the swampbound sauropod meme.

  17. […] Another shot from my visit last month to the Museum of Osteology in Oklahoma City: the business end of a tegu (Tupinambis). Lots of cool stuff in this pic: heterodont dentition, wacky sclerotic ossicles, and some sweet neurovascular foramina along the maxilla. Someone should knock out a shrink-wrapped life restoration, a la All Todays. […]

  18. […] so often when we look at All Yesterdays-style palaeo-art, the initial reaction is “no way!”, but that’s quickly followed […]

  19. […] We’ve often told you here on SV-POW! that necks lie. But legs lie, as well. Not to mention arms. Which is why so most of our life restorations of dinosaurs (theropods at least) probably look nothing like these animals looked in life. […]

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