Guest post: the genesis of Davide Bonadonna’s Spinosaurus painting

September 16, 2014

In the last post I pointed out some similarities between Davide Bonadonna’s new Spinosaurus painting and Brian Engh’s Spinosaurus painting from 2010. I also suggested that Davide might have borrowed from Brian and might have crossed a line in doing so. I was mistaken about that, as this post will show, and I’m sorry. 

I woke up this morning to find that Mike and Davide had a very fruitful and collegial discussion going in email, which they had kindly copied me on. Davide had offered to send his in-progress sketches, Mike had offered to put them up here as a guest post, “because it’ll be a fascinating post — NOT as any kind of defense” (his words, with which I fully agree), and Davide had kindly assented (Brian’s post on how his Spinosaurus came to be is on his own blog). Davide and I corresponded directly this morning and he’s been very gracious and generous with his time, thoughts, and art.

We are always thrilled when we have the opportunity to show how awesome paleoart came into being (like this and this), and this case is no exception. Best now if I just get out of the way, so — over to Davide!

— Matt


About the illustration:

In early November 2013, I was commissioned by NGMag, via Nizar Ibrahim of the University of Chicago, to create an illustration for a page in the October 2014 issue.

Working for about six years with Simone Maganuco, co-author of the study, on the Spinosaurus (I made the digital model from which the model exhibited in Washington was printed, Nizar left us carte blanche.

Some key points were essential, however: showing the Spinosaurus while swimming, his webbed feet, show its prey in the environment of Kemkem, possibly including all the major players in the scene, Mawsonia, Alanqa and Carcharodontosaurus.

Problems: the Spinosaurus is very long, the subjects to be represented too many. It was decided first of all to exclude the Carcharodontosaurus and then framing a foreshortened Spinosaurus, which would allow us to make room for the actors. Given the size and shape of Spinosaurus we knew that we would inevitably get what I call the “Luis Rey-effect” style. So, after gathering plenty of references, I made my sketches, suggesting a frontal dynamic sight (4) and a back view (1-2-3), presenting both solutions to Nizar at last SVP in L.A.









Meanwhile the size of the final art had to be changed because from the mag they asked for a double opening page of the article. And in the same time, thanks to a friend suggestion, I drew a third version (5), with the Idea to put all them together (8).





But the scene was too crowded and we decided to use just two animals, so I tried different combinations (6).



And the best one was to put both frontal versions together, one close to the other (7).



And again the two-pages image had to be changed because NG decided to turn it in a three-pages wide illustration, something that helped me to put Mawsonia in the background (9).



When finished, before approval, the NG editorial staff asked me to put an animal familiar to the modern public, which could help the reader to feel how big was the Spinosaurus, and a turtle was the chosen one (10).



Brian Engh’s illustration:

I vaguely remember I once had seen Brian’s illustration before today and I did not put it in my archive as a reference. All my main references are these: crocodile photos, patchworks made with my 3D digital model and Dinoraul one (11).



The water view comes from an NG poster about marine reptiles (12).



Most of my illustrations have a fisheye distortion, this is not the first one I make (see on my website Scipionyx, Neptunidraco, DiplodocusAllosaurus and others).

You can easily see from the sketches progress how a traditional vanishing point becomes gradually a curve.


This is a case of illustrative convergence. ;-)

That’s all folks, I think. If you have any other doubt, just ask. I’m at your disposal.



26 Responses to “Guest post: the genesis of Davide Bonadonna’s Spinosaurus painting”

  1. Sean Says:

    Well, I stand corrected. There might have been just a hint of unconscious inspiration there, but seems unique to me.

    Also – a note on my wording last post. I used the word “plagiarism”. I tend to not put much thought into words that mean similar things, and often forget that other people make more distinction and take offense from such words.

  2. Bryan Riolo Says:

    EXCELLENT post! Davide shows us an idea, a soupcon of the work involved in doing excellent art. As I had said in the previous post, for a creative artist to list all our sources and inspirations would lead to a consonant and vowel shortage.

  3. BJ Nicholls Says:

    I hope some folks are enjoying a little crow fricassée. I should point out that the above-below water and camera lens point-of-view is a longstanding and effective trope in natural history illustration. The P-word shouldn’t ever be used lightly nor based on superficialities.

  4. brian engh Says:

    This is rad. It’s cool to see how different our processes were. I still think it’s a bit of a shame that we both came up with something so similar, but the new images are still nice to look at.

    I wonder if classical training in composition is somewhat to blame for the placement of objects in so similar a place in the frame (or relative to the main subjects)… In both pictures you get pterosaurs clustering in similar places, a lungfish in the bottom right foreground, 2 other fish in the far right mid ground, a sloping piece of driftwood harmonizing with the curvature of the water-line…

    If anything I’m going to take this as a reminder to myself to keep trying to innovate compositionally and conceptually. If indeed this is purely illustrative convergence then I retroactively have myself to blame for not coming up with a more innovative composition.

  5. Mike Taylor Says:

    “The P-word shouldn’t ever be used lightly nor based on superficialities.”

    Nor was it.

  6. Sean Says:

    I think he was referring to me, Mike.

  7. I like the foot-emphasizing view — almost wish that had been used. The debate over limb proportions continues but the elongated first pedal digit, at least, is something new and interesting.

  8. Matt Wedel Says:

    I like the foot-emphasizing view — almost wish that had been used.

    Agreed! And Davide did do a finished version of that pose, which I think would join up fairly seamlessly with the main image. I haven’t posted that one yet–I only just saw it on Facebook a few minutes ago, and I’d need to ask permission. I think it is visible on his timeline to friends, but maybe not publicly yet.

  9. Craig Dylke Says:

    Now this is a post I like.

    Also thank you for stepping up on the misunderstand Dr. Wedel. Some of my faith in palaeontology and palaeo-art is restored (the part that is still damaged has nothing to do with you).

    If only there were a magic way to infuse tons of capital into the science to get art made by more and more artists…

  10. […] UPDATE the next day: Since I published this post, it’s become clear that the similarities in the two images are in fact convergence. Davide Bonadonna got in touch with Mike and me, and he has been very gracious and conciliatory. In fact, he volunteered to let us post the making-of images for his painting, which I will do shortly. I’m sorry that my initial post was more inquisitorial than inquisitive, and implied wrongdoing on Davide’s part. Rather than edit it out of existence, I’m going to let it stand as a cautionary signal to my future self. Stand by for the new post as soon as I can get it assembled and published….aaaand here it is. […]

  11. Matt Wedel Says:

    Some of my faith in palaeontology and palaeo-art is restored (the part that is still damaged has nothing to do with you).

    Thanks, that is very kind of you.

    If only there were a magic way to infuse tons of capital into the science to get art made by more and more artists…

    Oh, man, there we are in full agreement. If we go by enjoyment received per dollar earned, paleoartists are among the most productive and worst paid people on the planet.

  12. I’m also a fan of the foot-emphasizing view, but regardless I wanted to say that this is a really top-notch piece of paleo-art. I don’t actually think the turtle adds much useful scale to the average viewer, but I understand the importance of satisfying the employers requests. In fact sometimes I think (for better or worse) that a major part of the skill of being an artist these days is whether or not you can manage to create a compelling piece of art while also responding to the many revisions demanded (sometimes very arbitrarily) by publishers. This is an exemplary success of balancing those needs, and Davide should be very proud.

  13. Bryan Riolo Says:


  14. Andrew Dutt Says:

    In a surprise twist of events here is a third example or artistic convergence, albeit featuring Suchomimus instead of Spinosaurus.

    The illustration is by Christian Masnaghetti and was done in 2011.

  15. Bryan Riolo Says:

    Artistic convergence happens a lot. Plagiarism happens a hell of a lot–plagiarism herein defined as uncredited copying directly from another person’s art with an assumed effort to garner unwarranted credit. That being said, lots of us artists do homages to artists who inspire us and inform us.

    Since those are usually labeled as such, they don’t have bearing on this discussion. Dinosaur air-water interface pics have been being done for years–decades…at least. Who came up with the idea first? Probably someone in “fine arts” years before any of us were born. I don’t really care about that, since a “who did it first?” is almost impossible to prove.

    Chris Masna, Davide Bonadonna, and Brian Engh have all come up with beautiful pieces. Chris openly states his inspirations, even though he does not have to do so, either legally or morally. Brian, I believe, thought up his superb fishing Spinosaurus in the manner he has so graciously described. And Davide has shown us his basic method…which is actually, none of our business, if you want to know the truth…but it is certainly cool to see and very informative.

    Do I see ANY evidence of plagiarism in any of these pieces? Not at all, and I am usually very well attuned to it.

    In fact, I challenge anyone here to come up with a dinosaur or dinosaur related design which is “completely” new. Post links to any such you might have seen.

    However, IF the examples suck as art, IMO anyway, I am unlikely to praise them.

  16. John Scanlon Says:

    Did anyone find it odd that a turtle should be selected as a standard object for scale? Why would that work, considering how much variation there is across extant chelonians? My sense of scale in the pics is more driven by the ceratodont lungfish, which get to about 1.5 m in the one living species, but admittedly fewer people would be familiar with N. forsteri than some species of turtle.

  17. Bryan Riolo Says:

    Does it not strike anyone here as strange that such a gigantic beast needs be drawn with an object for scale? By either or ANY artist? No disrespect intended, but there ARE other means. I have no objections to putting in a turtle, a lungfish, a Mawsonia, or even an automobile, as I’ve seen very effectively done. However, huge animals look huge for a reason. And I’ve very seldom seen that reasoning used.

  18. Mike Taylor Says:

    Yes, “a turtle” struck me as a completely uninformative scale item. It’s like using “a tree” or “a rock”. Unfortunately, all the fixed-size objects we’re familiar with have come into existence over the last few million years — at least all the ones I can think of — so unless you’re prepared to cheat by putting a human or a car or something into the picture, you’re stymied.

  19. Bryan Riolo Says:

    There are ways, other ways, Mike, though putting something we are familiar with helps. I can think of means by which it can be managed.

  20. Bryan Riolo Says:

    That, actually, is something you can see…in nature, in art, in mankind’s structures. There are many artists who get it, to name a few: Guy Coheleach, Lu Feng Shan, Robert Bateman, John Byrne, Charles R. Knight, etc., etc., and so on. It would be salutary for most extant, active paleo-artists to study their work, as well as the architectural drawings of Frank Lloyd Wright, and photography in general; when the photographers are trying to capture nature’s vistas without resorting to being “artsy” about it. “Artsy” photography, for example: strange angles, exaggerated perspectives, distorting lenses, and many other tools; is perfectly valid and wonderful, but they also obfuscate the aspects of showing size, whether by comparative sizes or by showing the effects of different sizes on what we see, comparisons aside.

    I’m not attacking the paleo-artists here, as much as wondering WHY so few of them use the natural effects parallax and perspective have on our views of the world.

    There is also the effects gravity has on large animals’ organs, including internal organs nobody sees except butchers and dissectors…and those of us unlucky…or lucky…enough to see fresh road kills. I’ve even read those organs have no effect on the external views of restorations, but I disagree very strongly.

  21. Matt Wedel Says:

    I hear you, Bryan. This is one of my beefs with a lot of sculptures of sauropods: they have no heft. It’s something that Jorge Blanco absolutely nailed in sculpting the Sideshow Apatosaurus maquette, as I discussed here: that sucker looks heavy, in the way that a smaller animal simply wouldn’t.

  22. Bryan Riolo Says:

    Aye! THAT is a magnificent sculpture; seen it before, but it always wows me. I’m sure you’re familiar with Charles R. Knight’s wonderful mammoth paintings and his sculpt of an Imperial Mammoth. Things look heavy and huge! Even small models can look hefty, as witness the work of Lu Feng Shan and several others whose names escape me right now. When I see a sculpt, drawing, painting; whatever! of an animal that should look huge that actually looks as if the real thing could be also the size of a toy poodle–no matter how accurately the “bones” were followed–I get a twinge of regret that the artist didn’t get the effect of size we see in huge animals.

    Perhaps it would be salutary for the artist to take a 3D road map of a Loxodonta skeleton and build up the restoration same as he/she would build up from a similar rex skeleton, for example. I’ve seen that done on the BBC’s Walking With Prehistoric Beasts shows from years back and they made me wonder WHAT the designers were drinking; especially since fairly decent modern analogs exist for animals like dire wolves, mammoths, mastodons, saber cats and so on and so on. While many magnificent works exist of excellently realized restorations (Knight and Matternes, as examples), those BBC shows get a lot of attention. While I loved the shows, I often felt as if I was watching documentaries about alien worlds outside our solar system.

    Ah, well, tell Mike to watch out for people with hats and coats…those antlers are too tempting a target to hang things on!

  23. […] to forget images of Spino attacking T-rex on land. There is great artwork of the new Spinosaurus here, here, here and […]

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