As was mentioned in Part 1 of our interview with paleoartist Brian Engh of Don’t Mess with Dinosaurs, Brian recently completed a camouflaged reconstruction of Aquilops, part of which can be seen above. If you’d like to see it again, here is the completed piece, with five (five!) Aquilops hidden or partially hidden:
Brian recently had the opportunity to discuss his work during a lecture at the Raymond Alf Museum in southern California. The entire lecture was recorded and posted to the Raymond Alf Museum’s Youtube page, which you can view here.
In Part 2 of my interview with Brian Engh, we get into some of his other projects besides Aquilops, the struggles of surviving as a paleoartist, and where he’d like to see the community go from here.
SZG: Besides Aquilops, what are some of your other finished projects you have done or are working on?
BE: The bulk of my work over the last almost two years or so has been doing illustrated interpretive panels for BLM public fossil sites—these awesome places that a lot of the public doesn’t realize belongs to them. Around the Moab area in Utah, there are tons of dinosaur footprints and even bone in some places, and rather than just trying to hire rangers to police these sites [from vandalism or theft], the government did something that I think is smart, they decided to educate the public about these paleontological resources with a program called the “Respect an Protect” Initiative, which is a program to develop to archaeological and paleontological sites with interpretive panels, so that the public can be more informed and educated about these resources, what they are and why they are important, and that these are a shared public heritage, not something that can be destroyed or stolen.
Some of my other work has been licensed to museums. I’ve just finished some work for the Museum of Western Colorado. That was a fun project because I got to do a glorious, murderous, Mesozoic predation scene. [laughs]
I’d love to do more interpretive work for museums. I had an awesome experience working with ReBecca Hunt-Foster [BLM]; she gave me a lot of flexibility with regard to design and composition. I would love to do more exhibit design and figure out ways to communicate information to a public audience.
SZG: So, tell me what some of the problems or difficulties being a paleoartist? And what can the paleo community do to help support the work of paleoartists?
BE: What I’ve started to see, and what has kept me semi-afloat financially in doing paleoart full-time for the past year and a half, is that researchers have been putting paleoart into the grants, but I think that needs to be the norm and needs to be respected by grant-funding organizations. Paleoart is, as I think and the people I’ve worked with (because they’ve added funds for art in their grants), the face of the science, you know? The actual literature is incredibly important within the community of paleo people, who actually read the literature. But as far as science communication [to a broader audience], you need paleoart to communicate the density of the information that is embedded in every discovery. Paleoart is really important for translating these dense and nuanced scientific ideas into something that people can take away—it’s the cliché “an image is worth a thousand words.”
SZG: I agree, as we have seen with PLOS, a lot of papers that have paleoart as part of the publication often skyrocket in views and reach a broader audience. I think it’s a great idea for researchers to start seeking paleoart as part of their projects.
BE: Yeah, I think that it’s beneficial. A lot of paleontologists and researchers are so often in their own worlds of research that they don’t realize that it’s actually beneficial to their career to get their research out to the public. And their research is cool to them because they often can imagine these ancient organisms and worlds in their own minds, but the public isn’t and won’t unless it’s brought to their attention. I think it’s important to have that visual aid. I would like to see the community, like, acknowledge and respect the contributions of paleoartists by making it normal to pay them a living wage, as the take-away here. Even with the grant money from the Bureau of Land Management [BLM] or other clients to fund my artwork, I still struggle financially, and I put in a ton of work. If I got paid, you know, like, just $8 an hour for all of the time I work on art, I’d be so good on money!
SZG: Well, your work hours are probably similar to that of an academic, where there are really no set hours, and the time put into your work can take a lot of your day and night.
BE: Yeah, paleoartists are like academics work-wise, but without the possibility of tenure or any kind of a salary ever. I have to fight and convince—I often feel like the process is similar to grant-writing. I send a lot of sketches and ideas to people in hopes that I can get them excited enough to have me as part of their research team.
I’m also working on other ways of funding, such as crowdfunding, etc. I have a Patreon [you can support Brian’s Patreon here], which has been super helpful, like I’m also trying to do my own projects outside of paleontology, all related to natural history, and the Patreon’s been cool because it allows me a little financial freedom to be able to invest in stuff that furthers my career. Nobody wants to hire you above what you’ve demonstrated you can do, and so as an artist, you have to take on projects that challenge you to build a better portfolio.
SZG: What can the paleo community do the help artists, and vice versa? How can we improve communication between each and towards the public?
BE: Going back to earlier, I would say that the paleo community can help paleoartists by including art as a line item in their grants and funds when possible. Art is the face of the science, and the foundation of the marketing. And scientists can also help artists by making sure that the artist has the necessary information on the fossils to create art successfully. I think Open Access, like PLOS, is a really awesome resource from a paleoartist perspective because it’s an incredible amount of information available freely.
That said, at least for me, I get a lot of inspiration be actually looking at the fossils, and even seeing the sites and the strata. So it would be helpful if paleontologists could help artists by making sure they have access to fieldwork, fossils in collections, data and information, anything that could help them in making good art. And paying them. I’d like to fight less for an income that is a living wage.
Paleoartists, too, need to be willing to go to conferences, willing to go to museums, and communicate with scientists. We need to bridge the gap.
These are stories that need to be studied, organisms that need to be understood. And there is some really cool stories! I mean, ammonites, for example! They are some crazy strange animals with a lot of diversity! Some are huge, the size of cars! It’s awesome to think about these weird, freakin’ space weirdos swimming around in Cretaceous of Kansas.
In the end, there are so many good stories in the fossil record, and artists can help tell those stories, make them exciting to the public and to other researchers. I mean, back to the Aquilops project. I’ve seen drawings online by other artists of Aquilops, and without the art that was published alongside the original publication, Aquilops might have just been another animal that fell into the ether. Instead, people got to visualize this bizarre creature, and be inspired themselves.