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Digesting your dinosaur; Bruce Woollatt builds an articulate TRex skeleton

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Paleoart differs from concept art in that the artist is constrained by the attempt to faithfully reflect scientific research. Yet it remains concept art… the artist exerts considerable creative imagination in interpreting this research and filling in the gaps, balancing plausibility with the goal of creating captivating imagery. Or in this case, sculpture. What could be more captivating than a fully articulate, sculptural skeletal reconstruction? Bruce Woollatt is making one in 1/10 scale and sharing his experience over at concept.org. Inspired by such an undertaking, I’ve asked him for an interview. Take a moment (or two) to take in the many work-in-progress photos at his thread so that you can appreciate what it is he’s talking about, and feel free to add your questions in the comments.
Read the interview below the fold…

Most artists go for life reconstructions… you’ve gone right for the jugular with a skeletal reconstruction. Why?

There are a number of reasons that my current project is a skeletal reconstruction rather than a flesh restoration. First of all my inspirations were skeletal sculptures by others like Hall Train’s walking T.rex skeleton for the AMNH exhibit Ancient Fossils, New Discoveries and the amazing wooden sculptures by Taburin. And toys like this. These are really cool! I decided I had to have one, which meant I would have to build it too. So I set myself a challenge to do just that. Oh, and it also had to be pose-able

Part of the challenge was also going to be how I made it. I’d used Miliput epoxy putty for my previous dinosaur sculptures (which all started with simple cardboard skeletons). It’s great to work with, but in 1/10 scale the quantities required would be too expensive for my skeleton sculpture. I also didn’t want to use anything that would be toxic or require baking in an oven (though these sorts of materials would have been disqualified for price in any case, toxicity or the risk thereof made them even less desirable). So I’m building this using simple, cheap and safe materials like cardboard, white glue, plaster,wire, papier mache, toothpicks, popsicle sticks, bamboo skewers and simple tools like scissors and craft knives. Eventually I’m hoping to do flesh restorations too, but I thought it might be easier to begin by doing something that doesn’t have a lot of scales, feathers and wrinkles. I knew in advance that this technique would work for bone. In the future I’ll have to experiment to see if the amount of detail I would want in a fleshed out dinosaur would be possible with this way of working.

A skeleton doesn’t require much in the way of speculation or extrapolation, whereas a life restoration does; lips or not? Feathers or not? What colour? I wanted to avoid having to answer some of these sorts of questions on this project. I already had quite a bit of reference material for Tyrannosaurs in general and T.rex in particular. I decided that I would use “Sue” as my guide to building my T.rex skeleton, though I decided against including the evidence of injuries and disease that mark her bones. I had lots of photos I took in Chicago when I saw “Sue” at the Field Museum.  I have the Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology Memoir by Christopher Brochu on the same specimen. Brochu’s bone-by-bone description with photographs has been an invaluable primary reference. I’ve added a lot more material to my research pile as I’ve progressed, adding papers on various details of tyrannosaur anatomy as I work my way through the skeleton.

I also decided to “go public” with my project and post my progress on-line. Posting on-line would be something to help keep me motivated; too many times in the past I’ve thought about projects without having got beyond the “thought” part. Once I’d “built” them in my head, I felt that I’d already “done” them and never got around to doing them in real life. Many of these projects involved materials or techniques I didn’t have immediately at hand or could not afford so it was much easier to put them off until “later”. So building for an audience would give me another reason not to put off working on it. A friend of mine had told me about the Concept Art site a few years ago. I liked what people were  doing on the 3D, Sculpture& Toy Forum so I thought that might make a good place to show my stuff. The rest, as they say, is history – or rather prehistory!  I’ve been at it for more than a year. I add links to techniques and information I’ve found helpful or inspirational, citing scientific papers, books and other websites for people to explore on their own. I’m hoping in my own little way to be informative and inspirational too. I  enjoy getting feedback from those who are following along, though so far there seems to be an alarming consensus that this project offers solid evidence that I’m insane! Crazy or not I’ve really had a lot of fun doing this, but I’ll be glad when I’m finished: no bones about it!

bruce_vert

It sounds like you knew what you were getting into, but were you really aware of the amount of work involved and that it would take ore than a year?

Yes and no. I knew it was going to be a lot of work; I know that I’d be at it for more than a year! My workspace is our dining room table so I can’t just leave stuff sitting around ready for my next burst of work; setting up takes some time. My day job does not, unfortunately, consist of building dinosaurs, so my ‘rex is an after work project. Much of my building has been on weekends; sometimes after work I’m just not up to setting up and working on my wee beastie. Sometimes though I’ll work late into the night.

Sometimes I have to leave things for a while to figure out how I’m going to do the next part. I don’t like to start a section until I know (or at least think I know) how I’m going to do it. This has happened a few times. I’m making things up and learning how to do what I need to do as I go along. Not all bones are amenable to the same approach; some parts are built up directly, some are cast. I’ve followed a few blind alleys where my initial ideas of how to do something didn’t work. This takes some rethinking (which also takes time). Sometimes  even when things are going smoothly they just take longer than I had thought they would.

At conceptart you say “I find the reconstructed areas also are much easier to “read” than the cracked and broken original bone.” Basically, that the sculpted parts are more legible than the fossilized source. With your skeletal reconstruction, it’s the same… there’s a certain amount of interpretation, intentional abstraction and artefacts from material and work methods. Can you tell us a bit about the decisions you make along the way?

Good question and one that I hadn’t really thought of until you asked. The materials and methods which I have chosen to use do present me with some limitations. I’m not able to capture as much detail in the surfaces as I would with something like a clay or putty. This is probably most evident in the tail vertebrae which are the most “stylized’ or schematic of the bones I’ve made. When viewed together the vertebrae are much more impressive than when viewed individually. The serial shapes give the tail a sense of pattern, rhythm and texture  that draws the eye along. The slots for the hinges in the toes are another compromise. If I were to do something else like this again (!) I would probably use wire for things like the toes and fingers. But you never know until you try.

hinge

(At some point it would be fun to try more abstract-ish dinosaurs. I wonder if doing that would be harder than it would be for a living animal? With an extant creature the artist has the advantage of seeing the animal alive and in motion, gets a chance to see the character and spirit she or he is trying to capture and make solid. Non-avian dinosaurs have to be envisioned without the benefit of living, breathing, walking, running exemplars.)

I’m more interested in capturing the overall form and shape of the bones than capturing every detail. I’ve seen some paleoart that has great detail and technique but misses basic anatomy, proportions and shapes. If I get the shapes, forms and proportions correct, then that’s half the battle. It’s mostly a matter of deciding “Yes, this is good enough”. The suggestion of detail can go a long way to convincing the eye that there’s more there than there actually is (like the matte paintings used in old movies to extend scenes beyond the sets that budget allowed; these paintings were often a lot more impressionistic than one might have expected). The breaking up of surfaces by using various tones of brown is a part of this process. It produces a finished surface that is more interesting and lively to look at. Not quite like the weathering one might add to a military vehicle, but still not one flat, even tone. Having it all one colour of brown would look very “fake” as most fossils of this size show some degree of tonal variation depending on the chance occurrences of the fossilization process.  I’ve noticed that the colours that show in photos of my finished parts seem to change from one image to another; curiously I’ve noticed this with some photos of actual fossils too. Maybe I’m doing something right….

I’ve  decided that the skeleton will be large enough at this scale that I’m going to use very little (if any) shading to suggest depth or shadows as one might when painting a figure model. A bit of subtle drybrushing will help to highlight the more rugose parts of the skeleton but for the most part I’ll rely on how the light falls on the form to delineate the textures and depths. One exception I will probably make for shadowing will be to darken the sutures between the bones of the skull. For some future projects I’m hoping to use unpainted cast paper, leaving the finished product pure paper white.

Although I’ve opted not to include the pervasive pathologies that are present in most of Sue’s major “subassemblies” (the lower jaw, right arm/shoulder, many vertebrae, ribs, left fibula, and tail all show evidence of disease, trauma or overuse), I still want my sculpture to look like a fossil rather than fresh bone. The rich, warm, dark browns of the actual fossils of Sue have a very nice look and feel to them.  If I was sculpting some of the exquisite finds from the Gobi that are much lighter (and in fact often look like fresh bone), I’d likely do them that colour rather than dark brown. I would also be more likely to introduce a bit more shading and highlighting, particularly if it were a smaller skeleton.

The skull  will (I hope) have a higher level of detail than the rest of the skeleton, but not glaringly so. The skull will probably receive more viewing attention than the rest of the skeleton and it has more detail to start with. Lots of interesting shapes, textures and openings, the face and  personality of the animal and of course all those teeth. The skull is going to be cast in a manner similar to how I did the limb girdles and major leg bones, but with more parts. The openings of the skull are large and numerous enough to warrant doing the inside surfaces as well as the outside. The masters will be plasticine built up over cardboard armatures. Plaster moulds will be made from these which will in turn be used to cast the finished parts. Instead of using strip mache to create the bone surface I’ll be using pulp mache and white glue  pressed into the moulds to capture as much detail as possible, with strip mache as a backing for strength. I’ve noticed with leftover pulp mache that I’ve used for other parts of this project that when it dried it captured the smoothness of the inside of the plastic container in which it had dried out very well. I’m hoping it will do the same for the bone surfaces of the skull moulds. If it doesn’t, then I’ll try another material in my repetoire until I find something that lets me say “Yes, this is good enough.”

The level of detail is amazing, especially when you think that this is a pose-able skeleton capable of articulation. I can imagine you get into the zone while working, where at least in my experience sudden moments of recognition happen, or slowly emerging realizations. What do you learn from a sculpture like this? Where has it led you?

Thank you. I’m very pleased with how my sculpture/model/action figure(?) is turning out. I’m always pleased -sometimes pleasantly surprised to be honest- when I do my “reality checks”, comparing my progress to my references and seeing a good match. It was particularly satisfying to see the vertebrae fit together.

My moments of realization while working have tended to fall into two broad categories: “yes, this is working well”, or “no this is not working and never going to work.” “Simpler is better” has occurred to me a few times too, particularly after spending a long time working on a ball and socket joint for the hip articulation which ultimately was not going to fit inside the two halves of the femur into which I’d planned to install it. I ended up using wire instead but I won’t know for certain how well that will work until I finally glue the leg to the pelvic girdle. One of the advantages of using inexpensive materials is that blind alleys like the hip joint don’t cost anything but my time.

I’ve really enjoyed this project and learned a lot from doing it. I definitely will do more with these materials and techniques. I’ve had several comments regarding making additional copies but unfortunately the materials I’ve been using would not survive the mould making process; casting copies wasn’t something I had in mind when I began. I’ve got ideas for future subjects that I might do in multiple copies for sale, though the whole marketing thing is unknown territory for me.

scene
(click for Bruce’s gallery of dinosaur sculptures at flckr)

How much of the work was hands-on sculpting, how much research? Have you had any scientists giving you advice along the way, internet resources, etc.? And… as someone who struggles in navigating the scientific literature… can you offer tips in finding good research material?

I’ve found that the workflow has been research becomes plans becomes sculpture. Because what I’m doing is a skeleton there’s a lot more planning and diagramming in this project than there would be in a flesh restoration. I’m having to account for all the major processes, openings and joints on each of the bones. Most of these have some sort of shape or profile in card stock or cardboard. Photocopiers play a large role in reducing or enlarging photos, drawings and plans to get everything the right size. Some parts (like the ribs) can pretty much be copied from sources and used without much modification because they are pretty flat. Other parts, like the limb girdles, leg bones and vertebrae require more work to develop the shapes including mastering, moulding and casting. Research, planning and sculpting are very interconnected with this method. The photocopies of the correctly sized parts are glued to the material to be used, the parts cut out ( with the vertebrae, each large bone was made up of at least four pieces; that’s a lot of cutting) and assembled. Other parts, like the hands and feet, required a lot more internal, mechanical work. I’m not sure how to decide what proportion of my work went to which aspect since they flow together and influence each other like little cardboard and paper feedback loops.

blueprints

I had a lot of research material for T.rex in hand before I started my project, having made a flesh restoration some years ago for the Children’s Museum in my hometown of London, Ontario, Canada. There is a century’s worth of reference material for T.rex out there upon which to draw. It made for more work but it made that work easier. As I got further along in my project I needed to find out more and more details. With my previous ‘rex the skeleton was simply the starting point for the internal structure; the details of the bones themselves were not the subject matter of the final work. I have been able to ask a number of paleontologists questions regarding some of these details and they were kind enough to provide me with information that was very helpful in achieving the results you see. Peter Larson of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research forwarded me some great photos of cast of specimens in their collection showing the articular surfaces of the toe phalanges and metatarsals. When I was unable to access his paper on the tyrannosaur arctometatarsus, Dr. Thomas Holtz forwarded a copy of the paper to me. Ryan Ridgely of the University of Ohio’s Witmer Lab sent me information on the interior of the skull. The very timely and informative publication on the rib articulations in tyrannosaurs by Tatsuya Hirasawa led me to find out more from him about these under-studied aspects of tyrannosaur osteology. Dr.Kent Stevens sent me images of his 3D scanned DinoMorph model of Stan. So yes, I’ve had a lot help from a number of scientists. These workers and more have been very kind and gracious in offering their expertise to me in answering my questions. On several occasions I have even been forwarded as yet unpublished materials for use on my work on the condition that I do not forward it or publish it myself. I find this sort of generosity and trust very inspiring. After all, these people don’t know me personally, but seeing what it is I’m doing they are offering their help and encouragement. That’s pretty cool. They’ve also had nice things to say about my T.rex skeleton which is an added bonus! The usual caveats apply; they provided me with information; what I’ve done with it falls under my own responsibility. If I get anything wrong it’s my fault not theirs.

I’ve always enjoyed researching my projects. My degree (bachelor) is in history, so I know my way around the inside of a library. Catalogues and bibliographies are great tools to find lots of information; they are your friends. The explosion of online resources has been a tremendous trove of reference material as well. More and more papers are published in open access online journals like the Public Library of Science and Acta Palaeontologica PolonicaGoogle Scholar is an easy way to find open access PDFs of paleontological papers. Having access to a university library system can open doors to online journals that require subscriptions. In turn paleontologists have started to harness the talents and time of interested lay people in gathering and analyzing the huge amount of material that’s out there.

While online journals can keep you up to date with current research, lots of material is still in books and bound back issues of journals (though even some of these are beginning to find their way online too). Many of the illustrations in these old volumes are simply gorgeous; not just informative but works of art. If you have the space to download it have a look at this volume. Often drawings and diagrams of fossils are more useful than photos of the same specimens for figuring out the shapes of things.

If you can get to a museum that has specimens of the animals you want to make that’s a great resource too. Take lots of pictures from lots of angles so that you have good coverage of any parts you’re likely to need.

One’s choice of subject matter can have a big impact on how much reference material you’re likely to find. If you’re working on an animal (like T.rex) that has been known to science for quite some time and is known from complete (or near complete) remains – multiple specimens if you’re really lucky – and has been the subject of many papers, you’re going to have a lot more reference material than if you are attempting to build something that has only had the brief paper constituting the formal publication of its incomplete, fragmentary remains and nothing else. The way the remains are preserved can have an impact on one’s work too. Fossils that are otherwise complete and well preserved might be mashed flat. This form of preservation can obscure details of the anatomy which can hamper creating a three dimensional version of the animal and the proper understanding of the range of motion of some of its joints. Witness the continued debate over the hip anatomy and biomechanics  (and consequently the flying behaviour) of the four-winged Microraptor.

We are in the Golden Age of dinosaur science. More dinosaurs have been discovered and described in the last twenty five years than in all the years before. New technologies allow scientists to look into and get more out of old bones than Cuvier, Owen, Cope, Marsh, Dollo, Nopsca and all the others could have imagined in their wildest dreams. Virtual reality permits studies of the biomechanics of bones too large, heavy and fragile to manipulate in the real world. We haven’t quite breathed life back into them yet, but I’m not going to bet against it happening!

Any closing comments?

I’m looking forward to completing my T.rex skeleton (sometime before the second anniversary of starting it!) but I’ll also kinda miss doing it. It’s been the most complicated thing I’ve ever made, even more complicated than the life-size Parasaurolophus head I did a few years ago for the London Regional Children’s Museum. I’ve got more ideas for projects but my ‘rex is going to be hard to top!

I hope that anyone following along online will find something helpful, informative or inspiring in what I’m doing or in the links I offer. I would love to see someone pick up and run with an idea or technique that they happened to pick up from me. With all the help and inspiration I’ve come across on the process of building my 1/10 scale T.rex, I’ve always thought of it as a collaborative endeavour. I might be the one getting glue on my shirt and blisters on my fingers but it wouldn’t have been possible without the contributions, however unknowing, of all the paleontologists, artists, and technicians who have provided the information and inspiration I’ve built with and built upon. The same goes for all the manufacturers and suppliers of all the materials and tools I’ve used.

So if you’ve been building things in your head, or had an idea of something you want to try, my advice is to go for it. Choose a subject that interests you, that you feel strongly about. Find materials that are suitable for your project, your way of working and your budget. If you feel so inclined and want some feedback and an audience, sign up and post your results (and your process) online at a site like Concept Art or Deviant Art. Start building!

brucewoollatt_schmecken

Bruce, thanks for the interview and… lass schmecken!
photo credits: Bruce Woollatt, measure image owes a grateful nod to Darren Tanke.

There are 11 Comments to this article

Brian Blacknick says:
04/07/2010

Great interview David! Amazing falls well short of describing the amount of thought, experimentation and work that is going into Bruce’s 1/10 T Rex project! Well done Bruce.

Traumador the Tyrannosaur says:
04/07/2010

to mr. woollatt i must extend my most sincere appreciation and respect for this project!

in particular the step by step component. i know from personal experience how hard it can be to properly document the creation of an art project.

i’m still to busy going through and absorbing his incredible wealth of material to ask questions at this moment. hopefully some will hit me soon!

the only thing i can think of to ask, is would he be interested in joining ART Evolved?

brucewoollatt says:
04/07/2010

Traumador;

Thank you! Joining ART Evolved sounds like it might be a good idea!

admin says:
04/07/2010

Thanks for the comments… and thanks again to Bruce. I’m only now getting to dig through the many valuable links. I can only recommend them… Ceratopsians!

admin says:
04/08/2010

Tis the season for paleoartist interviews:
http://chasmosaurs.blogspot.com/2010/04/litc-interview-matt-van-rooijen.html

Max Read says:
04/10/2010

Bruce – I knew my bread-dough unicorn was only the tip of the iceberg! Congrats – Mr T is lovely!
mx

Traumador the Tyrannosaur says:
04/13/2010

Bruce- Cool!

Either David could pass on my email address of fossil3d@gmail.com to you, or if you read this comment just send me a shout at this address, and we’ll get you setup for ART Evolved membership!

Again loved this interview and learning about your process!

Ken King says:
11/30/2010

Fabulous work! I hope to be able to find links to the finished sculpture. Your choice of materials is inspired and inspiring. As a modeller of many years, many materials, and many subjects, this looks like a real challenge. I am like you, who after finding these pages said to myself: “I gotta have one of those!” And like you, I know there is only one way to get one! Thanks for the inspiration.

CARLOS says:
05/02/2011

dear friend I want to do my dinosaur
but there is a failure
You assume that we all know I do these templates do not is that
but I would like to have access to these templates as a reference to the courts
concerning the cuts with symmetry to the pieces so that all the pieces fit
not I would like to head I was more than the rest of the body
Please help me with the templates that appear on the web
http://www.CONCEPTART.org/forums/showthread.php?t=151924

There is no way to download the templates
I want to make my dinosaur but do not have templates for the cutting of parts to assemble my email is carlosturboreactor@gmail.com

Taburin says:
06/08/2012

Thank you, Mr.Woollatt. I just want to express my respect for you.
I learned a lot of things from you. Your enthusiasm for making skeleton model and your super technique inspire me deeply. I will continue to make sculptures.

brucewoollatt says:
06/10/2012

Thank you Taburin! Your work has been an inspiration to me!

I’m in the research phase of my next project, an Alioramus altai skeletal restoration.

And Carlos, if you’re still out there reading, I worked out things for myself from the sources noted in the thread. It’s not that hard to do, but it does take time and effort. Give it a try and see if you can work these things out. I didn’t use much more than pencils, rulers, graph paper and a photocopier. I’m now adding some Photoshop techniques for scaling and comparison of specimen illustrations, but the basic technique of what I’m doing hasn’t changed that much. The key is to find as much information on the animal you’re working on and become as familiar with it as possible. It’s probably a good idea to start with something well known and well documented with lots of research done on it (which made T.rex much easier to do than my current A. altai).

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