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Paleoartist Profile: The Historian Himself, Brian Engh, Part 1

You may recognize the artwork above as that of Aquilops, a pint-sized ceratopsian that was recently described and published in PLOS ONE by our own community editor Andy Farke, which he wrote about here for PLOS Paleo. The artwork was just one of many pieces done of Aquilops by paleoartist Brian Engh, and the art helped bring the paper international attention and press. Engh recently revisited Aquilops, and decided to reinterpret the creature in a new, camouflaged light. His work just debuted on his website, Don’t Mess With Dinosaurs, as well as an in-depth video on his Youtube page, which I invite you to check out below!

The man behind the art has many monikers: GreyGriffon, Don’t Mess with Dinosaurs, and the Historian Himself. I met him last year at the SVP meeting in Salt Lake City as simply Brian Engh. In conjunction with his release of the new Aquilops reconstruction, I wanted to feature him as part of our Paleoartist Profile series here at PLOS Paleo, so we spent nearly 90 minutes chatting via Skype, where I realized there was more to him than just paleoart. With an education in film and animation, a growing Youtube following, an aspiring career as a rapper and filmmaker, Brian is all over social media beyond the paleo community. But, as he told me, he’s still scrapping by on a less-than living wage. We talked about his paleoart projects past and present, his process and inspiration when creating art, and his thoughts on bridging the gap between artists and scientists.

I broke this interview up into two parts, check back here for Part 2 tomorrow, where I will include another video of Brian’s recent lecture at the Raymond Alf Museum!

SZG: So, you’ve worked with PLOS before when you did a reconstruction of Aquilops for Farke et al. (2014), and now you’ve done a new version of Aquilops. What is the story behind this project, and why redo Aquilops?

BE: Well, Aquilops was in the collections of Oklahoma State for ten years. It was found by Scott Madsen, who was a part of Rich Cifelli’s team at the time. Matt Wedel, who was a student of Cifelli, knew Andy Farke [PLOS Paleo’s resident ceratopsian expert], and the group negotiated to describe the specimen. They recognized its significance because, as far as we know, it’s at the base of the tree for North American ceratopsians.

The original construction of Aquilops. From Farke et al (2014), Image by Brian Engh. CC-BY.

So when we were doing the initial reconstruction, Rich Cifelli was pushing for Aquilops to be camouflaged because it was this tiny little animal living in this environment with major predators like Deinonychus and Acrocanthosaurus. But we ended up doing a reconstruction showing it being more showy because we know that the crown group, ceratopsians, are doing insane things with their displays, probably related to sexual selection.

So, I recently did another reconstruction of Aquilops, interpreting it as a cryptic animal, all camouflage [see below]. That just happened to line up with me doing a talk at the Alf Museum discussing Aquilops. I am currently editing a video for my video series, discussing the different interpretations of Aquilops, and how each could possibly be a valid interpretation in terms of what we know about ceratopsians and modern analogous animals.

Brian’s new, camouflaged take on Aquilops. Image courtesy Brian Engh.

SZG: What’s your artistic process when creating a piece of paleoart?

BE: Ideally, the project is something that I’m working with a paleontologist on, but in some cases it’s just self-motivated by thinking about nature all of the time. But in all cases, it starts with some level of research, whether talking to a paleontologist or reading a paper. And then, it goes into a rough sketching phase. Despite the level of detail in my final pieces, I’m not that good of a draftsman, as far as drawing cleanly. I make a billion sloppy rough sketches by force of will, and work every detail until it’s reasonably correct. I know a lot of artists who can just look at a face and then just draw it cleanly—I am not that artist. I spend time refining the composition. I often start with graphite sketches that I then scan into the computer and color digitally. I use a lot of layers, basically creating a sandwich of sketches, lines, colors, etc.

When I am working with a paleontologist, I’ll spend a lot of time talking with them, getting their interpretation of the fossils. I also try and see as much of the fossil material myself as possible by visiting collections and even spending time in the field. I’ll talk with the researchers to get their ideas and a sense of what they like. I make a lot of sketches, and I’ll send all of the sketches to them to get an idea of what they like or don’t like, and work from there. So far, everybody I’ve worked with is coming from a similar position where they want these animals to look realistic and believable, and so I draw inspiration from a lot of modern analogues. I’ll show them everything I’ve done, and I’m willing to be flexible as long as there are good scientific ideas getting communicated with the art. I’m open to ideas from the client, especially when they are paying me well. [laughs]

Reconstructing a Xiphactinus carcass, see the behind-the-scenes video here. Image courtesy Brian Engh.

SZG: You draw a lot of inspiration from modern animals. What do you look at when you’re trying to convey a behavior or biology of a dinosaur?

BE: For better or worse, you do have to rely on a lot of living animals to help fill in the gaps regarding organisms like dinosaurs, how they moved, etc. You have to find a happy balance between what their closest relatives are doing, and what their closest living analogue is doing. In the case of the hadrosaur jaw, for example, there’s a lot of adaptations with regard to chewing, similar to modern ungulates, and so there are a lot of debates like whether they had cheeks, etc.

My personal inclination is to look at ecological role and convergent analogues, but also evolutionary stories. The Aquilops project falls along those lines.

SZG: Do you have favorite paleoartists? Or any that you take inspiration from?

BE: I would say that for me, as far as inspiration, is Doug Henderson, because he emphasized the mood and environment so much in his work. More recently, especially now that I’m trying to improve my own skills in painting and digital painting, I look at James Gurney’s work, because he is a master at lighting in his work. I can relate to his work because there is such an emotional bent in his work. His work is deeply sentimental, and makes you feel like a kid. Those two guys are definitely my favorites.

SZG: What kind of non-paleo projects have you been working on?

BE: Um, I make rap music and music videos, and want to make and direct films eventually. I have a huge array of sketches, sketchbooks, and storyboards that I’d love to develop into full motion animation outside of just stills. I went to school for film and animation, and my degree is in that.  And when I’m not doing paleoart work, I freelance as an animator or do things in the film industry to fill in the gaps financially.

Yutyrannus, Image courtesy Brian Engh.

SZG: Interesting! That seems far out of the array of paleontology! That leads me to ask, how did you get started in paleoart? Was it built out of art skills and interest in paleo?

BE: I never had the art skills, I still don’t! [laughs] Everybody compliments artists, who have put a lot of time into their work, with their natural skill or ability, and often it didn’t start that way. I had to put a lot of time and practice to get where I am, and sometimes I still can’t even look at my art without criticizing it.

But in terms of how I got started in paleontology, ever since I was a little kid I was always interested in paleontology, mythology, story-telling, all that stuff. For me, there’s something very primal about paleontology even as a science. I mean, it’s studying these ancient beasts who we’re also all connected to. For me, that really stirs me up as a human being, and it makes me want to make things.

So a lot of things I make are oriented to the science of these beings, communicating the mechanics of this bizarre universe we all share. And some of the stuff I make is related to communicating that feeling of, like, being this ape living in this world of complex, bizarre things, that aren’t easily understood, and being full of awe and wonder. That visceral feeling can’t easily be expressed through straight-up scientific illustration.

Coming up in Part 2 of my interview with Brian Engh, we’ll discuss the perils of paleoart, Brian’s work with the BLM, and Bizarre UFO Ammonites from Kansas! Stay tuned!

You can find Brian Engh, and support his artwork by visiting his various social media presences listed below, and contributing to his Patreon!





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