An Introduction to Paleoart with Florida Museum of Natural History Artist Jeff Huber

by Gabriella Nicholas

Editor’s Note: With this issue, we are beginning a series of articles on paleoart. Building upon information provided by scientists, paleoartists work in a variety of media to create accurate descriptions of ancient life. Paleoart includes the beautiful murals that serve as the backdrop for classic museum dioramas, illustrations to accompany scientific publications, and 3-D representations of extinct animals. As Bruce MacFadden observes,  “One of the most exciting things about paleoart is that it brings extinct fossils back to life, oftentimes in visually beautiful depictions.”

Jeff Huber photo © FLMNH
Jeff Huber photo © FLMNH

Jeffrey Huber’s job requires the talent of Michelangelo and the skill of “Jurassic Park’s” Dr. John Hammond. He works with fossils, paintbrushes, microscopes and clay.

Huber is a paleoartist at the Florida Museum of Natural History. These artists typically specialize in paleontology and work to create two-dimensional and three-dimensional versions of prehistoric life.

With a background in figurative art, Huber transitioned into paleoart almost involuntarily after an art gallery he owned was destroyed one winter in a fire.

When Huber joined the museum’s art team, the permanent exhibit halls were in the process of being built. He currently works as museum operations spec in the exhibit productions department.

“At the time, I didn’t have a lot of background in the area,” Huber said. “I would be given a task and I would have to conduct research to create the most accurate piece.”

The creation of paleo pieces is based on fossil information, preexisting drawings, current species for comparison and scientific research. Huber’s most challenging project involved viewing small fossils through a microscope and creating limestone pieces from the observations.

Mark Hallett, an illustrator of prehistoric life and environments, first coined the term “paleoart.” It blends an artist’s imagination with scientific knowledge to build versions of extinct animals. Imagine trying to construct the idea of a dinosaur in your head without any visual representations.

Bronze sculpture of terror bird in the FLMNH Fossil Hall photo © FLMNH
Bronze sculpture of terror bird in the FLMNH Fossil Hall photo © FLMNH

Paleoart plays an important role in scientific research because paleo artists provide scientists with fleshed-out forms of prehistoric life.

Huber constructed several bronze, one-sixth scale sculptures of extinct animals in the Florida Fossils: Evolution of Life & Land exhibit. In addition to the bronze models, Huber played a major role in building the museum’s Megalodon exhibit, Northwest Florida: Waterways & Wildlife hall and South Florida People & Environments exhibit.

Currently, Huber is preparing for the construction of a new hands-on Discovery Room for young museum-goers. The exhibit will have larger-than-life 3D models, which he hopes to help create.

“The projects are always different,” Huber said. “You’re never doing the same thing and you’re working with all types of people.”