by Gabriella Nicholas
For the second article in our series on paleo art, we focus on Erin Fitzgerald, a Chicago-based paleo artist. Erin’s work has been featured at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo, and she has piece in a National Geographic Society exhibit that opened in Milan, Italy on June 6.
Growing up, Erin Fitzgerald was drawn to two career paths: artist and paleontologist. But, she hated her modern art classes and her biology courses.
In art school, she veered away from modern art and gravitated towards more realistic pieces, especially those including bones.
Erin began volunteering as a preparator at The Field Museum during her first year of college. Toward the end of her college career, Erin began working under Paul Sereno at the University of Chicago. When she started working for Sereno, she realized she could combine her work as a fossil preparator and paleo artist.
As a fossil preparator, Fitzgerald receives specimens from the field, removes them from a protective plaster shell and prepares the bones for researchers. A lot of the specifics of the bones are how researchers identify the genus or family of a dinosaur. Most of the time, specimens are not complete and paleo artists help to fill in gaps.
If the family or genus of the dinosaur is known, it is possible to use parts from different individuals to complete the reconstruction. In addition, previous research can provide insight on other bones for paleo artists to use as comparisons. “You can find out what dinosaurs are closely related to this particular animal, and you can read those scientific papers,” Fitzgerald said. “You use the best scenario from similar animals to fill in the gaps.”
Even though Erin didn’t enjoy biology in college, she became familiar enough with the subject to be a paleo artist. “You kind of have to pick and pull what the animal is doing, based on what modern day animals are doing, and make a relationship,” Fitzgerald said. The first step is basic identification, then relation to modern species, and finally the selection of an individual animal to use as reference.“You use more science to reconstruct the skeletal makeup,” Fitzgerald said. “When you get to the art part, like more of the flesh reconstruction, you have a little more artistic license.”
In addition to an artistic background, Fitzgerald says that, in order to become a paleo artist, you need to be able to talk to researchers, enjoy reading papers, understand anatomy, and have a sense of biology. “Your conversation with the scientists lets them do their job and you do your job,” Fitzgerald said.
Artists are able to use X-ray, CT-scanning, and surface-scanning to build digital skeletons; the digital configurations are printed from a 3D printer and mounted as physical models. “One of our suggestions to artists is to hop into the digital world,” Fitzgerald said. “You’re certainly going to have more doors open if you have that capability.”
For Fitzgerald, paleo art is a direct bridge of science and art. She compares it to astronomy, in the sense that it’s a field with missing parts. Astronomical artists are unable to physically see the planets but they use information given by scientists to build the most accurate recreations. “In most cases, a paleo artist enhances the research of the paleontologist.” Fitzgerald said. “As artists, we have a perspective advantage.”
To learn more:
View Erin’s portfoloio at http://erinfitzgeraldpaleoart.daportfolio.com/
Read more about Erin and the entire Sereno team at http://paulsereno.uchicago.edu/