Paleo Artist Jason Bourque

Editor’s note: You can view some of Jason’s illustrations and sculptures of prehistoric animals such as the pampathere armadillo Holmesina and giant land tortoise Hesperotestudo in the Florida Fossils: Evolution of Life and Land exhibit at the Florida Museum of Natural History.

Can you describe the path that led you to become a paleo artist? 

When I saw the work of Rudolph Zallinger, Charles Knight, Jay Matternes, and Zdenek Burian in books and posters as a child, I had no idea who these artists were, only that their very detailed and stylized images transported me to a magical place that represented the world of the past, very unlike the city I grew up in. This inspired me to begin illustrating and sculpting dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures at a very young age. As I grew older, I came to appreciate the importance of great paleoart, and its ability to convey so much scientific information in a concise and interesting format.

Much of my undergraduate work as a BFA at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst was based in paleoart, inspired largely by the dreamlike impressionistic work of Doug Henderson. During undergraduate and after, I spent a great deal of time learning about the anatomy of extant animal groups by taking a number of graduate-level biology courses, doing dissections (at school and at home), and preparing skeletal specimens. I also made it a point to illustrate in sketchbooks on a nightly basis (usually in the studio or out at coffee shops) skeletons from paleontology books, and attempted to flesh out those skeletons as realistically as possible using extant animals as references.

My first visits to the paleontology exhibits American Museum of Natural History certainly inspired me to pursue a career as a vertebrate paleontologist, more specifically to work with fossils hands-on. These early trips occurred while I was in art school. When we had class field trips to visit art museums in New York City, I would sneak away early in the day to visit the AMNH after a quick pass through the modern art. It was there that I saw my first glyptodont, Stupendemys (the world’s largest freshwater turtle), and Meiolania (horned turtle) skeletons in person. It blew my mind that these animals ever existed (it still blows my mind) and I realized that my dream job would have to involve working with animals like these in some capacity, either attempting to bring them back to life through paleoart, resurrecting their skeletons through field collecting and preparation, or telling their stories through research. I’ve been very fortunate in my job at the Florida Museum of Natural History which has allowed me to work with and communicate my ideas about fossils in all of these aspects.

Jason Bourque with Gomphochelys
Jason Bourque with Gomphochelys

Do you have a favorite medium to work in?

Most of my two-dimensional work is made using graphite and pen/ink on paper and wood, ink on scratchboard, and computer. Most of my three-dimensional work is made using polyform clays (e.g., Sculpey). I greatly enjoy bronze casting because I love the permanence and weight of bronze sculpture, but don’t seem to have the time or resources these days to continue with it (perhaps when I retire?).

If someone wanted to pursue paleo art as a possible career, what advice would you give them?

I think the best paleoart incorporates a fine blend of realism and personal style of the artist. The realism can be accomplished by being detail oriented, having a good overall knowledge of comparative anatomy across different animal groups, and a good understanding behind scientific research on the topic including the evolution of the animal/plant groups being represented.

What do you like best about your job?

My job as a fossil preparator allows me to work with fossils almost every day. I often get to see things for the first time that no other human has ever seen as I remove matrix and uncover bones buried beneath. Collecting new fossils out in the field is always exciting, and we constantly make new discoveries in the field and in my lab. I love having the opportunity to research and communicate those discoveries to the world.

What is most challenging about your job?

Some fossil specimens require a great deal of preparation, which in turn takes a great deal of time to accomplish. With so many specimens, it is a daunting task to try to complete these long-term projects while still maintaining progress on multiple other projects. Maybe the challenge is that there’s just not enough time in the day?

You can view Jason’s reconstruction of the giant snake Titanoboa here or here.