Paleo Artist Lena Cole

Editor’s Note: Our artist this issue is a Ph.D. student in the School of Earth Science at The Ohio State University. Her research focuses on the evolutionary history of Echinoderms.

Lena Cole
Lena Cole

Can you describe the path that led you to become a paleo artist? For example, did you have an early interest in ancient life? What was your undergraduate major? Was there one opportunity that shaped your career choices?

Paleoart is a hobby I have primarily approached from the direction of a scientist rather than an artist. I grew up in rural Alaska where I developed a life-long passion for everything related to natural history. I drew and painted living organisms whenever I had the chance, but my long-term interest was in studying evolutionary and organismal biology. When I started college as a biology major at James Madison University, I stopped doing art altogether. Later, my interest in paleontology began when I was given the opportunity to research a fossil stromatoporoid reef while still an undergraduate. The concept of studying evolution through deep time was remarkable to me, and led me to switch my major to geology with a focus in paleontology. When I first took invertebrate paleontology, drawing fossil specimens for lab rekindled my love of drawing. Over the last few years, I’ve gradually gotten back into drawing with an emphasis in paleoart and scientific illustration. I’ve started using paleoart as a form of educational outreach, and hope to keep doing paleo illustrations for a mixture of scientific, educational, and entertainment purposes.

What skills does one need to become a successful paleo artist?

I feel there are two important sides to paleoart: scientific accuracy and creativity. The scientific accuracy part is important because these aren’t just fantasy animals, they were once-living creatures. The creativity side is also important because to bring an extinct animal to life through paleoart you need to include many imagined details that aren’t preserved in the fossils. The trick is to imagine those details in such a way that the organism is scientifically accurate yet compellingly detailed and realistic.

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

Paleoart is a form of scientific illustration, so learning the science behind your subjects and studying both living and extinct animals is important. Knowing the anatomy, ecology, habitat, behavior, and functional morphology of fossils is important for scientific accuracy. Studying living organisms can also be extremely helpful for referencing both environmental settings and physical details like hair, scales, and shells.

Ammonite© by Lena Cole
Ammonite© by Lena Cole

What do you like best about paleoart?

I love that paleoart can almost look like fantasy art, but it’s all real! Bringing long-extinct organisms to life through paleoart is a great way to get people excited about paleontology, geology, evolution, and other aspects of science.

What is most challenging about being a paleo artist?

Right now, it’s finding time to work! I’m currently a paleontology PhD student, which takes up most of my time. Other than that, the hardest part for me is getting started on new projects, because I easily spend as much time researching a subject and planning a project as I do on the drawing itself.

Do you have work that you are most proud of?

One of my favorites right now is a painting of a fossil ammonite done in watercolor. The watercolor paint is great for capturing the opalescence of the shell.

How long does it typically take to complete a project? What is the process? Do you get feedback from scientists while you are working on things? Do you sometimes have to start over?

It can take me anywhere from a few hours to a few days to finish a project and usually involves background research, collecting references images, and doing test sketches before I actually get to drawing, inking, and painting. I have found that spending a lot of time beforehand researching my current subject helps me get the finished work correct the first time. I have worked on some projects for other scientists which is a lot of fun because I get to be a bit more creative and then they give me feedback on the types of reconstructions they envision.

Where might people be able to view your work?

I recently started an educational paleoart blog at and will be designing a Facebook page and an Etsy profile soon!

Shark Teeth © by Lena Cole
Shark Teeth © by Lena Cole

Lambeosaurus © by Lena Cole
Lambeosaurus © by Lena Cole

To learn more:

You can find Lena’s paleoart blog here