Paleoart: Franz Anthony

Editor’s note: This issue, Jen Bauer interviewed paleoartist Franz Anthony. Franz Anthony’s personal site can be found here, his portfolio here, and his art shop here. He is also active on social media where you can see his art featured: Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Franz Anthony

Describe your path to paleoart. Do you have science and/or art training?

I’ve been drawing animals for as long as I can remember. As an Indonesian, I grew up being constantly reminded that there are lots of extraordinary creatures living all around me — even though being a suburban kid in the world’s most populated island means I never saw them in person. Luckily, my mom was supportive enough to feed my obsession by an endless stream of books and I consider myself very privileged for this.

Though I devour pretty much all sorts of information about animals, I’ve always been drawn to creatures that have flashy features like wings, fins, or exoskeleton. Their general weirdness — plus the idea that they’re real yet so out of my reach — is often most visible in ancient creatures, especially invertebrates.

Maybe, just maybe, growing up a gamer also amplified my curiosity. 90s kids were, and still are, heavily exposed to all sorts of fictional media that push the idea that somewhere out there, there are “magical” creatures to discover. It’s a romanticized view of the actual, natural world, but I feel like fiction plays a big part in nurturing my excitement.

Now that I’m a grown up, my academic and professional experiences actually revolve around art and visual communications. I find graphic design and illustration to be powerful tools that can drive people to empty their wallets, so I hope to use the same principle to spark people’s curiosity about the natural world instead. Some years ago, I started posting my dinosaur doodles on tumblr, as an attempt to educate myself more about the creatures and entertaining people at the same time.

This is when the folks of EarthArchives.org found me. Back then, I had no connection in the paleo sphere. That’s part of the downside of living in the tropics, I guess. Paleontology is pretty much non-existent here beyond what we see in games and movies. After helping them out with communicating scientific findings in the form of layperson-friendly articles, I then branched out to help their sister project, Pteros.com.

In late 2016, I used my experience working in design agency settings to co-found the artists’ collective, Studio 252MYA. The goal was to consolidate EarthArchives and Pteros artists so we can tackle projects that are more elaborate than illustrations. We’re a tiny team, but we’re growing nicely — right now we’re looking into books and other design projects.

How do you decide what to create? I saw your recent echinoderm series and being a Paleozoic echinoderm worker I was overjoyed that the odd and bizarre forms were receiving some desperately needed attention.

Parasaurolophus: Illustration from “The Circles of Life” series.
Parasaurolophus: Illustration from “The Circles of Life” series.

Paleoart, to me, is a form of science communication that relies a lot on illustrators. While cameras can now snap us accurate images from the deepest sea, or creatures that are too small and move too fast, we can’t say the same about lifeforms that are long gone.

Not gonna lie, I love dinosaurs. But there are so many artists out there covering pretty much every branch of the family tree, yet most other creatures never get this kind of treatment. This is why I decided to shift my attention to fish and invertebrates, to give them their long overdue “new looks” that are more easily comprehensible to the non-scientific crowd.

As a visual communication specialist, I find it tricky to make people pay attention to words and shapes that they don’t associate with a personal memory, like dinosaurs. This is why it’s so hard to get people to care about invertebrates — they don’t usually make it to the big screen. I can’t turn people into echinoderm enthusiasts overnight, but I want people to consider their existence.

At least, I hope that my visuals are striking enough to make people stop and think, even just a bit. If all else fails, I resort to bad invertebrate jokes and puns.

How long does it typically take to complete a project? Do you have a long process or step of procedures?

Miraspis: Illustration from “The Colorful World of the Trilobites” series.
Miraspis: Illustration from “The Colorful World of the Trilobites” series.

These days, I try to post one animal weekly to join Twitter’s #FossilFriday bandwagon. Typically, on Wednesday, I would be hunting for the right papers and references. This is often harder than it sounds when dealing with obscure creatures that haven’t been touched by scientists for decades.

Using specimen photos and line drawings made by the authors of the papers, I sketch out the basic anatomy of the animal directly on my computer, in Photoshop. I also color everything digitally, which simplifies my process. For the pattern and coloration, I look into living animals for references. This involves figuring out their habitat, lifestyle, and what kind of pigment/structural coloration is plausible within the group.

Normally, each animal takes a day or two to finish, depending on the details involved. Finer details like a sea urchin’s spines and tube feet or a nautilus’ tentacles definitely take longer than say, a fish or a pterosaur.

My invertebrate plates, however, take weeks to finish. Each one of them usually includes 12-20 individual animals that I can only do one per week.

What are the most rewarding and challenging aspects about being a paleoartist?

Actually, the realization came to me when I ran into a similar problem outside of paleo. I was once asked to illustrate 80 fishes from a national park in Sumatra, some of which were very obscure or even new to science. It’s really hard to create a full, representative picture of an animal if the specimen is damaged or if we don’t know enough about it to make a guesstimate.

On the other hand, this exact problem is what makes scientific illustration in general so exciting. I feel honored when I get to be the first person to illustrate a creature, giving a face to a specimen that would otherwise be unattractive/incomprehensible to the public. It’s kind of a big responsibility because my work plays a part in shaping people’s perception of the animal.

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

I don’t consider myself qualified to answer this because I’d be stepping on the toes of people who have been in the field for decades, but here’s what I personally feel, anyway.

Paleoart, or scientific illustration in general, is a very niche field, and opportunities are often limited by budget or geopolitical constraints. But within the niche, there’s always room for improvement and diversification.

I’m a 2D illustrator who is clueless about modeling with clay or 3D softwares. I don’t have a scientific academic background that gives me easy access to publications or museums’ drawers, but I’m academically and professionally trained in graphic design and visual communications. So with the help of invertebrate-enthusiast friends I make along the way, I’m going to call dibs on this intersection between design and invertebrates and own the niche.

Last but not least, technology is advancing very quickly these days. With the rise of paleontology-themed games and animations made by independent developers, I feel like there are so many new, untapped methods we can use to bring ancient landscapes back into life. I’m confident that anyone, as long as they find their own niche, can bring something unique into our shared vision of the past.

An example of a recently created invertebrate plate with many different types of echinoderm animals all on one image.