Paleoartist: ZHAO Chuang

Editor’s note: This interview was facilitated by Mary Jane Hughes and Jennifer Bauer

Describe your path to paleoart. Have you always been interested in ancient life? Did you come upon it randomly? Do you have science and/or art training?

A trivial hobby has become my future career, and some would say that’s like a “butterfly effect.” Every child has wild dreams, and in my childhood, I always fancied huge animals. I heard about dinosaurs early, but I always thought people made those things up. That changed when I was seven, reading about T. rex in a book titled 100,000 Why (shi wan ge wei shen me), a popular Chinese encyclopedia for children in the 1970s and 80s. Reading about dinosaurs amazed me: what a wonderful world! The Tyrannosaurus rex was real! Since then, I have been infatuated about dinosaurs, trying to know more and more about them. At that time, I was learning how to paint in the local youth community center, and when I got distracted in class, I drew dinosaurs. The teacher saw the sketches, was happy about them, even encouraged me to draw more. This was my life-changer, because at that time, everyone, including myself, regarded the painting of dinosaurs as an irrelevant digression, a pastime not worth mentioning. It is great having someone acknowledged the things you have been doing was worthwhile; the encouragement is powerful regardless of whether the encouraged is young or old. Subtly, my teacher’s kind words worked for a long time, sustaining me in painting dinosaurs. Then, my confidence got another boost from the recognition by professional paleontologists.

In 2006, when I was in my sophomore year, Dr. Wang Xiaolin, a paleontologist at the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, somehow got in touch with me. He asked me to paint a picture of a Jurassic mammal, Volaticotherium antiquum, a small animal that could glide. In an email attachment, Wang sent me the photo of its fossils and micrographs. Wang stated his requirements: the picture should show how the animal extends and contracts its wing membrane, set in a background of pines or ginkgoes, at dusk or at night.

 

The assignment filled me with excitement and joy. The difficulty of the job, however, soon became apparent. My first sketch contained fundamental errors: the animal’s limbs were too advanced for its evolution, and its membrane was of the wrong size. Fortunately, Professor Wang answered all my queries with patience and helped me get an ideal composition. In getting this job done, I started to understand the specific issues that I never thought about. For example, paleontologists are greatly concerned about the shape of an animal’s teeth. Hence the paleoartist must ponder about how to show this in the painting.

When I considered the job well done, the ginkgo trees in the background turned out to be problematic. Experts on that tree sent in their opinions telling me that the Jurassic ginkgoes have leaves which were palm-shaped instead of today’s fan-shaped. I corrected that. A month later, I got the news that the painting would appear on the cover page of Nature. This was a glory that I have never thought possible, the most significant encouragement I ever got, and it has been inspiring me to this day. When I reflect upon the job, I realize this: while it is important to see an opportunity as it comes, it is more important to make full use of it, to deliver the results perfectly.

Before my painting landed on the cover of Nature, I worked for some popular science periodicals and other media for some time, providing them with scientific dinosaur paintings. Technically, at the time, I had some vague thoughts about developing my career based on these jobs and put in some effort towards that. But, compared to the depth of the work I did for the Nature job, all previous efforts paled. From that point on, I realized that restoration in paleontology means something and bears responsibilities. Any art, as a form of expression, carries information. Restoration in paleontology is special because it is responsible for visualizing the learnings and achievements made by paleontologists. Artists who do this must work as hard as scientists, improving their work continually by trying to add more accurate information. So, strictly speaking, this job was the starting point of my career in paleontological restoration.

 

 

I took graphic design as my undergraduate major. Regrettably, my academic training in fine art was limited to the college’s few basic compulsory art courses, and I had no formal training in paleontology or zoology either. I learned techniques in oil, watercolor, sculptures, and digital painting, as well as animal anatomy and evolution by auditing classes from other departments or colleges, often informally. Whatever information I couldn’t get from these classes, I would try to find in libraries. Honing my painting skills took a lot of practice in my spare time.

After graduation, I spent many years working with scholars. During this period, I trained myself in science and art by doing projects, including observing fossils, asking scholars questions, and doing fieldwork.

 

Where do you come from most of your artistic inspiration?

Most of my inspiration comes directly from nature. The world’s best artworks appear crude and clumsy compared to nature’s creations. Hence, nature provides the best mentorship. For example, my work often deals with the texture of dinosaurs’ soft skin around their eyes and at their joints. If the dinosaur in question had scales, the best way to get reference will be to look at reptiles with fine scales to see how their scales arrange; if the dinosaur was closely related to birds, I could get information from birds with exposed and bare skin. Some dinosaurs have keratinous beaks and large plates; these can be compared to the structure of wild cloven-hooves’ horns, or large Geochelone’s mouth and back. I often look at how these tissues and parts get stained or wear out in the wild, because learning from these details then helps me depict how nature leaves its traces on animals.

I have seen extraordinary things like African buffalos got close to one another to warm themselves on a chilly night. Also, predators were not always hunting and killing herbivores, somewhat surprisingly, even if chances permit them to do so. I saw antelopes sometimes staying one or two meters from a group of hyenas, and neither group had any interest or concern towards the other.

Sometimes, I got inspirations for composition from my dreams. Many years ago, I painted a group of Shastasaurus, and I had a dream before the job. In my dream, the golden sunbeams were trying to break through purple clouds. Under the clouds were buildings that looked like bamboo shoots, with rough walls, while a group of gigantic airships flew slowly through them. This scene lingered on after I woke up, so I used the ideas and colors in painting that picture.

 

What form of media do you use, most frequently, to create your art? Was this the same as when you first started as an artist? Do you have a favorite media?

If I have the energy, I use all form of art that I can lay my hands on watercolor, acrylic, oil, ink or other composite materials; sculptures, digital painting, 3-D sculptures, or short videos.

My most commonly used form remains digital painting, a method that I had adopted since when I was a student taking part-time paleoart jobs. Hence, my work style is different from a traditional artist who preferred oil or sculptures. Digital painting differs significantly from paintings by hand; the former allows considerable freedom in choosing the size of canvass, picking a color from the RGB model, and adding layers; therefore, a digital artist works with a distinctively different set of logic. One can ignore the properties of the paints; one can forget about choosing tools, setting up the studio, or other steps in traditional painting that often drain the artist’s energy; by going digital, one can instead go straight into the subject. Digital painting can easily shape precise structures and provide more details. At the same time, this technique works efficiently and allows easy modification, suitable for my subjects.

 

Xinghaiornis: acrylic painting by ZHAO Chuang

Shastasaurus: digital painting by ZHAO Chuang

Yutyrannus chases Microraptor: oil painting by ZHAO Chuang

 

What is my favorite media? A hard question, since different projects require different specifics. To answer, I take three perspectives: In painting, I prefer acrylic and watercolor. Acrylic provides more vibrant colors, some of which are highly bright or fluorescent, properties that most other materials can’t match. Also, acrylic dries fast to become irreversibly insoluble, making it ideal for creating rich details and random effects. It also allows me to work on a variety of surfaces. In sculptures, I like doing real-sized animal sculptures. Many ancient creatures are impressive because they are huge. They used to be living beings, and if we could look at them, we would be awed by their huge size as well as the rich, fine details. I can think of no better way to present them than full-size sculptures. If I have the liberty to choose the technique I like, my favorite will be oil. The complex and slow creative process of oil painting is relaxing, gets me into the best mental state, and gives me more time to brood.
On the other hand, I always hope to use some techniques of Chinese ink and brush painting in my work, but I never have the time, with all I have done being some sketches. Still, I’m confident that this traditional approach can work wonders with paleontology, yielding incredible visual effects.

 

I found your project descriptions online, and much of it surrounds natural sciences: ancient life, exceptionally preserved fossils from China, constellations, humans and their relatives, and a lot of animals. Can you explain your decisions about themes for large projects like these?

Our project is called “PNSO’s Scientific Art Projects Plan: Stories on Earth (2010—2070),” created by me and my partner, Ms. YANG Yang, in 2010. YANG, a writer, happened to work for my publishing house in 2009 as a text editor. I was an art editor, so we got to know each other. Both of us were fresh graduates then, and we would talk about our hobbies, career plans, and aspirations. YANG is a small girl with great inner strength, is persistent, and works very hard. I can feel that she has a deep love for writing and a rare obsession in perfecting her pieces. Our editing work was somewhat related to what our real interests were, but I felt that she wanted much more, something bigger. I was good at painting ancient creatures, but not so good at writing well about the prehistoric world to let potential readers know about them. Then I developed an idea: I could work with YANG; I would paint, she would write, and together we could do something great. When I talked to her about it, she caught on and said she had that in mind, too. So, we both resigned and officially started PNSO, and that was the beginning of our 10-year cooperation.

Our first creative project is Darwin: An Art Project of Life Sciences. It traces the evolution of life on Earth, starting from the Cambrian explosion to the present day. We restored ancient organisms and paleoenvironment of various periods, aiming to restore all known extinct organ-isms. In this project, we recreated stories about Earth’s past.

The second is Galileo: An Art Project of Constellations, one that we work on astronomy and the universe. This project includes a wide range of topics, from celestial bodies to microscopic particles. For example, it has description or speculation about existing or emergent aerospace technology that has emerged or is likely to occur, and how stars and planets affected Earth’s ecology or human civilization (which includes the extinction events and the origins of mythology). Some of the more interesting things we have done were based on the constellations defined by modern astronomy, which had origins from Greek mythology or the era of great navigation.

 

Yangchuanosaurus vs Chungkingosaurus by ZHAO Chuang

Sede the Ankylosaurus by ZHAO Chuang

 

The third is Starland Paradise: A Project Creating A Wonderful Science Literature World for Children. The books for children in this series have a “soft” sci-fi nature, with the central theme being courage, dreams, and love. For example, we have produced a series called I Have a T-rex, telling how a little girl keeping a Tyrannosaurus rex as her pet. In this series, we tried to describe the finer points of our world.

The works in these projects are available to the public in the form of books, model toys, and exhibitions. These three projects by YANG and I represent Earth’s past, present, and future. We want to retell a new version of Earth’s story, both scientifically and using the language of art. Naturally, the work cannot be finished; it is impossible to restore all extinct creatures in our lifetime. We will, however, continue to do it, until we can no longer write and paint.

 

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

Restoration in paleontology serves an important function: a paleoartist, like a good translator, should accurately translate cutting-edge research to the general public. Therefore, a paleoartist’s work is important and difficult: apart from creating impressive visual effects, it must be as accurate as possible.

Like industrial or architectural designs, restoration is about applying our imaginations and fantasies in the real world. The difference is that the designers try to depict things which are about to appear, while restoration artists work about things which are no longer with us.

One may say that, technically, the highest goal of paleoartists is to create a time machine that brings people back to that era to see every detail themselves. This is nearly always impossible since the perfect specimen we own still have missing details. Paleontologists must present hypotheses and arguments very objectively, refrain from being assertive or arbitrary about the parts that went missing. The scientific discourse on those parts then necessarily becomes laden with words like “may” or “probably,” but a piece of paleoart cannot leave the corresponding details blank. The greatest challenge for paleoartists, therefore, is to fill in those blanks with visual details. In addition to be thoroughly familiar with paleontology, one must acquire knowledge in other areas. For example, I often have to present the shape of an animal’s pupil, the colors of its skin, the posture as it moves, or other creatures and the environment at a particular prehistoric moment. I have to learn these things by studying other disciplines.
In addition to these technical details, to make an animal look “real” and “alive” requires skills that are not quantifiable or easily described. For example, I often think about an animal’s temper. Each animal has its own temper; some are aggressive, while others tend to mind their own business. How to make the animals in a painting “alive” is challenging.

 

Restored skeleton of the T.rex

Restored muscle of the T.rex
T.rex digital painting by ZHAO Chuang

Life-sized sculptures by ZHAO Chuang in the exhibition

 

Another contribution of restoration is to faithfully record the extent of progress, in paleontology and in other related sciences, from many perspectives. For example, the Iguanodon and Megalosaurus sculptures that remain standing in Crystal Palace, the United Kingdom, were the works of Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. Today’s paleontologists may think of them as inaccurate, impossible monsters; nevertheless, they represented the pinnacle of paleontology in the era when they were built. No doubt, what we created today will be overturned many years later, but they will serve as stepping stones for future scholars and artists to aim higher. Eventually, they will become part of the efforts to recover our planet’s history.

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