All that’s left of the most numerous, diverse and successful creatures that ever walked the face of the Earth are bones. Dinosaurs left behind no YouTube videos, photographs or even cave drawings. Yet we can get a glimpse into the natural existence of these “terrible lizards” through the work of Alberta-based artist Michael Skrepnick.
With guidance from paleontologists, Skrepnick’s art, which depicts dinosaurs in their natural environment, has graced a number of natural history museum exhibits in Canada and internationally, and has delighted readers of textbooks and magazines, including National Geographic, Discover and Time.
“Often, dinosaurs are depicted in movies as monsters, to increase the drama, but this isn’t what we are really dealing with,” says Skrepnick. “These were real, living animals, part of an environment that is no longer here. My goal is to achieve suspension of disbelief. I want viewers to forget for a moment that they are looking at something they can’t physically see alive in this day and age. But they will accept an artistic rendering because it’s as close to reality as we can ever hope to get.”
Despite an interest in dinosaurs that began when he was four, Skrepnick waited until later in life to take a year-long sabbatical from his job as a customs inspector to pursue dinosaur art. Since that bold step 17 years ago, Skrepnick has been breathing life into extinct species. But one of the most exciting experiences came in 1996 when he became
the first artist to produce a life rendering of the first confirmed specimen of a non-avian feathered dinosaur (Sinosauropteryx prima) found in China.
While on a dinosaur-hunting trip with renowned Alberta paleontologist and Canada Research Chair in Dinosaur Paleobiology Philip Currie, Skrepnick viewed new specimens in Beijing that had been brought in from a remote area in the Liaoning province.
The exquisite quality of the specimens was overwhelming, says Skrepnick, who could see scales on fish and internal organs and fine details on insects. Yet one box immediately captured everyone’s attention — in it was a small dinosaur with a feathery covering. “It was a transformational moment, and there was nowhere else I’d rather have been on the planet at that time,” he says. “It changed everything.”
At the time, paleontologists were speculating that some dinosaurs might have had feathers because they seemed to have a number of other birdlike characteristics. But this specimen solidified the theory. “There was no more speculation,” says Skrepnick. “This was the real deal, and there it was, six inches from my face.”
The feathered dinosaur became the focus of the 1996 annual meeting of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology in New York City while Skrepnick’s drawings became the centrepiece of the media frenzy that followed the discovery, making the front page of The New York Times and other publications around the world.
While the feathered dinosaurs might be the highest-profile example of his work, Skrepnick estimates that he has produced the initial life rendering for more than two dozen new dinosaur species. In fact, in 2008, he painted the cover art for a scientific monograph describing a new ceratopsian (horned) dinosaur species discovered near Grand Prairie, Alta., that Currie has been working on.
Skrepnick’s art relies on long and detailed discussions with paleontologists. For the Pachyrhinosaurus project, Currie and Skrepnick spent many hours speculating on the dinosaur’s appearance. It had a large boney “bump” on its nose where a large horn might have been. But since no nasal horn material was found fossilized with other parts of the skeleton, Skrepnick didn’t know whether to include one in the final drawing. In the end, the duo decided to remain true to the discovery and not add a horn until further evidence becomes available.
“When a paleontologist says, ‘Yeah, I think we’ve captured it,’ there’s a real sense of accomplishment at having met his standards,” says Skrepnick, who carefully balances the paleontologist’s need for detail and scrutiny with the public desire for information. “The scientific literature gives you an iteration of what people are working on, but imagery offers another level,” he says. “A picture is worth a thousand words. So I take the data that science provides and make images that people can relate to.”
For Currie, the value of dinosaur artists is immense. “In Alberta, we have developed some extremely good dinosaur artists on a world-class scale, and 20 years ago, they didn’t exist,” he says. “By the mid-1980s, we had a couple of people here in Alberta who worked for us when we were developing the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology. One example is Michael Skrepnick, who is just a superb painter.”
Despite the countless dinosaurs Skrepnick has resurrected through art eons after their extinction, he still focuses on each dinosaur as an individual and tries to understand its own story of life and death.
“When I’m bringing these animals back to life, I’m their advocate and I’m speaking for them,” he says. “It is my job to bring them back into a position where people can relate to them and to do my best to give an honest representation of what these animals would have been like in life.”