Thursday, 19 May 2011

Building a dinosaur - the research

Firstly, an apology. It was my intention to make the centrepiece of this blog the building of a dinosaur in 3D, but the old adage of the best laid plans of mice and men is relevant here as my plans were rapidly overtaken by events . . .

Originally, when I decided to model Triceratops horridus I had decided to use a certain leading artist's skeletal reconstructions in order to get the morphology correct. I wrote requesting permission, got no reply and then the storm broke and all hell broke loose, as I did not receive permission I had to rethink my approach. I'm not really interested in entering the debate on the usage of other people's skeletal reconstructions and if they don't want to give permission you have to respect that; if that material is actually scientific data or art is another matter. Luckily, Scott Hartman very kindly gave me permission to base my reconstruction on his excellent skeletal drawing of Triceratops (reproduced below with permission). Were this for commercial work, I would be paying Scott for this usage.

However, the problem did focus my mind on the issue of how to model dinosaurs in 3D when you are struggling for reference. Luckily, there are reams of information out there that is freely available and so all is not lost. Also, if you can locate a skeleton within travelling distance then making your own reconstruction has to be the answer. As it happens there isn't one within easy travelling distance for myself although I am hoping to visit Oxford University Museum of Natural History and photograph their Triceratops specimen and use that as the basis for a reconstruction of my own. One problem here is that as an un-degreed, unaffiliated and basically lone amateur palaeontologist/artist it seems you are sometimes not taken seriously as a researcher by museums and this can be a real problem.

Of course I have been fortunate enough to travel to several of the world's great natural history museums and have photographed many skeletons there, although not with the purpose of creating skeletal reconstructions. This material is useful in itself and can be gathered and pinned to boards (in the mograph business we call these collages moodboards as they can give an overall feel for a project and often contain images not directly related to the subject but that might indicate a feel), walls or kept in files as reference; in my opinion you cannot get to much reference.

Triceratops skeleton and skull at the Field Museum, Chicago.

The obvious place to start is Wikipedia. As it happens Triceratops is well-illustrated on it's wiki page and there is an excellent photograph that could be used for working out proportions:

Photograph of the Triceratops skeleton in Senckenberg Museum, Frankfurt by Eva Kröcher.
Used under Creative Commons licence.

A search for papers also reveals many sources and I am assuming it's legitimate to use this material when creating reconstructions; obviously there will be some copyright issues but these should be evident when reviewing the data.

Finally, as David Krentz suggests in his excellent Gnomon tutorial on drawing dinosaurs having an actual model can be a real help in getting the feel of the animal in 3D. During the entire modelling process I've had a Papo Triceratops on my desk for this purpose. I don't use it for modelling or texturing reference (those cracked horns? yeuch!) but simply to understand how the animal occupies space. Were I sketching it would provide a useful reference for shadows and lighting and I would take photos as reference. Of course it would be very useful to build your own maquette for this purpose . . . now there's an idea.

My Papo Triceratops photographed when not fighting with my Papo Tyrannosaurus rex.

So that's the groundwork done. Next we move on to sketching and planning how we will model our Triceratops.


  1. Problems solving at its best-methinks! Use what is available and make it work. Informative for me . Thanks.

  2. Good luck with this! but be warned - the Oxford Museum only has a mounted skull, not the whole skeleton...

  3. OUMNH has always been very friendly. You shouldn't have any problem photographing their T. horridus skull, as it's not in a case. However, they do protect 'copyright' on certain specimens. For example, they have casts of fossils (such as the famous Megalosaurus jaw, which is theirs) for educational purposes, but they don't permit copies of that to be taken for commercial purposes. I don't know who produced their Tric skull - the T. rex is Black Hills Institute.

    I can't imagine why someone would produce a skeletal reconstruction and then not want someone to use it or reference it!

  4. This is a great resource. Thanks! My favorite reference book for anatomy is Ken Hultgren's "The art of animal drawing".