London-based artist John Conway spends his time in many walks of life—prehistoric life, that is.
Conway focuses on two genres of art: “paleontological reconstruction and, well, everything else,” a combination which allows for breathtaking imaginative overlap.
“John’s art melds illustrative skill and a variety of approaches with scientific detail and imagination,” science writer Brian Switek, who specializes in evolution, paleontology, and natural history, told Flux in an interview.
The path to creating accurate representations of prehistoric flora and fauna is riddled with challenges—the biggest perhaps being the initial research.
“Things are particularly difficult for artists here, even the most scientifically minded of us,” Conway said. “Scientific literature simply isn’t written with the problems of artists in mind; the crucial information on the appearance of fossil animals and environments can be spread across hundreds of papers, and even then there are huge gaps.”
Reconstructing plant life is particularly difficult as a decent-sized painting might have dozens of species, and gathering information on each is a daunting task.
“I’ve been putting a lot of effort into this over the last couple of years, and I’m still nowhere near where I’d like to be,” he said.
Conway’s fascination with paleontology began during childhood. Sparked by Bob Baker’s book The Dinosaur Heresies, his love for dinosaurs quickly intertwined with his passion for art.
“Certainly by the time I was fifteen, I was very into painting—especially nineteenth century landscape painters, and some modernists, as well as the paleontological artists,” he said.
It didn’t take long for Conway to dive into his own paleo-art career. At seventeen, he went to work for a museum in his hometown of Canberra, Australia, where he painted life-sized murals behind the dinosaur skeletons. Six years later, it was time for bigger and better.
“I grew up in a very dull city,” he said. “I left [Canberra] at age 23, while halfway through a philosophy/biology degree, to take up a very glamorous job working in Hall Train Studios making pterosaurs and dinosaurs.”
Hall Train, located in Ontario, Canada, is one of the leaders in the design and creation of exhibit paleo-environments, which are featured in natural history museums, science centers, and theme parks around the world, as well as one of the world’s foremost suppliers of dinosaur animation for television.
On occasion Conway is challenged with completely reconstructing animals from the fossils, up. To do this, he must first draw all of the individual bones and assemble the skeleton, then comes the challenge of reconstructing muscles and other soft tissue using relatives through phylogenetic bracketing.
Conway’s non-paleo-art spans a vast variety of subjects, from alien life forms, to abstract representations of lyrics and mythologies, to beautifully obscure portraits of musical instruments.
“I’m very jealous of music and its apparently privileged connection to emotion in our brains. I have the rhythm of a drunken caffeinated turkey,” he said jokingly. “It has recently dawned on me that I will not live long enough to become a composer, an architect, a city planner, a singer-songwriter, an academic philosopher, a filmmaker, a paleontologist, a novelist, an engineer, a rock-star programmer, a shipbuilder, and a Lego-set designer.”
Though there is a distinct separation between Conway’s paleontological art and the rest, all of his work shares a similar aesthetic. He has an incredible ability to create life and motion is his computer-native art, much of which is still life recreation.
“He does far more than try to get the dinosaurs right: he gives them a kind of vitality that is sometimes lost in attempts where technical details trump the goal of trying to restore the animals as they once lived,” science writer Switek said. “People want to know what these animals looked like, and so it warms the cockles of my petrified heart to see John and other artists really do their homework while pushing the boundaries of what we can imagine about dinosaurs and other prehistoric animals… Their work helps bring new science out to the public, and I am very thankful for that.”
Conway’s art has been featured worldwide, in countless blogs, publications, and in documentaries for National Geographic, BBC, and the Discovery Channel. Most exciting was the internet response to his book, All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals.
“In 2012 I decided to pursue a direct-to-people strategy of selling my work… All Yesterdays seemed like the most complete, and best suited of our various projects,” Conway said.
“It’s been amazingly well received critically and got heaps of coverage,” Conway said. “Though we are far from the only artists to produce the kinds of reconstructions you see in the book, I think it has come at just the right time, giving articulation and focus to what many of us have been feeling about paleontological reconstruction latterly.”
For Conway, paleontological art is about more than simply science communication.
“Honestly, such a goal would bore me. I think it should also have another goal, which has to do with enriching our lives through aesthetic experiences—shifting our feelings of the world,” he said