Fleshing out the fossil record

Julius Csotonyi is a time traveller. With his scientific mind and artist's eye, he produces a vision of the prehistoric world, a time before humanity.

Julius Csotonyi is a time traveller.

With his scientific mind and artist’s eye, he produces a vision of the prehistoric world, a time before humanity.

“My whole mission is to show things we cannot see for ourselves,” said Csotonyi. His preferred destination: the age of dinosaurs.

During a presentation at the Yukon Beringia Centre last week, Csotonyi explained the job of paleo-artist is to take the scientific data produced by paleontologists and bring it to life.

The Edmonton-based artist has created images for Science Magazine, National Geographic and Scholastic publishing, and large-scale murals for the Royal Tyrrell Museum, the Royal Ontario Museum and the Houston Museum of Natural Science, among others.

As scientific illustration, Csotonyi’s images must be rooted in hard fact. That means anatomy, behaviour patterns, environment and plant life, even lighting conditions, are extrapolated from evidence in the fossil record and ecological history.

A fossil of a mummified dinosaur found in 2007 was invaluable for understanding skin textures and soft tissue construction, and the contents of the gut gave valuable insight into the diet, and flora, of the beast’s world. Before that, clues were extrapolated only from fossilized bones.

“This is the golden age of dinosaur research,” said Csotonyi. “I’m fortunate that I’ve been brought into the loop in new discoveries.”

Working closely with scientists and museums for the bulk of his work means Csotonyi needs to be flexible for late-breaking discoveries, which happen often.

With that in mind, Csotonyi has embraced digital painting in programs like Photoshop. A digital piece, built with different layers, allows the artist to make changes as new evidence emerges, instead of starting from scratch. Not a bad tool when it takes days to build up a piece, some more than 45 metres long and three metres tall.

One feathered dino illustration was nearly complete when new evidence in sub-cellular structures in the feathers indicated specific colouration. His red anchiornis ended up being dark grey with white and cinnamon on the tail and a red crest on its head. “I’m connected to the frontier of science in this area, and it’s very exiting for me.”

With no formal art education, it’s been an unexpected career path for Csotonyi, who was trained as a scientist. He earned his PhD studying the micro-life forms living in extreme environments, like salt springs or hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the ocean. This work honed his eye for detail, he said.

Since childhood, he always liked to draw dinosaurs. “I thought the artwork would be a hobby.” By 2005, paleo art started taking up more and more of his time, slowing down his PhD research.

Once he finished his schooling, his art career took off. He said that as the amount of research grows, the amount of work for paleo artists grows, and public interest grows, in an upward spiral. “The field has exploded,” he said.

His specialized niche keeps him busy: “I rarely find time to play around with it,” he said, but he’s happy for the work. “I try not to turn down anything – but that’s because I forego sleep.”

An image of high Arctic camels of the Pliocene period was recently published in Ice Age Old Crow, a Yukon government publication. Csotonyi hopes to collaborate with Yukon paleontologist Grant Zazula for future projects.

His work has appeared on coins from the Canadian Mint, and his first collection, The Paleo Art of Julius Csotonyi, will be published next year by Titan Books.

More of Csotonyi’s work can be seen at his website, www.csotonyi.com

Contact Ian Stewart at

istewart@yukon-news.com

Just Posted

Second Avenue study nears completion

City engineer promises that the document will be made public at a roundtable discussion

Claims process for Indian day schools settlement opens

Eight Yukon day schools are on the final approved list of facilities covered by the settlement

WYATT’S WORLD

Wyatt’s World

Longtime party supporter vies for Yukon Party leadership

Linda Benoit said she brings a different perspective than other candidates

Residents speak out against parking plan for seniors housing project

The developer wants a reduction in parking spots at the proposed supportive living facility

Yukonomist: A zero-carbon replacement for our LNG plant

Consider small, modular nuclear reactors

Nicolas Petit wins Copper Basin 300

Rob Cooke was the lone Yukoner to finish, placing 12th

City news, briefly

Some of the discussions from the Jan. 9th meeting of Whitehorse city council

Commentary: Burning wood for energy is not a climate-friendly policy

New projects to increase the use of wood and wood products as energy sources should not be promoted

Yukonomist: Yukon risks 2020

It might not be a terrible idea to take advantage of quiet in January to update your emergency kit

Holiday Hockey Tournament an all-ages affair in Dawson City

“Everybody is making it about the kids and making sure that they’re having a good time”

Yukon Dog Mushers Association holds preliminary race at Ibex Valley tracks

The event included 19 participants racing in six categories