What was it like when dinosaurs ruled the planet? Just how big was brachiosaurus? How would it feel to come face-to-face with T. rex? While we can’t answer these questions firsthand, we can get an idea of what that long-lost world was like thanks to the artwork of Julius Csotonyi (chuh-TUH-nyee).
Csotonyi, who lives in Canada, is a paleoartist. He creates detailed images of prehistoric creatures—from towering dinos to mighty megasharks. His work depicts the amazing diversity of life on Earth millions of years ago. To make his subjects come alive, Csotonyi relies on more than just his imagination. Before he began his illustrating career, he was a research biologist, so he has a deep understanding of animals and their anatomy. Science World spoke with Csotonyi about how he paints scenes that are both visually stunning and scientifically accurate.
Science World: What does a paleoartist do?
Julius Csotonyi: I work with paleontologists, who study the fossilized remains of ancient animals. It’s my job to interpret their findings and try to understand what an animal would have looked like when it was alive. I try to include as much of what was known about the animal’s environment as possible, including other species that may have lived in that time and place. My paintings range from murals of prehistoric worlds for museums to illustrations that appear in books.
SW: What first got you interested in painting prehistoric creatures?
JC: I’m drawn to the prehistoric because I really enjoy the stranger and less easily visualized parts of the natural world. The further back you look, the more alien the environment becomes. Dinosaurs are far weirder than originally thought. Abelisaurids, for example, had ridiculously short arms—even shorter than T. rex’s, relative to their body size. And Dimorphodon, a pterosaur, looks like a bizarre dragon with a long tail that has a fin at the end. When people see my painting of Dimorphodon, they often say, “That can’t be real!”
SW: Has your approach to your work changed over time?
JC: My illustrations have a lot of action—like the moment when a predator attacks—because I like to show how animals’ bodies move and balance. Many of my newer artworks, though, are more serene. They show more of animals’ daily lives, like sleeping, roaming in herds, or eating. I also like to use light and incorporate elements from photographs taken in today’s world to make my images of the past look realistic.
SW: How do you decide what colors to give ancient animals?
JC: It’s a combination of science and speculation. Some dinosaur fossils contain clues about color patterns. That takes away some of the guesswork. For others, I look at their closest relatives and the animals’ ecosystem. If they lived in a forest, then I look at trends in color patterns of today’s forest animals for reference. Many of them have a blotchy, spotted, or striped pattern that acts as camouflage to help them blend in with their surroundings.
SW: Do you think you’ll ever run out of creatures to illustrate?
JC: Recently, there’s been a boom in paleontology research. A new dinosaur is discovered nearly every week. There are also tons of known dinosaur species. I won’t run out of subjects anytime soon.
SW: What’s your favorite part of your job?
JC: Interacting with the scientific community—I like sharing what’s happening in the field with a bigger audience.