Paleoartists are Controlling what you Know About Dinosaurs! Part 1

A pair of battling Ceratosaurus. This art is by Greg Paul, a paleoartist we will talk a little bit about. How much do paleoartists affect what we think about dinosaurs? The image is from pg. 278 of Predatory Dinosaurs of the World.

Okay, okay. That headline is a liiittle bit exaggerated. However, I am becoming more and more convinced that the biggest voices that demand to be heard regarding the portrayal of dinosaurs are paleoartists, not paleontologists.

First of all, let me define “paleoartist.” A paleoartist is an artist who specializes in reconstructing and portraying extinct animals. If a paleoartist wants to be considered accurate, he must be up-to-date on the latest thoughts and ideas in paleontology. As such, paleoartists may, at time, fancy themselves experts on the topic of dinosaurs. However, I must stress that paleoartists, by and large, are not paleontologists. They can and do contribute to ideas and research in paleontology, but as a whole, they are artists first and paleontologists second.

A running silhouette image of Tyrannosaurus by Greg Paul. The image on the left shows the Tyrannosaurus face on (minus the head) and the image on the right shows it from the back (minus the tail). This form of illustration was popularized by Greg Paul and, for a time, was a standard form of dinosaur illustration. This image is from pg. 341 of Predatory Dinosaurs of the World

Perhaps the best distinction between paleoartist and paleontologist is Gregory S. Paul. Greg Paul was a prominent paleoartist during the eighties and ninties and into the two thousands. He popularized the running silhouette image of a dinosaur skeletal reconstruction. Paul’s black and white sketches of dinosaurs have become classics, and I for one had my vision of dinosaurs heavily influenced by his illustrations. He also dabbled a bit in paleontology. One of his more infamous contributions to paleontology was “reclassifying” Deinonychus as Velociraptor. I have talked about this in a previous post, but to summarize, Grep Paul wrote a book called Predatory Dinosaurs of the World,[1] and in it, he reclassified a number of theropod dinosaurs. Among his reclassifications, he decided that Deinonychus was similar enough to Velociraptor that they should both be classified in the genus Velociraptor. He made this determination without any peer review, meaning paleontologists did not get a chance to critique his idea before it was published. Since Predatory Dinosaurs of the World was a popular book during the late eighties and early nineties, which happened to be the same time a certain novel and movie were being written, the popular image of Velociraptor is actually based on Deinonychus. One of Greg Paul’s most recent contribution to paleontology is the attempt to reclassify Tyrannosaurus rex as three separate species (T. rex, T. imperator, and T. regina),[2] a move that has received criticism from paleontologists.[3]

Now, I am not claiming that Greg Paul was wrong about Deinonychus and Tyrannosaurus rex because he is a paleoartist. I am claiming, however, that he is a better artist than he is paleontologist. Moreover, I am claiming that paleoartists as a whole are better artists than they are paleontologists. Yet, it has been my observation that paleoartists are the loudest voices when it comes to the accuracy of dinosaurs. Do you remember when Jurassic World came out? Promotions for the movie teased a new, large predator in the movie, which turned out to be the hybrid dinosaur Indominus rex. Some people in the dinosaur community were upset with the Indominus rex because it looked like an “ordinary” giant carnivorous dinosaur. They wanted something more exciting and diverse. Thus, the “Build a Better Fake Theropod” project was launched by Brian Engh,[4] rallying paleoartists to “show up” Jurassic World and create images of what a truly creative fake theropod should look like. Brian Engh is a paleoartist,[5] illustrating my point that paleoartists often take the forefront when it comes to discussions about what dinosaurs “should” look like.

I will continue this discussion in the next post by looking at a specific example of how paleoartists have affected the appearance of dinosaurs.

Thoughts from Steven

[1]Paul, Gregory (1988) Predatory Dinosaurs of the World: A Complete Illustrated Guide Touchstone, New York, New York

[2]Paul, Gregory; W. Scott Persons; Jay Raalte (2022) “The Tyrant Lizard King, Queen, and Emperor: Multiple Lines of Morphological and Stratigraphic Evidence Support Subtle Evolution and Probable Speciation Within the North American Genus TyrannosaurusEvolutionary Biology

[3]Carr, Thomas; James Napoli; Stephen Brusatte; Thomas Holtz; David Hone; Thomas Williamson; Lindsay Zanno (2022) “Insufficient Evidence for Multiple Species of Tyrannosaurus in the Latest Cretaceous of North America: A Comment on “The Tyrant Lizard King, Queen, and Emperor: Multiple Lines of Morphological and Stratigraphic Evidence Support Subtle Evolution and Probable Speciation Within the North American Genus Tyrannosaurus“” Evolutionary Biology 49: 327-341

[4]Naish, Darren (2015) “Jurassic World and the Build a Better Fake Theropod Project”, retrieved from on November 28, 2022

[5]In Brian Engh’s contact information from his website,, he describes himself first and foremost as a paleoartist: retrieved on November 28, 2022.

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