Monday 6 July 2020

The Alien Prehistoric World Trope: Part 6 - Just Plain Barlowe

For the previous part please go here.
Fig. 1: Paleoart-memes may even transcend interstellar space it seems.
Throughout most of this series I have talked about the Alien Prehistoric World trope in mostly negative terms. It is a trope not accurate to science and lends itself very well to monsterising extinct animals to the point where they do not seem like animals anymore. In this series’ penultimate post, however, we will look at an artist whose work is arguably this trope at its best. Wayne Barlowe was born in 1958 to natural artists Sy and Dorothea Barlowe, meaning he already grew up with great artistic skills and knowledge. His early career consisted of illustrating the covers of various sci-fi and horror novels, including Star Wars books, as well as commissions. In 1979 he published his first book Barlowe’s Guide to Extraterrestrials in which he drew and documented various alien species from the books he has read and illustrated, but in the same way an ornithologist or anthropologist would with their subjects. What he is perhaps most famous for today is his book Expedition from 1990 in which he pretends to be a wildlife artist illustrating the strange alien life of the fictional planet Darwin IV. Most people reading this blog are probably familiar with the Discovery Channel documentary Alien Planet which was based on Expedition. I certainly am, as I rewatched the DVD over and over again as a young child. Together with The Future is Wild it is what originally got me into speculative evolution and astrobiology (and to this day it is the only documentary I am aware of that features both Jack Horner, Stephen Hawking and George Lucas). Since Expedition Barlowe has been working on a lot of other books and art-pieces and has most prominently worked as a creature designer for various movies and even videogames, including Avatar and Pacific Rim.
Fig. 2: Most classic depictions of Oviraptor are actually based on its better known relative Citipati. Note that now that we know these dinosaurs to have had feathers, they would have just looked like sligthly unusual parrots.
What many people may perhaps not know is that Barlowe also produced a fair bit of paleoart back in the day. Beginning in 1993 he began producing art-pieces for museum exhibits and also worked together with famous ceratopsian-researcher Peter Dodson on two books: An Alphabet of Dinosaurs and The Horned Dinosaurs (the latter I have yet to add to my collection). On his own account, Barlowe was originally reluctant to produce paleoart, not because he did not like dinosaurs, but because he feared he would just copy his idol Zdeněk Burian in the process (Barlowe 1995, p. 40). When he started doing it however, he saw that their styles were quite different, giving him enough confidence to continue. To this day his dinosaurs have got to be some of the most unique ones in the genre. We already looked a bit at his rendition of Oviraptor all the way back in part 1, but it is worth to take a closer look. What immediately jumps to mind is the intense coloration of the piece. The sky has an otherworldly coloration similar to Fantasia and the way our moon in the background almost looks like another planet is reminiscent of Burian’s painting of Iguanodon (see part 4). The dinosaur itself is, in typical 90s fashion, reconstructed in a Gregory S. Paul-style with little soft-tissue, giving especially the head a very skeletal look. That the piece ends up looking like an extraterrestrial on its home-planet seems to have been very much intentioned by Barlowe as he writes:

When I brought my finish on this piece my editor loved it and exclaimed that it was as much an alien as it was a dinosaur. Considering my predilections, I found that comment enjoyable and appropriate. After all, dinosaurs, creatures from another world and time, are as strange and wonderful as any alien imaginable.” (Barlowe 1995a, p. 33)

And here we see a core-idea of not just Barlowe’s paleoart, but arguably his whole artistic endeavour: He is an illustrator and explorer of everything which is alien and extraterrestrial, be it literal or figurative. Prehistory for him is just another distant alien planet to explore. Some of his written thoughts reflect this further, such as when he imagines being in the Mesozoic that the intensity of the young sun must have been far stronger than today, as the world was still young (Barlowe 1995, p. 36). For the record: the actual opposite is the case, as the sun’s output has been growing in intensity ever since its creation (though on a billion-year times-scale so it would have been pretty much the same for us as it was during the Mesozoic). Thoughts like these about the prehistoric world seem to have been very much of the time, as we can find similar statements in works such as Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (see part 1).
Fig. 3. Barlowe’s use of lighting is certainly striking. We also meet our old friend background-volcano again.
Wayne Barlowe’s paleoart is not a departure of his sci-fi art, but an extension of it. It lives and breathes the APW-trope to its fullest. Throughout An Alphabet of Dinosaurs we see other familiar sub-tropes such as rampant volcanism, alien skies and violence. It is debatable however how much of that was due to Barlowe’s views of the dinosaurs’ world or due to this being a book aimed at children. Barlowe does note that he chose certain colour-gradients so that the images would not look too boring to a younger audience (Barlowe 1995a, p. 33). Regardless of the reasons, the art still presents a Mesozoic in which the very lighting and atmosphere were different from today. While we are on the topic of alien prehistoric atmospheres, ever wondered where the idea came from that the air during dinosaur times was not only richer in oxygen but also thicker than today? In part 1 I alluded to the possibility that the former one is perhaps explained through people simply confusing the Carboniferous with the Mesozoic, but I was hard-pressed to explain where the latter came from. Where did people get the idea that the air was thicker in the Mesozoic? I could find no actual scientific study from the twentieth century that ever claimed this. While researching for this series however, I believe to have found the original perpetrator: Richard Owen himself, the man who gave the dinosaurs their name in 1842. Owen was a staunch critic of Darwin and what we would today call a creationist. His view of Earth’s history and the fossil record was that god created sets of animals suited to the Earth’s conditions and once those conditions changed, he retired them through extinction and replaced them with a new set. He thought that birds were an obvious replacement for pterosaurs, but because he was adamant that pterosaurs were cold-blooded reptiles incapable of powered flight he reasoned that they were created to suit an Earth whose atmosphere was a lot thicker than today, making it easier for them to float instead of flap (Desmond 1975, p. 17). Surprisingly similar claims have actually been made as recently as 2004 (Templin & Chatterjee 2004, p. 60), but as has been detailed a couple of times on this blog, such ideas are based on a complete misunderstanding of pterosaur biology and are seen as outdated today. What is curious about Owen’s view of the Mesozoic is that he thought its oxygen content was lower than today and that god put the dinosaurs in charge back then instead of the mammals because their lowly reptilian physiology would cope better under such conditions. This idea is nowadays having somewhat of a comeback (see part 1).
Fig. 4: In the Alien Planet documentary, the lifestyle of the Pronghead (left) is explicitly compared to that of pack-hunting dromaeosaurs such as Velociraptor (right). In the actual book it appears only briefly, but even here the similarities are fascinating to observe. On a different note, one has to wonder if the design of the quilled raptors in Jurassic Park III (2001) was inspired by Barlowe’s rendition of the animal (1993).
To get back from this side-track, Barlowe’s dinosaurs become more fascinating when we compare them with some of his genuine aliens. Even though Expedition was made before his paleoartistic ventures, one can see very dinosaurian elements in his design-philosophy for the inhabitants of Darwin IV. One of the most well-known creatures, the Arrowtongue, has obvious similarities to a large theropod dinosaur like Tyrannosaurus. It is a large biped with a long tail, large head and no arms. To quote Barlowe himself:

I really wanted this creature to be big and threatening, my version of what might have evolved along T-rex lines on another planet. The notion that what we were witnessing on Darwin IV was the evolutionary equivalent to the late Cretaceous era on our own planet was never far from my mind.” (Source)

Its smaller relative, the Rayback, has large dorsal spines growing out of its back, reminiscent of Spinosaurus. The sketch where it chases after a small flying alien has a notable similarity to an art-piece by Gregory S. Paul in which a Compsognathus chases an Archaeopteryx (See Fig.1). The motif itself has its origins in a Charles R. Knight painting of Ornitholestes. Further similarities are shared by the Pronghead overlooking its hunting-grounds and Barlowe’s Velociraptor doing the same. Giant aliens such as the Groveback and the Seastrider are drawn at similar angles to Barlowe’s later Ultrasauros to create an imposing feeling. Here another comment by him becomes enlightening:

Gigantism is a big feature in EXPEDITION and, come to think of it, in all of my imaginative artwork. Obvious scale differences are a fun way for the public to easily put themselves in a painting and I’m sure that it’s that very element that so many find appealing about dinosaurs.” (Source)

What unites all aliens on Darwin IV is that they lack fur or feathers and instead have a rough, naked, elephantine skin that looks like it is uncomfortable to touch. Sometimes details of their skeleton are visible through their skin, making them essentially shrink-wrapped. This is very similar to the skin and soft-tissue that dinosaurs were portrayed with up until the 90s, especially John Sibbick’s early paleoart comes to mind (though notably Barlowe later drew most dinosaurs accurately with scales instead of elephant-skin).
Fig. 5: Barlowe’s Sea-Strider and Ultrasauros. Note how small fliers are used to convey size. Ultrasauros is nowadays considered a dubious genus synonymous with Supersaurus, but it was nearly omnipresent in the 90s.
What we can gather from all of this is that Barlowe intentioned Darwin IV to be a literal alien prehistoric world and many of the creatures on it are essentially stand-ins of dinosaurs as imagined in the twentieth century. It is arguably what would happen if you asked an abstract artist like Pablo Picasso to draw a Cretaceous landscape. In this light many other aspects of the planet suddenly make more sense. Darwin IV is for example described as having a very dense atmosphere and high oxygen content and together with the low gravity this allows gigantic flying animals to exist, such as the Skewer. Again, we have heard remarkably similar things from early pterosaur-science. The landscape of Darwin IV is hot and arid, but also mountainous and geologically active, all things we have seen from earlier paleoart. Many of the aliens are also described as violent and somewhat dull. Been there, done that. If most of Darwin IV’s aliens are read as parallel-world-dinosaurs, then the Eosapiens, an alien explicitly described as similar to an early human in intelligence, becomes even more interesting. It means we have ersatz-dinosaurs living together with ersatz-cavemen. With that we even fulfil the Flintstones-trope of all prehistoric creatures living together at the same time in the same world. Finally, the planet is separate from us, just not in time but in space. Darwin IV crosses off nearly all sub-tropes of the Alien Prehistoric World Trope we discussed back in part 1, without actually being a piece of paleoart. However, it was very much inspired by the artist’s/author’s view of dinosaurs at the time. This fact shows how deranged the Alien Prehistoric World Trope had become by the late 80s/early 90s, as an artist was able to create a world that was so completely otherworldly and bizarre by just adjusting paleoart-conventions common at the time. In this sense Expedition is the absolute peak of the Alien Prehistoric World Trope, even if it does not feature any dinosaurs. It is the magnum opus to all our wrong ideas about what prehistory was like, but unlike any of the previously discussed works this is the one for which I have only praise, as it is the most beautiful and believable thing to come out of this entire ordeal.
Fig. 6: Jurassic Siesta. The coloration here is interesting, as it resembles the bioluminescent spots on the aliens of Darwin IV. Funnily enough, there was a recent paper by Darren Naish speculating that dinosaurs may have had forms of photoluminescence, similar to birds and reptiles today.
On a last note, despite of how much Barlowe has embodied the APW Trope, in his art we can also find seeds of the trend’s downfall. He was especially not keen on monsterising his dinosaurs and tried painting them in poses usual for traditional wildlife art. Have you wondered yourself why the Oviraptor from above is about to eat a crab? Well, as Barlowe tells, he did not agree with the then still current view that Oviraptor was an egg thief (the discovery that the original skeleton was just a mother sitting on her nest was not yet made), as the animal looked too lithe and agile for a diet just based around that. Looking at the skull he imagined what else it could have been suitable for and speculated that it equally could have eaten crustaceans and shellfish. In the process he subverted a quite common trope in paleoart through a very well-educated guess. To some readers this may ring a bell. More remarkable is his painting of two Ceratosaurus. Instead of showing them in mortal combat with their prey, they are already lying besides a slain sauropod carcass, quietly digesting in the mild afternoon sun. In light of what happened after the 90s, his commentary on the piece seems prophetic:

I am uncomfortable designing paintings around high action and I’ve noticed that this was rarely done in the last century. It’s this sensibility, this reserved quality, that I believe lends old animal paintings their grace and power. Lions, elk, tigers and the like are usually in situations of quiescence, drinking, reclining or stalking. No comic-book action or photographically frozen moments. At least not in those pieces I feel work the best. Dinosaurs beg to be shown in an exaggerated way, and it’s just that obviousness that I wanted to avoid.” (Barlowe 1995a, p. 32)

Given these rather modern views it is a bit unfortunate that Barlowe has not produced much paleoart past the 90s. Imagine what he would be able to do with all the modern discoveries, such as feathered dinosaurs. Or the creatures of the Burgess Shale…
Fig. 7: Wayne Barlowe’s projects currently focus on books depicting his visions of hell. However, if you look at the lower left, you can see the Cambrian ur-chordate Pikaia in this parade through the hell-city Dis. Prehistoric life still seems to be at large in Barlowe’s mind. Why is Pikaia in hell you ask? Well, for tax-fraud of course.

With this in mind, we finish this part and look forward to the next and final post in this series when things get fuzzy. Thanks a lot for reading and see you until then.

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Related Posts: 
Literary Sources: 
  • Barlowe, Wayne: Expedition. Being an account in word and artwork of the 2358 A.D. voyage to Darwin IV, New York 1990.
  • Barlowe, Wayne: The Alien Life of Wayne Barlowe, Beverly Hills 1995a.
  • Barlowe, Wayne: Barlowe’s Inferno, Beverly Hills 1995b.
  • Chatterjee, Sankar/Templin, R.J.: Posture, Locomotion and Paleoecology of Pterosaurs, Boulder 2004.
  • Desmond, Adrian: The Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs. A revolution in Paleontology, London 1975.
  • Dodson, Peter/Barlowe, Wayne: An Alphabet of Dinosaurs, New York 1995.
  • Paul, Gregory Scott: Predatory Dinosaurs of the World. A Complete Illustrated Guide, New York 1988.
Online Sources/Further Reading:
Image Sources:
  • Fig. 1, top: Barlowe 1990, p. 26-27.
  • Fig. 1, bottom: Paul 1988, p. 66.
  • Fig. 2: Dodson 1995, O.
  • Fig. 3: Dodson 1995, I.
  • Fig. 4, left: Barlowe 1990, p. 18.
  • Fig. 4, right: Barlowe 1995a, p. 40.
  • Fig. 5, left: Barlowe 1990, p. 96.
  • Fig. 5, right: Dodson 1995a, U.
  • Fig. 6: Barlowe 1995a, p. 32.
  • Fig. 7: Barlowe 1995b, p. 25.


  1. > This fact shows how deranged the Alien Prehistoric World Trope had become by the late 80s/early 90s, as an artist was able to create a world that was so completely otherworldly and bizarre by just adjusting paleoart-conventions common at the time.

    ...I see. So this isn't about celebrating and documenting the history of paleoart and how dinosaurs occupy such a unique place in our culture. It's just... complaining about how old stuff is dumb and new stuff is smart?
    That... that can't be it. I have to be misinterpreting this. There's no way that something this elaborate and in-depth can so utterly miss the point.

    1. Yes, I do think you are misinterpreting this. The point of this particular series of posts was not to make fun of old stuff for being outdated but to record a particular trope in prehistory media, the imagining of the prehistoric world as akin to an extraterrestrial planet, which I so far found to have been ill-defined and not well-documented by anyone else (maybe what confused you is the introduction in the very first post of this series, which was also the very first post of this blog, which was meant as a general introduction for the blog and not the APW-trope series in particular). I felt it was important to point out how this trope likely came about through cultural/religious backgrounds and how for a long time it was perpetuated and evolved rather uncritically, because, while it did make for visually striking art at times, it may have ultimately not been the best view of dinosaurs and their world and likely led to the rather problematic tropes that are still prevalent in the popular imagination and some paleomedia (and may have also been the groundwork for some modern fringe theories).

      "Deranged" was a poor choice of words in that sentence and to be clear, I absolutely love paleoart and outdated depictions by people like Knight, Burian, Barlowe, Paul or Bakker, but it is important to note that some of their art was not just a product of the science of the time, but was also influenced by general tropes and philosophies that themselves may not have been influenced by science but rather personal sentiments and movements at the time (for example Knight's anatomical mistakes were not just because he worked with now outdated information but also because he had somewhat of a dislike for dinosaurs, Dino Renaissance art looked distinctly mammalian at times to be rebellious towards older depictions and Barlowe, by his own admission, approached dinosaurs more as aliens than real animals). If me explaining this comes off as angry or accusatory to you, I apologize, because I did not intend it to sound like that. Admittedly I did adapt a sort of snarky writing style at times based off other bloggers and authors on the topics.

    2. I see. Thank you so much for clarifying that.