Partners in Time: An Interview with Bob Walters and Tess Kissinger
Bob Walters and Tess Kissinger are paleo-artists and authors based in Philadelphia. Together, they have created illustrations and other extinct animals for books like The Horned Dinosaurs, Bigger Than T. Rex, and their own book, Discovering Dinosaurs. Bob and Tess have also produced murals for natural history museums across the United States, including the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh and Dinosaur National Monument near Vernal, Utah. In addition to paleo-art, the two are also helping launch an online paleontology news program called DinosaurChannel.TV.
I met with Bob and Tess recently to learn about their experiences bringing the past to life, the legal rights of dinosaur authors in publishing, and their advice for burgeoning paleo-artists.
How did you two get into visual art and paleontology?
Bob Walters: I started drawing when I was a really little kid. A long time ago, I saw an issue of Life magazine that had dinosaurs on the cover, and inside they had a peephole of Rudolph Zallinger’s study for the great mural at Yale, The Age of Reptiles, and that did it for me. “Whoa.”
I asked if these animals were imaginary and was told “oh no, these things were real.” I didn’t quite believe it until maybe a year or so later, when I was taken the American Museum of Natural History and actually saw the mounted skeletons and said, “Okay, I’m a believer.”
Tess Kissinger: I got into it much later. I was always interested in where art and science coexist, and I was also very interested in science fiction, as are most paleontologists. I met quite a few paleontologists and Bob at a science fiction convention, and we had such a fantastic time that I said “I gotta be a part of this.” So from then on in, I was hooked on what I used to call “old dead lizards”.
Do either of you have any direct artistic influences?
BW: [My] direct artistic influence for the paleoart is the great Charles R. Knight, who for me is still the best paleoartist ever. He wasn’t the first, but he was the first of the best. And of course his work influenced everything I did for a long time, as well as every other paleoartist until the Dinosaur Renaissance began in the 1970s, when images of dinosaurs began to really, really change with Robert Bakker’s famous drawing of Deinonychus. Also, Dr. Bob was influenced to become a dinosaur guide because of the same Life magazine cover.
TK: My influences are more [in] fine art, like with Cézanne. Love his talent…just love the way he did plant life. I like the fauves and how they do plant life in unusual colors, which helps you kind of make the past look a little weirder than the present.
BW: And of course, Leonardo da Vinci.
What are your preferred artistic media and why?
BW: Well currently almost everything we do is digital, almost perforce of the requirements for submitting the artwork. After the invention of the Wacom tablet, the stylus, and various art programs, we discovered that we could stop doing stuff in traditional media and scanning it and manipulating it. Now we just manipulate it.
TK: And it doesn’t have to be photographed by someone who is not accustomed to photographing something pretty big. So we’ve eliminated the middleman.
But I love pastels. As a matter of fact, I’m starting a series of paleontological fine art pastel paintings as an homage to Georgia O’Keeffe, who used to paint skulls. I’m painting skulls too but these are ceratopsian skulls. She always put a flower and a little bit of ground in her paintings [while] her skulls were floating in the sky, and I’m going to do a similar composition. The flower would be a magnolia to indicate that it’s the Cretaceous Period, and the little bit of land will be the horizon where the animal was found.
And how do you two distribute work in a given collaboration?
BW: It’s hard to describe how we divide up the labor, but I will often sketch the animal and get that sketch approved. We’ll then talk about the color palette. Tess will do an underpainting of the animal, and I’ll go over it in another layer and add the final shade and surface details.
When working on plants, it’s about 50/50. We both will draw and do finished plants, and we’ll switch them off just so they don’t look too different from each other. I’ll hand my almost-complete one off to her and she’ll transfer hers off to me, and we’ll work on that until they stylistically match up.
Tess, you authored a book on the publishing rights of and guidelines for paleo-artists and paleontologists in the nineties. What inspired you to write this book?
TK: Well, the Dinosaur Society came to me and said “what can we do for paleo-artists? Should we publish more of their work?” And I said, “That just leads to carping about who did and who didn’t get published and other nonsense.”
The one thing that everyone could use at that time was a book on artists’ rights because TV networks had just discovered dinosaurs and they were cheating people right and left…taking advantage of young artists by saying “hey kid, give us your artwork and we’ll put it on TV”, and people were doing that for free. I had to stress that you can ruin an entire way to make a living by doing things for free. So the Dinosaur Society said “yes, let’s publish what artists’ rights are, because obviously paleo-artists have no clue.”
BW: Well most artists have no clue.
So how have things progressed since then for paleoartists in publishing?
TK: I’m happy to say that the networks were very irritated and the artists were very happy. [The networks] were complaining about people wanting to get paid and plenty of paleontologists wanted money for their institutions. You can’t just go in and film a museum for free anymore.
BW: Or at least if you’re gonna film our dig, why don’t you put some money into funding the dig?
TK: That’s now becoming the new standard…which is very important to science, I think. [The book] was quite successful and remains pretty successful. The only thing that’s changed is that part about pricing guidelines.
You've both had the privilege of being among the first artists to draw certain newly-discovered dinosaurs, including Giganotosaurus and Anzu. What were these experiences like?
TK: Anzu was especially fun.
BW: And it had a long lead time. We were doing murals and illustrations for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History and working with Dr. Matt Lamanna. They had the skeleton of this oviraptorid…it was very complete skeleton but it hadn’t been named. I would bug Matt once in a while saying “Matt, you gonna name this thing?” The mural went up in 2008, but in 2014 the description of the animal finally came out with the graphic of the Anzu from the mural.
TK: And it went crazy, I think, because Matt nicknamed it “the chicken from Hell”, which makes good news. But that was fun because it was very complete.
Giganotosaurus was fun because its head lived in our study while its body was being assembled.
BW: We were also among the first artists to illustrate Auroraceratops, working with Peter Dodson and Eric Morschhauser. There are two really good skulls, including a juvenile skull. I drew both in black and white for the scientific paper and then a color picture of an adult and a juvenile for the cover of the monograph.
What do you think of current trends in paleo-illustration?
TK: I have some strong opinions on that subject. Currently, everybody’s doing 3-D modeling of dinosaurs and putting them into photographic backgrounds. While that looks fantastic and I admire the work, I feel that when it’s up on the wall of a museum for visitors to see, it implies we know more about the dinosaur and its background than we actually do…and that could get us in trouble. The one thing about science is that it says “we know this about this subject, and when it changes, we can tell you why it changes.” This [3-D artwork] turns them into fairy tale creatures, because they’re depicted so realistically and we really don’t know what color they were, what background they lived around…they’re too photographic, I feel.
BW: Though I work on a computer, I like work that looks a little more painterly and a little more artistic.
TK: So that what the visitor sees is an obviously artistic representation.
BW: When people see something that looks like a photograph, wrongly or rightly they tend to believe it immediately, just as people seemed to think that Tyrannosaurus rex looked exactly like the one in Jurassic Park because it looked great and it looked real.
TK: I’m also happy that people now from all over the world are producing paleoart…and good stuff too. The South American artists are especially wonderful.
BW: Of course in the old days, you’d only have to compete against a few people who were abroad and now there are many, many thousands of them. Quite a few are really good and working with scientists, which something else we’ve tried to get across to younger artists.
TK: Yeah, you don’t just copy somebody else’s drawing, make it a different color, and assume that it’s accurate. Everybody’s working with paleontologists now.
BW: Don’t trust me. Find your local paleontologist or try and communicate with these people over the web.
TK: Examine the fossil evidence yourself.
BW: Join the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology. Join your local paleontology club. This is one of the sciences where you can actually still participate. Many of the sciences are now beyond the average person’s — or even a person with professional interest — ability to afford or have access to technology in order to participate.
What are you two working on now?
BW: We just finished a book that will be under the banner of the Discovery Channel called Big Awesome Dinosaurs. This book picks up a lot of art that already existed, but there’s also a lot of new stuff.
And we’ve recently submitted a mini-mural of the Park City Formation for Dinosaur National Monument. It doesn’t have any dinosaurs in it. An awful lot of strata around Dinosaur National Monument were underwater so both of the mini-murals I’ve done for the site are of marine environments. This recent one is from the Permian Period and it features the very strange shark Helicoprion, which has a wheel of teeth in its bottom jaw and no teeth its upper jaw; the teeth there have turned into plates of cartilage for the lower jaw to grind against. This seems like a very odd arrangement that you’d think [Helicoprion] would be so specialized and wouldn’t last long, but it did. It lasted during the Permian Period and right on into the Triassic. And there are a lot of other sharks in it, but this also has a big ammonite and a Coelacanthus in it.
And we’re also working with Peter Dodson on an update of his book The Horned Dinosaurs, because a year or more ago, we realized that twenty years had elapsed since the last book we had worked on about ceratopsian dinosaurs. And in those last twenty years they’ve found what appear to more ceratopsian dinosaurs than in the first hundred years of dinosaur knowledge. It’s slowed down a little bit now, but a couple years ago ceratopsians were crawling out of the ground to meet paleontologists. And this book’s gonna be all in color.
TK: We’re also searching for a professional videographer to help us with new shows for DinosaurChannel. And I just completed a prose poem called “The Earth Remembers”. It is the history of planet Earth told by the planet itself, and Bob will begin illustrating it soon.
BW: As usual, we’re always beating bushes and talking to scientists.