What should a dinosaur look like?
It’s a question few of us have considered. We’ve grown accustomed to the images of reptilian dinosaurs locked in combat, fated to battle one another for all eternity. These slender and scaly beasts are the ones you’ve probably seen on TV, in children’s books, or perhaps even at the local museum.
But what if there was another way to look at them? To portray them?
Enter All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Other Prehistoric Animals. Published in 2012 by Irregular Books[i], All Yesterdays is a paleoart book that re-imagines how we should view – and illustrate – prehistoric life. Written by paleontologist Darren Naish and paleoartists John Conway, C.M. Kösemen, and Scott Hartman, All Yesterdays provides a fascinating and unorthodox glimpse at prehistory. Through their art, the team creates a sense of vivid realism absent from many other forms of paleomedia.
According to co-author Darren Naish, All Yesterdays has two primary goals. The first is to depict dinosaurs and other prehistoric life engaging in “unexpected, surprising, and extreme pieces of behaviour[ii]” and to compel artists to do so as well. In other words, the artists portray dinosaurs as living beings, which often entails strange appearances and behaviours that go well beyond what fossils tell us. Though this involves some speculation, the authors do an excellent job of using scientific evidence in the form of “anatomy, ecology, and behaviour[iii]” to model their illustrations.
Their second goal is to challenge typical artistic conventions in paleoart and point out its flaws. So-called “shrink-wrapped” dinosaurs – those portrayed with the bare minimum amount of fat and muscle – are particularly frowned upon, with the second half of the book going out of its way to highlight the issue of this practice.
In many ways, All Yesterdays offers a critique of previous paleoart. The work of famous paleoartist Gregory S. Paul is often the focus of this critique, as his art often epitomizes shrink-wrapped dinosaurs. While All Yesterdays may criticize Paul’s work, they make it abundantly clear that Paul and his scientific methodology is the groundwork for their innovations. Without Paul, there is no All Yesterdays, despite the differences the two may have.
Part One: Like Nothing Seen Before
The first half of All Yesterdays is dedicated to portraying dinosaurs and prehistoric life. Dozens of illustrations are utilized to present dinosaurs with both ordinary and unusual appearances; in both mundane and extreme situations; and demonstrating complex and primitive behaviours. From a sleeping Tyrannosaurus rex to horned dinosaurs climbing a tree, All Yesterdays conjures some of the most vivid and unique dinosaur imagery you can possibly imagine.
Triceratops is depicted with spikes on its back. Microraptor, a species of raptor dinosaur, looks like a bird you may find in a local forest. The elongated vertebrae of the iguanodontid Ouranosaurus are portrayed not as a sail, as is customary, but rather as a fat hump. Camarasaurus, a sauropod from the Late Jurassic, is shown rolling around in the mud. What makes these illustrations (and many others) incredible is that they aren’t as far-fetched as you may believe. Accompanying each illustration is the scientific research that justifies each choice.
My favourite illustration is the depiction of Therizinosaurus. Entitled “mountain of feathers,” this piece goes heavily against the norm by not making Therizinosaurus’ spectacular, meter-long claws the centrepiece. Instead, two other odd aspects of Therizinosaurus’ behaviour – its feathers and herbivorous diet – are focused on. Seeing one of the strangest dinosaurs known to science depicted in a manner that makes it even stranger is incredible.
I can’t say there are any pieces I dislike, but there are three that just seem… off. The first two are illustrations of the oviraptorid Citipati and Stegosaurus, whose… reproductive organs are illustrated. Though both visuals are based on the reproductive systems of male ducks, it doesn’t make it any less awkward (or traumatizing…). The third is an illustration of the carnivorous Majungasaurus practising camouflage. It’s not uncomfortable like the other two; it’s just hard to see the actual dinosaur! I suppose that means John Conway, the artist behind the piece, did a good job…
One of the strengths of All Yesterdays is its appeal to both focused and casual readers. Interested in skimming through breathtaking images of dinosaurs? All Yesterdays can be of service! Interested in a deeper, thought-provoking reading? Once again, All Yesterdays can hook you up! Whether you’re a deep reader or not, All Yesterdays makes for a compelling read (or skim through).
Part Two: What am I Looking at?!?!
The second half of All Yesterdays – the criticism of previous paleoart – is almost disturbing. To show the flaws of past art, All Yesterdays flips the script and portrays modern animals using typical conventions of paleoart. The results are what can only be considered borderline nightmare fuel.
A cat without any facial features. A skinny horse. Swans without feathers. Snakes with feet. These are some of the downright terrifying illustrations that All Yesterdays uses to question and challenge paleoart, and my goodness it is effective. Though some may be a tad over exaggerated, it is interesting to see how modern species might be portrayed by artists hundreds or thousands of years from now based only on fossils. In doing so, All Yesterdays subtly conveys a message about animal conservation. Aside from all the profound reasons to ensure the survival of these species, preventing nightmare fuel artwork is a good reason too!
Influential & Outstanding
The brilliance of All Yesterdays has led to it becoming one of the most renowned and influential pieces of paleomedia. Since its 2012 release, there has been a noticeable uptick in terms of ‘realistic’ paleoart, which has led some to pinpoint this book as the beginning of a new wave in paleoart. Look no further than All Yesterdays sequel, All Your Yesterdays, a collage of paleoart submitted by the paleontological community. Based on how many artists contributed to this project, it’s clear that All Yesterdays had some kind of impact on the imaginations of paleoartists.
The real brainchild of All Yesterdays is Apple TV’s hit documentary Prehistoric Planet, whose scenes occasionally draw inspiration from the novel. The most prominent examples are the mating displays of Tuarangisaurus and Carnotaurus, whose strange courtship rituals are taken directly from All Yesterdays:
Given the success of both Prehistoric Planet and All Yesterdays, it figures that All Yesterdays’ unorthodox and contemporary style will only spread in coming years. While a so-called ‘Dynasty of All Yesterdays’ might not exist yet, it’s clear that modern paleoartists are trying their hardest to create it.
Thanks for reading today’s article! If you are interested in the art of All Yesterdays and would like to see it projected onto film, I suggest you read about Prehistoric Planet, here at Max’s Blogosaurus!
I do not take credit for any images found in this article. All images are courtesy of Irregular Books, Darren Naish, John Conway, C.M. Köseman, and Scott Hartman.
[i] Conway, John, et al. All Yesterdays: Unique and Speculative Views of Dinosaurs and Others Prehistoric Animals. Irregular Books, 2012.
[ii] Naish, Darren. Dinopedia: A Brief Compendium of Dinosaur Lore. Princeton University Press, 2021.
[iii] Naish, Darren. Dinopedia: A Brief Compendium of Dinosaur Lore. Princeton University Press, 2021.
One reply on “All Yesterdays and the Re-Imagination of Prehistoric Art”
Prehistoric Planet’s unusual portrayal of Mesozoic life floored me, and I’m thrilled to learn from your post about an art book dedicated to breaking away from the usual scenes of predator/prey clashes (as much as I love me a good dino fight). Thank you for sharing this, you’ve got yourself a new follower.