Little Theropods All Around Us

-By Terryl Whitlatch

So often as concept artists, creature designers, and illustrators we get so caught up and focused on the project at hand, technique, and inherent deadlines that we forget the very foundation of art itself—that of nature. It seems ironic that we cut ourselves off from what breathes life into the imaginary worlds we strive to create and populate, spending hours and days in front of our easels and computer screens…so its high time to come up for air, and go out and look at the dinosaurs!

Little theropods are all around us. In the forms of house finches, crows, towhees, and yes, pigeons, known also by their more dignified names as Eurasian rock doves. These small relatives of the Tyrannosaurs flit about, always busy, making their livings in the natural world. While many are primarily seedeaters, such as the sparrows and finches, many are relentless little predators—from a worm’s or insect’s point of view, a robin might as well be a T-rex.

And of course, there are the raptors, such as red-tailed and sharp-shinned hawks, and not uncommonly, at least in my area of California, barn owls seen perched and blinking in the daylight. Quail, with their bobbing topknots, scurry through the brush and under rose bushes, their legs whirring under stiffly held little bodies as they run.

Sketching these little dinosaurs is a delightful way to refresh our own artistic perspectives and inform our art at the same time. Indeed, it can be challenging to do field studies and drawings from life, but where else can you really see how animals behave? And the interesting poses they take that are so often NOT recorded in photographs. After all, the photos ( if not taken by ourselves and even if they are) that we use for reference are already edited for us, and do not even begin to document the infinite levels of behaviors, poses, and personal peculiarities of the individual creature, not to mention species.


Add to that the outer layer of feathers, which can drastically impact the appearance of any one bird, depending on its mood and need, and we really have our work cut out for us. Nature is ever inventive, and for those of us who specialize in creature design, if we are sensitive and observant to her, then our creatures will likewise be so and absorb life energy, and hence we avoid the ho-hum derivative, and ingrown ‘creature rut’ that inevitably occurs if we are only drawing out of our heads.

Our pet birds such as zebra finches, canaries, budgerigars (what we think of as “parakeets”), and cockatiels offer a very convenient way of studying birds close up. They are already familiar with curious humans, and behave naturally without postures of fear. They’ll often the repeat the same pose, especially in self-grooming. I love the luxurious stretch of a wing, along with the foot and outspread of tail feathers on the same side of the body. Striving to capture the ruffling and smoothing of feathers, which so often takes place in an instance, is an excellent way to understand this aspect of bird anatomy. Think of the implications…from a winged horse smoothing its primary feathers, to a dragon ruffling it scales to appear more fierce!

If you have no pet dinosaurs of your own, solutions are easy… there is a Pet-co around the corner. And while you’re there, why not sketch a tortoise, cricket, or guinea pig or two?

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