Plant paleoartists: an interview with Rebecca Dart

For the second installment of our interviews, we have Rebecca Dart, from Vancouver, Canada. Aside from her long and fruitful career in animation working in character design and art direction, she produces some of the most exciting and unique plant paleoart around. I hope you will find her perspective as fascinating and inspiring as I did!

Pleistocene Silene, by Rebecca Dart

When did you first become interested in art?

  • “I have a specific memory of when I was about 6 or 7 of drawing in front of the TV watching a Godzilla monster movie marathon. On one side of a blank piece of paper I drew “Animals From Mars” and on the opposite side I drew “Plants From Mars”. After that I was hooked. The freedom and excitement that imagination gives you, to show someone something that has never existed before, especially as a child, is incredibly empowering.”

When did you first become interested in extinct plants?

  • “I’ve always had an interest in paleontology and would try to keep up with the latest discoveries, but I hadn’t tackled creating paleoart until fairly recently, about 2018. I was greatly intimidated by it, thinking that paleoart had to be highly detailed and photorealistic. Which is a style I have a lot of respect for, but I just don’t have the skill, patience or passion to make myself. However I started noticing more diverse art styles being implemented to depict extinct animals and plants and this gave me the courage to give it a try. It was challenging, but also so much fun!
    I have always been interested in showing more complete scenes incorporating ecosystems and of course that led me to research ancient plants. They have been on this planet for so long it’s almost unfathomable to imagine and the evolution of plants is so fascinating. The more you learn the more questions you have and then the more you want to learn.”

How did your academic background feed into your artistic career?

  • “I am woefully uneducated. I barely graduated high school. I haven’t even been to art school. The highly structured world of academics I can find overwhelming, but mostly the social pressures were something that was very difficult for me to adjust to. Throughout my life I’ve suffered from severe anxiety issues, over the years I’ve developed coping skills for dealing with it, but primarily I’ve always been driven by a natural curiosity. It’s really hard for me to concentrate on something that I’m not interested in, but if it’s something I find fascinating it can almost become an obsession.”

When did you manage to obtain a more permanent position as an artist? Was this your first career choice?

  • “Being an artist was always my goal since I was very young, sure, I got the “you should have something to fall back on” speech from my parents, but I took a more burn-the-boats-behind-me approach, so I would have nowhere to go but forward. I’ve definitely had to work terrible day jobs to make ends meet in the early days from a clerk at an antique store to literally shoveling poop on a farm. With the help of many wonderful, supportive people that gave me the confidence to pursue my dreams I was able to make it my full-time career by the time I was in my late 20s.”

What helped you the most in becoming a professional?

  • “I started working in the animation industry here in Vancouver about 25 years ago. Animation allowed me to make a living through drawing. It was rarely about the actual projects I was working on, but the amazing, passionate artists that worked together to bring something to life. It really was the best art education any artist could ask for. Currently I work as an animation art director and the experience of storytelling through images has greatly influenced my paleoart.”

What are the biggest influences on your art?

  • “I have so many influences it would take up pages and pages. I do draw a lot of inspiration from classic illustrators and painters; Edgar Payne, Mead Schaffer, Bob Peak, David Grove and Syd Mead. For paloeart specifically the accomplished Doug Henderson and his use of composition and light are highly influential. Growing up John Gurche and Mark Hallett with their illustration work in National Geographic and Zoobooks inspired many young minds. I used to pour over their illustrations, analyzing every detail, because this was pre-internet and there were so few avenues to experience paleoart you really had to make a meal out of what little you had.”

Which piece are you most proud of?

  • “Probably my Fabaceae piece which shows an early legume based on a single fossilized seed pod from the Late Cretaceous found in Mexico. It’s growing out of the skull of a ceratopsian, a Coahuilaceratops, with a small mammal climbing up the plant, trying to get to the beans. I wanted to tell the story of how plants helped the world recover after the K- Pg extinction. Fabaceae is one of my favourite families, such a diverse and important group of plants, it was fun to do a deep dive into their phylogeny. The big decision was whether to go for the more typical bean-like banner/keel type flower structure or something more Mimosa like, I ended up going with the latter.”
Late Cretaceous legume by Rebecca Dart

Which plant group do you find most pleasing to draw?

  • “I love anything having to do with light and plants are so much about light. One of the reasons plants are so much fun to paint is their translucency and colour. They have so much variety of texture, form and different degrees of reflectiveness, every one has a visual code that is a thrill to crack. With that being said anything with big leaves is a pleasure to paint. However I would really like to do more with earlier plants from the Devonian to the Carboniferous, they were just so different from anything today, but I feel like my knowledge will need to expand to do them justice.”

Which technique do you believe is most appropriate for drawing extinct plants?

  • “As far as technique goes anything that is required to get the job done and whatever the artist is most comfortable with. Personally I work digitally, because it’s what I use in my day job and it’s what I’m most familiar with. Since I don’t always have a lot of time to work on a piece it’s the best for accomplishing things quickly. I’m a big fan of Marlene Hill Donnelly’s work and she will often make reference models out of wire and foil of extinct plants. I would love to try that one day.”
Late Cretaceous Vitaceae, by Rebecca Dart

What are the most challenging parts of reconstructing extinct plants, and how do you try to overcome these?

  • “One of the biggest challenges for me is reconstructing a plant is when sometimes there is so little fossil evidence to go off of. We know so much more about dinosaurs than most plants. I wanted to do a piece about violets, well there was a couple seeds from Miocene-aged sediment found in Poland, that’s it. For the piece on the Vitaceae or grape family I did, there was a couple of 5mm immature fruit that were fossilized and a handful of seeds, no stems or leaves. Sometimes you just have to give yourself permission to make things up (within reason) since there is nothing else to build off of.”

How much should a plant paleoartist value botanical knowledge?

  • “In many ways I think observation can be more important than knowledge. I am what I would call “YouTube educated”. I watch lectures and educational videos so I have a basic understanding of different types of plant tissues, the difference between C3, C4 and CAM photosynthesis and a ground-level botanical vocabulary, which is much needed to decipher dense research papers. All of that is helpful, but I think just really looking at something and seeing the patterns, similarities and differences, thinking about and observing how a plant grows and changes can inform your work more than anything. One of the best purchases I’ve ever made was a half-decent microscope, it really opened a new world of appreciating botanical structure for me.”

What are the most common mistakes that budding plant paleoartist might make at the beginning of their career?

  • “I would say getting too hung up on the details and the fear of being “wrong”. I would tell young paleoartists to relax, one of the aspects of paleoart that is most exciting is the unknown, far more than the known. One of my favourite ( and I say this facetiously) types of social media comments are from people who act like they were there. There is so much we will never know. Use scientific evidence and guidance as far as it will take you and then use your imagination to fill in the rest. It will be a constant learning process.”

Which aspects of the work of a paleoartist (i.e. museum work, reconstruction for general press, for scientific press) do you find most important? Which one do you enjoy the most?

  • “Different types of paleoart serve different purposes and one isn’t necessarily more important than the other. My focus is more on science storytelling and to reach a wider audience beyond genres. I’ve always thought of it as being easy to create paleoart that appeals to 9 year olds, but I would like to draw in their parents. It’s so very important to educate children, but I’ve found generally as people get older there seems to be a drop-off of interest in the natural world as other priorities in life take over. After a conversation with a mother who’s young daughter loved dinosaurs, but she said she found them ugly I decided I wanted to make paleoart beautiful, so even she would like it and have one more thing she can share with her daughter.”

Do you believe that scientists and artists should be collaborating more strictly? Are mixed background figures important in bridging the two sides?

  • “I think working in animation has trained me to work very collaboratively. It’s all about putting your ego aside and focusing on the end result and trying to make it the best you can. When working last Summer with the Melbourne Museum on their triceratops exhibit it was an incredibly rewarding experience. I would have a simple question and I would get back an essay of an answer, I learned so much and discovered paleontologists are generally very nice and giving of their time. Having a bit of overlap in disciplines does help ease communications.”

How would you judge the current state of plant paleoart?

  • “I would definitely love to see more, but I think it’s getting a little bit better. There also seems to be a movement toward depicting extinct animals in ecosystems and plants are a big part of that. It can be intimidating and difficult to research and there seems to be a consensus that plants are hard or boring to draw, but It’s the opposite for me, it’s probably the one time I’m actually relaxed doing art, haha!”

Do you believe that including plant paleoart in the scientific literature should be a more widely accepted practice?

  • “Yes, it’s another tool for communication, why not use all the tools in the tool box? Illustrations has always helped bridge the gap between written description and visual understanding.”

Can plant paleoart help to fight “plant blindness”, and how?

  • “This is a very good and important question. My personal approach is knowledge through storytelling. We humans tend to have an animal bias, so I usually include an animal in a situation to get people’s attention, then slip in some cool plant facts. The more we learn about plants the more fascinating and dynamic they become and we begin to develop an understanding on how intertwined and diverse all life forms on this planet are. The challenge is to make someone think about something beyond what hey see directly in front of them. If you hand someone an ear of corn, I want them to ask questions, where did it came from? What did its ancestors look like? Why does it look like this? What family it is in? I also want them to value ALL plants not just the ones that directly benefit us humans.
    Plants are so omnipresent and fundamental to our existence and we take them for granted. From the air we breath to the food we eat, for medicines when we’re sick, the materials we make our homes or clothing out of, the coal energy which led to the industrial revolution, the invention of paper which is so important for the spread of human knowledge, to the cup of coffee I’m drinking right now. They also improve our mental health and well-being. We need them much more than they need us. We should be on our knees kissing their roots every day!”

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