Introducing.. Charles R. Knight: Bringing Dinosaurs to Life

Brontosaurus and Diplodocus 1898)

If you’re at all interested in dinosaurs, you’ll have seen the work of artist Charles R. Knight. His paintings and drawings have influenced generations of palaeoartists.

With the discovery of dinosaurs at the end of the 19th century, and the increasing number of species being found and named, the great museums of America started to show mounted dinosaur skeletons to the public. These were supplemented by painted reconstructions showing the animals as if alive, and Knight led the field in working with the museum scientists to make these reconstructions as accurate as possible.

Charles Knight (1874-1953) grew up in New York City, and developed a love of nature and animals from an early age. Encouraged by his parents, he learned to draw, at first copying pictures in books and visiting the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH), which was then a single red-rick building in Manhattan Square. His father worked for J.P.Morgan, who financed the museum, and the family had special access to the museum outside visitor hours.

Charles already had been diagnosed with weak eyesight and astigmatism when, aged six, a friend threw a badly-aimed stone, which hit Charles in the right eye. It took months for him to regain any sight at all in that eye and put a strain on his left eye: he suffered from deteroriating eyesight all his life but he refused to let it stop him drawing. His love of animals and ability to draw can be seen in his drawing of the family dog, drawn at age 12.

In his teens he attended art school, including the Metropolitan Art School, held in the basement of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. From art school he was employed by a firm that made stained glass windows for churches where he worked on designs for the windows but when he was 18 his father died and, devastated, he left his job and went to live with his stepmother and grandparents. This didn’t last, so he moved back to Manhattan and worked as a freelance artist, illustrating children’s books and working for McClure’s magazine, but still spent time in the AMNH, where one of the museum scientists, Dr Jacob Wortman, asked him if he could paint prehistoric animals.

Elotherium, 1894

The result was this painting, of a large, pig-like mammal, Elotherium,  which established Knight as the artist-in-residence at the AMNH, although keeping his freelance status. Here, he worked with Henry Fairfield Osborn, the curator of Vertebrate Paleontology, and Dr William Matthew to restore prehistoric skeletons and create paintings of them as if they were alive.

Leaping Laelaps, 1897

Osborn arranged for Knight to spend a few weeks with the elderly Edward Drinker Cope, the distinguished palaeontologist who had found and named many iconic and familiar dinosaurs and was, himself, something of an artist. The few weeks in Philadelphia made a great impact on the young Knight and influenced many of his paintings. One of the most famous to come out of this relationship was Leaping Laelaps, unusual for its depiction of dinosaurs as active and energetic during a time when they were usually thought of as slow, ponderous and reptilian.

Knight was to do most of his work for the AMNH, including watercolours and sculptures and many of his images were replicated for schools and students, but he was in demand by other museums, and in 1926 set off for Chicago to paint a series of twenty-eight murals for the new fossil hall of the Field Museum.

These became among the most well-known of Knight’s dinosaur pictures, but by then, his eyesight was deteriorating and he could only paint on small boards, to be enlarged by assistants who painted the actual murals.

Tyrannosaur and Tricerotops, early 1930s

His paintings were not confined to dinosaurs, he worked on prehistoric life in all its form, including murals for the AMNH’s “Age of Mammals in North America” in 1930, and three murals for Hall of the Age of Man showed how prehistoric humans lived. In the mid-1940s, Knight also painted for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, a set of twenty-four small paintings showing life through different geological ages, but his longest association was with the AMNH.

Knight died in 1953. He had stopped painting two years earlier, having completely lost his sight.

William Stout’s introduction to ‘Charles R. Knight: Autobiography of an Artist’ states:

“If having a lasting influence on other artists is a key criterion for determining the greatness of an artists, then Charles Robert Knight is one of the most important artists of the twentieth century… Knight’s reconstructions became the basis for how dinosaurs were portrayed in the popular media – from King Kong, Fantasia and the animated films of Ray Harryhausen to the Disney theme parks. His paintings fired the ambitions of a legion of young people to choose palaeontology as their future profession. Charles R. Knight’s magnificent blend of powerful art and good science continues to inspire art, science and imagination around the world.”

References and further information:

  • The World of Charles R Knight,
  • Milner, R. Charles R. Knight: The Artist Who Saw Through Time. New York: Abrams, 2010.
  • Knight, Charles R. Life Through the Ages: Commemorative Edition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2017.
  • Knight, Charles R.; ed Ottaviani, Jim, Charles R. Knight: Autobiography of an Artist.  G.T.Labs, 2005.

Dinosaurs in the Drawing Room: the forgotten palaeoartists Alice and Gertrude Woodward

ABW: Reconstructed Igunanodon

In the genre of palaeoart which was – and still is – dominated by men, the sisters Alice Bolingbroke Woodward (1862-1951) and Gertrude Mary Woodward (1854-1939) were talented, professional illustrators of the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Their subjects ranged from children’s book to scientific illustrations of palaeontology, yet their scientific works are all but forgotten today.

The geologists among you will recognise the name of Henry Bolingbroke Woodward, FRS, the eminent geologist and palaeontologist, who eventually became president of the Geologists Association, Malacological Society and the Palaeontological Society. When not studying fossils, writing publications and attending meetings, he had time to father seven children. Two of his daughters, Gertrude and Alice, became professional artists, and although Alice became better known for her children’s book illustrations, both worked in scientific illustration, producing images for the Natural History Museum as well as for published works by scientists of the day.

GMW: drawn for 𝘊𝘢𝘵𝘢𝘭𝘰𝘨𝘶𝘦 𝘰𝘧 𝘛𝘦𝘳𝘵𝘪𝘢𝘳𝘺 𝘔𝘰𝘭𝘭𝘶𝘴𝘤𝘢 𝘪𝘯 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘋𝘦𝘱𝘢𝘳𝘵𝘮𝘦𝘯𝘵 𝘰𝘧 𝘎𝘦𝘰𝘭𝘰𝘨𝘺, 𝘉𝘳𝘪𝘵𝘪𝘴𝘩 𝘔𝘶𝘴𝘦𝘶𝘮 (𝘕𝘢𝘵𝘶𝘳𝘢𝘭 𝘏𝘪𝘴𝘵𝘰𝘳𝘺), Part 1 (1897).

The Woodward children were educated at home by a governess but from an early age all were encouraged and taught to draw and, while the boys went on to be scientists, the girls became artists.

Gertrude mostly worked illustrating fossils and she created the images to accompany the infamous Piltdown fossils, a collection of bones that were found in 1912 and thought to be evidence of a formerly unknown early human. They were, in fact, a hoax, but this was not confirmed until 1953.

She became friends with Beatrix Potter, who was fascinated by palaeontology alongside her own childrens’ books and illustrations. Many of Gertrude’s drawings of fossils are in the care of the Natural History Museum, and she illustrated many of their publications on geology and palaeontology, although now her name seems to have faded into obscurity.

By her teens, Alice was being paid to illustrate her father’s lectures and his colleague’s papers. The money allowed her to attend art school, eventually studying at the Academie Julian in Paris, as well as receiving private tuition in illustration. Although working with children’s books, most famously illustrating The Peter Pan Picture Book by Daniel O’Connor.

Her palaeontology illustrations, less well known, were considered accurate and life-like and ranged from recording fossils to reconstructing prehistoric creatures including dinosaurs. Her reconstuctions usually showed the subject in its environment, giving an overall effect of a living creature, and were highly regarded by the scientists commissioning them, although at times she added human figures into the composition; it was known that humans and dinosaurs didn’t co-exist but Alice used them to give an indication of scale.

ABW: Remounted Diplodocus skeleton, 1905
ABW: Gigantosaurus, with child lighting a fire.
ABW: ‘The Evolution of the Elephant’, Second Stage, Palaeomastodon



Alice contributed to major publication by Henry Knipe, ‘Nebula to Man’ (1905), a substantial “coffee-table” book with 70 plates, which she co-illustrated with J. Smit, and ‘Evolution in the Past’, (1912), which had 50 plates, mostly by Alice.

Three of her illustrations were used as plates in Hutchinson’s 1910 volume ‘Extinct Monsters and creatures of Other Days’, in the chapter illustrating the evolution of the elephant family; one image is shown here.

On her death, her sister Katherine arranged for her drawings to be sent to the Natural History Museum for safe-keeping, including five drawings of dinosaurs.


  • ‘Forgotten women in an extinct saurian (man’s) world’ SUSAN TURNER, CYNTHIA V. BUREK & RICHARD T. J. MOODY. From: Moody, R. T. J., Buffetaut, E., Naish, D. &Martill, D. M. (eds) Dinosaurs and Other Extinct Saurians: A Historical Perspective. Geological Society, London, Special Publications, 343, 111–153.
  • ‘Dinosaur Sculpting’, Debus, A; Morales, B.; Debus, D., McFarland & Company, Inc, Jefferson, NC (2013)

Introducing.. “Gertie the Dinosaur”

On 8th February, 1914, a new vaudeville opened in Chicago’s Palace Theatre. Vaudeville was a popular stage entertainment, by various performers performing novelty acts – singing, dancing, juggling, performing acrobatics.. but this act was different. Winsor McCay introduced his tame dinosaur, Gertie, to the world.

McCay had created a 7-minute hand drawn cartoon of a sauropod dinosaur, based on the Brontosaurus skeleton that had been displayed in the American Museum of Natural History in New York since 1905. The cartoon was projected onto a screen on the stage, and Gertie seemed to interact with him as, in the manner of a circus ringmaster, he gave her different commands.

Gertie was the first animated character to have her own personality, and McCay had worked out the animation techniques from first principles, working with an assistant, John Fitzsimmons, to create between 6,000 and 7,000 drawings by hand.

So who was Winsor McCay? He was a newspaper illustrator and comic strip artist working for various newspapers, including newspaper magnate William Hearst’s New York Herald. He was well-known among readers for his weekly comic strips including Little Nemo in Slumberland and Dream of the Rarebit Fiend, yet in 1906, he started to appear in vaudeville, performing lightning sketches, drawing ‘live’ on stage. But when his son brought a flip-book home from school he began to consider the idea of animating drawings to create movement. McCay had made two animations before Gertie, but Gertie was so successful his employer, Hearst, stopped his vaudeville performances. So McCay made the act into a film with a live-action beginning and end, and this film is still viewable – see link below.

Gertie was innovative for several reasons.

The cartoon is a simple line drawing set in a fixed, static landscape, and McCay creates a sense of depth by his superb use of perspective. He implied Gertie’s weight and size by her picking up and eating a rock and a tree. She meets a character he calls ‘Jumbo’, based on the famous PT Barnum elephant, but drawn looking more like a mammoth than an elephant.

Like a ‘tame’ wild circus animal, Gertie doesn’t always obey McCay and even snaps at him, but when he scolds her, she bursts into floods of tears. She throws Jumbo into the lake, and with brilliant timing, while she is dancing on her hind legs, Jumbo squirts water at her in revenge.

McCay interacts directly with his screen dinosaur – he appears to throw her an apple but using sleight of hand, he pockets the apple as it appears on screen and she catches it. As a finale, he walks behind the screen and she picks him up, carrying him out of frame.. to thunderous applause.

McCay was, first and foremost, an entertainer, and Gertie was a comedy act, yet she is one of the most famous individual dinosaurs in the history of palaeomedia. She is endearing, funny, and McCay had more than likely consulted the work of Eadweard Muybridge (who had created photographic sequences of animals walking and running) to work out her walk cycle. He had invented the idea of ‘cycles’ so that repetitive movement such as her dance could be photographed and repeated. He created the principle of the ‘key frame’ and the idea that a less experienced animator, an ‘in-betweener’ could be used to complete the intermediate drawings.

The young Buster Keaton was transfixed by the pet dinosaur. When making his 1923 film The Three Ages, he had asked his writer: “Remember Gertie the Dinosaur? . . . The first cartoon comedy ever made. I saw it in a nickelodeon when I was fourteen [sic; he was at least nineteen]. I’ll ride in on an animated cartoon.” When he appears as a caveman, clay models were used to show him riding on the back of dinosaur that had a close resemblance to Gertie.

Winsor McCay died suddenly, aged 62, in 1934, of a massive cerebral haemorrhage.

Gertie certainly influenced Walt Disney, and although it isn’t clear whether Disney saw the original performance, he always acknowledged McCay’s contribution to animation technique. Chuck Jones, the director of Warner Brothers cartoons, creator of Coyote and Roadrunner and Bugs Bunny, to name but a few, wrote in 1989:

It is as though the first creature to emerge from the primeval slime was Albert Einstein; and the second was an amoeba, because after McCay’s animation it took his followers nearly twenty years to find out how he did it. The two most important people in animation are Winsor McCay and Walt Disney, and I’m not sure which should go first. 

The film can be streamed or downloaded here.

So you want to be a palaeoartist?

Drawing and painting dinosaurs – creating prehistoric creatures – is fun and rewarding, but where and how to start? As a practising artist, I have to ‘fess up that I’m not a palaeoartist but have a lot of experience of drawing and painting animals, and often discuss with leading palaeoartists how their own practice works. These suggestions and guidelines are for those of you who are keen to start or are already experimenting with palaeoart.

What do I mean by palaeoart? For this, I am indebted to Mark Witton (of which more shortly) who describes palaeoart in three parts:

  • art that is informed by scientific data
  • art that reconstructs missing biological data
  • art that reconstructs extinct animals, plants and environments.

You are going to attempt to visualise a creature that no longer exists, but there are some things you can do that will get you a long way to making that work. However, whichever way you look at it, there is no getting away from the reality that you have to be able to DRAW. This is the most important and useful tool you can own:


There’s no point in playing with wizzy computer hardware and software if you can’t draw.

Incidentally, for anyone toying with the idea of computer animation, the common heartfelt plea from those teaching animation at graduate and postgraduate level – and those running animation studios – is that they need animators who can draw. With a pencil.

For me, whereas painting is the act of creating a final image, drawing is a process of understanding a subject – I have sketchbooks full of half-finished, exploratory drawings, and often have to accommodate the uncomfortable truth that animals don’t pose for me and will move or wander off part of the way through a study. However, you can visit museums and draw specimens if you’re not comfortable with uncooperative subjects. Draw skeletons – understanding anatomy is crucial for making realistic studies. In my own practice I worked on two projects, one involving great apes and one involving horses, and in both cases, I was able to visit the University of Bristol’s Veterinary School, where I could examine and draw the skeletons of a gorilla and a horse, which was invaluable.

Draw your pets. Draw people. Still life. Landscapes. Anything that helps your observation and understanding of how to turn a three-dimensional object into a two-dimensional image. (The problem with just copying photographs or other images is that they have already been ‘flattened’.)

You might already paint with traditional materials – watercolour, acrylics, oils, coloured pencils – or you might go straight to digital media, which is an individual choice, but remember – you can make a bad painting from a good drawing, but you can never make a good painting from a bad drawing.

However, you’re likely to be reading this because you want to draw dinosaurs.

Now this is very important: Do not even THINK of plagiarising others’ work. EVER.

You can copy to learn, to work out how another artist has arrived at an image, to understand the process. If I want to learn about composition, I’ll copy a Rembrandt or a Leonardo to deconstruct it, but copying others’ work and claiming it for your own is the absolute cardinal sin. And you will be found out. (Incidentally, in wildlife art, even copying someone else’s photograph without permission or credit is just as unacceptable.) But what else can you do?

If you’re interested in dinosaurs, the chances are that you already try to keep up with the science news, and this can give a lot of information about the latest thinking about anatomy and surface texture. Scales, skin, feathers, colour – an element of speculation is, of course, inevitable, but it pays to try to go along with the most recent information.

Follow the professional palaeoartists – look at the work of Mark Witton, Bob Nicholls, Emily Willoughby, Julius Csotonyi, John Conway, Luis Rey, to name a few and with huge apologies to anyone I’ve missed. Try to keep up with their blogs, talks, websites and published images.

And I really, really, really recommend Mark Witton’s book: The Palaeoartist’s Handbook, which has a section on the history and context of palaeoart, and a mass of information on reconstructing images of extinct animals. Beautifully illustrated, reasonably priced and accessible (no, Mark hasn’t paid me to say this) it will go a long way to help you.

Becoming a palaeoartist isn’t – and won’t be – easy, but bringing an extinct world to life is a challenge that brings enormous satisfaction.