World famous Spanish paleoartist and illustrator specializing in the reconstruction of Cenozoic mammals, in particular the sabretooths cats. Graduate of Fine Arts at “Centro de Enseñanza Gráfica” in Caracas (Venezuela). Antón is the author and co-author of many articles and books, and his illustrations have appeared in many scientific and popular science publications. Moreover, he has participated in documentary and scientific film productions, developed exhibits for leading natural history museums, and lectured on his work at conferences, museums and academies.
Szymon Górnicki: What do you think is the most interesting/exciting in paleoart?
Mauricio Antón: To me the most exciting part of paleoart is to try to get as close as possible to knowing and showing the real appearance of extinct creatures. Because there are so many uncertainties in this work, I have to admit it is also the most frustrating part!
SG: If paleoart didn’t exist, who would you have been instead?
MA: I spent my first professional decade doing “fine art”, creating surrealist paintings for art galleries (but I often included a dinosaur, mastodon or sabertooth cat in my compositions…). A series of coincidences allowed me to shift to paleoart which was my childhood vocation anyway. But there are other things I would have loved to do, from becoming a composer to wildlife filmmaking, which I still manage to enjoy as collateral activities.
SG: What is it like when an artist writes a scientific article? What is the feeling / experience?
MA: In my case it is a very laborious task, and it certainly doesn’t feel as easy or natural as pencil drawing! But it is the only way to advance in the scientific side of paleobiological reconstruction, which for me is as essential as the artistic side. Fortunately I am never alone in that quest, and team work is of the essence. I could never have published those scientific papers if I didn’t collaborate with the most amazing paleontologists.
SG: Initially, you created works using the traditional techniques, later came the digital drawing. How was your learning process of the digital medium like?
MA: Going digital was a painful experince to begin with, I suppose I was bit too old when I did the transition! After decades of refining my traditional techniques, trying to use a digitizing tablet made me feel like a small kid learning to draw and paint from scratch. Up to this day I don’t think I have mastered digital art, but to be honest, painting in oils could be great fun for me some days but other days it could also be a real pain. It is pencil drawing that makes me feel the most free!
SG: What is your experience with 3D animation?
MA: For years I wanted to try my hand at 3D modelling and animation and I approached artists who generously shared their insights with me, but the real fun came when I teamed up with an animation studio in Madrid and we created a series of short animated paleontological films, mostly for museum exhibitions. The experience only lasted a few years because demand for such products crashed in Spain with the financial crisis. But I still use digital 3D modelling regularly as part of my reconstruction process, and I don’t give up hope of getting involved in projects that lead to really good 3d paleontological animations.
SG: Probably not many people know that you are leading your own art safari “Drawing the Big Cats”? How did that happen?
MA: A friend of me introduced me to a lady who leads a safari company in Botswana. In principle I was just interested in arranging a wildlife trip but when I explained to her what I did, she said “why not organizing a special interest safari where you explain to the participants your insights and art techniques?” I jumped at the opportunity but had the secret fear that nobody would join… and now it has been 7 editions, with several participants actually coming back time and again!
SG: Most of the paleoart is about dinosaurs, but you focused on Cenozoic animals. How many dinosaurs have you drawn in your career?
MA: I drew and painted my share of dinosaurs early in my career, especially but not exclusively species that are found in Spain (iguanodontids, sauropods…). That was in the late 1980s and early 1990s, then I shifted to mammals, in part because back at the time Spanish paleontology was heavily dominated by fossil sites of Tertiary age. I was not unhappy with the change anyway, because I have always loved mammals… and there were already so many great artists doing dinosaurs out there! Still every now and then I receive the odd commission to do a dinosaur, which is always exciting.
SG: What do you think about the idea that lips covered the teeth of most sabretooths and maybe even of the famous Smilodon?
MA: That is a complex issue. For one thing there was a great diversity of sabretooths and I would expect that in some of them the upper canines would be visible and not in others. What defines a “sabretooth” is not the length (crown height, to be more precise) of the upper canines, but rather their flattened shape, so there were species of sabretooths whose “sabres” weren’t proportionally much longer than, for instance, in a modern clouded leopard. In those species it is likely that the canines would not be visible with the mouth closed. For other species there are several anatomical aspects to bear in mind, and I am currently in the process of putting together a range of new, detailed observations of fossil and living species to try and come up with an updated view of the subject. In the past I may have used too much of an uniform approach, and now I suspect there are different solutions for different taxa. Still, I find it extremely unlikely that Smilodon had its upper canines covered in life!
I would like to thank to Mauricio Anton for the interview and to you for reading.