Art Works Blog

Art Talk with Paleo Artist Mary Parrish

Scientific illustrator Mary Parrish spent much of her career turning what she described as the “mangled, frozen, gray rocks” of fossils into the living, breathing flora and fauna they once were. A paleo artist who recently retired after 37 years with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, Parrish is responsible for many of the murals and exhibit illustrations that help visitors visualize ancient environments and the organisms that inhabited them. We recently spoke with Parrish by email about her career in the Department of Paleobiology, why her favorite dinosaur is Triceratops, and how working in the past has affected her life in the present.

NEA: How did you come to scientific illustration?

MARY PARRISH: I’ve always loved nature and art and, like many kids, spent my free time exploring outside and drawing. I became passionate about art in high school, but I didn’t think about the profession of scientific illustration until after obtaining a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Virginia Commonwealth University in 1976. In 1978 my father, a very good amateur paleontologist, was asked by the Calvert Marine Museum to write a small pamphlet about the Miocene fossils of Calvert Cliffs. He asked me to illustrate it and these simple pen and ink sketches were my first published drawings.

As a child, I also loved visiting the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. After college, I decided that I wanted to try to work in the museum’s Exhibit Department. No exhibit jobs were available at that time, so I accepted a position as a clerk-typist in the Department of Invertebrate Zoology. After working with the scientists and scientific illustrators in the many science departments at the museum and discovering the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators, a professional organization that met monthly at the museum, I became so interested in natural history research and its illustration that I wanted very much to stay in a science department. In 1983, after a great deal of study, time, effort, and patience, I filled the position of staff scientific illustrator in the museum’s Department of Paleobiology.

NEA: What sort of research went into a typical piece before it was executed?

PARRISH: That depends on the drawing. I render graphic information, fossil specimens, and life restorations. A life restoration can depict a single individual or a complex scene including many types of organisms, some of which may be new to science.

The original research underpinning all of my illustrations is done by the scientist who requests the illustration. I am the illustrator, not the author of the work. At times, a single illustration may represent a lifetime of work for a scientist, or even a group of scientists. The Department of Paleobiology employs scientists who study vertebrate paleontology, invertebrate paleontology, and paleobotany throughout geologic time. The sizes of organisms I've illustrated range from single-celled biota to the largest whales, dinosaurs, and trees.

Images and ideas based on my own knowledge and experience always fill my mind as I work, and I often bounce these ideas off the scientist or include them in my rough drafts. Sometimes my ideas are incorporated into the illustration, but final decisions are always made by the scientists.

That said, usually about 70 percent of the time it takes me to do a life restoration is during the research phase. This includes reading scientific articles provided by the scientists, studying and drawing fossil material, preparing rough drafts for approval, participating in preliminary discussions in person or via email with Smithsonian scientists and their colleagues around the world, sending out drafts for peer review and discussion, and so forth. The more species included in an illustration the longer the research takes because every species (as well as the environment itself) has to be reconstructed.

Fossils are usually fragmentary, distorted, or may be frozen into scrambled, unnatural positions in rock. They are usually extremely fragile and are often rare or even one of a kind and must be handled very carefully. Fossil sediments and rock outcrops must be analyzed by scientists to determine if the climate was warm or cold, wet or dry, hilly or flat, if there was a river or stream flowing through it, etc.

Many thousands of research hours on the part of the scientist can precede the production of a single painting. Fossils must be discovered, collected, prepared (removed from the rock surrounding them), analyzed, and compared to previously discovered fossil and modern material from around the world.

Woman painting a large highly detailed painting of dinosaurs

Mary Parrish creating a detailed dinosaur scene. Photo by Finnegan Marsh

NEA: What was the general balance that you struck between sticking to fact and using creative license?

PARRISH: A scientist once said to me, "At the Smithsonian, we err on the side of the conservative." I have found this generally to be true. I stick to the data whenever possible. When data is missing, the scientists use "informed imagination" (a term I learned from scientists Kay Behrensmeyer and Scott Wing) to fill in the gaps.

Scientists themselves may disagree on how the data in the fossil record is interpreted. Sometimes my illustrations become the catalyst for debate. This can happen during the preliminary sketch phase as my sketches circulate among scientists, after publication, or both.

The most frequent question I receive is: "How do you know what color to make it?" Color is usually decided by studying living relatives.

One thing I know for certain is that the living biota and environments did not look like mangled, frozen, gray rocks. In my opinion, any attempt to bring fossils to life is therefore a step closer to reality.

NEA: What processes were in place to ensure your pieces fit not just scientifically with the exhibit, but aesthetically? How much collaboration was there regarding palette, composition, etc.?

PARRISH: I work closely with exhibit designers, as well as scientists. The main impact the exhibit design has on my illustration is its composition. The space to be filled may be an unusual shape and fossil specimens or graphic materials are usually mounted on or in front of the illustration, so I have to dodge these elements. I also keep the visitor in mind. I may put a small mammal low enough to be face to face with a tiny child.

NEA: What tools might you use that a non-scientific artist might not?

PARRISH: Microscope with a camera lucida attachment (possibly with an ocular micrometer in the eye piece) and calipers for measuring larger specimens. Scientists use scanning electron microscopes, 3D scanners, CT scanners, and other equipment to analyze their material. I spend a lot of time counting, measuring, and studying.

NEA: In an interview with Smithsonian, you said that the more you work in the past, the more comfortable you are in the past. I was wondering how this comfort might affect your day to day. For instance, do you constantly imagine what your environment might have looked like during prehistoric times? Does it give you a different appreciation or abhorrence for certain modern elements?

PARRISH: I love to imagine how the world may have looked during different periods of time based on fossils I have seen or things I've read. I have often felt out of place sitting on a crowded metro after a long and intense day working on an ancient scene. Sometimes I think about the early, silent times on Earth when there was no biologic noise—no animals, no birds, no insects, no rustling leaves and, of course, no vehicles or machinery. I think about the ancient marine realm when I am scuba diving.

Change has always occurred naturally, so I feel a certain amount of inevitability in regards to some of the things I see happening in the world around me. But humans are a species uniquely capable of extreme mass destruction in a big variety of ways. We must learn to live more compatibly with the world around us and with each other.

I love that I am connected to everything around me through our shared ancient past. Drawing strengthens that feeling of connection.

A man stands on a ladder as he installs a large mural of dinosaurs while two other men look on

The installation of a mural created by Mary Parrish at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History. The mural was located in the temporary dinosaur hall, while the main hall was undergoing renovations. Photo by Mary Parrish

NEA: Can you walk me through your creative process?

PARRISH: 1. The scientist provides me with a species list, the time period and fossil locality to be depicted, a general description of the environment, fossil specimens, and references. He or she tells me if there are important anatomical features or behaviors to include.

2. I begin to imagine a scene based on my experiences exploring the natural world. I go to natural areas that somehow remind me of the scene described by the scientist. This provides both inspiration and concrete ideas that I mentally morph into ancient scenes. I do field sketching and take photographs. I may visit the zoo. I study light and shade in natural environments. I study modern analogues—how plants grow and die, how animals move and interact, and so forth. Often something unexpected and wonderful happens while sitting in nature, which may end up in my illustration. Nature is always my inspiration.

3. I sketch the basic environment.

4. I reconstruct each individual organism. I might make a small clay model to work out the anatomy of the organism and to have something to copy. The model helps me understand perspective, form, and light and shade.

5. I place the organisms in their environment.

NEA: What is your favorite dinosaur and why?

PARRISH: Triceratops. I built a beautiful collection of paleo art in the Department of Paleobiology out of the work I found in nooks and crannies throughout the specimen collection. One the nicest parts of the collection is a spectacular group of 19th-century ink wash drawings and preliminary sketches of the skeletal anatomy of Triceratops. These exquisite drawings, by Frederick M. Berger, were made to accompany the original published scientific descriptions of Triceratops, which was authored by the famous paleontologist Othniel C. Marsh. (These ink wash illustrations were not published. They were redrawn in reverse on lithographic limestone and printed as stone lithographs; some were redrawn and reproduced as wood engravings). Imagine the excitement there must have been when this animal was discovered in the late 1800s in the western interior of the United States (along with many other iconic dinosaurs)! The skeleton of Triceratops, first mounted at the National Museum of Natural History in 1905, was the first mounted skeleton of this dinosaur. It was conserved and remounted, in a new pose, for the new hall that opened in June 2019.

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