The art of drawing dinosaurs

Photo by Daniel Jackovino
Paleo artist Dean Cole holds his drawing of an ornithomimus.

BLOOMFIELD, NJ — Dinosaurs seem to just come his way, according to Bloomfield resident Dean Cole. Sure, as a kid he liked drawing T-Rex and brontosaurus, and he developed into a pretty good draftsman. But much later on, in 2012, a friend working for a Maryland dinosaur park asked him to provide illustrations for an installation.

“I thought I’d give it a shot,” Cole said earlier this week at his Essex Avenue home.
Cole, who graduated from Bloomfield High School in 1975, said he approached the dinosaur park project by working from online photographs of skulls and bones. Seeing the underlying structure, he drew skin over the bones.

“I did a light tracing of a skull and then fleshed it out,” he said. “I didn’t work from a copy of the dinosaur because that would be cheating.”
Cole called putting skin over bones “shrink-wrapping.” Later, working from online drawings of dinosaur musculature, he would flesh out the beast.
Although he is a more skilled draftsman as an adult than as an adolescent, Cole, who professionally designs apparatus for cable TV, said drawing dinosaurs is a lot harder now than when he was growing up since so much more is known about them. He still has several of the drawings he did as a youngster, which he put on display.

“I hadn’t drawn a dinosaur since the ’60s,” he said. “Now we know they had feathers and were warm-blooded. There’s a lot of fossils coming out of China where you can see the feathers. There’s been a lot of discoveries since the ’90s.”

He produced seven drawing for the Maryland dinosaur park show. They were colored, enlarged and placed on panels.
Cole mostly draws for himself in graphite. He displayed a drawing of an arundel-conodon, a small, prehistoric mouse-like creature. Scientists know that it is closely related to the tree shrew, though only a tiny fossilized bone from its jaw has been found.

“Scientists extrapolated its form from its lower mandible,” Cole said. “It’s the first mammal fossil from the Cretaceous period found on the East Coast.”

Cole calls himself a paleo-artist. He is an exacting draftsman, even changing the feathers covering a dinosaur as more information becomes available. He sometimes works from photographs taken at the American Museum of Natural History. Since dinosaurs are now thought to be related to birds, Cole studies the structure of birds for clues when drawing dinosaurs.

“The information coming out now is phenomenal,” he said. “Chinese farmers were always finding these bones and throwing them away. But now they know they’re valuable.”

Cole said that about two months ago he read a story in the Oct. 24 edition of The Independent Press about the third-grade class of Rachel Mazzetta at Watsessing Elementary School studying dinosaurs. According to that story, in one activity the students became paleontologists and carefully extracted a chocolate chip from a chocolate chip cookie. Cole laughed when he read this and thought it was a good way to teach kids about fossils. He contacted the school and offered to make a presentation to the class. His offer was accepted.

It was not the first time Cole had made a presentation to a Bloomfield elementary school. Brookdale Elementary invited him to speak about World War I after learning that he had done a presentation at the Historical Society of Bloomfield on the Spanish influenza outbreak of 1918.
Cole said he took two weeks to prepare the slideshow on dinosaurs. In his 45-minute presentation, he showed a slide of a velociraptor beside a turkey. Ever since it was popularized by “Jurassic Park,” the velociraptor has become a dinosaur well-known to many children.

“The children learned that reptiles are not dinosaurs,” Cole said. “A turkey is closer to a dinosaur because its legs are under its hips.”
He explained to the students that reptiles have fewer openings in their skulls behind the ears than turkeys or birds–two and four, respectively. After showing a photograph of a giraffe and a horse, Cole asked the students how they would draw both animals if they only had their skulls. What they drew, he told them, would probably not be accurate.

“I told them they had to be careful with fossils,” he said. “They’re stone and maybe compressed. You wouldn’t get the true shape.”
Cole said he later thought parts of his presentation may have been too difficult for the students to understand, but their teacher Rachel Mazzetta said it was good to challenge them. With that in mind, Cole said he would go to other schools with his dinosaur presentation, if invited.