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Artists Mine Scientific Clues to Paint Intricate Portraits of the Past

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Wildlife artist Michael DiGiorgios rendering of Anchiornis, a dinosaur with a crown of plumage.

Michael DiGiorgio

Somewhere in England, about 600 years ago, an artist sat down and tried to paint an elephant. There was just one problem: he had never seen one.

The artist was illustrating a book known today as the “Bestiary of Anne Walshe,” a guide to animals. To paint an elephant, he could not jet to Kenya to scrutinize one in person. He could not visit the London zoo. He could not watch a David Attenborough DVD or click through a Web gallery of nature photographs. The only clues the artist could have found were in the mix of facts and myths preserved in old books.

There he might read how elephants cannot bend at the knees, or that they have no interest in sex. There were illustrations of elephants in those old books, too, but they were painted by artists who had also never seen one. In the end, the illustrator of the “Bestiary of Anne Walshe” produced a charming mishmash of guesses. His elephant looks like a bull terrier with camel hooves for feet and a vacuum cleaner for a nose.

Artists are still painting things they cannot see in real life. Rather than being separated from their subjects by thousands of miles, though, today’s artists are separated by thousands of years—even millions of them. Fortunately, they have a lot more scientific information on which to base their images. But they cannot eliminate the gap between reality and image.

Last month, for example, the portrait of a 4,000-year-old man appeared on the cover of Nature. The picture commemorated the sequencing of the complete genome of an ancient resident of Greenland. In a technical tour de force, a team of scientists extracted DNA from tufts of hairs that had been collected in Greenland in 1986 and stored in a Danish museum since.

From The New York Times
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