At the moment, only a small subset of colour-producing mechanisms present in birds can be detected from fossils. What is a paleoartist to do?
One of the most fascinating aspects of paleoart is the creation of colour palettes for animals long gone. It is an interesting exercise: the end product is almost certainly wrong, as chancing upon the exact right colouration is very much comparable to winning the lottery. The goal of most paleoart is to make reconstructions that are wrong in a way that is plausible, interesting, and aesthetically pleasing.
Even the recent advances in deciphering colours from fossils have not changed everything. At the moment they only apply to a small number of dinosaurian taxa, and even within those, to a small subset of colour-producing pigments.
There are lots of ways to approach the problem of colour. Some paleoartists copy and paste the patterns of living animals on top of ancient ones almost directly. Others study animal colouring and ecology and incorporate ideas and principles to their art. Still others are most concerned with making beautiful art pieces with colours that fit together.
Whichever the approach, everyone benefits from understanding the basics of animal colouring. Where do the colours of living animals come from? What do we know about which pigments and structures were possible for extinct groups? For non-avian dinosaurs, the best point of comparison are living birds, followed by crocodylians. Studying mammals also has something to offer. Continue reading