A Q&A With Paleo-Artist Rob Soto
We had a great time working with paleo-artist Rob Soto and we wanted to share some of that experience with you. Dinosaur Trips’ own Zach Vanasse sat down with Rob to chat about how Rob became a paleo-artist, and what his process looked like as he conceptualized and illustrated our first Dinosaur Trips destination poster.
Badlands • Alberta / Dinosaur Trips Destination Poster
by Rob Soto
So, how did you become a paleo artist?
I’ll go back all the way to the beginning. It really began with a stegosaurus toy. When I was a little kid I was really into most little kid stuff. Monsters, animals; I loved going to the zoo.
There was a period of time where my dad was going away for a work conference in Washington DC. And every time he came back he would bring me something from a Smithsonian Museum; like a little rocket-ship or something.
Then one time he came back from the Natural History Museum, there was a brachiosaurus with a bow on it, and this stegosaurus, which became my favourite animal.
I didn’t really understand dinosaurs at the time. I thought it was a monster. But my dad explained to me that, no, this was a real animal that once existed. An animal that walked around, that ate and slept, that had babies and felt things, and now they’re gone and – because this was in the early ‘90s – we didn’t really know why they were gone. It was a mystery.
And that mystery, that feeling of awe and wonder, never let go of me. I was obsessed after that point. I started getting books and toys, anything I could get my hands on. The Jurassic Park toys were phenomenal.
The best way I found to explore this fascination with the subject, which is still a driving force with my art today, was to draw it. I would draw my toys. I would draw things out of the books. That was always how I made sense of and celebrated what I was excited about; I had to draw it.
So that was the gateway to the rest of science for me because if you study dinosaurs, you inevitably have to study extinction, climate, cladistic charts – learning about the tree of life and how animals relate to each other.
My father, being a radiologist, had a real knack for bones and muscles, the names of things, and how things worked. And as any parent would, you instill your own interest into your child. So he would be able to point out like ‘this is a meniscus and this is a femur, this is what we call a scoot’ – that’s the scales. ‘This one has claws and this one has a sail, this one has a plate.’ So the real technical interest was formed out of that. It was really the dinosaurs that got me interested in all of science.
I’m curious, did you stick with dinosaurs the whole way through? Because a lot of people, like myself, went through a period in the middle there where we might have abandoned that curiosity.
Dinosaurs were always there in the background for me. But as a teenager, I got into drawing figures and maps, creating worlds and imagining lands, that kind of thing.
I was pursuing another career, which I decided wasn’t for me, and so I went back home and enrolled at Montgomery College, a community college, and started taking art classes there. My mom saw that I was now buying art books and actually trying to learn how to improve my skill. I was trying to get better and not just draw for fun. So she suggested art school.
I got into the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, which is where I met my wife. My senior year is where I really re-discovered dinosaurs, because I needed a personal project to explore. That’s also when I discovered you could actually do science illustration as a career. I never looked back. It was the perfect marriage of art and science I was looking for.
Then I got a couple internships and I just kept practicing. I got in with the Smithsonian, with a paleobotanist there, and started building up a portfolio. From there I got into the California State University at Monterey Bay , which is where I learned the real tricks of the trade and honed my craft.
I took every assignment and turned it into a paleo-art assignment, unless it was specifically not supposed to be. I got an internship with the Alf Museum of Paleontology and there I got to figure out what the needs were for an actual museum. And that was all kinds of things, from social media content to whole big scenes of an ecosystem…
I love those. As a kid, those illustrations of a whole ecosystem? That captured my imagination. I loved getting a sense of this whole world existing together, all the dinosaurs, plants, and other animals interacting.
I think that’s part of what gets me excited about travelling to destinations with Dinosaur Trips. This idea of trying to understand what each of these places was like millions of years ago.
Yes, exactly. Getting an appreciation for how it all fits together is exciting. Those “flybys” – that’s the technical term for the kind of illustration where you see all the dinosaurs or whatever animals crammed together in way too close a space – give you a real sense of the place. It’s not just the one animal in a sandbox. What kind of trees are there? What’s the landscape look like? What other animals are there? Where are they on the continent? And all this stuff would have had a massive influence on the kinds of dinosaurs that are going to evolve there. The kind we’re eventually going to find fossilized there. It’s fascinating. And it makes you want to know more about the rest of it.
Exactly. And that’s how I hope Dinosaur Trips works. That even if dinosaurs don’t represent your entire scope of interest or passion, or if – like me – you were into dinosaurs as a kid but have got away from it since, that your imagination is going to be sparked. That you’ll come away with an even better understanding of the place you’re visiting on your vacation, one that gives you a deeper – literally because these things are actually being dug up from the ground – appreciation for millions of years of history and prehistory of a destination.
Yeah and that speaks to why I really like what Dinosaur Trips is doing, which is giving the people the chance to travel to these places, talk to the dinosaur experts, and have these moments of experiencing or understanding something about this place in a way your typical tourist isn’t get to think about the destination’s whole history.
I think it gives people the chance to get excited about dinosaurs in ways they probably don’t even realize. A lot of people think we’ve stopped discovering new dinosaurs. That there’s nothing new to learn. But we’re actually in a golden age of dinosaur discovery. In terms of the public understanding, I think a lot of people think our understanding of these lost worlds stopped with Jurassic Park, but actually our understanding of dinosaurs has continued to evolve in huge ways.
Take that initial stegosaurus toy that inspired me, for example. Our current understanding of what the stegosaurus looked like is vastly different from my inspiring toy dinosaur. And that’s exciting for me as someone who loves dinosaurs and science. Even what we think we know now is changing in exciting ways.
I agree completely. And it’s why I know we can travel the world exploring on the path of the dinosaurs, and it won’t get old. Because even though dinosaurs went extinct 65 million years ago, here in 2023 we’re living in a time where there’s never been more to discover and learn about dinosaurs as we travel into all these destinations.
And to that point, as I’ve grown in my career and experience as an artist, I’ve gained an appreciation for what we, as people, bring to this dinosaur experience. We’re a lens. We are the universe looking at itself and better understanding itself. There’s a lot to be learned from the past and that’s good reason to advocate and celebrate the past.
There’s something I find really compelling about the idea that these things existed, they were real and they were here for millions of years, and now they’re gone. I guess I see paleo-art as a way of recognizing this history. And a way to bring that existence to life in a way that’s as real of a representation of our understanding of how they lived as possible.
So back to your paleo-art adventure before I sidetracked us. Let’s get back to the Raymond M. Alf Museum of Paleontology in Claremont, California. Which is a museum we’re very much looking into visiting as part of a larger Dinosaur Trips vacation itinerary one day.
That would be great. It’s a really great museum. I was learning under Dr. Andrew Farke, who is a leading expert on triceratops and other ceratopsians. He’s an amazing person. He did some really great dinosaur research on the intra-specific combat of ceratopsians, and how we know that triceratops actually locked horns in combat, and also centrosaurians fought in a completely different way. Fascinating, fascinating stuff that sparks my interest to draw.
Some people get upset when scientists change something they thought they knew about dinosaurs, like “maybe T-Rex had feathers,” but that just gets me more excited about dinosaurs because it lets us imagine and interpret our favourite dinosaurs in a whole new way.
So when did you get to start imagining and interpreting dinosaurs as a full-time gig?
I didn’t get to become a full-time illustrator until the pandemic happened. I got back from grad school and picked up a commission for an interpretive panel series, and I started to do quite a lot of those, but not quite enough to pay the bills. So I went back to working in an eye doctor’s office. Then when the pandemic hit, I was let go.
I was kinda forced into doing something. I started to do more art work, was picking up more commissions, and now with more time to invest into it. Low and behold, when you put a lot into something, you get a lot back. I started picking up more and more commission work. One thing led to another to the point I am now a full-time artist, which is great! I love what I do.
I love that. Because for me, that’s what Dinosaur Trips has been. That opportunity to immerse myself into something that I really like doing. And the opportunity to continue learning about something I’m very interested in. It’s really rewarding.
And I have to say, your artwork actually helped to inspire that for me. I had been considering creating Dinosaur Trips for awhile at one point, thinking about what it could be, how this travel company should operate, figuring out how to market it, etc.
And I came across the series of posters you did with the Common Descent Podcast. When I saw those, which are inspired by old movie posters, I immediately got a sense of how Dinosaur Trips could communicate what this dinosaur travel company was looking to be. It conjured up this idea of the “Golden Era of Travel” posters, except with dinosaurs in them.
I just thought that would be the perfect way to express the idea that while yes, these vacations are designed around dinosaurs, they also include these elevated and stylish touches that make them much more than just the nerdy stuff. That we were going to experience the whole destination, have unforgettable meals, experience the cultural stuff, too. It all fit so nicely together in this poster I was picturing. So those posters you did for the podcast were one piece of the equation that really got me fired up to make Dinosaur Trips a reality.
Yeah! I love hearing all that, that’s great. You hope that, as an artist, you’re inspiring people, right? I’m glad that art can be a part of helping your vision come true. That’s amazing. And when you approached me, just the word poster got me excited because I love doing that kind of work.
And then an opportunity to draw dinosaurs? That was very exciting. I love all my science illustration work – it’s fun to talk to people who are excited about what they’re doing, whether that’s mitochondria or dinosaurs – but I always get most excited when there’s a chance to draw dinosaurs.
So what happens after we discussed my initial concept – which was a Golden Era of Travel-style poster for the Badlands of Alberta. Ideally with an Albertosaurus in it. Take me through your process.
Well you were very professional from the start, so that was a great way to get things going for me.
And after that first meeting, I couldn’t wait to start looking for reference photos. I started looking at as many depictions of the Albertosaurus skull as I could, because I know that’s one of the most defining characteristics of that animal. And its limb proportions are very different from your typical tyrannosaurid, so I was looking at that.
And I start practicing in order to build a relationship with that species. I do this for any charismatic animal that I need to realistically portray. I’ll do whole pages of Albertosaurus just in different situations. And I’ve shared the concept art here, so people can see that.
Two other things became extremely important to this project. One was the Badlands, which I’ve been hearing about since I was a kid since that’s where a lot of dinosaurs have come from; so it’s a very important place. Capturing the feeling and the look of that place accurately is important because it’s an actual place that people are going to visit. The composition was going to be where we had to establish that sense of place properly. These classic travel posters usually have these sweeping compositions with something in the foreground and something in the background.
The second was the style and colour palette in order to capture that Golden Age of Travel poster style. And I actually struggled with getting those colours right for a little while. I was looking at what we had and it wasn’t quite working for me. It was really important to the project that it authentically felt like one of those posters. It was only once I found just the right colour palette, very limited, then it felt like it finally came together.
It really is a good looking piece of art. It’s so rewarding to see what was my initial concept be put in the hands of someone with your skills, where it gets turned into something even better than I could imagine on my own. And it gets me excited about exploring Alberta with Dinosaur Trips.
Another thing that we talked about a lot when we were chatting about the concept was storytelling. I had some ideas of what I wanted to see reflected in the poster, but I thought you really came through with some brilliant elements that augmented the storytelling in the piece. You brought in some fantastic influences to illustrate what I want to accomplish with these travel experiences, and what we want to inspire in our guests.
Right on. I mean all humans understand storytelling. It’s so important in our communication with one another. From the most technical drawing to something as narrative driven as the piece we did together, storytelling is always a really important aspect in any of my artwork.
One of my mantras as an artist is that before you can appeal to the thinking part of the brain, you have to appeal to the feeling part. We are emotional beings and in order to create a successful piece you need to have a story and a feeling behind it. And a lot of that comes out in the concept art.
I went through a lot of iterations from exploring the dinosaur in the foreground with just the vehicle representing the tourists, and eventually landed on what you have, where it’s one person seeing the albertosaurus.
Which, I think, is the spirit of Dinosaur Trips. This idea that you’re going to go on this trip and go to these places that are so rich with the spirit of this prehistoric life, and you’re going to see it in a different light that almost brings it back into existence.
So that’s where the idea came from to have this group travelling with Dinosaur Trips and this one young girl has this incredible personal, almost magical experience. She gets this kind of glimpse back into another time.
We talked about the Studio Ghibli movie Princess Mononoke and the device that that movie uses to represent the Spirit of the Forest. In that movie, you have this beautiful shot of the spirit walking, and as the spirit puts down its foot, all this forest life erupts out of the earth underneath it, and as it lifts its foot back up to take its next step, all the life shrinks back down. So, I thought that would be a fun way to bring the Cretaceous into the modern Alberta Badlands. I had a lot of fun with that. There’s a lot of concept sketches that I would love to revisit for a future Dinosaur Trips poster.
Well obviously I think it’s beautifully rendered. You did a great job with it.
It was a lot of fun for me. And I think it captures the mission of what you are doing with Dinosaur Trips. We had a great conversation about why you were creating this travel company and what you wanted to inspire people to do, so it was always in my mind that it had to have the spirit of discovery and spark the imagination about dinosaurs.
It’s exciting to have this poster representing our first ever destination experiences. This really represents those first tracks out there for Dinosaur Trips, and for that to be this awesome piece of art, it’s an exciting start for us.
I can’t wait to see more. We plan on releasing a new poster for every new Dinosaur Trips destination, so I’m really looking forward to seeing what you create for upcoming Dinosaur Trips destinations as we announce them.
Yeah, please tell me; where and what am I drawing next?
I wanted to ask you that! If you could pick anywhere, just based on where you’d like to draw most for an upcoming Dinosaur Trips destination poster, where would you choose?
I would love to draw the Jurassic Coast in the UK. That landscape, even today, is still very dramatic. It’s these Scottish Isles. It’s in the north. You’ve got these sheer cliffs and there’s a lot of birds living there in a similar way pterosaurs would have lived. It’s really this visceral experience and you’re one step closer to picturing how pterosaurs would live. And it’s very important, historically as Mary Anning also discovered, in northern England, the ichthyosaur there.
Paleontologists are always unearthing something new and exciting in the part of the world it seems. So that would be a fun one. To draw and for a vacation.
Well, stay tuned. You might just be drawing up a Jurassic Coast travel poster sometime soon.
Awesome. Can’t wait!