ONE OF THE JOYS in researching a story like today’s is that, how otherwise would I have an email chat with Julio Lacerda in Brazil?

He’s among the elite group of artists in the world who produce astounding, realistic museum illustrations of dinosaurs and other prehistoric plants and animals.

Cover story: For each of the Burke Museum’s 18,000,000+ artifacts, there’s a story that helps us understand our world a little better

They make those fossils come alive. That skeleton takes on flesh, skin, scales, feathers, coloring. The illustration places it in a natural habitat, whether a lush tropical forest or in the sea.

Paleoart, as it was coined by Oregon artist Mark Hallet in the 1970s, refers to science-based paleontological illustration.

Lacerda, 27, lives in the city of Recife in northeast Brazil. He’s produced hundreds of paleoart pieces for eight years, including the Burke Museum here, and institutions in Japan, Germany and other places.


He does all his work digitally, mainly with Adobe Photoshop.

Lacerda produces his illustrations using the best evidence he can gather from researchers. If there simply aren’t many bones from the fossil to be illustrated, Lacerda looks to the animal’s possible relatives.

For example, he says, “We presume sabertooth cats were covered in fur because all living cats are, even though we haven’t yet found preserved remains of sabertooth skin.”

For an animal’s coloration, it’s possible to find traces of pigment cells on fossilized skin. “Cave paintings made by early humans can also provide some glimpses,” says Lacerda.

He’s not much for putting his illustrated animals in action-packed fights or chase scenes.

“I am personally fond of depicting animals in peaceful and more mundane activities,” he says. “You’re more likely to see animals grazing or sleeping in a safari rather than chasing down prey, because that constitutes a small portion of their day-to-day lives.”

Accompanying this story is an illustration Lacerda did for the Burke of a Tyrannosaurus in a forest. It’s not attacking anybody.

Says Lacerda, “In the end, much of paleontology and paleoart in general is speculation.”