Plants & People

From fossils to landscapes: the art of reconstructing plants in the past

How can you reconstruct the vegetation of deep time? One professor has turned to canvas and paint.
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What would it be like to set foot in the prehistoric world? What would a stand 380 million years ago dominated by Archaeopteris, the first tree, be like? How would it feel to wander in the shadow of clubmosses that reached tens of metres into the sky? What would not just the plants, but also the landscape look like? Graham Seymour, now retired as an Emeritus Professor of Plant Biotechnology at the University of Nottingham, works to reconstruct the distant past from a studio in his conservatory at the rear of his family home.

A man sitting at a workbench with a magenta model of a flower. To his his a large painting on canvas of a lake surrounded by what look like ferns. Behind him on the walls are another painting of a wetland, this one dominated by horsetails. There is also a painting of a sunset over a lush verdant landscape.
Graham Seymour in his studio.

‘I wanted to study palaeobotany at University, but because I was afraid that I would not be able to land a job on graduating, I read Agricultural Botany at Reading and became an applied plant scientist. I did however maintain my interest by chatting to the researchers in the palaeobotany lab, including Peter Crane who later became Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Now I have become Emeritus I have the time to combine my passion for paleobotany with another interest of mine which is painting landscapes in oil,’ said Graham in an email conversation with Botany One.

Graham felt that while a lot of palaeoart was rigorous in its technique, it was frequently just about dinosaurs and lacking attention to the flora. For this reason, he paints ‘palaeo-landscapes’. He brings the same detective work that a palaeontologist would use in creating a painting of a prehistoric animal, featuring plants reconstructed using the latest evidence from fossils. This process involves putting many clues together.

‘There is always some speculation; nothing is certain since I don’t have a time machine to go back to study the living plants. Also, when plants are fossilised this generally happens only to their detached individual parts such as leaves or stems. Reconstructing them from preserved parts is hard for paleobotanists. My reconstructions are based on research papers that show that plant parts come from the same species by comparing their cuticles and other features. These, and other papers on the general environment at the time, also help me understand the overall plant shape and the ‘biome’ in which the plant lived.’

A view from the shade of some trees over a lake. On the other side appear to be some palms, but on closer inspection, they're ferns.
A prehistoric lakeside in the early Permian period with giant horsetails and Marattialean tree ferns. Painting by Graham Seymour. Painting by Graham Seymour.

Graham combines these fragments and imagination with a foundation in reality.

‘I work in a particular way. With permission from photo libraries and friends, I use pictures of modern landscapes (often tropical and semi tropical environments) and replace the modern plants with plants representative of a particular era. It seems to me that ancient environments were likely to be similar in many cases to modern ones and the flora would be adapted in similar ways to maximise light capture, protection from drought and to fill all available ecological niches.’

‘My paintings are all oil on canvas or oil on board. I try and follow a ‘realistic style’; there are some wonderful hyper-realistic modern landscape painters, such as Michael James Smith, who has been a major source of inspiration to me.’

Having an idea of how a plant looks is not the end of the artistic process. When it comes to the canvas, you need to add context.

The reads closest to the view stand upright. Ahead a river runs to the horizon. On it are the blurred reflections of giant horsetails that arch from one bank across over the other.
Giant Horsetails including Stylocalamites catch the early morning sun in the carboniferous period. Painting by Graham Seymour.

‘This can be very difficult. To be honest, you cannot make any kind of decent painting without following some type of guide for how the light is falling on objects. This is particularly complicated for plants but, on very rare occasions, individual plants or even forests have been discovered preserved in exquisite detail by burial during local volcanic activity – and this is a tremendous help to a modern artist.’

‘Alternatively, you can use modern relatives of ancient plants, for example, using current Horsetails (Equisetum sp.) to try and understand the form of the giant horsetails from the Carboniferous period. Interestingly, the older literature shows giant horsetails from the Carboniferous as looking rather like Christmas trees. Perhaps some did look like this, but recent studies suggest that many species had branching patterns resembling other types of modern trees.’

‘Sometimes it is necessary to make models of the plant you want to paint, based on reconstructions in scientific papers. This is common for artists painting ancient animals. Models really help you see how these plants looked in 3D. Although the models I make are quite crude, they are both helpful and interesting. For example, the Bennettitales (a group of ancient and extinct Gymnosperms) had reproductive organs that looked, in some cases, a lot like Angiosperm flowers and many reconstructions have already been published. Surprisingly, when you make models of these organs you realise how big some of them were. There is actually evidence that they were insect pollinated and so I have depicted many of them as brightly coloured. This is not unreasonable as Gymnosperms can have brightly coloured tissues (think juniper berries, yew arils and some cycad cones). Both the size and colour of these extraordinary ‘flowers’ is not evident from the rather dry images in the literature. When you make the models (I do this so I can then generate more realistic paintings) these possibilities make more sense.’

An overhead view of what would be called flowers, if Bennettitales were angiosperms. The top flower is a light yellow, with a magenta flower to the bottom left and a deep red or orange flower to the bottom right.
Polymer clay models of selected Bennettitalean floral organs and leaves.  Photo Graham Seymour.

Putting together the details to make a plant community in paint can lead to some unexpected places when you start to apply the brush, Graham said.

‘Some paintings work better than others, and I find large scale paintings are the most effective for me. This is probably because I am a little impatient and don’t like spending too much time getting very small details done in a super precise manner. I like the feeling of occasional accidental brush strokes generating exciting and unexpected paint effects. On individual parts of paintings, there can be a feeling of having placed plants correctly with respect to other aspects of the painting based on modern plants, landscapes, and phytogeography.’

‘In one painting, a reproduction of bennettite flowers on a bush in a coastal environment the morphology and ‘look’ of the floral organs seems obviously to point toward insect pollination, but the real impact of this was only apparent as the painting took shape.’

Dr Susannah Lydon, who trained as a paleobotanist and is now an Assistant Professor in Plant Sciences at the University of Nottingham, has cast a critical eye over Graham Seymour’s work. She said, ‘Palaeoart typically focuses on animals, with plants as a backdrop: a necessary feature of the whole composition, but seldom given the same level of attention as dinosaurs or other charismatic tetrapods. This is yet another facet of the wider issue of plant blindness. Additionally, where palaeobotanical reconstructions do exist, they are often intended as diagrammatic illustrations, and there has been a tendency to ‘stick to the facts’. The result of this is whole plant concepts, almost always based on fragmentary material, which are very conservative in nature, lacking even mildly speculative interpretations which are often seen in palaeozoological artwork.’

‘Happily, Graham’s paintings run against these conventions. His pieces are populated with well-researched plants, which are integrated into their landscape without looking forced or artificial. These are not diagrams: they look like living landscapes from deep time. His recent work on bennettites – a Mesozoic group of seed plants in which at least some reproductive structures seem to have been externally insect-pollinated – takes a refreshing approach to plants where reconstructions have tended to be ultra-cautious, particularly with regards to colour.’

‘Graham’s work is part of a new wave of paleoartists who are taking plants seriously, and producing work that is beautiful as well as informed by current palaeobotanical research. It’s fair to say that I am a fan both of his approach and the art that it is yielding.’

This could almost be a painting of a modern rain forest, but the trees look odd. Looking closer, they ave no branches, but instead stand straight up till they crown with many leaves from the top of the stem.
Giant Lepidodendron clubmosses​ tower above a forest at sunset in the​ Late Carboniferous period.​ Painting by Graham Seymour.

With so little attention paid to the plant life of the past, Graham Seymour can create original landscapes while travelling hundreds of millions of years in time. He said, ‘I don’t restrict myself to a particular period. I enjoy the challenge of trying to create a scene that shows the beauty of ancient plants living in their natural environment, well my take on that anyway.’

‘The focus is on dinosaurs in paleoart is understandable. However some reading reveals that the ancient landscapes must have been amazingly beautiful in the same way as those on earth today, but in many cases the plants were rather different, so at first glance they looked similar, but detailed inspection would reveal large differences. Imagine walking through fern prairies or lowland areas by a warm sea with lush groves of bushy Bennettites.’

Graham admits that this is an art project, and he is not a palaeobotanist. But – as he points out – there are so few reconstructions of fossil plant landscapes out there that someone needs to show how amazing so many of them must have looked.

You can see more of Graham’s art at fossilplantart.com.

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