Technology and an Artist's Touch

Illustration of Pops' skull ahead of rebuild

For decades, the fossilized skull of a Triceratops has quietly graced the lobby of Weld County’s administration buildings: first at the Centennial Center in downtown Greeley; then in the new Administration Building at the north edge of town. A very beige case with very beige décor held the very beige display of bones: a vertebra, a rib, a narrow face compressed by tons of earth resting on top of it for millennia; and, a wonky horn that skewed a bit to the left.

This is how Pops the Triceratops (as county employees named it in 1986 after the county accepted donation of the amazing find from the family of Roland “Sonny” Mapelli, who owned the land where Pops was found) has appeared to the public for almost 40 years.

Make no mistake, he looked good. Remember, when the fossil was found in 1982 by Dr. Ken Carpenter, a Sony 19-inch color TV cost $499, a satellite receiver cost $245.95, and the average income per year was $21,050.00. In 1986, when the fossil was donated to the county, the Commodore 64 Computer System debuted (for $399.98) and came with 64K RAM. The point is, Pops looked good given the technology of the day.

When Dr. Joe Sertich, Curator of Dinosaurs for the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, however, came to the Weld County Administration Building in 2018 to look at the fossil, he commented on a few improvements and alterations that needed to be made to more accurately reflect what this specimen would have actually looked like while it was alive, roaming through the lush tropical landscape that was here almost 70+ million years ago.

He could see Pops as he was – and as he should be.

Enter into our story another item of note from the ‘80s – the birth of a boy in a small town of Prokopyevsk, Russia. The small coal mining town in the Siberia province was home to Andrey Atuchin. And like young children everywhere, Atuchin loved dinosaurs.

“One of my first memories connected with dinosaurs was a set of plastic Polish dinosaur toys my sister gave me as a present,” Atuchin said. “She bought it in her school travel in Moscow.”

Finding information about dinosaurs in this remote town, however, was difficult and limited to some rare books and magazine articles about Mongolian dinosaurs and excavations.

“I vaguely remember how I saw the video on the TV in the early-middle eighties about digging out a dinosaur in North America and lifting it up by helicopter,” recalled Atuchin. “The video inspired me to draw a paleontologist [working on] a skeleton excavation and a helicopter nearby.”

So how did Atuchin’s path eventually lead him to being one of the best paleoartists in the world?

Two words: Jurassic Park.

Well, kind of. Obviously, lots of events, experiences and influences came together to lead Atuchin on his journey of paleontology and paleoillustration, but that 1993 Academy Award-winning blockbuster did play a part.

“I remember after the release of the Jurassic Park movie the interest in dinosaurs started to rise rapidly, and plenty of translated foreign books about this theme appeared in bookshops simultaneously,” Atuchin explained, meaning, he finally had more informational resources from which to learn and further explore his interest in the prehistoric world.

“I never sought to become an artist,” he said. “Rather I sought to find, dig, study and reconstruct dinosaurs. I wanted to be a paleontologist, but during my studies at the university, I started to draw scientific illustrations. I depicted contemporary reptiles, amphibians and insects for research papers and books. I illustrated dinosaurs in my spare time.”

The advent and popularity of the internet took Atuchin’s interest and talents world-wide. “In 2004, a London Publisher offered me [a chance] to illustrate an encyclopedia of dinosaurs by Dougal Dixon, as they had seen my artwork on the internet and had been interested,” Atuchin said. “Since that day, I have been working in this field, and it has become my full-time job.”

“I have worked with Andrey as far back as 2012 when he did work for a Tyrannosaur paper I published,” said Dr. Sertich. “Andrey is my go-to guy for any paleo art, and I’ve gotten the other curators hooked on his work as well.”

Atuchin now not only does work regularly for Dr. Sertich but also for the museum’s turtle curator.

“A good relationship is very important since the artist and the paleontologist have to work together so closely to achieve accuracy,” said Dr. Sertich.

Interestingly, though, the part of Atuchin’s job he enjoys the most is not drawing. “I find sculpture more enjoyable. I am a scientist more than an artist … doing all the preparation work is very enjoyable to me,” Atuchin said.

Which is perhaps why the way he has approached his work on the Pops project, in particular, is so interesting. “The most difficult thing is to live so far from the material that I can’t work with it; can’t see it with my own eyes. It’d be a very different experience to touch and explore it,” Atuchin explained.

So, Atuchin has relied on technology to help him take images of the fossil provided by the museum and create a life-like representation of Pops.

“I did simple photogrammetry using many photographs of the skull. Then I corrected some deformations (for example, the crushed horns and the compression on the skull), and also moved parts of the frill a little to get an idea of what it might look like if it [the fossil] was complete,” Atuchin explained. “Based on this, I sculpted the head, added all the soft tissues, muscles, keratin ornaments, beak, and horns. It’s an inspirational work for me. I’m really into reconstructing, correcting deformations, conjecturing a shape of missing bones and so on. Such a satisfaction to me.”

This is the passion that Dr. Sertich appreciates when working with Atuchin. “The world of Pops was much different from modern Weld County. It was a greenhouse world, so the climate was much warmer, probably closer to Louisiana or Mississippi, with warm, wet conditions and lush, green forests,” said Sertich, who went on to add that Pops’ world would have included turtles and crocodiles.

“The Pops project seems so interesting as there is so much more to discover and study about this material,” Atuchin said. “I am grateful I can bring it to life and show everyone the way it looked.”

Sertich agreed. “I hope the new display transports visitors back in time to 69 million years ago, a time when Weld County was a much different place. I also hope they connect with Pops in a much more meaningful way.”

As for the little boy who drew a paleontologist excavating a fossil with a helicopter nearby? Well, that became a reality 30 years later when Atuchin joined Sertich on a dig in North America, where they had to lift a huge dinosaur skeleton out of the area via helicopter. But that’s a story, and a dinosaur, for a different day.

By Jennifer Finch, Weld County Public Information Officer, and photo courtesy of Andrey Atuchin