Clémence DuPont: The history of the Earth in 8 magnificent meters

SCIENTIFIC INQUIRER: The subject of life on earth is such a broad and expansive subject. What possessed you to try and tackle it and in “brief” form no less?

CLEMENCE DUPONT: I’ve always been fascinated by the passing of time and history — the history of the Earth, the history of humanity, and everything that has a link to history or space. Dinosaurs are a popular theme now, which makes me feel very lucky.

For me, making a book about the history of the Earth is similar to telling a travel story.

It allowed me to give way to two of my passions: history and the passing of time, to give the reader the feeling of going ‘through’ time. The French title is “La grande expédition”, ”The great expedition”, which incites the reader to travel; the English publisher chose another translation, which make it sounds more educational.

I’m not a scientist, although I am passionate about the subjects I tackle. When I was very young, and when I was bored, my parents would sit me in front of documentary videos about these subjects. They fascinated me, and so I watched a lot of them, and later it led me to learn as much as I could about paleontology. I went and tried to find as much as I could about what they said, from books or from the internet. I filled sketchbooks with notes and doodles about subjects like these, especially for ‘A brief history of life on Earth’

My book might seem brief and concise but for me it is one drawing with a length of 8 meters. One of the challenges of writing and illustrating the book was showing the passage of time, which I chose to represent and break into eons, periods, and epochs, covering smaller and smaller time frames. I tried to represent the history of life, which is why I mostly skipped the precambrian times, and kept them for narration purposes. I was mostly interested in showing plants and animals drawings.

SI: How did you decide which organisms and events to include?

CD: I chose which organisms and events to include by period, with the primary intention of showing the apparition of life and how it has persisted.

I wanted to make a link with what happens nowadays, and allow the children to make comparisons about how quickly humans can threaten the ecosystem, how fast biodiversity is diminishing, and how slowly even “fast” happening mass extinctions were in comparison. Geological time is very slow compared to our instantaneous “now”.

I went from using one two-page spread pages per eon, then per period, then per epoch, as the reader travels closer to our times. I’ve taken the liberty of breaking that rule for the mesozoic era so I could draw more dinosaurs, because I loooooooooove them. I also had at heart to show not only dinos, but also mammal-like reptiles (synapsids) of the Permian period and the giant mammals of the Paleogene period.

SI: You not only wrote the book, you also illustrated it. Normally, science related books lean toward realism when it comes to visuals, whether it’s in the form of illustrations or photographs. They often have a textbook feel. Your illustrations are almost Impressionist in appearance. What was behind this decision?

CD: I actually mostly work as a children’s books illustrator. I have a colourful, less detailed drawing style that pleases children.

I also wanted to make a book that would spark interests, and not to keep people away because of pictures that would be too realistic or too scientific. I wanted to have a little bit of both with big drawings that made the reader travel over 4.5 billion years. With this format of image, I found it better not to draw in a scientific or photorealistic manner.

I used works from both paleoartists and scientific facts as references, which I drew in my own manner. I have gone through a lot of work to make my dinosaurs quite accurate for children books illustrations, even though some errors still passed through my nets.

As such, this book was made for both children and adults, and the ones that come to signings often mention how much they learnt from it.

SI: The color pallet of A Brief History of Life on Earth stands out. How did you decide what colors you would utilize?

CD: It’s a color pallet I made for myself with about 20 colors in it. It’s made mostly of pastels, with a predominant cast of contrasted colors. The complementary colors of the book were blue and orange, which is an association I like a lot.

The use of this pallet allowed me to show the continuous nature of the travel I wanted to represent, adding touches of neutrality and softness to the passing of time.

The book begins with times where climate was more violent, and I tried to represent this with contrasted colors: brown, orange, black, purple. As climate grew milder, I used pastel tones to show that times were quieter.

Using a fixed pallet reduced the realism of the drawings in a liberating way: it allowed me to present a contrapoint to what I see as being the usual representation of dinosaurs, which is huge, awesome monsters. I drew them as what we think they are now : less monstrous, with more color, and looking more like animals . Also, I really like drawing cute animals and funny dinosaurs!

SI: You managed to distill long and often complicated descriptions into concise explanations. Was this difficult?

CD: I have something at heart when I make books for children, and that is never to take them for idiots.

I try not to synthesize information too much, and that is one of the reasons why I have left a lot of open doors into my writing. Another reason is that there are competing explanations for passed events, and there are still unknowns about the past.

For instance, the Cretaceous mass extinction is often told to have been caused by a meteorite. I am of the opinion that animals may become unviable in a given ecosystem if they survive for too long. In the end, I represented each extinction with a giant volcano, even if it had no link to volcanic activity.

I find it important for children to know what has happened, or how we don’t know exactly what has happened, without taking too many shortcuts. They learn very quickly and often very eager to point out what they know. This is also why I chose to keep the real names of the animals and events. I tried to make it a game where they could try and name the animals I have drawn. I find it very important to name things correctly.

SI: Another striking aspect of your book is the way the pages fold out. It’s a particularly elegant way of illustrating the time scale you describe in the book. How did you come up with this idea?

CD: I found that was the best type of format to describe the sensation of travel through history I wanted to give. It allowed me to join 18 pictures into one eight meters long picture, which I must point out is the length of a triceratops, my favourite dinosaur.

The publishing house with which I worked for this book, L’Agrume, is also very attached to object books, which made it possible to make it as I wanted it to be. I’ve always felt constricted by frames or sheet size when drawing… During my art studies, I found out the leporello format allowed me to work with a loosened relation between text and drawing in a liberating way, which is why I like this format so much.

This and I feel proud of having drawn 8 meters of book.

SI: Finally, what is next on your plate?

CD: As of now I am working on another book with the same publishing house. This one will be read vertically, describing the travel through Earth’s atmosphere, going from the ground to space and from the ground to the center of the earth. I’m also making a documentary book for another French publishing house and I’m planning on doing a new book on dinosaurs soon!

For more information about Clémence DuPont and her book, A Brief History of Life on Earth, visit her Tumblr, Facebook, or Instagram page.

IMAGE SOURCE: Clémence DuPont

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