Profile of Robert Walters

Robert Walters is waiting to hear from China. He's been tapped to go on a scientific expedition to the fossil fields to the far northwest of Nanjing. These are some of the hottest paleontological sites in the world today, source of the so-called "feathered therapod" and hundreds of other exciting and sometimes controversial finds, and Bob is going to be the expedition's artist. Everything is set. The Academy of Natural Sciences wants him on their team. The people from the PBS series Nova, also involved, are completely sold on him. The only thing lacking is permission from the Chinese government.

And so he waits.

I am sitting in the studio of Walters and Kissinger, which is Bob's illustration, graphics, and exhibition work firm. Set off at the end of a long grassy courtyard in the heart of Philadelphia's Art Museum district, the studio is an intellectual playground. Work sketches are heaped knee-high on the Orientals. Open on a table are proofs for a new book, with Robert Walters' cover and interiors, including a spectacular two-page spread of a Giganotosaurus attacking a Rebbachisaurus.

Scattered about are professional-caliber reproductions of dino footprints, claws, teeth, skulls. And fossils: A mastodon tooth, a scute - bit of armor plate - from a late Cretaceous crocodile, bones from a juvenile duckbill. A plastic gladius, or Roman short sword, leans against a shelf of art books - Vergil Finlay, Rembrandt, Kelly Freas, Caravaggio, Wally Wood, all his heroes, with places of honor for Charles Knight and Chesley Bonestell. A gorilla mask partially obscures a model Disney Moon Liner.

This is definitely Neat Stuff Central. To one end of the studio's ground floor is am empty space that until recently contained a life-size cast of a Giganotosaurus skull, which Bob was holding as a favor to its owners. The Giganotosaurus is the largest carnivorous dinosaur yet discovered, acing out T. rex, and Bob was the first artist to paint an accurate life restoration of it. He also snapped a photo of my fourteen-year-old son, Sean, standing in front of the skull holding a Mannlicher-Carcano rifle, as if posing for a trophy shot.

There's no question but Uncle Bob is way cooler than my kid's old man can ever hope to be. Up on the wall is the original of an Analog cover, showing an Australopithecus holding a human baby. Sean posed for the baby when he was only a few months old. Bob cast himself as the hominid. Down below the picture is the croquet set we gave as a studio-warming present. Bob immediately challenged Sean to an indoor game, mallets flashing and wooden balls bouncing wildly off the walls and sailing gracefully down the stairs.

Robert Walters is a magician, and like any true magician he works hard. One wall is thronged with his black-and-white illos: alien robots, a Stephen King haunted house, a beautiful and spooky street magician, gargoyles, spaceships, all in his crisp, convincing, and instantly recognizable line. Facing it is his color work: A portrait-cover of L. Sprague de Camp as a time-traveling hunter. Flying monsters for a Robert Silverberg Playboy story. Dirigibles. Giant ants. And dinosaurs - above all, dinosaurs. There are maybe ten people alive today who can draw dinosaurs well, and Bob is at least three of them.

Things are hopping. The firm of Walters and Kissinger does most of its work for museums these days and that requires a great deal of coordinating. As we talk, Tess Kissinger - Bob's partner, fellow artist, and indispensable other half - fields phone calls and e-mails, sends out faxes, handles a dozen business decisions.

"This is the golden age of dinosaur art. A new species of dinosaur is discovered every seven weeks," Bob says. "How could anybody not want to be a part of this?"

I ask him to walk me through what it takes to make a museum-grade illustration.

The process is exacting. First he gathers information by examining the original specimens or casts of the fossils and conferring with the paleontologists involved in their study. From which he creates an articulated skeletal drawing. Next he examines the bones for muscle scars - marks showing the extension and insertion of the major muscle groups - and makes a muscle drawing. After which he finally draws a version with the skin, referring when possible to fossil skin samples and, when not, to contemporary reptiles, to get the best idea of its texture. At each step, the drawings are shown to the scientists doing the original work to get their corrections and criticisms.

Finally, he transfers the black and white composition to hot press watercolor paper or onto illustration board and adds color. Here there is no fossil evidence. "Plaid and racing stripes are probably wrong. I feel it's best to use modern reptiles and birds as models, since dinos are still classified under Reptilia and birds are most likely - though that's not the done deal you've probably heard about; there are quite a lot of interesting arguments going on now - descended from dinosaurs."

In a process unchanged from the Middle Ages, Walters begins with a monochrome underpainting in a great deal of detail, some cool monochrome, and some warm.

He then applies a series of washes onto each area of the painting, building up thin layers of color. Rather than being reflected off the surface, light passes through the pigment and comes back out like light passing through a stained glass window. This is responsible for the luminous quality of his work. Opaque highlights rivet the viewer's gaze exactly where he wants it.

This meticulous craftsmanship is the reason why his art can be seen in the Smithsonian, American Museum of Natural History, the Carnegie, and other great science museums. It is also the reason why he has been on deadline since before I met him, working over weekends and through the night, driving himself to exhaustion sometimes, to ensure that the delivered work is accurate, professional, and above all, On Time. Though back then, nearly twenty years ago, when we were younger, scruffier, and living a lot closer to the street, he was working the SF side of illustration: "I was happy to be part of a mini-renaissance of science fiction art in the 1980s. Michael Whelan, Bob Eggleton, Janet Aulisio, any number of terrific people were coming into the field then. There was a magazine renaissance going on too, then - Asimov's, Amazing, Omni, lots of magazines, lots of great fiction, and they all needed illustrations. I mean, this was just it."

The conversation turns to his web site (; check it out), and then to his animation work in PBS's Dinosaurs: Creatures of Time. Which leads Bob to a discussion of Ray Harryhausen, E.E. "Doc" Smith, the British Empire, Roman military tactics, and the relations between the Sioux and the Navaho and Zuni peoples, all in one dizzyingly coherent argument.

It is wonderful how easily and repeatedly the subject moves away from Robert Walters. Bob has a quick and lively enthusiasm for science and literature - for, in fact, the inner life of the world of ideas. Which is why, as we talk, he occasionally picks up his drum sticks and nervously beats out a few breaks on the electronic drum pad he keeps by his drawing board. It is why his career has taken the trajectory it has, first to science fiction, and then to science proper. It is why he waits so anxiously to hear about the expedition, despite assurances that it will be hot, dry, dusty, primitive, and above all uncomfortable. He wants to be out where Chinese scientists are making paleontological history. Where the discoveries are being made. He wants to be where it's happening.

The phone rings. It's the people from PBS. They've heard from China at last.

Robert Walters smiles.

© 1998 by Michael Swanwick; first appeared in Science Fiction Age.

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