Old school paleo artist paints the picture of Jurassic life and landscapes for Dinosaur Ridge visitors

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Paleontology themed art, like much of today’s new artwork, is increasingly a human and technological collaboration. The few so-called paleo artists who create art without the aid of digital tools are heading the way of the dinosaurs.

One such renowned museum diorama artist who has specialized in prehistoric backdrops for exhibits at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and numerous other North American institutions celebrated his 81st birthday with knee replacement surgery this year.

Nonetheless, Jan Vriesen continues to fulfill commissions for those who value his talent for imagining the distant past, and hand-painting scenes interpreted by geologists and paleontologists.

Vriesen recently completed a pair of paintings depicting a now-famous fossil quarry as it might’ve looked 150 million years ago, and a nearby scene from the Jurassic Morrison Formation as it likely appeared to the dinosaurs that lived there 145 million years ago. In the scenes, plant life is sparse and shallow waterways attract animals to the flat land that later uplifted to form Colorado’s Rocky Mountains.

Geologist Bob Raynolds hired Vriesen to paint the ancient landscapes as a gift to the nonprofit

Friends of Dinosaur Ridge. That organization formed in 1989 to help preserve the fossiliferous sites that inspired the paintings, and to provide educational programs for children and adults.

“Jan’s time travel paintings convey in a very compelling way how drastically places on Earth have changed,” Raynolds said.

The new paintings will be displayed in the Dinosaur Ridge Martin G. Lockley Discovery Center to show visitors what the area was like when gigantic sauropods and smaller meat-eaters populated the area. Jefferson County Open Space acquired Dinosaur Ridge the same year the Interior Department designated the Morrison Fossil Area National Natural Landmark, in 1973.

Vriesen is a Canadian citizen who emigrated from Germany and lives with his wife and pets in Minnesota. A lucky break in the 1970s led him into this niche profession when another artist quit a project at the Royal British Columbia Museum. From there his reputation grew.

A  son posts Vriesen’s work on a lovely Instagram account and a website Vriesen has nothing to do with maintaining. “I’m a Neanderthal when it comes to computer work,” Vriesen jokes. “I’ve lost jobs to computers because I can’t compete.”

Photo of a painting by artist Jan Vriesen depcting a Jurassic Colorado scene.

This 2023 painting by Jan Vriesen depicts the landscapes near the top of the Jurassic Morrison Formation on Dinosaur Ridge west of Denver, Colorado. Scattered ponds and wetlands occurred on a very low-relief landscape. Giant sauropods seeking food crossed this area leaving deep footprints. Much of their fodder may have been present as charophyte plants growing in the shallow ponds. Age circa 145 million years ago.

About Friends of Dinosaur Ridge
Founded in 1989 to oversee preservation of the natural historic site known as Dinosaur Ridge, and to provide educational programming, the nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization Friends of Dinosaur Ridge exists to manage a seasonally fluctuating paid staff and volunteer pool that serves thousands of visitors annually. In 1937, during the construction of West Alameda Parkway, dinosaur tracks were discovered in the 100-million-year-old rocks on the hogback east of Red Rocks Park & Amphitheatre. In 1973 the National Park Service recognized Dinosaur Ridge for its uniqueness as well as its historical and scientific significance, designating the Morrison Fossil Area National Natural Landmark, now ranked by paleontologists as the #1 dinosaur tracksite in America. Learn more at dinoridge.org and visit any day of the year except New Years, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

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