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Museum Employee and Professional Artist David Miller Brings Prehistoric Creatures to Life

David Miller works on a drawing in his workshop in the basement of Whatcom Museum on Tuesday, December 4th.

On a Thursday afternoon in October David Miller, Whatcom Museum’s Preparator, sat at his desk in the attic of Old City Hall and thumbed through the many binders full of his old paintings.

He was in search of a piece he had created many years ago. With each turned page he uncovered a new prehistoric creature like some sort of artistic archeologist. Every so often he would come across a work that piqued his interest and he would make a quick comment or two about its history.

Finally, he came across the piece he was looking for. It depicted the prehistoric flying beast Quetzalcoatlus as it soared above a North American forest millions of years ago. The piece, titled Quetzalcoatlus after the creature it depicts, was notable because one block away a reproduction was on display at the Lightcatcher building as part of the Museum’s exhibition Endangered Species: Artists on the Frontline of Biodiversity.

“I think it’s an effective drawing. The forced perspective re ally shows you the immensity of the creature,” Miller said as he mused over the piece. Getting the immensity of the creature was essential. Quetzalcoatlus, with an imposing 52-foot wingspan, was the largest flying animal to ever exist, after all.

Miller originally painted Quetzalcoatlus in 2002 for a book on Pterosaurs. The painting ultimately didn’t get published, however. In 2004 he took the piece to the Paleo Art Show at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, and the piece was awarded Best 2D Artwork.

Quetzalcoatlus isn’t Miller’s only painting depicting a dinosaur. In fact, much of his career as a professional artist has been centered around creating scientifically-accurate depictions of prehistoric animals.

His interest in painting prehistoric animals goes back to his childhood, he said. When he was younger he used to draw dinosaurs and World War II fighter planes. After high school he attended Montserrat School of Visual Art in Beverly, Massachusetts and the Art Student’s League.

“When I was in school I thought I was going to be a so-called fine artist,” Miller said. “But I quickly discovered that I didn’t have much to say and there were people that were better that could say what had to be said better. So, I wanted to serve science as an illustrator.”

His first step into the world of prehistoric painting began after he found an anthology on vertebrate paleontology. The book described the taxonomy of different animals and showed illustrations of their skeletons. Miller said he was interested by the “very strange” prehistoric fish he saw and took a shot at painting them. A lucky phone call led to these paintings being included in a book called Discovering Fossil Fishes published in 1995 by John Maisey. After that, everything else fell into place.

Miller said he makes scientific accuracy his primary goal. In this genre of work, it is everything, he said.

To illustrate his point, Miller recounted the story of a painting he created for the Florida Museum of Natural History in 2004. The museum had flown him to Florida and made him go snorkeling in the underwater environment he would be painting. Afterwards he spent many hours working with an expert on mollusks to make sure every detail of his painting was correct.

“The level of accuracy was exacting,” Miller said. “Everything had to be right. I can’t tell you how many scans I sent to him and how many times they came back with red ink.”

In 1992 he moved to Bellingham with his wife. In 1993, Miller started working with the Whatcom Museum after he noticed the Whatcom Children’s Museum was putting on a dinosaur exhibit. He offered to paint a dinosaur for the exhibit.

The Museum continued hiring him for projects over the years, including two massive 80-foot murals. One, created in 2001, depicted African, Asian, and American rainforests, and the other, created in 2006, depicted marine and harbor habitats.

In 2012 he was hired full-time as the Museum Preparator. In this position he engages in a wide variety of tasks, from hanging and displaying artwork for exhibitions, to creating object mounts, to painting backgrounds and scenery, to lighting artwork and displays.

“[The most satisfying part of the job is] being alone in the shop working on a project that I helped conceived of or am really passionate about that takes problem-solving skills and attention to detail,” Miller said. “To me, I can’t think of a better job. If I’m not painting, I’d rather be doing something like that.”

Miller still spends a considerable amount of his personal time drawing but doesn’t currently do contract work. He said he doesn’t have the time for it. After he finished looking at one of his older paintings, he grabbed another binder from the corner of his desk and cracked it open.

“I just seem to keep having to draw,” Miller said as he pulled out his newest drawing from the binder. “I miss those days where you get in the car going out to FedEx, and in the back of your car is a painting that you’re going to send out and get paid for. I miss those days.”

This article was originally published on the Whatcom Museum's blog. It can be found here.