Faculty of Animation, Arts & Design
Degree: Bachelor of Illustration
Year of graduation: 2012
Drawing dinos: How Danielle Dufault’s illustration degree started a science career
Danielle Dufault was eight years old the first time she visited the Royal Ontario Museum
(ROM) in Toronto and laid eyes on the imposing dinosaur skeletons in its galleries. Fifteen years later, she went back – this time, to join scientists as an Illustration student on a co-op placement. It was the beginning of her career as a Research Assistant and Technical Illustrator whose job it is to re-create life on Earth as it was millions of years ago. Her work is now published in some of paleontology’s leading publications, and she gets the chance to join the scientists in the field – in 2014 and 2015 she helped excavate a triceratops in South Dakota.
Dufault feels lucky to have landed a job she only dreamed of as a child, when she spent hours exploring the rugged outdoors around her northeastern home. “Our town was situated in a valley … that was my backyard,” she explains. “For entertainment, it was go outside and play, I really did love that. I spent most of my time trying to find cool bugs and I’d keep them for a while and try and see how I could take care of them.”
As Dufault grew older, she began following scientific news and reading about paleontology. Her love of science was matched only by her passion for art, cultivated while filling notebooks with sketches. When she discovered she could focus on scientific and technical drawing at Sheridan, she knew she’d found the right path. Suddenly, she found herself working on illustrations that showed how rabbit skulls fit together, for example. “The teachers I had were wonderful,” she recalls. “They knew I wanted to work on the scientific side, so they allowed me to work on scientific projects.”
At Sheridan, Dufault learned to observe detail in anatomical drawings, so when she was drawing the human body, she would study muscle groups. “Even today I used those skills a lot, mostly with vertebrates, mostly with dinosaurs,” she says. During her third year, she learned about a co-op placement illustrating at the ROM, and she knew exactly what to do with her career. “As soon as I knew this was an available co-op …I had to reach for it,” she remembers.
But she wasn’t content to end her involvement with the museum after co-op. During her final year, she illustrated a fossil of a duck-billed dinosaur for her thesis project. After graduation, she took on a few contracts at the ROM before landing a permanent, full-time gig. Today, she works closely with some of the top paleontologists in the field to create illustrations that accompany their work in scholarly papers. She investigates how the animal may have looked millions of years ago by comparing their habitat with what exists today. That helps her infer what might be missing from a bone or skeleton, or informs what kind of colour she should use. So an animal that may have been prey will be soft brown, but a dinosaur with showy frills and horns may have a bright pattern. She says it’s always fun to imagine these creatures in habitats that have long since disappeared.
One of the best parts of her job is the chance to find those species in their final resting places. This summer, Dufault is going to southern Alberta to work on a dig. She’ll spend her nights in a tent, and her days in the blistering sun shovelling, cleaning around the bones, and then wrapping them in plaster and burlap so they can be transported back to the lab. “It’s a lot of work, and it’s really tiring but it’s rewarding. I love it so much. … I would do anything to hold on to what I have today. It brings me so much joy.”