Earlham grad finds his calling in paleoart and museums

Pryoraptors in a swamp. Art by Corbin Rainbolt, Class of 2020.

One day in his first-year seminar, Corbin Rainbolt left a sketch laying on his desk. When his instructor, Ann-Eliza Lewis, Joseph Moore Museum’s Collections Manager, saw it, she asked Rainbolt if he had thought about applying to work at the museum. Lewis had spotted the potential of his talent.

“That’s when I put in my application,” Rainbolt says. “I applied that summer and started working there the fall semester of my sophomore year.”

Rainbolt, a 2020 graduate, was a comparative languages and linguistics major and art minor. Before attending Earlham, he made art as it came to mind, or for class. “Earlham gave me a space to explore what I wanted to do with artwork,” he says. “My art minor had a lot of requirements that made me step outside of my comfort zone and try out new mediums.”

When he started working at Joseph Moore Museum (JMM), his art became more specific. “I spent a lot of time in the museum because everyone was working together on the remodel of the Pleistocene exhibit,” Rainbolt says. “Working at JMM was my main extracurricular activity while I was at Earlham. It was also one of my only exposures to paleontology.”

He contributed to the new exhibit by painting the signage for it. “I’m very proud of the two allosaurus paintings I made for the museum,” Rainbolt says. “One is an allosaurus as we thought of it when it was found. It’s this big scaly green Godzilla-looking monster,” he continues. “The other was an allosaurus as we think of it today.”

“Earlham gave me a space to explore what I wanted to do with artwork. My art minor had a lot of requirements that made me step outside of my comfort zone and try out new mediums.”

Corbin Rainbolt, Class of 2020

In fact, determining how to artistically represent prehistoric life, also known as paleoart, can take a lot of work before Rainbolt starts a piece. “Research is very important,” Rainbolt says. “Sometimes you’ll have an animal you’ve drawn before so you know quite a bit about it. But even then, you need to practice drawing it from different angles.”

In addition to research, Rainbolt also says that paleoart builds on the work of others. “There’s no way to make paleoart in a vacuum without referring to the work that other people have done before, and looking at modern analog that you think might look good on a dinosaur or prehistoric animal.”

A decaying Albertosaurus. Art by Corbin Rainbolt, Class of 2020.

While Rainbolt seems to have found his niche, paleoart wasn’t something that he’d considered before, or even thought of as a possibility. “I saw paleoart in the books I read growing up, but I don’t think I put two and two together that it was something I could do,” he explains.

Rainbolt was the teaching assistant for Earlham’s off-campus study program in France before it was cut short by the coronavirus pandemic. He switched from being a TA to being the language assistant in Earlham’s French Department instead. “I helped with the class doing extracurricular activities like French table, and if students need help, I offered tutoring.”

That change of plans was also what gave him the time to develop his paleoart into a business. “I had a lot of time spent inside during the pandemic, so I started putting the skills I learned at Earlham into practice and tried my hand at freelancing.”

Since beginning as a freelance artist, Rainbolt has made 32 pieces of art; 15 are paid commissions and the 17 others he’s painted for himself — for research papers, museums or a paleoart book he is contributing to. Most of his pieces are for people who really like dinosaurs and want unique, accurate pieces in their homes.

While Rainbolt is careful to make his pieces accurate, he sees his art as being very stylized. “The difference is in the lighting and the way that I texture the work,” he explains. “It feels a little bit exaggerated, emphasizing what we see in the real world. Shadows are more blue, highlights are more orange.”

Rainbolt has a big commission coming up for the Western Science Center in California, which will depict extinct species of horses. He was pleased with that commission. “Because of what’s popular and what people ask me to work on, it tends to be dinosaurs,” Rainbolt says, “but, prehistoric mammals might be my favorite.

“Without my work at Joseph Moore Museum and Ann-Eliza’s help I would have never considered paleoart as a path to follow.”

Editor’s note: This story was written by Somer Eckert, Class of 2017.

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