Monday, June 11, 2012

Nature Speaks III: Illustrations (or: Passionate Objectivity)

My last post was all about creating abstract art from nature, and how abstracts can convey emotions inspired by the natural world. Today, I'll address the same idea, but focusing on the genre of natural history illustration.

"Great Blue Heron Taking Off" - Gouache on Paper - © Anna Bronwyn Foley, 2012

Of the types of art I create, natural history illustration is - at least on its surface - the most detatched and unemotional, so it may seem odd at first to devote a post here to the idea of emotion in these illustrations. But in fact there is a definite emotive component to these paintings, however subtle it may be. Take, for example, the painting above. It illustrates a species, the Great Blue Heron, and is suitably detailed to serve as a guide for identification - a pretty objective start. But for me, the way this bird is depicted is decidedly expressive. The sight of a large, long-necked, leggy bird flapping himself up off the ground always strikes me as a small miracle, so it was with a sense of wonder that I created this painting. He turned out to have a determined look in the pitch of his head and the angle of his wings, which seemed particularly appropriate!

"Eastern Indigo Snake" - Gouache on Paper - © Anna Bronwyn Foley, 2012
This painting of an Eastern Indigo Snake, on the other hand, displays much less of a sense of exertion. The snake is coiled gently (I despise the myth of the vicious, bloodthirsty snake, so I would not have this one poised to strike), and his head is raised in an attitude of knowing observation. Snakes are patient, powerful and generally sensible. I would say this one conveys those qualities in a way that we (as artist and viewer) can empathize.

I love composing an illustration, and working out how best to illustrate not just the visible adaptations of the species, but also capturing its behaviors and attitudes, so the painting allows us to truly connect with the subject. The image below:

"White-breasted Nuthatch" - Gouache on Paper - © Anna Bronwyn Foley, 2012
... is a typical enough one, for those who have seen nuthatches hopping about in trees. They regularly perch upside-down, which is an interesting quirk on its own. For me, though, this instinctive behavior is inspiring. Seeing a little bird naturally crane his neck to look up at the world, when other birds look down on it, reminds me to keep a fresh perspective, and to always try to see things from different angles. That's a great lesson for an artist, as it is for anyone, and like so many life lessons, it's one easily taken from nature.

Natural history illustrations may not be the most obvious vehicle for sharing sentiment, but they would be vacant facsimiles without it. I take a great deal of joy in rendering a detailed, accurate image that also conveys an emotional experience to the viewer. It's not always an easy task, but it is always rewarding!

Thank you for reading along in this series. I hope it gives you a feel (pun intended) for the emotional component of each piece of art I create, whichever genre it may be: Landscape, Abstract, or Illustration.


  1. I hadn't thought of snakes as patient and sensible creatures, but I guess now that you point it out.... =)


  2. I expect that's an observation that would be hard to make if you haven't had the good fortune to become well acquainted with quite a lot of snakes, as I have. Not that I haven't known snakes who were neither patient nor sensible, mind you, but it does seem to be true of most. :)