Reviving the Past Through Illustration

How did you get started in illustration? I think of myself as a born illustrator, drawing since I was old enough to hold a crayon. My art has always been primarily fueled by my love of nature and living things—an obsession that has proven to be inescapable. Growing up in the northern Midwest, my exposure to fine art was mostly on the traditional and practical side with a lot of pastoral influence. So understandably, my heroes were—and still are—wildlife artists. I endeavored to improve my traditional skills as much as I could to emulate them and to better depict the creatures I so loved.

I was lucky that my parents encouraged me at every opportunity. In the absence of much art instruction at our local schools, they even found a local professional wildlife artist nearly my grandfather’s age who took me on as a student on weekends. He taught me the way he was taught in all the basics of traditional, representational art: values, color, light, composition, materials and a broad range of media. He introduced me to the work of the golden age illustrators, who greatly influenced my work and many of whom died before I was even born. By the time I decided to commit to illustration as a profession and attended the Rhode Island School of Design, I had already developed considerable proficiency for someone my age—as well as very obvious preferences in subject matter.

What intrigued you about capturing natural history and biology and biology in your illustrations? Was it challenging to commit to a specialization? For me, the challenge would have been to do literally anything else. I am just a big nerd at heart. I have always been a voracious learner, excelled in most subjects, and pursued a lot of advanced biology and science in high school, which just gave me a deeper understanding of the living things I most enjoyed depicting. I had a hard time deciding between art and science as a direction for my life—I really clicked with natural science, and it is always there in the background as something I understand, love and really value. I like to be informed. I am proactive about my curiosities. I like learning new things, and I am comfortable with rules. So, I make science-based art. Striving for accuracy as well as beauty and naturalism gives me structure in a fundamentally unstructured profession.

It was the most natural thing in the world for me to end up working with the content that I do, though I wouldn’t call it a professional advantage. It has, however, given me a constant north star to follow, leading me to opportunities I wouldn’t have known existed. By creating art in service of natural science, I am able to get involved in everything that interests me. I get to stick my nose in a bunch of fun and fascinating stuff I am not necessarily qualified for on paper.

What do you do in your capacity as principal artist and muralist at Minneapolis-based design firm Blue Rhino Studio? Most of my work could be characterized as science, history and natural-history interpretation. We create visual tools that help educators, scientists and institutions to tell their stories. Sometimes that means working directly with clients to design interpretive displays from rough concept forward; sometimes it’s brainstorming with my colleagues, art directing for scientific accuracy or researching to ensure we are as “correct” as we can be. Sometimes it’s creating very specific pieces of 2-D or 3-D artwork that are parts of a larger complex project in production across multiple subcontractors around the world. Surprisingly, I also do a lot of sculpting and finish work with a lot of different media and materials in addition to designing and illustrating various 2-D artworks that are called for in any given project. It’s a small company—only twelve people at the moment—so we all have to “wear a lot of hats.”

You frequently create illustrations that reconstruct and visualize how extinct animals looked. What challenges do you face working in this field? Since this kind of work tries to create something that we know actually existed, I have to approach it almost like a journalist might—starting with the five Ws: who, what, where, when and why. Because of that element of reality, information is out there that directly applies to what I’m trying to do, and I need to try and find it first. That adds time throughout the process for researching—more than your average artistic endeavor might call for. Sometimes it means even reaching out to a leading scientist or paleontologist to ask a question that hasn’t been addressed before.

If the image actually needs to match objective reality—whether scientifically, historically or representationally—the only way to do that is still through the power of a human mind with human judgment.”

Your clients range from publications like Scientific American and National Geographic to cultural institutions like the Royal Alberta Museum and the Field Museum to creating coins and medals for the United States Mint. Do you find your process changing at all when working with different clients? I actually think my process remains remarkably consistent across all my various projects. I like to approach my work from a place of being informed first. Everything starts with research on the content, so I can feel confident in the details when I get there. Some projects have more of an emphasis on design and aesthetic virtues—like the coins—so I may be more organic in my thinking but will still have a good solid reason to depict things the way I do. Ultimately, the science or history is the scaffolding the art is built on, whether it is for a coin, a magazine or a museum.

The process adapts most obviously with the size and purpose of the final product, and mostly during the execution, not the concept. A 60-foot long mural at print dimension requires a good deal more effort, detail and time in production than a 1.5-inch coin. Museum murals also have their own “rules” having to do with the placement of the horizon line, perspective and relative scale. Coins have specific design requirements that have to do with production processes, scaling and required inscriptions.

What have been some of your favorite projects you’ve worked on, and what have you learned from them? My favorite projects are usually the ones I get to learn from the most, like depicting an animal, environment or time period I am not already familiar with. Recently, I got the opportunity to work on a large, complex scene involving cretaceous pterosaurs in a large coastal nesting creche for the new Edelman Fossil Park Museum. Pterosaurs are such strange animals; it was fascinating to learn more about how they are built and how they would move. I consulted with some experts in the field as well in real time—shout-out to Michael Habib—and that really helped my reconstructions.

Other favorite projects are those that challenge me, like a modestly sized scene for the traveling exhibit Sue: the T.rex Experience. I was required to cram 32 specifically identifiable species into the scene, including very large dinosaurs like tyrannosaurus, triceratops and edmontosaurus; little tiny dragonflies and salamanders; and creatures partially visible underwater, like the gharial-like champsosaurus.

What media do you work in, and what do you like about it?  I began my art journey working with traditional media, mostly in acrylic paint. And, for the first part of my career, things were still done the old-school way, on massive rolls of canvas with real paint. Over the last ten years or so, the industry has shifted to all digital and I have as well, though I’ve made a special effort of attempting to make my digital work replicate the look and feel of my traditional media. Usually, clients can’t tell the different between the old painted work and the new digitally painted pieces.

I enjoy digital for so many reasons, not least of which is that it is physically a lot easier on me—way less ladders and heavy lifting. It also gives me the power to endlessly change my mind and still retain previous iterations or make big changes effortlessly. This is both a blessing and a curse to anyone who knows better.

Where do think the field of illustration is going? I see the industry at an important crossroads with potentially dark times ahead. With the proliferation of AI-generated images (beyond the obvious ethical and legal issues) at least in my neck of the woods—interpreting science, nature, history and “objective reality”—artificial images masquerading as reality are already cracking the foundations of learning and education. I see it everywhere from paleo art to “professional” wildlife photography; even the birdwatching community keeps seeing “photos” posted asking for identifications, and the answer is just “does not exist.” The number of people who cannot discern the falsity of these images is also alarming.

On the other hand, this phenomenon makes the value of an educated image maker, with the power of real logical discernment, perhaps more essential—at least for a select and small group of clientele. If the image actually needs to match objective reality—whether scientifically, historically or representationally—the only way to do that is still through the power of a human mind with human judgment. Technical accuracy is not something an AI will be able to guarantee when they are trained on mass knowledge as well as mass fallibility. Hopefully, that will remain the case for a while longer.

Do you have any advice for people just entering the profession? In the era we are entering, where a machine can make objectively beautiful but empty images in seconds, it will be more important than ever to develop mental and conceptual skills. Art that actually communicates on a human level could be the best way forward. Consider cultivating interests beyond “makin’ stuff look cool.” Wielding the power of meaningful symbolism and narrative or accurate research for representational images may come to be more important than polished execution. ca

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