Want to get close to nature? Draw it

Drawing and painting wildlife can enhance our understanding of the natural world

Do artists and illustrators whose work concentrates on drawing and painting birds, animals and plants have a particular affinity for the natural world?

Do artists and illustrators whose work concentrates on drawing and painting birds, animals and plants have a particular affinity for the natural world?

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The beauty of nature has always inspired artists whether it’s the colours of a sunset or the intricate detail of a flower, seedpod or lichen. But do artists and illustrators whose work concentrates on drawing and painting birds, animals and plants have a particular affinity for the natural world?

Does being a nature artist make you better disposed to protecting the natural world?

Michael O’Clery is a bird and wildlife artist who lives on the Dingle peninsula in Co Kerry. He has illustrated field guides to birds and coffee table books, including The Complete Guide to Ireland’s Birds with Eric Dempsey (Gill&Macmillan).

“I bird watch every day. If I see something I’m interested in, I’ll draw it. Sometimes, I go out [specifically] to draw,” says O’Clery, who started drawing and watching birds as a child.

Nowadays when sketching outdoors O’Clery will work with a telescope, camera and binoculars. “One of the difficulties of drawing birds and wildlife is that they move around, so you’ll often only catch a few lines of how the bird looks as it’s moving.”

O’Clery believes that the drawings of birds in field guides are what often spark off an interest in wildlife. “Most birdwatchers will tell you about one guide that triggered their interest in birds and made them want to see them in real life.”

He also suggests that the best way to conserve birds is to have accessible books raising awareness of where they are and aren’t.

Since moving to the Dingle peninsula in the early 2000s, O’Clery has got involved in conservation work. “I did a lot of volunteer work for the Bird Atlas (2007-2011) and this evolved into paid surveys on barn owls for Birdwatch Ireland surveys, and winter wading birds in Castlemaine harbour for the Marine Institute,” he says.

Heart sinks

“When you become aware of the problems faced by birds and animals you can’t but get involved in conservation work. When I see habitat loss through pollution or gorse fires on the mountains or the plastic washed up on the shores in seaweed my heart sinks.”

Michael Viney, who writes and illustrates the environmental column on this page every week, says that the fascinating forms and gorgeous colours are what drew him to nature – even as a child.

“Drawing and painting outdoors really sharpens the eye and trains the visual memory – if one can ignore the midges of the west,” says Viney.

“In the early years the drawings [for the Another Life column] had to be black and white for reproduction in the paper, and I worked very closely, through a magnifying glass, to create shades and textures with a fine nib and Indian ink.

“When colour came to The Irish Times pages, I enjoyed using soluble watercolour pencils and more recently the brilliant, transparent shades of pencils that draw with soluble ink pigments. Sometimes, best of all, I add their glow to black and white works from years past.”

Killian Mullarney is a bird artist and illustrator based in Co Wexford. He is best known for his illustrations of birds on Irish stamps and in the Collins Bird Guide, a book that has sold over one million copies around the world and has been translated into 20 languages.

A solitary sandpiper by Killian Mullarney
A solitary sandpiper by Killian Mullarney

“My approach to field sketching and drawing is to gain an intimate familiarity with what I’m seeing. I understand what I see through a telescope and record that. Accuracy is important to me.”

Mullarney believes that illustrations of birds communicate better with people than photographs of birds, and that all of this naturally feeds into an awareness of and appreciation for the beauty of nature. Soon about to start work on the third edition of the Collins Bird Guide, Mullarney says that there is always room for improvement in his drawings and paintings.

Lament their loss

“I know the birds so much better now, and for some bird species the males and females and juveniles are different, and they also look different in summer and winter.”

And like many other wildlife artists, he is appalled at how few people care about nature. “I find it frustrating to see how many people don’t care about nature and the importance of what we have. It’s often only when species are gone that people lament their loss.”

Wexford wildlife artist Dave Daly is a member of the Artists for Nature Foundation (artistsfornature.com), an international organisation that draws attention to natural areas under threat by bringing artists there and hosting exhibitions of their work afterwards.

Daly has visited landscapes under threat in countries including Poland, Israel and Spain. “We visited the Biebrza marshlands in northeast Poland in the 1990s, and two years later vast areas of the marshland was designated a reserve.”

As part of a group of international artists, Daly also visited the Hula Valley in Israel to draw attention to its importance as a migratory route for birds. “Over 500 million birds pass through it on their way north to Europe,” he says.

Funding for these trips comes from international bird and wildlife organisations, including the World Wildlife Fund.

As well as his painting and illustration work, Daly works as a warden for the tern colony on Lady’s Island in Wexford. “It’s a great opportunity to be there. I think we really don’t appreciate how important Ireland is for its population of wintering wildfowl and waders. I feel that spending such a lot of time in the field with telescope and sketch books, you become close to what wildlife depends on and take up the mantle of protecting their habitats.”

Stung by a nettle

He believes that this generation of children have lost a lot by not being outdoors and engaged with the natural world. “I often ask ‘when is the last time a child was stung by a nettle?’ to get a sense of whether children are outside or not.”

Gordon D’Arcy is an environmentalist, artist and educator who has written wildlife books for children, and encourages children to draw and paint from nature.

During field trips he encourages children to become nature detectives, asking questions (and receiving answers) about what they encounter. This is usually followed by an indoor session on science and art based on their findings. His book, NarTure (2010) is a nature/art manual for primary schools based on his experience working in primary schools for over 25 years.

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