Part of this month’s theme on illustration and wildlife, and in particular wildlife conservation…
Illustration, by definition, always has a ‘purpose’, to illustrate something, to make a point or get a message across. Beautiful photo-real paintings of African lions can still make us stop in our tracks, be impressed by or have an emotive reaction, but generally they are seen as ‘art’ rather than ‘illustration’. These days, illustration falls in the graphic design camp, and tends to always be working for its place in our visual world – it has a reason other than the image itself to exist, and thats why it can work so well with conservation, it can help to serve its cause.
The early days of wildlife illustration
Before the days of photography, high definition video cameras and smart phones, wildlife especially from far away places, was seen by people through the form of illustration. Some of the early explorers (including Alfred Russell Wallace and Charles Darwin) lugged books, papers, inks and paints through jungles and up rivers in search of new species to observe and illustrate.
Illustrations by Mark Catesby and Maria Sibylla Merian:
The books of these illustrators became ‘bibles’ of the natural world, some becoming huge encyclopaedias of the current state of nature. It helped develop ideas and theories on the natural world, that form the basis of our modern-day science. Sketching the beaks of the finches is what gave rise to Darwin’s theories:
These days, those illustration give us an insight into the views and contemporary understanding of the Victorian era, and shows how science has developed. So in that sense it helps with conservation today – it gives us early accounts, illustrations of species that no longer exist (like the dodo) and ideas of how the natural world has changed over the centuries.
Wildlife illustration today
Now that we have such amazing camera and film-making technology, the role of illustration has changed from what it was in Victorian times. It is no longer the primary image-making tool for recording the world around us, but has developed instead in to one of interpretation and interaction. I don’t think this in anyway makes illustration less important. In fact I think in an image-overloaded world, illustration is there to work even harder and shout even louder. It can be clever or funny or sad or thought-provoking – whatever the conservation message that is needed, illustration can step up to the job.
The power of the visual
Visual communication is one of the most powerful forms of communication we have – an image can say a thousand words, right? The role of illustration, photography and other visual arts is to translate the science into something we can relate and respond to. Most people won’t read scientific data on in-depth field studies, but they are more likely to have an emotive response to a visual representation of that data. And emotive responses are shown to be more likely to lead to action too, whether thats donating to a charity, getting involved with conservation or just becoming much more aware of the natural world around them.
Here are a couple of Greenpeace posters, both using illustration and graphics. Both use illustration to make the message easier and quicker to ‘read’ – its that ‘an image can say a thousand words’ thing again. The second one especially makes something (size of the trawler nets) that would otherwise be a meaningless number to most people, instantly make sense, and have powerful impact.
Here is a great TED talk by conservationist Dr Lucy Superman called ‘Art Can Save A Panda’ about using art to educate and inspire. Lucy also runs Creature Conserve, an organisation to bring artists and scientists together to help conserve endangered animals.
Illustration can be a great way to engage with kids as it can be easier for them to digest information and ideas, and you can make it fun too. I have a great book called Planet Zoo by Simon Barnes – large hardback kids book I got from a charity shop, 3 or 4 pages is dedicated to different endangered animals, with tonnes of beautiful illustrations and text about them why they are in trouble. Capturing the imagination and the wonder of animals is so important, especially for young kids. But I think when you’re dealing with tricky topics or ones that the general public aren’t away of, then its the same idea – you need to make the information accessible.
Artists in Residence
A lot of the major zoos today have Artists in Residence who work alongside the zoo animals and staff to engage with new audiences and increase the conservation messages they are putting out. Chester Zoo has an Artist in Residence who puts on creative workshops, all with a conservation angle. London Zoo has the Artists for Animals program, which ‘enables artists to use the resources that ZSL has, help develop their artistic practise, further their knowledge and interest in animals and conservation and better understand different species, the threats they face and how art could highlight that.’ All these types of schemes help to increase interpretation and interaction with the big wildlife issues.
Going back to wildlife sketchbooks
Even though we have cameras today, there is still a place for field sketchbooks and drawing the natural world. It can really make you ‘see’ whats around you so much better, and you pay attention to small details that you might otherwise miss. I’ve discovered recently how great a Nature Journal is, illustration can be for everyone!