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Saturday, 26 May 2012

Drawing nature

I am passably capable at drafting, but not at execution in any artistic sense, so there are no technical tips here, just some tricks and wrinkles.

In 1857, Herschel Babbage took photographic equipment out with him when he went exploring near Woomera in South Australia. Before (and even for a while after that) all explorers and biological collectors needed to be artists, or they needed to take an artist with them.

This, in fact, is part of the subject matter in my next book for the general (that's writer-code for adult or bright younger reader) market, Curious Minds. In that book, I look at the natural history collectors and the natural histoty painters who worked Australia in the 1700s and 1800s.

Painting flowers in water colour was regarded as a suitable activity for young ladies, but in time, some of the women painters did what the men did, and went out into the field, studying plants and birds and painting them. In the end, though, photography took away most of the scientific side, but people still paint plants for fun.

The job of the scientific artists was to record the colours and shapes of the flowers that would often be pressed and dried beyond recognition. Often a bird or a mammal would be skinned, with only the skin and sometimes the skull going back to people who would stuff and mount the animal, using sketches done on the spot to get the shape right. Information on the colours came from paintings and notes, because specimens often discolour.

Magpie at a picnic, Reef Beach, Sydney.
My alpha publisher these days is the National Library of Australia, in large part because that gives me access to their huge art collections,  They also like doing beautiful books, which is a boost to the ego of the writer!  Some of the artists whose work may be found at the National Library of Australia: Elizabeth Gould, John Gould, Edward Gostelow, S. T. Gill, Ferdinand Bauer, Ellis Rowan, Adam Forster and Ida McComish.

This link will take you to the place to search, but you then need to spend some time getting used to the controls.

Pelican on a street light, Broken Bay.
One good trick is to use the Limit To section and specify NLA digitised material in the drop-down menu. For example, there are 83 images of Banksias (or were when I looked just now).

If you want to try to work as those experts did, take a simple and easy subject first, a common bird like a seagull, a pigeon, a sparrow or any of the other pests that will hang around if there is a free feed.

Plants, especially fruits and seeds, are easier to paint!
Rainbow lorikeet, Cremorne, Sydney.
There is no harm or shame in taking photographs to help you with your drawing: the art comes in composing the separate scraps of image into a whole. If you are looking for a theme, why not try behavioural studies, like the aggressive postures of seagulls?

Magpies will lurk near a picnic looking for food, kookaburras will fly through and steal, pelicans will watch you if you are cleaning fish, and rainbow lorikeets love to steal the little paper packets of sugar where coffee is sold.

Hooke's view of a human louse, on
a hair. Most people had 
lice back  
then, but they could not
see the detail. 

On the other hand, there are times when drawings are best. Scattered through most books on biological matters, there will be a number of line drawings of small animals, part of a tradition that began in 1665, when Robert Hooke published a book called Micrographia.  Some might say the tradition goes back much further, but that's where I set the start.  My blog, I get to choose!

Rich Londoners could marvel at the details of a flea without having to squint through a microscope, and a number of them could look at the flea at the same time. Best of all, the drawing could show all parts of the flea in sharp focus.

Mind you, Hooke wasn't all that good an artist, and biologists believe that many of the drawings were actually the work of Sir Christopher Wren, who famously designed St Paul's Cathedral in London.

Biological illustrators use all sorts of tricks to get their pictures just right, so it is a craft and a science, as much as an art. Do a web search on <biological illustration> to discover a whole new world!

One trick that I used to good effect in the days of 35 mm slides was to have a slide projector that I pick up for $5 at a jumble sale, mounted above my desk.  Perhaps, if you have access to a "data projector", you may be able to use that to get your images onto paper.

If you have the skill and talent (and as I said, I don't!), you will never look back.  Otherwise, be like me and use the camera.

Either way, you will be collecting nature without doing any harm.

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