2012 was a very good year for Palaeoartists: first, there was Dinosaur Art; then, there was the game-changing All Yesterdays; and then, just as we reached the end of the year and thought we had received all the goodies we were going to, there came another book: The Unfeathered Bird, by Katrina van Grouw.
I challenge any reader to walk away from this book without being blown away by the remarkable and diverse nature of birds. Just when you think you have seen every trick Avian Anatomy has to throw at you, you turn the page and are greeted by the windpipe of Phonygammus keraudrenii (the Trumpet Manucode) or the tongue of Picus viridis (the Green Woodpecker).
For me the biggest lesson was not to treat the forelimbs of birds as a 2-dimensional plane: though slender, they are not a glider and their forelimbs have substance.
I could go on and quote the jacket: over 200 species illustrated; some species never-before depicted; etc… or you could hear about it straight from the author’s mouth:
Q. How long have you been illustrating and how did it start?
Actually I’ve always considered myself a fine artist rather than an illustrator. That’s not being snobbish or anything, but I studied fine art for my BA and very seldom do illustrations for other people’s books. I’m much too self-opinionated and don’t like being told how to do my job!
But I began drawing birds when I was four or five and was a bit of a child prodigy when it came to artwork. That was by no means a good thing, and I suffered terribly as a result of ambitious and manipulative teachers. So much so that in my final school years I rebelled and tried to return to my earlier passion for natural history, applying to Oxford to read Zoology. Unfortunately by then I simply didn’t have the science background required. I ended up leaving school academically under-qualified and only applied to art college reluctantly, several years later, when there was nowhere else to turn.
It was whilst I was an undergraduate, at Exeter College of Art and Design (now the University of Plymouth) (the Royal College of Art came after that) that I began to produce anatomical drawings of birds that would eventually lead to The Unfeathered Bird.
After college I remained a self-employed fine artist, though sometimes it was necessary to subsidize my meagre income with a day job.
Q. Do you prefer to start and finish a piece before moving on, or do you work on a number of illustrations at once?
Preferably the former. I like to become obsessed with whatever I’m doing, and that simply isn’t possible when you’re doing several things at once.
Q. Many artists have favourite brands of pencil or brush , and methods for making the medium feel right (such as sharpening methods, trimming bristles, or crocheting stylus holders). is this the same for you?
Er, no, not really. I just use a B or a 2B pencil (whichever I pick up first). No particular brand. It helps to keep to the same brand of paper as the colour will differ slightly, but again, I just use the ordinary Windsor and Newton stuff from art shops.
Q. Who have been your inspirations and mentors along the way?
In my experience, living mentors are fine until you want to do something other than what they did – or wished they’d done. Then they bite you.
I prefer deceased heroes. And mine is John James Audubon. I’m a bit of a specialist on the history of natural history illustration, and within this subject Audubon is the closest to my heart. Not just for the images themselves, but for several similarities between the projects of The Birds of America and The Unfeathered Bird. Like mine, Audubon’s idea did not fit squarely into a niche – he had to fight for it, and believe in it. He was uncompromising and pig-headed like me, and put his book before everything and everyone else – like me. And both books took over 20 years to come to fruition. Audubon had to get his published in England. I had to get mine published in America. I’m not saying I’m on a par with Audubon – but only that – when the odds stacked up against me and I wanted to give it all up and just cry – I thought about Audubon, and carried on.
Q. Is the medium depicted in The Unfeathered Bird your preferred medium or have you employed the use of graphite pencils, oils, sculpture, etc for other projects?
Once upon a time, when I was Katrina Cook (before I married Hein van Grouw), I was best known as a printmaker and specialized in very large drypoints (a type of etching / engraving) on copper. I love the traditional printing techniques, and prided myself on really high quality editioning. Sadly when I moved to a smaller house to take up the job at The Natural History Museum I no longer had space for a studio and had to sell my etching press.
After this I worked predominantly with graphite sticks, producing enormous, dark, dramatic drawings of seabird colonies on precipitous cliffs.
Although it seems a million miles away from what I’m doing now, the interest in three dimensional structure is the same, and in fact many people have commented that they can sense a similarity.
Q. Some of the classic artists had eight stages to creating a finished work of art: from composition sketches to light studies with models/maquettes and drafts leading up to the final version. How many stages do your pieces go through?
For The Unfeathered Bird (and my next book, Unnatural Selection) Hein and I would discuss which position he should mount the skeleton in – choosing something that would reflect the bird’s typical behaviour and particular anatomical features. Then I’d just draw it, concentrating on getting all the proportions correct, before adding the fine detail.
For my previous and less illustrative artwork I would often draw a rough composition sketch about an inch high before beginning work. And of course produce field sketches and reference drawings from skin specimens and skeletons. In the case of landscapes I’d study maps and sometimes make models, though as often as not the entire piece would simply be done spontaneously, from the top of a cliff without prior preparation.
Q. Is illustration your full-time occupation now?
I’m now working on another book of anatomical drawings called Unnatural Selection. It’s about the way we’ve changed the structure of domesticated animals _ what we’ve done to wolves to get bulldogs and Chihuahuas etc. So drawing, writing and researching this will be my full time occupation for the next couple of years. At the same time I’ll be doing a little bit of journalism (I write for several bird magazines), a little bit of illustration for other people’s books (depending on getting an offer I can’t refuse), and a little bit of consultancy (I do odds and ends of work for libraries, publishers and auctioneers – mostly to do with historical natural history art.)
But despite being quite busy, I really don’t like being self-employed full-time. I get very lonely, and miss having some structure to my working week; I’d really prefer to have a part-time job as well.
Q. You used to be Ornithology curator for the Natural History Museum. That must have been an amazing resource for drawing subjects. Did you have a lot of time for illustrating while you were working there? How has moving on from the Museum affected your art (if at all)?
Aaah, the Natural History Museum…
Getting the job at The Natural History Museum was a dream-come-true and the most perfect ‘day job’ I could ever have dreamed of. I never once used the collections for my own artwork, however, preferring to keep my two professions strictly separate (in fact this question was raised during my interview and I kept my promise throughout the seven years I worked there). But I was more than content with this arrangement and enjoyed being a professional ornithologist. I kept no secret of my ambition to produce The Unfeathered Bird so it was a bitter blow when I was told (several years into the job) that the head of the zoology department prohibits curators from writing books in their spare time on the grounds of ‘using knowledge gained in the course of their employment’. Although I could justifiably have fought this, I wanted to remain on good terms with my ex-colleagues (particularly as my husband still works there) so I left to concentrate on finishing The Unfeathered Bird. At that time I was job-sharing with my husband, so he was able to take over my hours without any loss of household income. But the decision nigh on broke my heart and not a day passes when I don’t wish I still worked there.
Q. Are you happier illustrating wildlife rather than people? Or do you draw people too on occasion? Or, given that people are animals, do you feel there is a distinction at all?
I think the disciplines are the same, whatever you draw. There’s no better way to hone your skills in eye-hand co-ordination than to draw people – because we instinctively know when the anatomy is wrong. You can’t bluff your way out! I’ve always done as much life drawing as I possibly can – purely as a way of keeping my observation skills sharp. I’m not really interested in producing ‘finished’ artwork of people though. The anatomy books tick all the creative boxes for me at the moment, and the process of thinking out the ideas behind the books, designing them and writing them, is every bit as rewarding as doing the illustrations. After Unnatural Selection though, I’m planning to do an anatomy of mammals, and that will certainly contain humans.
All artwork by and copyright of Katrina van Grouw, reprinted with permission. More of her work can be seen on The Unfeathered Bird site.
A reminder of the stockiness of some birds.
Where taste and smell meet.
Inside every duck is a theropod trying to get out.