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The wildlife Artist's Handbook - how to draw and paint wildlife British wildlife artist Jackie Garner answers FAQs

Life as a wildlife artist

I'd love to be able to draw and paint wildlife. How do I get started?
But how can I draw something that's always moving about?
I'm a keen amateur and want to turn professional. What advice can you give?
What's the best medium for painting wildlife?
What are the hallmarks of great wildlife art?
What art materials and products would you recommend for wildlife artists?
Do you illustrate books?

Life as a wildlife artist

I’d love to be able to draw and paint wildlife. How do I get started?
Being able to express the beauty of wildlife and communicating through art is very rewarding. An understanding of anatomy will help you get the proportions and muscle tone right. I firmly believe in drawing skills as a basis for creativity. Don’t be put off if it doesn’t come as easily as you’d like – as I’ve said in a blog post, everyone can learn to draw. Try joining your local art group so you can learn from others by sharing ideas or drawing and painting techniques. Take some classes, read some books, and above all, practise, practise, practise.


But how can I draw something that’s always moving?
Firstly find a place where there are plenty of subjects such as a local duck pond, zoo or wildlife park. I usually choose one species per sketching session so I build up knowledge of that subject. I start by looking carefully and seeing how much I can notice about my subject: the angle of the back, length of bill, proportions of head compared to body… Next I start sketching parts of a bird such as the head or a foot, again building up knowledge. Finally I’ll start a sketch of the whole bird. As soon as it moves I’ll start a second sketch, then a third. Eventually it will return to an earlier pose and I can add to that sketch. If you choose a venue where plenty of the same species are present, other individuals may well stand in similar positions so even if your first subject moves you can still continue drawing.

I’m a keen amateur and want to turn professional. What advice can you give?
Firstly it’s important to be realistic about what a career as a wildlife artist entails. Painting wildlife often makes up a fairly small proportion of your day. You need to be photographer, writer, marketer, designer, accountant, administrator, researcher… It’s a business like any other.
Assuming you’re happy to do all that, I’d recommend testing the water, so to speak. Try selling your artwork via local galleries and see what the impartial reaction is from the art-buying market, not just from supportive friends or family. Start to build a client list and a track record. It’s better to turn professional in response to the demand for your artwork than in the hope you can create demand later. In the present ecomonic climate it’s harder to sell original art than it was just a few years ago, so be prepared to diversify, perhaps into illustration or teaching.
My Wildlife Artist's World talk covers a lot of information about the realities of a professional art career and my book The Wildlife Artist's Handbook provides plenty of practical advice on exhibiting and selling wildlife art.


What’s the best medium for painting wildlife?
It really depends what effect you want to create. Pencils and watercolours are perfect for sketching and field work simply because they’re so portable. Pencil can also be great for the detail – just look at the work of Gary Hodges or Clive Meredith. Watercolours are ideal to capture the textures you find in nature such as the softness of fur and feather. Acrylics are versatile, vibrant and robust – great for expressive mark making. They dry quickly and you can paint over the underlying layers as your painting progresses. They are thick enough to give texture but can also be thinned down for glazes. Oils are similar to acrylics but slower to dry so you need more patience. But if you’re a wildlife artist, you’ll already have patience in abundance!

What are the hallmarks of great wildlife art?
‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ as they say, so what’s great art for one person may leave another one cold. However, personally I think great wildlife art has to be true to nature. I’m not advocating photo-realism but whatever the style of the painting I want it to be believeable – appropriate habitat, an understanding of anatomy, and a sense that the artist experienced what they are aiming to portray. I hate to see fur that looks as if it’s just been blow-dried – in the wild, animals get dirty! I don’t want to see thinly disguised copies of other artists’ work but rather a genuine response by an individual to their subject. My favourite wildlife paintings either show me something new about the subject or make me feel “I wish I’d seen that”.


What art materials and products would you recommend for wildlife artists?
You can see a selection of my favourite art materials and books on my recommendations page. Wildlife artists often brave the outdoors on field sketching trips in some pretty inhospitable places, so as well as the artist's usual array of art materials I've also suggested good optical equipment, cold weather gear, etc.

Do you illustrate wildlife books?
I'm always being asked this, and the simple answer is Yes! One was published in 2012 and three more in 2013. Plus there's another in progress and one possibility in the pipeline. Please see my illustrations page for more information. I'm always happy to discuss a new illustration project so if you are an author or publisher feel free to get in touch.

 

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