Katrina van Grouw, author of The Unfeathered Bird and Unnatural Selection (both published by Princeton University Press), inhabits that no-man's land slap bang between art and science. She holds degrees in fine art and natural history illustration, and is a former curator of ornithological collections at a major national museum. She's a self-taught scientist with a passion for evolutionary biology and its history. After a long and varied career on both sides of the art/science divide she now devotes her time exclusively to her books which, for her, "tick all creative and intellectual boxes."
Q & A
Q. Did you always want to be an artist?
A. Absolutely not! Unfortunately I was so prodigiously good at drawing as a child that my teachers actively discouraged me from developing my real passion for natural history. Every so often I rebelled and turned back to biology only to find that I was less and less qualified to pursue a course of formal study in science. Most universities wouldn’t accept anyone without the right A Level subjects. I only finally attended art school because there was simply nothing else I could do. And after that I assumed I had to make my living from producing and selling pictures. It’s a long story that really deserves to be told in a book of its own.
To be honest, nowadays I prefer to think of myself as an author rather than an artist. The drawings I do now are illustrations for the books, and are not produced for their own sake. It’s the collective work of science that’s become the work of art.
Q. You prepared the skeletons for your own books. How do you do it?
A. It wasn't me, I'm afraid. Husband takes the credit for that, although both of us are capable. Lots of people assume that articulating skeletons is easy. It isn’t. Ours are set up using a combination of wire and glue. It’s very time consuming and each skeleton takes weeks to do. The hardest part is getting the posture correct, and this requires an intimate knowledge of the animal in life. Then there's the cleaning, and the de-greasing and bleaching of the bones. You have to be careful to get the ribs and vertebrae in the right order, and not to get the bones of the toes and fingers muddled up. I’ve seen far, far more incorrect skeletons than correct ones. So unless you want to devote a huge amount of time to getting it right, if you want a skeleton of your own my advice would be to pay a professional to do it for you. And if your mind is set on learning to do it yourself, you'll find plenty of online sources. Different preparators have developed techniques of their own, so finding your own way is a matter of trial and error. As the saying goes: there more than one way to skin a cat!
Q. You worked at the British Natural History Museum. That must have been really useful for drawing all those skeletons.
A. Actually no. My job had nothing to do with art. I was a curator of the bird skin collections (the equivalent to a collections manager in US museums) and my job involved sourcing and preparing specimens, looking after the collections, overseeing scientific visitors, data entry, answering bird-related enquiries, and the occasional bit of public engagement. I kept my day job and my personal interests entirely separate and never drew a single specimen in the seven years that I worked there. I finally left the museum when a senior manager forbade me to write or illustrate bird-related books in my spare time, as this was never in my contract and I wouldn’t abandon my plans for The Unfeathered Bird.
Q. How did you get to be producing books like Unnatural Selection and The Unfeathered Bird – what course of study would you recommend to someone interested in art and science?
A. It was a long and convoluted journey and nothing in my employment history or education really made that much of a contribution to what I’ve ended up doing, though, looking back, the collective experiences add up and seem to make sense. The things that really make a difference are passion, determination and integrity. Every individual path is different, and no-one has the right to point anyone else in a specific direction. I would recommend following your passion, and listening to your instincts.
Q. What medium do you use to do your book illustrations?
A. The illustrations are all drawn in pencil. Just a normal 2B or B grade, though I find that a harder grade works better for drawing teeth. I then scan the drawings and adjust the levels and colour digitally afterward.
Q. Why do you draw skeletons?
A. Actually I prefer to think of it as anatomical drawing, and I began doing it – directly from dead specimens that I dissected myself - as a way of understanding the anatomy of birds so that my pictures of living birds would benefit from it. I draw them now purely as illustrations for my books, to communicate a point I want to make. The books are not collections of skeletal art – they’re illustrated science books that I approach in such a way that ticks all the boxes for me intellectually and creatively. I no longer consider myself an artist in terms of picture-making, and if I did, I would almost certainly not be drawing skeletons.
Q. Do you make a living from doing books?
A. I prefer to think about my books as my life rather than my living. I work on them all day every day seven days a week, I dream about them at night, and put them before everything else; there’s nothing I wouldn’t do or sacrifice for them. Ironically, if I considered my books a job or a business, I wouldn’t be able to justify giving them so much time. Like all authors I rely on people buying books new, requesting books from libraries, paying to use material instead of downloading it for free, and being willing to pay for my time. No non-fiction author is in it for the money and when producing a book takes 5 or 6 years of full-time work, it’s very difficult indeed to earn a consistent income from it.
Please don't steal our stuff!
I have no idea how much the owner of this arm paid to have my Razorbill drawing tattooed onto it. I didn't see a penny of his money. Neither did he ask my permission. I was flattered, of course, but it would have been nice to be asked, and even nicer to be paid.
Just like anyone else struggling to succeed in the modern world, creative people need to put their stuff online. But whereas you can't steal a toaster or a mobile phone by downloading it you can steal things like pictures, film, and music. You can then use them – absolutely free of charge and no-one needs to know about it.
We can only continue to produce works of art if people pay fairly for them. I'm very generous and reasonably minded. Usually I'll only ask for a donation in return, or ask that you buy or promote my books. My most recent book took me 6 entire years working at it full-time, seven days a week. If you're doing that, you need to have an income from somewhere otherwise there will be no more books. Every illegal download or un-licenced copy deprives me of the income I need to carry on.