For any aspiring artist there is something magical and rewarding about holding an image in your mind clearly enough to make a representation of it – marks on paper or canvas, a sculpture, a digital file – and have someone else understand and appreciate what you imagined. However, getting to that point is not simple, and you may never be satisfied with the gap between your imagination and your artwork , but the rewards are in the journey.
If you are lucky enough to be able to visit the Atherton Regional Gallery in north Queensland before 26 November 2017 you’ll have a chance to see a retrospective exhibition of wildlife artwork by a true master, William T (Bill) Cooper. He lived and worked on the Atherton Tablelands in the decades before his death in 2015, at the age of 81, and was painting literally to the day he died. His work is marked by a combination of accuracy and authenticity – his subjects ’sit right’ in their environment. His extraordinary ability to connect with his subject is probably what all artists are looking for at some level: a way to engage with something larger than one’s self and communicate this to others. For Bill Cooper his connection with nature was fundamental to his art – he had learned to look with a purpose, and working from life was an important part of his process. He knew the techniques of his craft from long practice, he knew and respected his subjects, and his art reflects his celebration of the natural world we all depend on. Bill enjoyed rewards from his approach to art that were quite separate from his commercial success and the worldwide demand for his work. In return he was a generous teacher who recognised and rewarded interest in his students; I learnt a lot from him, though my practice as an illustrator of birds for identification was so much more limited than his.
Alain de Botton, in his book The Art of Travel (Penguin Books 2003), talks about the way humans search for the sublime, the experience that takes them out of the routine to feel part of a larger whole. He discusses how the artist’s ‘seeing with a purpose’ can be part of this search for the sublime, bringing focus and appreciation to the everyday. Part of Bill Cooper’s genius was his ability to communicate his enjoyment of what he saw. This pleasure that can come with seeing isn’t easy to teach or learn, but it’s part of all art. De Botton tells the story of John Ruskin, a leading art critic in Victorian Britain, starting evening art classes for working men (working women were clearly unthinkable!). He was asked if he seriously expected to make clerks into artists. “No”, he replied, “ but I will make them happier clerks”.
Learning to see and to communicate your vision through art is a lifelong process, but you can learn skills that make it easier. Remember that at the core of art are three components that make the end result: the materials, the techniques and the subject. Learning the basics of the first two helps the beginner to develop a personal artistic vocabulary. Building this vocabulary into a language that can tell the stories you want to share is your artistic journey, and how far you choose to take it is up to you.
The courses at NatureArt Lab are designed to start you on your journey, beginning with the very first steps in understanding materials and starting drawing and painting. The next stage is to apply your skills to subjects that interest you, and so there are courses focused on a wide range of topics and skill levels, right through to completing a complex artwork in a specialist field. The courses are unusual in the level of access they offer - access to teaching resources such as microscopes and specimens, and access to other institutions such as CSIRO’s Australian National Wildlife Collection and National Insect Collection with their enormous numbers of documented specimens. Students will also meet experts in a range of fields, from wildlife carers to lecturers and researchers in the natural sciences, from museum curators to scientific illustrators. The arbitrary separation between art and science is increasingly breaking down, and collaborations arise as artists and scientists each see the other at work.
Put simply, the new NatureArt Lab is a model that aims to provide learning options around natural history art that rival any institution in Australia. No one school can teach you everything – making art is a personal process, with individual struggles and rewards – but this school has the resources to set you on your path and support you as you progress.