by Bryony Angell
If the wide-ranging selection of illustrated field guides, kid’s books and greeting cards at the Nature Shop are any indication, representational depiction of birds in art maintains a strong foothold in our culture. The names Sibley and Harper are as familiar to us as Black-capped chickadee and Spotted Towhee, but who are the artists bringing up the rear? Who will be illustrating the next field guides or iconic National Parks posters?
It may well be one of the talented young female artists who are making a name for themselves in the American artists for nature genre. Painters Alex Warnick--2017 recipient of the prestigious Don and Virginia Eckelberry Endowment for wildlife artists--and Jane Kim--who recently completed the Wall of Birds Project commission at Cornell University--are leading a group of young female artists intent on accurate representation of wildlife--and birds in particular--and the resulting appreciation and advocacy of their subjects. These artists are following the tradition of their (mostly male) forefathers and paving a way for new generations to revere nature.
And Seattle Audubon is lucky enough to have one of this group quietly immersed among its membership. Liz Clayton Fuller is only in her mid-20s and already an accomplished artist in the scientific illustration field. Through dedicated honing of her skill through field work, art education, networking and social media (she has over 14 thousand followers on instagram), Clayton Fuller has developed a career that includes not only academic illustration but teaching, fine art, and hopefully one day, field guide illustration.
We sat down with Clayton Fuller recently to find out where she has come from and where she is going in her artistic career dedicated to birds and nature.
How did you become interested in birds and nature?
Liz Clayton Fuller: I always loved nature growing up (in Nashville), although no one in my family is a birder. As an undergrad at Savannah College of Art and Design, I studied art, but nothing felt right or personal until I took a scientific illustration class. The class was mind opening; all my previous classes had been whimsical. This realism (of scientific illustration) really spoke to me.
I then picked up a massive bird book and just started painting and drawing them. It’s this backward process--I got into birds by drawing them! I like using the skill I have to make sure people know what is going on with nature. I have a lot of ideas simmering now, in light of recent political events. Environmental art will be more important than ever.
Describe your evolution as an artist for nature.
LCF: After I graduated college, I came to Seattle to attend the University of Washington’s certification program in Scientific Illustration. Following that program, I served a seven-month Bartel’s Scientific Illustration internship at Cornell University’s Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, NY. It is there that I developed most of my scientific illustration work. I created art for the citizen science program and the Lab’s promotional materials, as well as illustrated papers by post-doctorate students.
I also taught a beginner class in field sketching and scientific illustration to undergrads. Some of these students had never been in the woods! The class I taught was supplemental to the evolutionary biology course they were on, which also included a class on writing about being in the field. I was there to facilitate sketching and techniques to the students. And in using the art and writing tools with them, it was incredible to watch them engage so deeply with this new world opening up to them.
This class you taught had a special element to it, as well!
LCF: The field drawing class included a trip to the Galapagos! The birds in the Galapagos have no fear of humans, and were easy to draw. I had to remind my students that field sketching is not usually so easy! In fact, I’m returning to Cornell this spring to teach that same class and trip to the Galapagos. It’s insane I get to do this as an artist. But if anyone wants me to travel and teach at the same time, that’s wonderful!
What did your time at Cornell provide you as an artist?
LCF: Cornell has been huge for me as far as making connections for freelance work in scientific illustration. There is demand for illustration work; people wanting an illustration that provides more than a photo for enhancing written work.
At the same time, I also have a fine art practice. I want to do fine art, environmental art, field guides, as well as art instruction in the classroom and on field trips.
You mention a varied artistic output. How are these practices different, for instance, fine art work compared to scientific illustration work?
LCF: They are so different! When you’re illustrating for a paper, it’s very exacting and goes through many edits and changes. It’s a rewarding but heavy process. It can be a little crushing bearing the weight in the eyes of the expert (the paper’s author and researcher), who’s studied the bird for 30 years!
To give you an example, even with access to Cornell’s huge collection of study skins and submitted photographs of birds, I have a cautionary tale to share. I was working on a sketch for a White-throated sparrow and using the Lab’s collection of skins very closely for reference. I had the sketch all finished and thought I had nailed it! I took it to a colleague to double check for realism and plumage.
“They look dead,” she said. “Were you sketching from skins?” She saw right through it. I ended up using a YouTube video of a live bird, and referencing the skins just for plumage after that. Lesson learned!
To balance the weight of this kind of work, I do artwork of birds that is more personal, for the emotional connection I have to the subject. I just paint it, and do not edit myself. It’s cathartic, a nice departure and it keeps me balanced. This latter work is the kind I take to shows and art festivals.
How much do you draw from life versus from reference materials?
LCF: In my mind, these are completely different art practices. When I am working on a composed watercolor piece I set out to take reference photos and observe subjects in the wild, then I return to the studio to realize the painting from my references. Field sketching is a totally different animal. I love to field sketch when I want to relax, capture a moment, and practice the ritual of making art. It is not for any purpose other than staying present; it does not inform my more refined paintings. It is more casual and I don't put pressure on myself to make a perfect piece. Perhaps one day these two practices will merge in my process, but for now I am happy to keep them separate and have field sketching be a respite from the other work that I do.
How did you become connected to Seattle Audubon?
LCF: When I moved here for the UW program, I found a job as a naturalist in the Nature Camp program. That was my introduction to the organization, and I’ve since participated twice in the Bird and Nature art fair which Seattle Audubon has hosted over the years.
And I’ve even done commissioned work for the organization. Hanae Betancourt (Seattle Audubon education coordinator) hired me to do a lesson plan about painting birds in watercolor to give as a packet to teachers of school-age kids for instruction.
What is next in your career path?
LCF: After I complete the Cornell teaching trip, my fiance Zach and I will be moving back to Nashville to be closer to family.
And I’m ready to start getting back into art shows and festivals. Because of my erratic schedule recently with school and internship, I haven’t done as many of them, but I’ve been participating in shows since I was 22. Every time I do a show, I learn what to bring and what not to bring; for instance, it’s hard to sell large, original work. Small pieces and prints are my bread and butter at these shows.
I want to have time to focus on producing art, and supplement it with teaching. I love working with kids, and feel art is a good way to engage young people with birding. I’d love to take a stab at the Duck Stamp, and someday do the Birds in Art show in Wausau, WI; both are very prestigious. And eventually I’d like gallery representation.
Follow Liz at her website or her Instagram. She also has an online shop at Society6.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.