How to Draw Animals – A Conversation with Cover Artist Linda Feltner

Back when our acquisitions editor was a lowly professor who taught writing composition at a few universities, he always enjoyed hearing what his students’ “dream jobs” were. Every class of first-year students had a reliable faction of future neurosurgeons, marine biologists, park rangers, fashion buyers, travel writers, and “I don’t know–something in museums.” He also surprisingly had a few future scientific illustrators. The job is an appealing one: you literally look at animals and draw them. For money. Travis talked with one such illustrator, Linda Feltner, who has done two recent covers for TTUP: A Haven in the Sun and the forthcoming new edition of Texas Natural History 

Can you tell us a little bit about what goes into being a scientific illustrator? What sort of training did you have? What variety of jobs have you done in your career?  

Scientific illustration is art that serves science. It plays a vital role to convey information. It encompasses all forms of visual science communication including two-dimensional artwork, sculpture, animation, and more. My career can be described as a nature artist, educator, and interpretive specialist. Interpretation uses scientific illustrations to engage the public in education about natural or cultural history. It is often site-specific.  

Since childhood, a fascination with animals and art led me to a degree in Fine Art. I did not direct deep investigation into drawing animals until after graduation. To feed my new interest in the structure of birds, I returned to study biology, ornithology, and mammalogy.  

My specialty combines the creativity of artistic design with strict standards of scientific accuracy. An interpretive specialist is a visual storyteller. All of my artwork is science-based; therein lies the structure and accuracy. Placing them in situ develops the narrative with their lifestyle. Animals lead such interesting lives, and I was first hooked with my study of birds. I was a birding and natural history guide for my husband’s tour company. My field experience greatly expanded my knowledge of habitat and interdependency within the environment. This firsthand knowledge has brought depth to my artwork.  

Scientific illustration is art that serves science.

 My career began as a zoo illustrator where my focus was to identify species for the public. This experience honed specific techniques for publication in various reproduction media, as well as graphic design. Later, I established a freelance business and have enjoyed a long and happy career working with agencies such as the US Park Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, as well as numerous municipal parks and natural areas. I have also been an instructor with the University of Washington Scientific Illustration Certification Program and currently teach for the Art Institute of the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. I served as president of the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators from 2016 to 2018. Throughout these years, I created book and magazine illustrations. I also continued fine art painting for international juried exhibitions for Artists for Conservation and the Society of Animal Artists. 

 I’ve created numerous images for field guides, zoos and aquaria, trail signage, and visitor centers. I am especially engaged when the project demonstrates behavior or something unique about a species that informs the public as to their lifestyle and habitat connection. Interpretation is not simply information. It should provoke curiosity and evoke more questions. Successful interpretation can reach young and adult visitors and also visitors that do not speak the language. 

 Among the variety of jobs I’ve enjoyed are: murals about an Anasazi community and also the Sonoran Desert, illustrations for natural history museums, old-growth forest projects and salmon stream restorations in the Pacific Northwest, the return of life around Mount St. Helens, bird migration in Houston Audubon preserves, and all zoo exhibits. This variety allows me to investigate and continually learn about all sorts of fascinating species worldwide. 

 My aim is to provide a spark–to awaken curiosity and invite questions, to promote an appreciation for the complexity of nature and to foster a desire to protect it. 

I presume that you have done a lot of work at the behest of scientists, who must be a very particular sort of client. What kinds of demands do scientists make that are a bit different from other kinds of commissioned artwork?  

 I’ve had the pleasure of working with many scientists; each provided some insight into their spark. Their field demands specific information. My job is to place it in context to the message and create an illustration that is science-based and also intriguing to their audience. They appreciate, I think, my own experience in the field and background. The best collaboration comes from listening to the important factors they want to show, whether it’s a mouse color morph matching their museum specimen or reconstructing a prehistoric village. Fortunately, they don’t demand the colors match their couch. 

We at TTUP have been fortunate to feature your art on two covers in 2020–2021. Did you use the same creative process for both A Haven in the Sun and Texas Natural History? What did your research look like? 

 B. C. Robison has known me as an illustrator since his days as “The Texas Naturalist.” I was born in Texas, am familiar with the landscape, and spent many years birding the Texas Coast. My experience observing the particular birds he highlighted provided the essential background I needed. So, I felt very comfortable designing each composition. Research normally includes personal observations, museum specimens, photographs, and occasionally roadkill. Fitting each species within a vertical format went through a draft design process placing each bird into a realistic behavior relationship within the habitat. 

 The process for Texas Natural History intrigued my sense of storytelling. The authors wanted to convey a specific message that included a before-and-after change over time. We shared ideas of iconic West Texas animals that would best present the message. I had reference photos of bison and cattle. Driving the long roads of West Texas in my young years provided a sense of place. To fit the horizontal format, it was suggested to wrap the story around the cover, and that presented an elegant solution to the story of change. The ghosting of the bison seemed appropriate to enhance the message.  

My aim is to provide a spark–to awaken curiosity and invite questions, to promote an appreciation for the complexity of nature and to foster a desire to protect it. 

 In each project, I discuss with the authors the message and species. Then a pencil draft sketch is developed and submitted for their approval. They offered suggestions to reinforce the message. Then the final art is produced. Both of these covers were in watercolor. The interior illustrations were pen and ink.  

This may be a simplistic kind of question, but I’m curious. Are there any particular animals that are just really, really difficult to draw? 

 People remark that moving animals, especially birds, are really difficult. I teach bird drawing workshops where we emphasize anatomy to unlock the mystery of how they move under the cloak of feathers and eventually draw live birds that are brought into the class. We don’t start with hummingbirds but rather raptors who are large and calm. Drawing a moving animal takes a bit of training for the eye/hand/brain coordination to place it on paper. It’s a skill that just takes practice.  

 If a species is unfamiliar or extinct, difficulties can be greatly reduced by studying a near-relative and then alterations applied to “build the new animal.” Movement can also be studied with videos online. Cryptic coloration and vermiculated patterns can be challenging with the laborious level of detail. Because they are so important, it is time well spent. 

The cover for Texas Natural History is powerful in the way it conveys the loss of the buffalo here in Texas. How do you balance this kind of emotion alongside pinpoint scientific accuracy? 

 This illustration appealed to my interpretive side by setting the stage for the message. Everything I do is science-based, so accuracy was required for the bison, cattle, and landscape. This visual message that evokes change over time used elements of fine art that included compositional balance, eye movement throughout the image, shapes both large and small, as well as the creation of vast vs. crowded space. This image was exciting to develop, for it appealed to many aspects of the story.