A Stroke Of Genius
Sangeetha Kadur had a setback in art college but that didn’t stop her from going on to become one of the country’s most-loved wildlife artists. Twice nominated for the BBC’s Wildlife Artist of the Year, her work has been published across a wide range of journals, books and magazines. Author, birding expert and nature-art enthusiast Bikram Grewal leads her on a meandering conversation – spanning her influences, techniques and the myriad projects she is undertaking.
Growing up amongst a family of nature lovers must have influenced your love for the natural world. Can you elaborate on your various influences?
Spending time in nature was ingrained into me during my growing up years. My uncle would regularly herd our entire big family to wild places in and around Karnataka. My dad, an entomologist and a keen photographer, taught us to notice the small critters around us, and growing up alongside an avid birdwatcher and naturalist of
a brother made the natural world all the more fascinating.
At times, home was like a rehab centre for small wildlife. My brother would do all the nurturing, and I would play the part of the typical curious, pestering, little sister. A big backyard with a not-so-tame garden, a water tank full of endlessly-breeding guppies, a big stack of nature books and encyclopedias, a family farm on the outskirts of Bengaluru; with a childhood like that, spending time in nature didn’t feel all that special, it seemed like a very normal part of life. But joining the dots backwards, I now know that those were the rich influences that fostered my intimate association with nature today.The veteran birdwatchers’ community in Bengaluru has also been a tremendous support ever since my college years.
From a typical art college to pursuing a specialised field in wildlife art… what led to the journey?
The emphasis of a typical fine arts college is very contemporary and leans towards abstraction. While I struggled to understand the concept of abstraction, the more realistic, nature-inspired elements escaped into my compositions quite often. Birdwatching, rock climbing, nature walks and travel took over a big chunk of my college years, along with art.
Finally, I had a revelation of sorts when I met a wildlife artist while on a bird census in the Bandipur Tiger Reserve during my final year of art college. That was exactly the time that I was seriously pondering how I could make art a career. Then, there she was, Sunita Dhairyam, doing what she loves doing best. That chance encounter with an inspiring, independent fellow artist opened me up to new possibilities and an unconventional career path.
What is the best part about illustrating wildlife? Which are the mediums you use to record and showcase your work?
Illustrating wildlife means becoming intimate with beautiful wild beings. There is a strong connect I build subconsciously with every natural form that I put down on paper and canvas. I find myself wrapped in curiosity, which makes me more inquisitive about whoever or whatever I am illustrating. All the learning and understanding I garner; I try to portray in my works. Illustrating wildlife allows me to interact with a whole flock of enthusiastic naturalists and helps me stay attuned to the life I love living. Best of all, travelling to wilderness areas is like sugar-coated work, as all along, I keep drawing inspiration from nature that will help enable my work further.
While out travelling in the field, I always pack in a few sketchbooks, an assortment of pens, pencils and brushes, and a field watercolour set. My usual field sketching technique involves pen and if time permits, ink and a watercolour wash. Back at my studio, I enjoy working with acrylics on larger canvases. Watercolours are something I use often, and I have recently begun to explore digital media with a Wacom tablet.
Which are the projects that have been turning points in your wildlife art career?
The very first project invariably stands out. As soon as I graduated from art college, my first work assignment was to create a wildlife mural on a wall spanning 10 x 15 feet (3 x 4.5 metres). It was a big opportunity to understand the job of a wildlife artist. This was at the very place I encountered the artist who had inspired me just a few months back at the Bandipur Jungle Lodges. With Sunita as my mentor, I explored a possible profession.
However, the project that is the icing on the cake of my career thus far, is the Hummingbird Project. I worked as a commissioned artist through Felis Creations, in collaboration with Gorgas Science Foundation, U.S.A., to bring out what seemed like a monumental project, an artistically-rendered coffee-table book on hummingbirds.
What are the highlights and learnings from your Hummingbird Project?
The trust and encouragement bestowed upon me in the very initial stage of my tryst with wildlife art boosted my confidence. Travelling to the U.S. for this project exposed me to a fine community of wildlife artists and their works. This helped me understand the intensity and potency attached to such a profession. Interacting and learning from a few veterans introduced me to new perspectives, helped fine-tune my skills, and allowed me to gain more clarity. I became intimately bound with all the hummingbirds I rendered. It was an intense collaborative project of five-six years, and remains a treasured experience.
What’s a typical process of any illustration project you take up?
All my illustration projects begin with a good bit of reading. I do try to pack in a field visit whenever opportunity prevails, because nothing can compare to first-hand learning in the field. Otherwise, I browse and flip through as much imagery of my subject that I can find to fill my mind. The research and prep itself take up a few days. A lot of random doodling helps me understand structure and anatomy. Then, I create a bunch of key sketches to figure out the most suitable composition. Not to forget the whole process of conversing and debating with myself to pick and choose from an insane number of ways of composing just one thing. Once I have clarity about the composition, the first big hurdle is crossed. Following this is a detailed sketch. Next, I work to get the right mix of colours on canvas. Depending on the kind of detail I am expecting and the size of the artwork, the finishing might take a few days to a few weeks. In the case of a monitor lizard painting, I made observational studies in a zoo and also got the opportunity to do close up studies at the specimen collection at the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS), Mumbai. This particular work was large, very detailed and took many months to complete.
Your artworks show a range of species from insects to birds and mammals. Do you have any favourite projects?
The naturalist in me loves the natural world in its entirety. I couldn’t restrict myself to just one species. Every project, every opportunity to sketch a new species seems interesting. My nature journal is filled with seeds, flowers, leaves, moths, other insects and critters, birds, anything that cooperates and strikes a pose for a few good minutes. While a large part of my artworks are dedicated to bird illustrations, I have also worked on butterflies, moths, a couple of reptiles and mammals, plants and trees.
It’s hard to pick a single favourite. After the laborious task of painting details for The Hummingbird Project for a few consistent years, I let myself go while working on an elephant artwork. I explored working with a palette knife and didn’t focus on fine detail. It was fun to scoop chunks of paint and plaster it on to a canvas. I can’t wait to make more palette knife works. I also enjoyed working on a painting of the Great Hornbill. Of late, I have been getting projects to depict biodiversity as a whole, so it’s almost like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. That’s been fun too.
What are the challenges you face? Have you had any disappointments? How do you deal with them?
Life as an artist has been a beautiful package of everything good and not-so-good. Early on, much to my surprise, I failed an art exam during my second year in art college. I was withheld a year. I was deeply embarrassed at that time, but I persevered and completed my degree. More than a decade ago, after my first stint of painting a wildlife mural in Bandipur, latching on to the next wildlife art task seemed close to impossible. There were hardly any opportunities. I was disappointed, but somehow held my ground. The Hummingbird Project came with a lot of hopes, promises, and its own share of learning. There have been a few artworks that never made it into the book, and a few that I had to redo all over again.
While I seek feedback from others, my brother’s words echo often in my head: “Always remember, you are your own best critic.” I have learnt that as an artist, I should be open to honest criticism. There is always scope for improvement.
How do you think your artworks contribute to conservation?
As an artist and naturalist, capturing a captivating glimpse of nature and bringing it up-close to the eyes of the viewer holds a sense of responsibility that I cherish. It is well proven that art is layered with an aesthetic appeal that can draw people’s attention, the influence of which isn’t restricted to any particular age group or people of any creed and culture. With art we can both consolidate and disseminate information. We can bring focus and highlight what we want to show. We can bring in aesthetic delight and scientific accuracy at the same time. Leveraging on this unique power of art, I choose to communicate science, stories and the hidden beauty of the natural world in a way that can be easily understood.
The focus now is to use my artworks to build meaningful awareness. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to collaborate and work with students, researchers, nature and wildlife organisations, Forest Departments, schools and nature enthusiasts, to create posters, leaflets, guidebooks, story books, games, and conduct educational workshops. However gratifying, this whole process only becomes worthwhile when, through my art, I am able to create a spark of wonder, curiosity and an admiration that connects the two worlds, that of the illustrated with that of the existing.
You are part of a growing community of wildlife artists in India. What do you think is the scope for this?
Living in a country that is culturally so intertwined with nature, and which once nurtured a community of skilled plant and animal illustrators, it is surprising that the profession seemed to have dwindled along the way. But with a passionate and proficient set of contemporary nature artists emerging in many a nook and corner of India, the scope seems promising. I strongly believe that it is the growing community that brings in refreshing new styles, approaches, techniques and perspectives on to a larger platform, which in turn brings in the deserved respect for the profession of a wildlife artist. I am happy to see this trend resurface. Admiration, recognition, trust and the right support will definitely help this profession reach new heights.
You occasionally work with children through your ‘GreenScraps’ project. Tell us more about it.
Better learning happens while experiencing nature first-hand rather than reading about it in a textbook. With this in mind, and driven by a passion to teach and share what I know, I ambled into a small role as a nature-art educator and initiated ‘GreenScraps’, along with a friend. Outdoor learning builds an interdisciplinary connection between art, nature and awareness. In our workshops, we encourage children to step outdoors, open up their eyes, observe, touch, feel, describe, reflect and make notes, along with sketching their observations. We introduce them to fun techniques, amazing facts, and tips and tricks of keeping a nature journal. The main idea has been to maintain a treasure book of sorts, about all the intimate interactions and memories with nature. It’s been gratifying to observe how perceiving nature through the eyes of an artist has helped kids build and discover a respectful and profound bond with nature.
Author: Bikram Grewal, First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVII No. 6, June 2017.