The Interview : Esther Van Hulsen
(Rachna Singh in conversation with Ms Hulsen)
The Wise Owl interviews modern day naturalist and professional wild-life and paleo artist, Esther van Hulsen. Based in a cabin close to the fjords and forests of Norway, Ms van Hulsen creates beautifully detailed, photo-realistic portraits of wildlife, be it the magnificent falcons or the handsome wolves (to name a few) mostly using watercolours, copic Markers and/ or coloured pencil. Born in The Netherlands in 1981, Esther Van Hulsen completed her Bachelor in communicative design and scientific illustration at the Art Academy Minerva. Since then, she has been working as a professional wildlife artist. In 2010, Esther also included paleo art – the reconstructing of extinct animals – in her work. In 2016, Esther had the opportunity to draw an extinct 95-million-year-old octopus with the ink from the fossil itself. The last time this had ever been done, was in the 1800’s by famous palaeontologist, Mary Anning. This detailed painting is displayed in The Natural History Museum in Oslo, alongside the exhibit of the Octopus.
Esther’s award-winning art has been exhibited worldwide, and she has participated in the prestigious Birds in Art Show in the Leigh Yawkee Woodson Art Museum in Wisconsin, USA. She has also illustrated numerous award-winning books, which have been published in countries like Norway, The Netherlands, Russia, China, Japan and France. Esther was involved in the wildlife conservation project Expedition Art and contributed to their special book 'In Danger: Threatened and endangered animals', which included the beautiful illustration of the Grey Wolf. Commissions include illustrations for Nature Magazine, National Geographic, Popular Science Magazine and works for various natural history museums worldwide. Her illustration of Ida, in a book of the same name, about the 47-million-years old primate found in Germany, brings it alive for the present-day generation.
Thank you so much Esther for taking time out to speak to The Wise Owl.
Q. Your wildlife portraits breathe life into the animals you paint. They appear to be living breathing entities. You almost feel you can stretch out and run your fingers through their fur or touch their feathers or sharp talons. Our readers and viewers would love to know how you create such photo realistic paintings.
A. Thank you so much for all your compliments, Rachna! Well, I guess the lifelikeness is due to, among other, the work that I put into the details. The way hairs and feathers align, how the light touches the surface, how an eye gleams or how the colour vibrancy of different parts of the animal behaves in dark and light. I learned a lot from looking at other artsts who work in photorealistic style, like Raymond Harris Ching and Carl Brenders. The medium I like to use, watercolour, lends itself very well to small details, but my brushes are never thinner than no. 4. As long as the tip is nice and pointy, one can paint very finely with those.
Q. You clearly love the animals you paint. It comes through the warmth of the colours you use. What drew you to wildlife? When did you first start painting/illustrating wildlife?
A. I do love animals, and I have done so for as long as I can remember. This is also true for painting and drawing. I drew before I could walk, always animals, and this subject has never changed. Of course, what it is that draws me so much to animals, I do not exactly know. Nature is just a never-ending source of inspiration, with all the different colours, textures, sizes and you name it. Also, I am very interested in the character of the individual animals I paint and draw. What sort of «person» are they? Perhaps fierce? or proud, kind, shy, maybe a bit of a bully? I think animals too display a very diverse spectrum of personalities, even within the same species.
Q. You graduated from an Art Academy. Did you learn your art from your alma mater, or do you consider yourself self-taught?
A. Actually, when I started the academy, the school had just entered a new phase, where they wanted to focus more on abstraction and experiment. I learned a lot from this, but mastering techniques ended up more in the background. I had two teachers who taught me a lot about technical drawing and coloured pencil. The rest is self-taught.
Q. Is there any artist whose brushwork or sketches inspired you? Who is your favourite artist (contemporary or an old master)?
A. There are so many great artists out there, each with their own unique style and inspirational work. I think the ones that I discovered through books, magazines and other media in an early age are Carl Brenders, James Gurney, Raymond Ching and Edward Aldrich. But later on many, many more were included in my favourites list! I also love the work of the old naturalists, like Audubon and Merian.
Q. I’m sure our viewers and readers must be wondering, as I do, how you paint wildlife. Some of the photographs on your website show you sitting with the animals and sketching them. But how do you manage that with predatory animals and birds?
A. I do a lot of different things in order to learn about the subjects I wish to portray. Sketching live animals in zoos and parks is one of them. It teaches you to look closely, and capture the gesture of an animal, and movement. Some zoos allow me to get into the animal enclosures, but with large predators it is better to draw them from outside the enclosure. : ) Studying and drawing stuffed animals and skeletons in museums helps understand details of fur, feathers and anatomy better. I also make anatomy studies at home, adding muscles over bones to see how an animal is built. Photography helps me to study and use details that I did not get with sketching and drawing live and dead animals. In my garden I have a bird feeder, which attracts a lot of birds I use in my art. But more rare bird species can be found in museums and zoos.
Q. What made you turn to paleo art? What was it about old fossils and remains of animals that interested you?
A. As I love all animals, the time they lived in does not really matter to me. The fun part with extinct animals is that most of the time it forces you to work from imagination, as obviously there are no photos or live specimens to study available. Here one can really apply the anatomical knowledge and put it in the reconstruction, to try and recreate the animal as lifelike and close to scientific accuracy as possible. What’s fun also is that there is often a bit of artistic freedom allowed when it comes to colours. We just don’t know how many animals looked on the outside.
Q. Your painting of the 47-million-year-old Ida and the 97-million-year-old Octopus are done in such a way that they bring alive these animals who died millions of years ago. Do you need to do a lot of research to paint such pictures or are the fossils enough for you to recreate them?
A. With most reconstructions the first thing I do is look at the fossil and talk to palaeontologists about what facts are known about the animal in question. Then I make sketches and colour studies to determine how the animal is going to look. Putting the final animal on canvas requires the same preparations as with the now living animals, like deciding on composition, light, values etcetera.
Q. I have noted that all your portraits of animals and birds are distinct and separate. They stand out like individuals rather than just a species. Do you give them individual personalities consciously or do you simply paint them as they are?
A. Yes, as I mentioned I am very interested in the uniqueness of the personality in individual animals. I try to show its character by adding small details that tell a story about how the animal lives, takes care of itself. This can, for example, be well groomed fur and a calm look in the eyes for self-assured, leader-like animals, or rougher fur, small damages, a fiercer look for tougher individuals. I love to tell a little story within the paintings.
Q. You have worked on a project for endangered species, a subject clearly close to your heart. What advice would you give to an ordinary global citizen who wants to do his/her bit to protect endangered species?
A. Haha, perhaps do not have (too many) children? As delightful as people are, there are quite a few for mother earth to sustain. I think a lot of environmental problems could be solved if nature just had the space to be let alone and grow. But of course, small things like cutting back on consumerism helps too. Just but less, it makes your house tidier, your wallet fuller and is tidier for nature. Oh, and not use plastic bags or water bodies. There are so many small things one can do!
Q. Before I wind up, one last question. I’m sure our readers and viewers would like to know when they will see a coffee table book of your wildlife illustrations in bookshops? (I for one would treasure it.)
A. Well, that would be wonderful! I have published quite a few books about extinct animals here in Norway, which have been published in different countries. But a book solely about my art is still on the wish list. So, if anyone knows a good publisher, I would be glad to hear it! : )
Thank you, Esther, for speaking to The Wise Owl. We wish you success in all your creative endeavours. We believe that your impactful wildlife art will make people the world over regard wildlife with love and sympathy and will go a long way in saving endangered species.