Visual Nature: Bare Bones
Visual Nature: Bare Bones

Visual Nature: Bare Bones

A new post for the Visual Nature column at Visual Loop. Read it here and below.

Bare Bones

Organisms are the reflection of their inner structure, both at a micro and macro level. Scientific illustrators keep this in mind throughout their work, and among the most coveted items to look at while drawing vertebrate animals are their skeletons. Where do they get them? Well, museum collections, zoos, road kill, deceased house pets… you’d be surprised.

But when bones are not at hand, there is a multitude of anatomy books “for the artist”. Most commonly they include images of the skeletal and muscular systems of men, cow, pig, horse and, occasionally, lion and gorilla. The reason why these animals are more popular and their anatomy is well known is obvious: we have always taken a greater interest in ourselves and in the animals that directly affect our survival.

It is good however to see the arrival to the wider market of a quite different anatomy book. British artist and writer Katrina van Grouw is now on a book tour for The Unfeathered Bird, a publication about birds and their skeletons and muscles, with over 300 drawings representing 200 species. Never was bird anatomy so alive, with each animal depicted in lifelike positions highlighting their unique behaviors.

Nice things have been said about Katrina and her book – all praise is well deserved. Twenty-five years in the making, the publication is the result of much perseverance and influence from her heroes, John James Audubon, and George Stubbs. It is surely a daunting amount of work but the real reason for the extended production time was the struggle to find a publisher and the sources for all the skeletons. Unfortunately, as it is usually the case, Katrina also had trouble finding a niche in the fine arts background where she was coming from, facing low acceptance from her professors.

As Katrina shared in a recent Guild of Natural Science Illustrators meeting, her goal was never to compromise science and neither art, but to combine them; in her perspective, natural history art and scientific illustration are equal.

Most drawings were done in graphite over white paper, but a postproduction design choice changed them into sepia drawings on cream-colored paper, dropping the academic seriousness and imparting some warmth.

A strategic alliance with a colleague turned husband provided the necessary support with skeleton preparation. It turns out it can be quite messy living in a small house and use most of the kitchen to boil dead animals, scrape the flesh out of their bones, wire them together and have skeletons in every single empty surface, protected from pet dog “Feather”. Who would’ve guessed?!

A new publication is now under construction. Coming out in 2018 – which is the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s book The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication –, there will be an anatomy volume on domesticated animals and their wild counterparts. Something to look forward to.

  • Fig.1 – Great Cormorant, Phalacrocorax carbo
  • Fig.2 – Great Spotted Woodpecker, Dendrocopus major (with skin removed but tail attached–left; skeleton–right)