Bryce Robinson (pronouns; he/him) is an ornithological illustrator and PhD candidate at Cornell University with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Bryce teaches natural history illustration with a focus on birds as well as running his own business, Ornithologi, which he uses as a brand for his illustration work. Bryce speaks about the importance of creativity in science as well as his advice for people looking to take a deep dive into this field.
Bryce grew up on a farm and had always been interested in animals but at eight years of age, something sparked inside of him and his attention was drawn to birds. He explains –
“I started recognizing birds and wanting to put names to them. I looked them up in books and once I could identify them, I started birdwatching and making lists of what I saw. I also wanted to draw the birds I was seeing outside – so I’d go out, find birds and then I’d come back and draw everything I saw.”
This continued throughout Bryce’s childhood and although it tapered off during high school, it kicked back into gear in college and this pattern has continued into his adult life.
NATURAL HISTORY ILLUSTRATION
Even before photography, natural history illustration has played an integral role in describing and communicating ideas and observations of nature.
“It’s this long tradition in history of something that we humans do to describe the natural world around us. And continuing the practice is a way to celebrate it and carry on that tradition. I think that even with photography nowadays though, it’s still very, a very powerful tool because you have control over what you’re building in an illustration.”
That’s something Bryce shares when he teaches illustration classes – the importance and relevance of this practice.
“Of course, natural history illustration can be used to celebrate birds, but it’s still a very useful tool for research in ornithology.”
So, while of course the scientific component is very important, for Bryce, natural history illustration is also about illuminating the creative side of science to enhance the communication of science –
“I think it’s a way to bring an artful touch to something that most people don’t think science is all that artful but I actually think science itself is a very creative process and adding illustration and artwork into science helps to make it more attractive to a broader range of people.”
Although art and science are typically considered to be each other’s opposites, Bryce maintains that they can be complimentary –
“In order to be an effective scientific illustrator, you need to be a scientist in the respect of making sure that whatever you’re drawing has all the proper parts and the right size, shape, colour. But at the same time, you can be creative and change lighting to create more beautiful and captivating renditions.”
ADVICE FOR CREATIVE WILDLIFERS
Through his business, Ornithologi, Bryce has created a spaceto share for his own illustration and graphic design work. But he also hopes to build it into a platform where the next generation of illustrators can find resources, contracts and other opportunities to add their voice to the process of communicating ornithology.
Bryce has taught ornithological illustration courses at conferences to open the eyes of scientists to the value of incorporating natural history illustration into their work. He also teaches classes at Cornell University to undergraduate students with foundational drawing skills which walks them through the process of illustrating for a guidebook plate, for instance.
And the more people who Bryce meets in this field, the more talented artists he meets who don’t realise their potential in natural history illustration. His advice is to cultivate their passion –
“For people who are early career stage or students with talent in this space, I always try to share the importance of working at it and being loud about it if they’re interested.”
Sharing your work on social media is an excellent platform to build your skills and name in the field of natural history illustration – as well as gain valuable feedback on their work. For Bryce, another important aspect of becoming a successful illustrator is building your network –
“I had a really hard time, but the only reason I was make able to make it work as an independent illustrator was because I had made a lot of friends and I had shared my work with a lot of people and there were people that really liked it and wanted to support me and my development in that space.”
For Bryce, there are a lot of parallels between early career ecologists and natural history illustrators – a key one being under-resourcing which can mean people spend a huge amount of time pursuing their passions in a voluntary capacity until it pays off in the form of work. To overcome this, Bryce suggests greater appreciation within this space –
“As a community we can work on actually valuing the amount of work that goes into creating some of these images – and wherever possible, setting aside money in project budgets to pay people for this kind of work.”
Another way Bryce tries to demonstrate the importance of illustration is by integrating it into his own work. He explains that for scientists aiming to publish in top journals, illustrated figures can make their articles more impressive and impactful –
“I use illustration in my own work to show people how powerful it can be in scientific work so that people on both sides value that relationship.”
“I’m trying to work with people to create a model for people to used so that younger illustrators will come into their careers with plenty of opportunities and resources to help them.”
And for people interested in pursuing a passion for natural history illustration, Bryce’s first piece of advice is to explore it. He elaborates –
“As we get older, we often lose our ability to feel comfortable with exploration, just playing around with things, especially in illustration, trying new media just to have fun with it… but if you do have fun with it and create things you really like, you’re on the right track.”
Another great way to create the time and space for exploring this passion is by enrolling in a class because, as Bryce explains, it can be very daunting if you don’t have an intuition for how to actually start creating something from scratch.
But Bryce is an advocate for getting comfortable in the creative space – building your skills and sharing your work – and after a while, your persistence will pay off. He says –
“And once you get noticed and people like your stuff, you’ll find that opportunities start coming your way and it’s like a snowball from there!”
KEEP IN TOUCH
Want to hear more from Bryce? Tune into the podcast to hear our conversation. You can also follow his adventures and view his illustration work on his website www.ornithologi.com or social media: Instagram @ornithologi and Twitter @bw_robinson.
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