Multi-talented artist and scientific illustrator Meg English can create a detailed drawing of a newly discovered insect species one moment, then work on a stunning portrait, children’s book illustration or even a cartoon the next. Such diversification of talent is a rare find – and we’re lucky enough that Meg lives locally in Toormina …
Hi Meg. What part of the Coffs Coast do you call home these days?
I live in the leafy suburb of Toormina near Sawtell. For me, this area has the perfect combination of wonderful climate, nice people and beautiful beaches. I’m also a big fan of the lovely cafés in Sawtell, where I often sneak away to work.
When/how did you discover you had a talent for illustration?
I’ve always drawn and painted, but I only realised that I was good at it in Year 6, when other kids said that another student and I were the best drawers in the class. I think that drawing just came naturally to me, so I had supposed before then that everyone found it easy.
Having said that, I think that the biggest part of most talent is the inclination to keep trying, or the inability to stop pursuing what you love. School also taught me that I think very visually, which is my excuse as to why my books were full of little drawings in the margins.
Describe what a “Scientific Illustrator” does … It sounds like there’d be a significant amount of research involved with this occupation?
A scientific illustrator works with scientists to visualise or document a theory, concept, discovery, species or experiment. This can include botanical or faunal illustrations, anatomical diagrams, maps, or visualisations of cultures or species that no longer exist, among many other things. Illustrations can be used to simplify or exaggerate what is seen, document something or explain the subject matter in a way that can’t be captured by photography. The role of scientific illustrators in documenting plants and animals is increasingly important – experts calculate that between 0.01 and 0.1% of all species will become extinct each year, and yet it has been figured that there are still over 5 million species waiting to be found.
How much research is involved depends on the subject matter, but also the client. Sometimes you get 20 great, clear photos and written explanations to work with, and other times you get a critter in a jar. I often have to look up various aspects of anatomy in more detail, which is where having a science degree comes in handy. I also have a collection of resource materials to better understand what I am drawing – I keep a lot of dried plants, shells, dead coral and various insects for reference, a collection which my children regularly contribute to with dead bugs they find on the way home from school.
How did you become involved with this field?
I studied Biology at university. We spent a lot of lab time drawing specimens under the microscope in order to understand them, and this made a lot of sense to me as a visual learner. Actually, I got a bit carried away and had to learn to simplify and not get caught up in the details or the shading. I ended up changing majors to Scientific Psychology, and similarly found the only way for me to understand such a volume of information was to redraw or repackage it.
When I left uni, I really needed to get back to Fine Arts, as the artistic side of me felt unfulfilled. I decided to follow in the footsteps of some of my favourite Australian artists and went to Julian Ashton, where I was so lucky to get a very practical, classical education. Over the years I have learnt to diversify this training into digital media through cartooning, animation and graphic design skills.
My career since then has been a very varied course through scientific editing, teaching, tutoring, writing and research, while always being an artist. I find I need to balance the more academic side of myself with the artistic side, so in the last few years have found a happy balance in scientific illustration. And interestingly, because it keeps that logical, curious, disciplined side of me fulfilled, it frees up my other artworks to be more creative and expressive.
You have other artistic skills in your repertoire too. I believe you can illustrate children’s books … What projects of this nature have you been involved with?
So far I have completed the cover of a book for teens called Bushfire, by Elizabeth Mellor, about the 2009 bushfires in Victoria, and have contributed illustrations to a few others. I was lucky enough to win a mentorship with the Australian Society of Authors a few years ago for one of my own books, Agatha the Witch. I’m hoping to finally complete this book for publication this year and a few others that have come out of this mentorship.
Cartoons and portraiture are also amongst your talents. How do you balance working in such different genres?
I think each genre can exercise a different part of your personality and reward you in different ways. I’ve always drawn portraits, since I was in school – I remember narrowly missing a detention for drawing through maths, because my teacher liked the picture I drew of him. In a way, portraits are like scientific illustration, in that they are documenting a moment in time and preserving it. However, portraits are also about catching that extra essence of someone so it “feels” like them. This is so challenging, but so rewarding when you see that person’s face light up. It’s a gift to show someone the best part of them.
Cartooning has come more recently for me. I had to learn to simplify and exaggerate more and let go of details. I work in a number of cartoon styles, from graphic novels through political cartoons and fun cartoons and clipart for logos, parenting magazines and teaching resources. Cartooning was how I found my voice in art and has even helped me work through a lot of my personal issues or express my political opinions, without boring my friends on Facebook.
What materials do you most like to work with to create your illustrations (and why)?
I really love watercolour, because I find it really flexible – it can give a soft or a strong effect and can handle a lot of detail. Occasionally I supplement it with watercolour pencil and gouache.
I also work in acrylics, ink, oils, chalk pastels, graphite pencil and even charcoal, depending on the subject matter. I see illustration as a craft in the older sense, in that we need to master many styles and mediums so that we can produce the right illustration for the job.
In addition, I work digitally
on Photoshop and Illustrator, especially for vector images that need to be resized. Often I work between hand drawn and digitally-produced art, drawing on to paper first then tracing it on the computer. For me, this sometimes gives the final work a bit more heart.
Describe your work space. What would we see if we walked through the door?
I work in lots of mediums, so I have different work areas set up in my studio. I have a converted wardrobe for my art supplies – I’m an “everything in its place” sort of person. Around the corner is the wet area desk with drying and storage racks above it. Next to it is a set of shelves with my lightbox and a basket or folder for each project, so I remember where I’m up to – which is essential for me, as I often have a number of projects on the go at the one time. Around this I have pictures and gifts from my kids to inspire me and lots of vases, glasses and boxes filled with pencils and paintbrushes. There’s a large window overlooking the garden that lets in lots of fresh air and sunlight, which is really important to how I work.
My computer, graphic tablet and scanner are on the other side of the room next to my drawing board, along with my very hard-working industrial shelves with all my art books, reference materials and knick-knacks. Lastly, I have all my satchels and portable easels behind the door, so I can just pick them up and whizz out the door on an adventure.
Where can we see more samples of your work, or contact you if we’re interested in commissioning you?
My website is the best place to find me – megenglish.com or people can email directly at email@example.com
I’m also putting lessons up at blueberrybeetle.com, an online art school, so please watch that space as well.