How can the act of visual documentation and illustration inform ecological or environmental issues?

How can the act of visual documentation and illustration inform ecological or environmental issues?

The concept of the visual documentation of ecological issues – specifically those of a conservational nature – has always fascinated me due to the wide range of available artistic approaches for the growing number of issues worldwide concerning endangered and soon to be extinct species. During this project I was interested to compare the visual and emotional impact of a photograph of an endangered animal, and an illustration portraying the same issue. Using background knowledge of the subject through my zoologist grandfather Dr. Peter Crowcroft, and his close friend and conservationist colleague Gerald Durrell, I set out to review how contemporary and historical artists have tackled the threat of extinction, either indirectly or directly to their target audience through the media of illustration.

When thinking of ecological and environmental issues my upbringing in Jersey means that I think immediately about endangered species and conservation, in the form of Jersey’s wildlife centre, the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust. Originally called, Jersey Zoo, a name whose obvious overtones meant that it definitely needed rebranding, the Trust was set up by zoologist Gerald Durrell (1925 – 1995) who dedicated his life to protecting and improving the lives of species around the world. As depicted in one of his successful books, ‘My Family and Other Animals’, Durrell’s passion for animals started at a very young age, and his playful illustrations throughout the book which are appealing to both children and adults evoke his love for the animal kingdom. In addition to his autobiographical works, he has also published well loved children’s books illustrated by Ralph Thompson whose artwork really brings the stories to life. Despite photography being an unavailable media for some of the stories due to their fantasy subject matter or historical context, as with most children books illustrations are one of the most interesting and thought-provoking mediums for both the children and the parents encouraging them to read.

Durrell advertisements and posters do not tend to venture far into the television or newspapers in Jersey, as their main spending priority for profits they make at the centre – through ticket and gift shop sales – is for sustaining the habitats and the animals inside and outside the centre. This does mean, however, that they rely greatly on sales of unique and varied gifts and memorabilia in their shop which often have contributions from well known Jersey artists, such as fine artist Ian Rolls and illustrator Lauren Radley. Their styles are greatly dissimilar, but their success is due to their ability to bring a landscape to life with colour and composition, which is even more popular with buyers when the cost of the image is going towards a good cause.

Dr. Peter Crowcroft (1922 – 1996), my grandfather, was one of the first zoologists to publish a monograph about the House Mouse, and other similar ‘every day’ English small mammals, notably the Common Shrew and the Mole. He also was a director of several international zoos, working to improve animals’ captive habitats in Chicago, Sydney, and Toronto. ‘Mice All Over’, which resulted from a commission by the British government concerned about the effect on post-war food stocks of rodent infestations, documents the exploration of the habits and behavior of House Mice within their colonies, and has a combination of photography and illustrations to show his discoveries. Though photography is a key method of quickly and accurately documenting animal movements, his illustrations of birds-eye view plans for new mouse enclosures are fascinating, as well as being a very clear and accessible method of cataloguing his findings.

A later book, ‘The Zoo’, includes photography of animals from zoos that he directed taken by wildlife photographers Harry Millen, Leland La France and Reg Morrison. One of the sets of photographs of a young adult gorilla from Brookfield Zoo, Chicago, depicts the primate making a series of humorous, human-like facial expressions. One important benefit of the photograph media in this instance is that because of the unusual behaviour of the primate, a drawing would not be a necessarily ‘believable’ account; the facial expressions appear unusual, from our assumptions of what the ape should look like, and in this case ‘seeing is believing’. There are, however, aspects of wildlife photography that translate well into drawing; for instance, sequencing shows movement and makes a static form more energetic by bringing the animal to life as you can see its subtle changes in movement.

A simple online search of ‘photography vs drawing’ leads to artist Ben Heine who directly incorporates both mediums in fantasy and realistic scenarios. Though his drawing style is not to my taste, I can appreciate the careful composition and the use of imagination that goes into each of his pieces. Heine incorporates the two mediums in a lighthearted way by often putting drawings of animals and humans into unlikely scenarios he could not achieve by one medium alone. “I wasn’t satisfied with only drawing or only photography, so I had to find a way to merge the two,” he said in 2014. This practice is very common as illustrators work back into their original photography, or use collage as a method of making something new out of an old image, but it is interesting to see this methodology used in a ‘live’ scenario as the photo is taken with the drawing on location.

The argument between the strength in either photography or illustration lies within the exploration of how we, as people who make our assumptions of the world from our own experiences, interpret either medium as superior. This open-ended question is discussed in Paul Messaris’ book, ‘Visual Literacy: Image, Mind & Reality’, wherein he begins with the opening statement,

‘How is it that pictures … can conjure up a world of almost palpable objects and events despite the many differences between the appearance of the real world and the appearance of any kind of picture, no matter how realistic?’ (Messaris, 1994, p. 2)

This premise explores how mere images can sometimes be more emotive than the ‘real life’ object, which is particularly prevalent in the topic of endangered species. Furthermore, the fact that the public can rarely see the endangered species or its habitat in person means that our emotive response to an image is crucial in putting out messages of conservation and preservation.

The World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) is well known for its important animal work and uses advertisements successfully in order to make the public aware of the risk endangered species are currently facing worldwide. The organisation uses a combination of graphic imagery and distinct typography to create a powerful impact on the public in a hope for “people living in harmony with nature” (WWF, 2014), as their main source for income is donations. Though their photography is effective, I believe their more successful campaigns are those that combine illustrative and graphic design components as the public becomes increasingly de-sensitized to photographs of wildlife, despite being shown their often poor environments in cases of endangered species. This means they have to keep producing new innovative imagery to grab the attention of the public, which keeps their image up-to-date and exciting.

The art project ‘Ghosts of Gone Birds’ involves a group of 200 practitioners, including such artists as Ralph Steadman and fine artist Charming Baker, who exhibited works of extinct birds with the goal of “breathing life back into the birds we have lost – so we don’t lose anymore”, (Ghosts of Gone Birds, 2014). Their shows around London have raised money through both donations and a percentage of profits of a published book and prints to help conservation of currently endangered birds worldwide. Projects like this are really effective for raising money and awareness for causes that don’t always get publicized in mainstream media.

The concept of showing people animals they wouldn’t usually be able to see through photography and film has been a crucial method of transferring information since the film camera was invented. As discussed in Dr. Andrew Howells’ essay ‘How does cross-disciplinary exchange influence interpretation for the Natural History Illustrator?’, photography can however be an unreliable method of capturing images due to ‘variables and anomalies’ such as differences ’time of day’, ‘technical proficiency of the photographer and their equipment’ and ‘the position of a photographer in relation to their subject’ (Howells, 2014, pp. 25-26). Though this predominately applies to natural history illustration practice, this can apply across various other uses for photography. Now that everyone with access to a smart phone is able to take fairly good photographs, the question is posed as to whether photography is now taken for granted and no longer a novelty since it is so readily available. Though good photography still requires a certain amount of talent, as to composition and colour editing, the value of drawing has increased with the need for unique, one-of-a-kind images that are simply unattainable through photography alone.

Domesticated animals and other well-loved zoo animals from the wild are widely depicted in art throughout history as our ever-growing fascination with the natural world leads us to paint and draw the animals around us. I noticed this especially in an exhibition at the Russell-Cotes Museum where there was only one painting that included ‘a rare sighting of an insect, within a gallery full of images of other animals of the feathery and furry kind’ (Russel-Cotes Museum, 2016). There is a significant under-representation of amphibians and reptiles in art perhaps as viewers take more pleasure in viewing animals they consider ‘cute’, or can relate to in some way with some kind of emotive reaction – ‘is it because we cannot with a life-form so different from our own?’, (Russell-Cotes Museum, 2016). This lack of representation of animals such as frogs may help to explain why there may be a certain lack of compassion for their decreasing numbers as we are rarely met with images of the creature, unless it is actively searched for. This may change,  however, as contemporary illustrators search for new and exciting creatures to include in their work to differentiate their designs from others and move away from nature illustration’s traditional trends of horses.

Technical illustrations of botanic plants and animals are an art-form in itself, with many different types of ‘proper’ methods to recreating live objects to an exact manner. The book ‘A Handbook of Biological Illustration’ by Frances W. Zweifel details the many specifications for creating accurate illustrations, as ‘scientific illustration is the next best thing to holding a specimen in your hand and examining it’ (Zweifel, 1988, p. xiii). The main method for traditional technical illustrations is dip pen and ink using varying nib sizes, or coarse pens in scratchboard drawings in order to create an exact line. These were mostly in a black and white format as scientific textbooks are usually monochrome; this means that colour cannot always be shown so tonal contrast is vital in making the illustrations 3-dimensional and life-like. Though these types of drawings are really effective in their purpose to document precise information of an animal’s anatomy, they do lack a certain degree of emotion and may fail to elicit compassion in the viewer.

Ernst Haeckel’s ‘Kunstforman der Natur’, (translated to ‘Art Forms in Nature’), bridges the gap between realistic technical illustrations and surrealism with the lithograph and halftone prints. The biologist was fascinated with the concept of evolution and Darwin’s ‘On the Origin of the Species’ and his work and artwork became centered around the metamorphosis from one species of an animal to another. His work has a great sense of sequence with careful compositions and layout to heighten what could be simple detailed technical illustrations to a greater level of decorative and thought-provoking images. Unlike many other nature artists, Haeckel does not shy away from less aesthetically pleasing animals as he depicts all types of creatures ranging from frogs to bats, and transforms them into beautiful illustrations.

An illustrator of eight of Durrell’s books Ralph Thompson (1913 – 2009) was an artist who in particular focused his work on animals. His book ‘Dance of the Brush’ is fascinating as it shows his creative process, from playful locational drawing sketches to his just as energetic final pieces. Thompson worked closely with wildlife charities and organizations, particularly Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, for a number of years and made a significant contribution to the conservation of wildlife for which he was highly commended by zoologists such as Durrell himself: “Many of the things he had drawn were so accurate that he might well have been with me in Africa, peering over my shoulder at the things I saw” (Art in the wild, 2015). His paintings are arguably much more effective than any photograph of the same composition, as his skilled media application brings animals to life in ways that a photograph alone cannot.

Children’s books are a really accessible and direct way of portraying animals from around the world in playful and thought-provoking stories for all ages of youngsters. A trend many contemporary children’s book illustrators are currently attracted to is the juxtaposition of rough textural colouring with smooth and precise line-work – one of the most notable practitioners of this media technique is author of the book ‘The Very Hungry Caterpillar’, Eric Carle. As a child, one my favourite books of his was ‘Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?’, also written with Bill Martin, Jr; the book is designed to help grow toddlers’ association between colour, sound and meaning through the depiction of brightly coloured zoo animals. This fun and vibrant portrayal of the wild animals could also help secure a stronger bond between children and wildlife to help build an early sense of compassion for the world around them.

During a Futurology and Trend lecture with futurologist Anna Pegg, she stated that being aware of both current and future trends is essential for contemporary practitioners to know what will be popular in the public eye. She quoted from futurist Faith Popcorn “Trends signal the emerging needs, wants, and aspirations of the consumer”, (Pundir, 2007, p. 256). Good contemporary artists keep aware of popular trends in illustration as their work is more likely to be successful and up to date with some considerations for what is popular, even if their style or content does not change. In my opinion, Carle was one of the initiators of the current trend in colouring and texture as contemporary practitioners begin to revert from flat block colour into more tactile and varied imagery. This method of colouring is complementary to nature and animal stories as it mirrors the real textures of the plants and fur/feathers in an interesting way.

A well-known illustrator in the children’s book world currently is Arts University Bournemouth graduate, Emily Hughes, author of the successful book ‘Wild’. The story follows a feral girl raised by bears, which is depicted through clever composition and playful colour palette. Particularly successful is the varying depth of field and layers of different textures used to build up the vibrant environment that is constant throughout the book. On her blog she describes her motivation for creating children’s books: “Explaining something in 32 pages for a child helps instill lessons I want to better understand and practise myself” (Emily Hughes, 2014). This ‘lesson’ could be a need for compassion for the environment, that the protagonist of the book feels, which could be a tool Hughes utilizes to inform youngsters of worldwide issues of environmental preservation. Durrell and Crowcroft were both aware of the strong influence an author can have on children as, ‘recent children’s books [have] an expression of concern for the conservation of endangered species’, (Crowcroft et al., 1978, p. 15), and it is has been an effective method of portraying subtle life-lessons and morals to youngsters for many years.

Illustration is a way of putting across messages and informing the public of environmental and ecological issues in a way that words cannot, regardless of age or understanding – ‘Illustrations cross language barriers’, (Zweifel, 1988, p. xiii). The visual documentation and illustration of environmental and ecological issues is vital for portraying important messages to the public in a growing range of methods and contexts, especially in children’s books. A new wave of young illustrators are featuring on the bookshop shelves and bringing the wildlife world into children’s bedrooms, which hopefully can reassert the new generation’s connection and concern with the world around them with education, as “art is the most immediate form of knowledge” (Welling, 2014, p. 784).

Word count: 2736

Referencing List:

Art in the wild (2015) Available at: (Accessed: 18 February 2016).

Crowcroft, P. (1973) Mice all over. Brookfield, IL: Chicago Zoological Society.

Crowcroft, P., Millen, H., La France, L. and Morrison, R. (1978) The zoo. Milson’s Point, N.S.W.: Mathews/Hutchinson.

Durrell wildlife conservation trust (no date) Available at: (Accessed: 16 December 2015).

Ghosts of Gone Birds (2014) Available at: (Accessed: 13 January 2016).

Heine, B. (no date) Available at: (Accessed: 13 January 2016).

Howells, D. A. (2014) ‘How does cross disciplinary exchange influence interpretaion of the Natural History Illustrator?’ VaroomLab Journal Interpretation, (3), pp. 19-33.

Hughes, E. (no date) EMILY M HUGHES. Available at: (Accessed: 13 January 2016).

Messaris, P. (1994) Visual ‘literacy’: Image, mind and reality. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Pundir, N. (2007) Fashion technology today and tomorrow 1st edition. New Delhi: Mittal Publications.

Russell-Cotes Museum (2016)

Welling, E. (2014) A marriage of philosophy and music: A pianist’s view. Available at: (Accessed: 18 February 2016).

Zweifel, F.W. (1988) A handbook of biological illustration. 2nd edn. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.


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