Member Spotlight: Kris Kirkeby
This article appears in the 2016 no.3 Journal of Natural Science Illustration
Still Loving Scientific Illustration
– Kris Kirkeby
I love remembering two things from my childhood. One, there was never enough drawing paper and two, I treasured hearing my parents say, “We had a young daughter who liked science and we didn’t quite know what to do with her other than encourage her.” What a gift!
I am happy for the chance to share with you some of my professional experiences demonstrating things I feel a passion for as well as ones that have impacted my professional life.
My first professional conference was an AMI meeting. I wandered around quite a bit, not really relating to very much of the program. I poked my head in a classroom where Trudy Nicholson stopped her presentation, saying “Come in, come in!” So began this lovely experience of learning and friendship the Guild of Natural Science Illustrators has given me over the years. I count GNSI as a major influence for my education as a natural science illustrator.
I have loved any course offered by John Cody, Jerry Hodges, Trudy Nicholson or Nancy Halliday. I’ll forever see the multitude of greens in a single shrub thanks to Marlene Hill Donnelly’s Painting Greens class. And Ikumi Kayama’s classes are so accessible for the person with a couple of toes in the digital world. These are but a few Guild people who have contributed to my artistic development and continue to do so.
I’ve also done presentations and workshops at Guild Conferences. I had great fun putting together one called Drawing On Our Senses, which focused on how the brain processes visual images and how we can bring that awareness to illustrations.
My respect for the organization has made me want to contribute. I chaired the 1990 Minnesota national conference and, just so that no good deed goes unpunished, I served as president 1992-4. During that time I helped shape and launch the Education Fund and over the years I have served on the Nominating Committee. End of hint: volunteer for us! [ — --> :]
My education in biology and fine arts has been a perfect mix for me. I started illustrating at age 19 during what I call my “boiling butts” period. Trained as a research histologist, I prepared insect genitalia slides for taxonomy studies as well as illustrations of forest defoliators. I also ran the insectory, where, among others things, I enjoyed watching the behavior of the beautiful forest tent caterpillar — its body looks like a fine tapestry.
For many years I worked for the seven departments within the College of Biological Services at the University of Minnesota. I appreciated being a generic illustrator with no particular specialty. Every new job meant learning new science so I’ve never had to decide between art and science.
I also love the research start for a formal illustration. Quite often researchers don’t provide enough background material. This is usually fine with me (budget concerns aside) since I always get pulled into learning more than I will actually use to do the illustration.
I enjoy studying light falling on form. One of my favorite projects was illustrating lichens, working under the direction of the lichenologist Dr. Clifford Wetmore. For most of my career, publication costs mandated black and white work and researchers got charged for half-tones. At a GNSI meeting, Lucy Taylor taught the use of coquille board and I was off and running. This board allows one to make graduated tonal values that reproduce as black and white line art, which was important in those days. Now in semi-retirement I like exploring color, using watercolors for my artwork.
I have expanded my knowledge, doing illustrations for the University of Oregon Museum of Natural and Cultural History, working with display designers, archeologists and paleontologists. I’ve dipped my pen into the lives of the first indigenous peoples and learned about the animals of the Pleistocene in our region.
An evangelical educator, I truly believe that the study of visual arts adds much more than just technical skill like drawing or painting. I designed an art and biology curriculum, teaching for five Minnesota Artist Residency Programs for K-12 schools. I lean the curriculum more toward the arts, since science is always taught. In 2000 I expanded my bird units into a program called Audubon in the Schools which, to date, has reached over 10,000 students. I never tire of a young student holding up their work saying, “This is the best drawing I’ve ever done!” Natural science illustrators are uniquely able to inspire and contribute as teachers — it is so important to empower our youth!
Hiking in nature continually sharpens my visual memory. I love these times with my husband John, who has taught me to look up and out rather than always studying the delightful minutia around me or at my feet. As a result I see our beautiful natural world as a complex but complete wonder.
Sketchbooks hold a place near and dear to my heart and soul. I know the brain fixes visual and written information differently. As I age, I enjoy combining written information with images. In doing so my own sketchbooks provide richer memories that flood over me when I see them again; these drawings are quite personal. People define sketchbooks in their own way: my sketches become almost studies within a drawing journal while others practice doing light, airy, ten-minute sketches. Ultimately the goal is to learn and find pleasure in what we do.
Figure 1: Kris Kirkeby; photo © John Carter
Figure 2: Reading an article on dinosaur/bird evolution I became fascinated with the anatomical changes, so I painted the antitrochanter area in a bird.” watercolor; © 2012 Kristine A. Kirkeby
Figure 3: sketchbook entry: Gray Owl with Grandsons; graphite; © 2008 Kristine A. Kirkeby
Figure 4: sketchbook entry: Arles Street; watercolor; © 2013 Kristine A. Kirkeby
Figure 5: Gooseneck Barnacles, Pollicipes polymerus, Sea Lettuce, Ulva fenestrata, California Mussels, Mytilus californianus and Woody Chiton, Mopalia lignos; water-resistant wax pastels; © 2016 Kristine A. Kirkeby