Member Spotlight: Natalya Zahn
– By Natalya Zahn
“Study nature, love nature, stay close to nature. It will never fail you.”
~Frank Lloyd Wright
Like so many artists, and so many more scientific illustrators, I have spent my lifetime wondrously inspired by the natural world. The path to my current career in illustration has been somewhat roundabout, and due to a lack of formal training in the sciences I will likely always suffer from a little impostor syndrome when labeled a scientific illustrator. Nonetheless, nature has been a consistent guide throughout my life and work, and I have found a remarkably broad audience for my particular style. I am grateful daily for my role as an image maker and storyteller of natural histories.
Since my childhood, as the daughter of two successful artist/designer entrepreneurs, it was abundantly clear that art-making and adventuring were preferred activities of mine. Growing up exploring the forests and farmland of northern Vermont provided me with an endless source of wilderness discoveries, and my predisposition for processing experiences through drawing resulted in stacks of animal and plant renderings — many of which can still be found in family flat files. Amateur “field guides” of local mushroom varieties and watercolor studies of avian kitchen window casualties are among the proud features of my adolescent portfolio.
Under the sharp and enthusiastic guidance of my mother and father (both of whom hold degrees in the fine arts), and supported by an unusually robust community of artistic family friends, my skills quickly matured. Despite a bleak experience at the rural high school I attended, my creatively enriched home environment helped land me acceptance to the Rhode Island School of Design, where I majored in Illustration.
There was a period of time during my college application process when the allure of diving deep into the study of biology or zoology became a significant pull. However, after a RISD campus visit, an overwhelming gut-feeling dissolved all indecision and confirmed the path of my future practice; time and again I would be made subtly aware that although I am a gifted artist of nature and science, a serious scientist I am most definitely not.
Throughout my higher education in the arts, the fact that RISD lacked biology courses in no way kept me from using animals and natural histories as inspiration. Once I became a senior and was given full control of my own assignments, there was no stopping me; dominating my 4th year studio space was the construction of an African grassland diorama (complete with cape buffalo and lions), the modeling of a deep sea sculpture depicting an epic battle between a sperm whale and giant squid, and an independent investigation of equine skeletal anatomy.
Study-abroad summers in Australia, France, and Yellowstone National Park afforded me additional opportunities to develop a taste for travel sketchbooks. I relished the spontaneity of working from life, observing and absorbing as much as drawing. Perhaps most thrilling to me, whether I was creating sculptures or sketchbook entires, was the capacity of my work to educate a viewer; a piece of art that is both beautiful and engaging, and also able to impart a nugget of knowledge (or open up an entire world of discovery) is a hands down win-win in my book.
During my last year at RISD I found myself in a 3-dimensional illustration class with a wonderful professor who had some rather advantageous connections in the working world. Thanks to his encouragement and generous recommendation I was given my very first dream assignment post-graduation: a series of line-drawings of animals for National Geographic’s kids division.
Despite that work being the perfect kick-off for the career in illustration I desired, when it ended I found myself hazy and without a plan for how to move forward. As timing would have it, a position for an in-house graphic designer opened up just then at a boutique children’s clothing company near my hometown. Having no other fruitful leads at the time, I slipped into the role, happy to have found a source of reliable income that was at least in the creative ballpark. My days were filled primarily with advertising campaigns and digital layouts, but the post was a satisfying introduction to office life. I learned how to plan and manage complex projects — as well as people — and I became the right hand to my brilliant creative director, who lit a fire in me for textile design (a skill that would resurface in my natural illustration work over a decade later).
When I left that job, five years later, and relocated to Cambridge, MA with my then partner, I again found myself somewhat unmoored with respect to my career. I had no interest continuing in the field of graphic design, but it had been what felt like ages since I practiced illustration and I was painfully rusty in draftsmanship and mindset. I struggled to narrow down what niche I might be best suited for. Making matters more complicated, there were uncontrollable forces brewing that would soon leave me in a sort of emotional paralysis, humbled by personal loss and life upset.
Dark periods and challenges are often more revealing of character than good times, and I realized then, from my own newly steep vantage point, that before I did anything else, I needed to ground myself with heart and instinct, in a way that would guide me from the inside out, and put me back on a path I dreamt about as a kid. Reflexively, I began to seek out nature and start drawing again.
Leaning into savings, I escaped as often as possible to the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology, the Franklin Park Zoo, or on any field trip that would connect me with animals. I forged relationships with museum curators and PhD candidates in the sciences and I filled sketchbooks, which I developed into a dedicated naturalist’s blog driven purely by self-directed, science-minded work. The exercise felt wildly self indulgent, and yet, it was precisely what I needed. Slowly but surely, through the people I met and my visible presence online, paid work began to find me. I had finally unlocked a form of marketing that fit me just right.
My first big break came when an exhibit design studio based outside of Philadelphia stumbled onto a handful of my museum specimen sketches via my naturalist’s blog. I was asked to submit a proposal for an 86-acre meadow exhibit at the renowned Longwood Botanical Gardens. Over 50 pieces of illustration were needed for interpretive signage, most of which would be fabricated out of durable materials and installed, in perpetuity, outdoors. This significant prospect felt like a stroke of luck at the time, but it had in fact been hard-earned. I was ready for this, and I got the job.
The Longwood project took a year to complete, during which time I continued contributing to my naturalist’s blog and even began a new one, dedicated to dogs and inspired by my beloved Rhodesian Ridgeback, Oscar. Magazine clients found me quickly through my blogs and presence on social media, as did brands looking to enhance their product packaging designs and marketing imagery. My illustrative renderings of animals, plants and food ingredients were successfully making the leap from the scientific to the consumer market. Good old-fashioned people networking from my days spent making friends at Harvard paid off as well when institutional clients like the San Diego Zoo and MIT Media Lab came to me through a chain of recommendations.
In 2015 I was invited to develop a solo exhibit for installation at Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, MA. Itching to resurrect my textile design skills, and invigorated with a wealth of new interest in botanical subjects, I designed the show around a series of five original, watercolor-based floral patterns, each revolving around a different plant and pollinator relationship. The show was a success, and initiated a new string of projects in both the botanical illustration and textile design fields.
After a number of years of steady commercial and assorted client work, I took a break last summer to attend an artist residency in Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The trip enabled me to disconnect from deadlines and outside art direction and focus once again on that grounded desire to seek connection and inspiration from nature. Unfailing nature did not let me down.
Figure 1: Natalia Zahn, Portrait by Heather McGrath
Figure 2: Musculoskeletal Anatomy of the Sport Horse (Equus caballus); digital, 9 x 12 inches; commissioned by Tufts Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine; ©2016 Natalya Zahn
Figure 3: Magnolia & Beetles, watercolor ©2015 Natalya Zahn
Figure 4: “Soil to Sky” interpretive illustration from the Longwood Botanical Gardens Meadow exhibit, ink and gouache; ©2014 Natalya Zahn
Figure 5: A page from the Natalia Zahn's Alaska sketchbook, gouache and colored pencil, ©2016 Natalya Zahn
Figure 6: Swallowtail & Tulip Tree textile pattern, watercolor and digital; ©2015 Natalya Zahn
Figure 7: Kiki and baby Kambiri, Lowland Gorillas, acrylic and colored pencil; ©2013 Natalya Zahn
Figure 8: Kambiri Baby's Face, Lowland Gorillas, acrylic and colored pencil; ©2013 Natalya Zahn