The creature artist tells us why animals have always been part of her life
Terryl Whitlatch talks animals.
Where did you grow up and how has this influenced your art? I grew up in northern California and the Florida Panhandle, which are both wonderful places to be exposed to animals and nature. What, outside of art, has most influenced your work? It’s actual animals – both existing and prehistoric – above all that have influenced my art. I’ve always wanted to understand them and to draw them well. They are my first love as far as subject matter goes, much more than doing imaginary creatures. What paintings or drawings inspired you as a child? The way Bob Kuhn captured accuracy and movement of an animal was spot on, and I wanted to be able to do that, too. I wanted to understand the muscles and sinews that Jay Matternes drew in his prehistoric mammal murals for the Smithsonian Institution. I was also entranced by Dr. Seuss: his free-wheeling imagination would inspire me to take real animals and their imaginary offspring, and have them do very interesting things! Can you name one person who helped you on your way? It was a wonderful day when Gene Christman, the senior scientific illustrator at the University of California at Berkeley, came to my high school. He showed that I could do animal art for a living – scientific illustration – and my path was set.
What was your next step in art? My interest in art was always intertwined with my interest in zoology, animals and horses. I studied hard in school because I wanted to be accepted into the zoology programs at college. Most of my art education is self-taught. It helped that my father was a biologist who taught high school biology and chemistry, and that my mother was an illustrator. She just demonstrated the basics, and then left me to dabble on my own.
What was your first paid commission? I was 15 and I had won third prize in a high school art competition. It was a pen and ink drawing of a humorous pig, and I sold it to an adult who admired it. I was so excited that a grown-up would pay good money for my work!
I’d be delighted if I taught someone to love and appreciate real animals
What’s the last piece that you finished, and how do the two differ? It’s an illustration for my upcoming book Bestiary (Titan Books): a group of magical Kitsune foxes from Japanese mythology. The main difference between that funny pig is that the foxes are done much more loosely while still retaining accuracy, while the pig was drawn more tightly. But that’s pretty typical of artistic growth: more youthful work focuses in on the details, while more mature work focuses on the basics of form and light.
Is your art evolving? My art is going into a more experimental, decorative direction, where I’m combining realism with abstracts and linear design, as in Art Nouveau and Art Deco. It’s a great way to tell a story and symbolically get a point across. My focus is going increasingly toward symbolic and decorative directions, as in Klimt and Mucha. I’m also learning more digital techniques, and combining them with traditional media. What’s the most important thing that you’ve taught someone? I’m still learning myself, but I’d be delighted if I taught someone to love and appreciate real animals. I also hope that I’ve inspired others to persevere no matter what the circumstances of life they find themselves in. To not be afraid of messing up, and to take courage and journey on. Courage is persevering even when one is discouraged. I know that my mistakes are my best teachers. What advice would you give to your younger self? Practice makes better, and you will grow if you keep on creating. Why is the fantasy art industry still the best place to be working? Because, in spite of the hard work involved, what other profession requires your imagination to have such wings, and to soar everyday?!
Terryl thinks that, “There’s a lot of fantasy art out there, at all levels of skill. What worries me is that much of it looks alike, and melds into each other.”
The hippo god Terryl was entranced by the swamps and springs of northwestern Florida during her growing-up years.