Want to Work With Wildlife?
We talk with Nature Artist Aleta Karstad
Do you love to draw? Aleta Karstad does too and she’s spent her whole life capturing Canada’s critters in her artwork — from slugs to snakes. For her creative imagination and hard work she was honored with the Canadian Wildlife Federation’s Robert Bateman Award this year. Want to follow in her footsteps? Keep reading!
When did you first pick up a paintbrush and what made you want to paint wildlife?
AK: From the time I was three, I drew animals all the time. The world of nature was fascinating and beautiful, and I actually thought that people were rather boring. My parents bought me two books about the art of John James Audubon, and I memorized the paintings. As I became a teenager, I focused on horses, drawing them from memory. Everything I drew was from memory. I painted mice on Christmas cards, and made a tiny story book about a Garter Snake and a mouse as a present for my little brother.
What is the coolest wildlife drawing session you’ve ever had?
AK: I was doing a watercolour of a Winter Flounder that was being kept in an ocean flow tank. I had decided to paint a side view of the fish, but it kept facing me, cocking its eyes (one on the top of its head, and the other on the side) to look at me. I eventually got two paintings done on the same piece of paper, as the Flounder moved around the tank — one side view, and one little portrait of its face from the front — because it spent so much time studying me through the glass!
Where has your sketchbook taken you in Canada?
AK: I’ve drawn and painted all across Canada, from Newfoundland on the Atlantic Ocean, to Haida Gwaii on the Pacific Ocean, and I've travelled and camped in all the provinces between. I took the train to Churchill, Manitoba, on the shore of Hudson’s Bay, and painted watercolours of tundra plants.
Have you ever drawn animals that are at risk? Do you think it’s important to capture images of these endangered animals?
AK: I painted all the Endangered freshwater mussels of Ontario, for the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, and since then, my biologist husband and I have discovered new populations of almost all the rare species of freshwater mussels in eastern Ontario, within two hours of where we live. A lot of my illustration work has been detailed watercolours to help with the identification of kinds of animals that people don’t usually think of as having different species — like crayfish, slugs, snails and mussels. I have painted all the reptile and amphibian species of Canada and it’s really wonderful to get to know the personality of each one!
What animal is hardest to draw or paint? How do you manage to get a good likeness of the animal?
AK: Shy animals are the hardest to draw and paint — sometimes I’ve waited for over half an hour for a shy kind of slug to poke out its tentacles and decide that it was safe enough to begin to explore the damp piece of bark I was holding so that I could draw its portrait.
What should kids study to become a nature artist?
AK: You don’t have to study anything before you start. You just need curiosity, and respect for nature, patience and perseverance. Drawing from nature will exercise all of these parts of your character. Practice, practice, practice!
If a kid wanted to start drawing or painting wildlife species, do you have any tips for them?
AK: Keep your pencils sharp, and count and measure the parts of your subject. Pay attention to proportion — like counting how many widths of something would fit into the length. Use your finger and thumb to compare angles.
What subject would be a good subject to paint or draw if you’re just starting out?
AK: Start by drawing plants: leaves, seeds, fruits, twigs and flowers. These are good for practice because they don’t move much. Shells are good too, because you have to get their curves right! For mammals and birds, you can practice sketching your pets at home, or animals in a zoo. Snails, slugs, and insects of all kinds are wonderfully diverse and exciting, and they are all around! Spiders are also awesome to draw. These invertebrate creatures are small and accessible, and easy to keep as guests for a while as you draw or paint them.
Do you have any advice for kids that want to become nature artists when they grow up?
AK: Every detail that you notice may be an important detail — maybe no one but you has ever noticed this particular detail. An observant and careful wildlife illustrator can make important contributions to science! Learn to use Photoshop to edit your drawings and paintings for publication. If you’re using photographs as reference, take as many photos as you can, and don’t rely on just one, because photos often distort or exaggerate features, or fail to show important details.