Sarah Markes is an artist whose intricate depictions of wildlife echo a bygone era. Following her "itchy feet," she currently resides in Africa, where she works with WCS Tanzania. We reached out to Markes to talk about animal-centric art in the digital age.
WCS: What message about wildlife in Tanzania do you hope people take from your work?
SM: For me inspiration is key to everything. Since childhood, I have been hugely inspired by David Attenborough—who is responsible for much of my fascination and love for the natural world. He helped me experience, learn about, and want to protect nature. Tanzania's unique and wonderful natural heritage is still hugely under appreciated within the country and abroad, both for its intrinsic value as well as its crucial role in sustaining an ever-growing human population. I aim to spread awareness of this value by showcasing wildlife research and highlighting the crucial work of the conservationists struggling to protect it. I can only hope that my work is able to inspire and motivate people to support wildlife conservation in Tanzania and beyond.
WCS: What can your work do that photographs of wildlife cannot?
SM: My work includes quite accurate wildlife and botanical illustrations as well as more 'creative' art pieces. But in both cases, creating artwork by hand means I can choose which aspects of the subject to highlight, whether it is to aid identification of a species, or just to be as aesthetically appealing as possible.
I am constantly amazed how receptive people are to art—I think partly as the media is so saturated with photographs that we can become a bit dulled to their impact. Drawings and paintings still have a more unique appeal through their relative rarity, which helps heighten their effect and perceived value.
Illustration also has the advantage of flexibility—I can create different styles and compositions depending on the context and aim, whether it's a simple, bold image for an awareness raising t-shirt, a more complex educational infographic to represent an ecosystem, or a painting to simply inspire.
"The media is so saturated with photographs that we can become a bit dulled to their impact."
WCS: There was a time when scientific drawings were far more prevalent. Have we lost anything in moving almost exclusively to photography?
SM: Admittedly I am biased, but I do think it's a great shame that, like many old crafts, the discipline of creating scientific drawings is rarer these days. Although I believe that scientific drawings are still alive and well in certain niches.
Natural history illustration like that of John Audubon and Franz Bauer is an incredible art, combining intricate accuracy with masterful compositions. Those two depicted key aspects of the plant or animal, and their work was also extremely aesthetically appealing—form and function perfected.
This legacy is carried on today by people such as Jonathan Kingdon. I think it's fair to say that illustrations like his are still widely appreciated and used in identification of species and also as pieces of beautiful, educational art. In addition to artistic skill and practice, a huge knowledge of anatomy, biology, and behavior goes into each image, which may take hours, if not days, to craft. Although good wildlife photography takes vast amounts of time, skill, and patience it is much more reliant on capturing moments and individuals in their environment rather than this more comprehensive study and depiction of a species.
But overall, I think scientific drawing and wildlife photography are complementary and both should be celebrated and encouraged.
You can read more from Markes on our photo blog, Wild View.
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