How to become a wildlife artist

Darren Rees reveals how to make a living from painting the natural world.

Darren Rees

How did you start out in your career as a wildlife artist?

I left university with a Maths degree, so not the obvious start! There’s no clear route – I saw an advert from RSPB Wales looking for illustrators and designers, and it started from there.

Lots of local art groups, wildlife charities and county publications welcome volunteers and especially the chance to use artwork for free. Get used to the idea that you’ll be asked to donate work – the important thing is to get yourself out there.

What is your typical working day?

Most artists work on a freelance basis, so there are seldom set patterns. When working on illustration contracts for book plates, there was more structure as I needed to complete a certain amount in a day. Deadlines for gallery shows mean lots of late nights in the studio. But, whether you work at home or at a communal studio, do get out in the field as much as you can – sketching at your local reserve or zoo will improve your drawing. 

What skills and experience are most valuable when starting out?

You have to know your subject. This means both learning your technical craft as an artist and acquiring knowledge of your subject. There’s a statistic that behind every learned skill, there’s 10,000 hours of practice. Art is no different.

While you are practising, watch and learn more about wildlife. It is no coincidence that some of the best bird illustrators, such as Killian Mullarney and Ian Lewington, are also some of the best field birders. Every wildlife artist has an unflinching passion for natural history. 

What are the most important skills and knowledge for developing a career in this field?

Flexibility and a willingness to learn. Having fun with paint and earning a living are often two different things, so be prepared for lots of challenges if you want to bring the two together. Very few artists are runaway successes from the start - many supplement their income by teaching, running workshops, or in my case, acting as a naturalist guide. Working for yourself also means learning the fundamental skills for running a small business: book-keeping and accounts, marketing and publicity - generally all the stuff that artists are notoriously bad at!

Presentation of your work is key. Always show your artwork in a display portfolio or as smartly framed paintings. If you are presenting your work on digital media then always use high quality scans and photographs.

How important are qualifications (for instance, an art degree)?

As an artist I am self-taught, but I have experienced some prejudice from some galleries that wanted to know which art college I had attended. Don’t be deterred by rejections - if your work is good enough it shouldn’t really matter.

What is the best thing about what you do?

The subject material itself is the reward. I have always been amazed at the diversity of natural world, and at a time when people are increasingly disconnected from nature I find my own relationship between paintings and wildlife has become more important. 

What is the most valuable piece of advice you could offer?

Never stop looking. When you no longer observe with an analytical and critical eye then your work will become formulaic and a caricature of a species. There are artists that have arrived at a tried and tested method of working that may at times seem predictable, but the successful ones always maintain an authenticity of design and more importantly content. If your painting relates to a genuine encounter and tells your own personal story then your work will always remain fresh and honest.

What inspired you to become a wildlife artist?

As a child I was given a copy of A Sketchbook of Birds by Charles Tunnicliffe. His birds were full of life - preening, feeding and flying about the page, just as they appear in the field. I also found a small field guide called Birds of Sea and Coast. The author and illustrator was a young Swedish artist called Lars Jonsson and I was hooked. 

What books/articles would you recommend?

There are many ‘how to paint’ manuals out there, most pointing to specific techniques. These can be a great help. Drawing Birds by John Busby (RSPB) is still a treasure trove of art and ideas; Tim Wootton’s excellent Drawing and Painting Birds has lots of great tips and advice and there's also the brilliant Wildlife Art series from Langford Press.

Where would you go to for more advice?

Go to an art gallery or museum to look at original paintings for real. The Nature in Art Museum, Gloucester, is the only museum in the UK dedicated to wildlife-themed work:

Also enter your work in open exhibitions and competitions:

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