Why Monkeys Matter: Q&A with Stephen Nash, Wildlife Artist

This is the fourth and final post in our “Why Monkeys Matter” series, which has been examining how field research on primates — not just monkeys, but apes, lemurs and more — is illuminating their role in natural ecosystems and helping us protect the places we all depend on..
For today’s blog, I talked with Stephen Nash, a wildlife illustrator who drew every known species and subspecies of primate for the recent primate volume of the “Handbook of the Mammals of the World.”
1. How did you become a professional wildlife artist?
I started out wanting to be a medical illustrator, because I thought that it would be a profession in which I would learn how to draw “from the inside out” the way artists did in the past, studying the underlying anatomy first, so that surface structures were accurately and meaningfully rendered. However, I soon found out that medical illustration is less about drawing realistic anatomy these days than, say, producing images of dialysis machines.
I had always had a great interest in animals and nature, and of course admired the works of such artists as John James Audubon, Edward Lear and Peter Scott, but had no idea about how to proceed. Then, while at college in London, I had a chance conversation with John Norris Wood, who was the tutor for the Natural History Illustration course at the Royal College of Art. He encouraged me to apply first to the Scientific Illustration course at Middlesex Polytechnic, and then after completing it, to his course.
While drawing one day at the London Zoo, I came across a group of cottontop tamarins, a squirrel-sized monkey from South America. For some reason, they utterly fascinated me. Years later, I discovered that as a child, I had had a stuffed toy that strongly resembled these monkeys. Although I had forgotten about it, I believe that subconsciously I was influenced by that toy when I saw the tamarins.
I wanted to know as much about these little callitrichid monkeys as I could find. I produced a series of drawings of them just because I found them so interesting, and then got in touch with some primatologists for advice. One scientist led to another until I met Anthony Rylands, then a student at Cambridge, who suggested I contact Russ Mittermeier, who was at the time the director of the primate program at WWF-US, and who needed someone to draw primates!
The rest, as they say, is history.
2. What is your artistic process like?
I work from whatever materials scientists can provide: photos, videos, captive animals in zoos, preserved museum skins, and even verbal descriptions from old books. I have drawn a few animals in the wild, but the majority of my work is done in the studio, assessing reference materials, producing sketches of the animal in characteristic postures which show those “diagnostic parts” which differ from one species or subspecies to another. I submit these sketches to the scientists and, once they are approved, I begin work on the final drawings in a mixture of ink and colored pencil.
3. What has been your favorite primate to draw?
My favorite primates remain the New World monkeys. I have certainly drawn now not only all of the recognized taxa of living primates, but also reconstructions of a number of the extinct ones. I’ve also drawn many other types of creatures; like Russ, I have a fascination reptiles and amphibians.
4. Was any species especially challenging to paint?
Some of the subspecies of chimpanzee were a challenge, as were some of the galagos (small, nocturnal primates from Africa.) The most challenging have been the species new to science which have not yet really been documented photographically. For example, the kipunji, a species of monkey recently discovered in Tanzania and known only from a few photos, was quite difficult to draw.
5. Have you ever drawn a “new” species that had not yet been photographed?
Yes, some of the new species of mouse lemurs from Madagascar I had to draw from verbal descriptions alone, as (at the time, anyway) no photos of them existed. I am constantly updating my drawings as new reference material becomes available.
6. In this world of readily accessible photography, what role does wildlife illustration play?
I feel strongly that there will always be the need for scientific illustrations. In the case of my own type of work, I produce images which (hopefully) convey the essential distinguishing characteristics. I draw all of the members of each genus in the same posture where possible. That way, when a living animal is glimpsed in the wild, the illustrations can be looked through more quickly to identify the animal. This illustrative technique was pioneered by Roger Tory Peterson in his bird field guides.
7. How can art (both photography and illustration) encourage conservation?
The “wildlife art” tradition is very old indeed; some of the earliest art we know of depicted animals. We do not know exactly why those cave paintings and carvings were created, but I know that the act of observing and drawing or sculpting a representation of what one has seen is very beneficial — not only in terms of eye/brain/hand coordination, but in terms of intellectual understanding and empathy. In Victorian times, children drew and painted natural forms as a basic part of their school curricula, and the result was that standards of realistic drawing were very high, as was interest in the natural world.
Recently, a scientist engaged in a conservation education campaign on behalf of the highly-threatened yellow-tailed woolly monkey of Peru, conducting a competition among pupils at local schools there to produce drawings of the local fauna and flora, including the monkey. The result was really spectacular, and a calendar was published illustrated with the winning drawings.
In the early 1980s, posters, T-shirts and stickers produced for our own campaign focused on the muriqui (the largest New World monkey) brought much needed public attention to this rare animal, and acted as a catalyst for local Brazilian image-makers. Today, the muriqui is so well-known that it is in the running as a possible mascot for the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
So, the sort of mental effort required to produce a representation of an animal or plant can result in the artist becoming more “involved” with the subject. By that I don’t mean just the physical structure or anatomy, but also the character, behavior and, hopefully, its well-being as a fellow creature. In just the same way that the ancient cave paintings inspired our ancestors, art depicting wildlife continues to be a powerful tool for conservation, influencing both artists and viewers.
Stephen Nash is CI’s scientific illustrator and a professor at Stony Brook University. Molly Bergen is the managing editor of Human Nature. This is the final post in our “Why Monkeys Matter” blog series; read previous posts.