Katrina van Grouw on the difficulty of answering a simple question

Artist/scientist/author/illustrator… To me, names are important, and it’s vital to be described by one that fits. Ironically it seems to be my lot in life to evade classification.

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“What do you do for a living?”

It’s a harmless enough question; one that ideally requires a short answer, like “astronaut” or “driving instructor”. And yet, the closest thing to a concise answer that emerges from my ensuing stream of incoherent mumbling are the words: “I produce books.”

I produce books; beautiful books that communicate beautiful science to everyday people. (I’m actually a very good communicator, both in writing and in front of an audience, but the reason why this particular question always throws me off balance will hopefully become clear as you read on.) Each book takes multiple years to create. I work on them full-time, seven days a week; think about them every minute of every day, and dream about them at night. They’re my obsession, my passion, my entire reason to live.

You might be wondering how a single book can take so long, but these are rather original, large, illustrated books with around 400 drawings in each. I am author, illustrator, conceiver and designer. For the anatomical illustrations, the mounted skeletons are invariably drawn from skeletons that we’ve cleaned and articulated at home (Husband does all the preparation work, though we’re both adept at it) as very few museum specimens are sufficiently accurate, or mounted in the required posture. So we need to obtain the specimens and do months of preparation before the illustration work can even begin.

Cattle lined up in a stall, in various stages of undress, seemed the best way to illustrate the result of “double muscling”, most obvious in the hindquarters of beef cattle. Images like this are only of real use as illustrations in a book, with the sole function of clarifying the text.

Although the drawings are, to many people, the main selling point, there’s a difference between “art books”—collections of an artist’s work on a loose theme—and illustrated books that are created to communicate a message, Mine are not art books, despite being very beautiful. My newest book, Unnatural Selection, in particular, is text-led with the illustrations serving purely to elucidate the writing.

The sorts of images necessary to illustrate a book might also be very different from the pictures an artist will produce for their own sake. Many people assume that I produce tightly detailed anatomical drawings out of choice, as works of art in their own right, and some even assume I’m some sort of arty Goth chick who’s “into skeletons”. I’ll never forget the reaction of a lady at an art demonstration (I was using the opportunity to produce illustrations for The Unfeathered Bird) who stormed out in obvious disgust muttering, “The things people draw!”

I’ve only ever produced anatomical drawings as a means to an end—as a way of communicating (though my books’ illustrations), or investigating the underlying structure of animals that I picture, alive, in my personal artwork. In my previous incarnation, as a fine artist, my creations were very, very different—loose and dark and expressive—though also concerned with the underlying structure of things and inspired by similar subjects to my books. I was deeply engrossed in large drawings of towering sea cliffs and geological formations when Princeton University Press offered to publish The Unfeathered Bird, an idea I’d been incubating for nearly 20 years. The book was supposed to be a temporary diversion, but when the time came to return to my previous artwork I found that the moment had passed. I’d moved on.

There’s a difference between artwork produced for its own sake to hang on the wall, and drawings made exclusively as book illustrations to supplement text. My anatomical drawings were only ever intended for illustration, or as a way of understanding the structure of living animals.

People have mourned this departure from the picture-making art world without appreciating that it’s impossible to move backward, even if I’d wanted to. I’ve evolved in a new direction and discovered something that ticks all the boxes for me creatively and intellectually: books.

Books offer the potential to be far more than the sum of their parts. For me it’s the entire book —the interaction of text with images, the design, the way I choose to express myself, and most of all the concept —that’s the final work of art. I love the challenge of making decisions about the best arrangement of content, or the angle of approach, confident that the answer exists but having to reach it through months of independent thought. Producing books encompasses not just my drawing skills, but writing, research, communication and my intellect most of all, and tests me to my limits. I can think of nothing finer.

The line between art and illustration is a fine one. Many works of fine art can function superbly well as illustrations, and many illustrations are sublime works of art in their own right. The distinction is not in the creations but in the professions. Being an illustrator usually involves working to someone else’s brief and taking instructions from a non-illustrator about how the illustration should be done. Just the thought of it fills me with contempt! I have no imagination when it comes to commissioned work, no passion for other people’s projects, and no inclination to subject myself to other people’s will. The purpose of illustration is to illuminate text, so it’s something of an oxymoron to describe someone primarily as an illustrator when it’s their own text they’re illustrating. For these reasons, and because I’m exceedingly proud of my written work, I dislike being described as a natural history illustrator, preferring to think of myself as an author or as an author/illustrator.

One of the challenges I enjoy most is clarifying a scientific idea through cleverly conceived illustrations. These four Budgerigars (or is it just one?) are showing how pigment layers combine to produce colors.

Even this invites preconceptions, however. When people hear the word “author” they immediately think of fiction. And when the author is a woman, and also illustrates her own books, people think of children’s fiction. After that, explaining that you actually produce books about evolution and morphology for adults is just a confirmation of their automatic expectation that your books are dull, super-specialised, and only of interest to a very limited niche market. Their response is always the same, and if I had a pound for every time someone said this, I’d be very rich indeed:

“You’re not exactly J K Rowling, then.”

To be honest, there are actually very few full time non-fiction authors. Most other authors of evolution books are university professors or researchers who would definitely describe themselves as biologists first and foremost. For many, writing books is something that’s expected of them, as part of their job.

I’d dearly love to have been able to call myself a biologist. I am, however, entirely self-taught so don’t believe I deserve that title (and certainly not the title “anatomist” which I have been called on occasion). Ironically, there are plenty of self-taught artists who claim the title “artist” as their own almost as readily as they pick up a pencil, but anyone without a relevant university degree is considered a fraud if they call themselves a scientist. Names are important, and it’s vital to be described by one that fits, although ironically it seems to be my lot in life to evade classification.

My desire for an academic education was held back – not by any lack of ability, but by a prodigious talent for drawing. The school I attended was a veritable nest of sirens – mesmerising, charismatic teachers who would lure talented and unsuspecting children into their inner sanctum and set about re-creating them in their own image. I’ll never forget the intoxicating evenings at the home of my art teacher, a particularly alluring and manipulative siren named Jill; mesmerized by her beauty, the way her long hair, released from its schoolroom bun, caught the glow of the firelight as we sat listening to Bob Dylan; enraptured by the music of her voice as she languidly spoke of art and poetry and literature, of all the things I must learn to love, and all the things I mustn’t waste my time on. When I finally awoke from the dream and remembered my passion for biology it was too late. It was only after every attempt to scrape in to an academic science education had failed that I at last, very reluctantly, committed myself to a future as a fine artist.

Being self-taught isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however. It’s by having to read and reason alone that you learn to question and think, and to draw conclusions from first hand observation. Also, by struggling to learn scientific concepts for yourself you appreciate the parts that are difficult to grasp so you become naturally better able to communicate them to other people. I’m very proud of what I’ve achieved on my own and have absolutely no doubt that my books contain a far better scientific message as a result of taking this difficult path than they ever would have otherwise.

So much for “What do you do…” but now we get on to the second part of the question— “for a living?”

Most people judge success purely in terms of whether not you make enough money to live on and, if so, how affluently you manage to live. Producing books is more of a life than a living. It’s not about making money; it’s about bringing something into the world that deserves to exist. Realistically, no-one can honestly claim to earn a sustained income from projects that take so long to complete, so you’re faced with the dilemma of whether to do other paid work—in which case the task will take even longer—or to accept the lack of income and all the feelings of worthlessness that come with it, for the sake of devoting yourself exclusively to that project. I now do the latter, though it wasn’t out of choice.

In fact my personal preference is to have a day job with nice people who say good morning and ask how my weekend was. I’ve endured my share of poverty over the years; I’ve burned the furniture to keep warm and once even masqueraded as a waitress in a busy pub so that I could eat the leftovers from people’s plates. However, it’s not for the money that I like to have a job; it’s mostly because I find I need the company and routine. Neither option is better or more worthy than the other; it’s simply a question of how you prefer to live.

I’ve tried various day jobs. At first I purposely selected the most menial jobs I could in a deliberate effort to keep “job” and “career” separate. The first was plucking chickens on an assembly line at an abattoir. This was followed by a succession of soul-destroying occupations: as a bird bander on a nature reserve for £90/week (that one even came with accommodation: a rat-infested caravan); data entry; photocopying; and, worst of all, being forgotten about altogether and paid to do nothing. Trust me—it’s not as good as it sounds.

Eventually my skills as a self-taught ornithologist and specimen preparator came to my rescue when a job arose as curator of the bird research collections at the British Natural History Museum. At the interview I talked enthusiastically about The Unfeathered Bird (still in its embryonic form) and showed photographs of skins and skeletons I’d prepared. Getting that job made me feel like the Ugly Duckling when it discovered it was a swan. You never saw anyone so happy. The job, I considered, was worth moving back south for, where properties are more expensive; worth downsizing to a tiny house and sacrificing my art studio and etching press. A few years later bad news followed good news on the same day like two barrels of a shotgun. I was invited to write a book (independently from the museum) about the history of bird art. And I was forbidden, by the head of department, from ever producing books in my spare time.

My husband now has “my” job. We’d job-shared in my final year, before I sacrificed the museum for my right to produce books, and fortunately he was able to take over my hours, so as a couple we suffered no loss of earnings. After the head of department had retired, I tried, and failed to get another post at the museum, and had similar fortune elsewhere too, leaving me utterly broken.

By now you might be starting to understand why “What do you do for a living?” is such a difficult question for me. Book royalties come but once a year and as a modern hard-working woman there’s a stigma to having to admit that our household income is virtually all provided by my husband’s job. No-one’s interested in hearing that that job used to be my own. They fill in the gaps with preconceptions: “successful scientist husband (he must be a scientist as he works at the Natural History Museum) generously supporting his (artist) wife’s hobby.”

Many people mourn the fact that I no longer do pictures like this large seascape. But artistic development is a one way trip. For me now, producing books ticks all the creative and intellectual boxes.

I love writing for an audience, so when Princeton University Press asked me to write a blog post for International Women’s Day I agreed instantly, even though I didn’t know what on Earth I’d have to say. I’ve never had a proper career, and never had a family, so I wasn’t able to talk about equal pay, or maternity leave, or sexual harassment at work. So I started writing about myself instead, and discovered that I do have something to say.

Labels, judgements, and stereotypes; pink/blue; dolls/action men; art/science; it’s one thing to loathe preconceptions from others, but how many of us are aware of them in our own behaviour? Equality isn’t just in the hands of employers; it’s the responsibility of every single one of us—women as much as men. Once we start to accept that each and every one of us has a very unique story to tell, we might be less inclined to make generalisations. And finally, what about the prejudices we level at ourselves? As a perfectly-balanced author/illustrator with a matching chip on each shoulder, I can see that change won’t happen overnight. But by challenging my own discomfort about gender expectations, what we do, and who earns the wages, I hope to someday manage to proudly look someone in the eye and say, “I produce books.”

 Katrina van Grouw, author of The Unfeathered Bird and Unnatural Selection (both Princeton), inhabits that no-man’s-land midway between art and science. She holds degrees in fine art and natural history illustration and is a former curator of ornithological collections at a major national museum. She’s a self-taught scientist with a passion for evolutionary biology and its history.