Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Interview with Artist: Emily Willoughby

Emily is a professional illustrator who specializes in dinosaurs (both living and extinct) and loves anything and everything with feathers. Her work has appeared in a variety of places both online and off, including the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, the Chicago Field Museum, Scholastic, Highlights for Children Magazine, the Scientific American network, and the National Geographic society. 
Though an illustrator by trade, she has a bachelor's degree in biology and intends to eventually pursue a master's in ornithology. In addition to illustration, she is involved in wildlife rehabilitation and has also interned for the New Jersey Audubon Society. Most recently she has been involved in an anti-creationism book project with her partner Jonathan Kane, which is nearly ready for publication. She currently lives in Belle Mead, NJ.
A trip to the Alberta badlands and Royal Tyrrell Museum in 2006 was a formative inspiration for Emily's current interest in paleontology.

Question 1: At what age did you become interested in dinosaurs?  Were they always a subject of your art?

EW: I've been interested in dinosaurs for as long as I can remember, with earliest dinosaur memories coming by the way of Dinotopia and myriad other children's books. I enjoyed drawing them as roaring monsters as much as any other dinosaur-obsessed kid, but it wasn't until the feathered discoveries of the late '90s and early '00s that the passion was rekindled in earnest.
The full color profile of Achiornis huxleyi had just been described when this painting was finished, and had to be partially redone. Oil on canvas, 2010.

Question 2: What medium do you most prefer to use for your art?  Any particular reason why?

EW: I consider myself able to work in a wide variety of media, but have begun to prefer digital art programs and a Wacom tablet more and more. There are many reasons: less mess, increased portability, less expense, and all of the typical digital tools that just generally make things easier (you know, the ability to save, undo, use layers, etc). I still enjoy painting traditionally from time to time, and prefer oil paints when I do.
Eosinopteryx, the newly-described basal troodontid, perches curiously on a stump. Photoshop CS4, 2013.

 Question 3: Is there any particular artist who particularly inspired you growing up?  How about today?

EW: Growing up, James Gurney was probably my first exposure to how beautiful dinosaur art could be. As I got older I came across artists like Luis Rey, Greg Paul, and Douglas Henderson, who inspired me with the colorful personality, scientific rigor, and atmospheric nuance - respectively - of their dinosaur art. Nowadays, inspirations are almost too many to name, what with the internet and the wealth of young talent that's out there. A few paleoartists I definitely look up to today include John Conway, Julius Csotonyi, Jason Brougham, and Scott Hartman. But that is hardly a fully-inclusive list!
The dino-bird Jeholornis has been found with plant matter gut contents, and may have eaten cycad berries. Photoshop CS4, 2012.

Question 4: When did you decide to pursue a career in illustration?  

EW: I'm not sure if I ever made the conscious decision to! It just sort of happened, mostly as a result of pushing myself mercilessly to improve and endlessly practicing. The better I got, the more interest and offers my work generated in the professional world, so it was a kind of positive-feedback cycle. I have my partner Jonathan to thank for that in large part, as he has been a huge motivator for improvement and in chasing after opportunities.
Microraptorine and sinornithosaurine dromaeosaurs may have competed for similar food sources in the Jehol biota of early Cretaceous China. Photoshop CS4, 2011.

Question 5: Art and illustration is such a diverse field.  It has also changed dramatically within the past decade or so.  What advice would you have to give an aspiring artist today?

EW: Oh man… that's a tough one. The cynic in me wants to say "don't make it your day job", because it's true that making a career out of illustration (especially freelance) can be incredibly difficult, taxing, and sometimes impossible. But for someone who's not making it their sole source of income, my advice is to practice endlessly and constantly push yourself to improve. A lot of people will say that diversification is the key to becoming a successful illustrator, but I'll play devil's advocate and say the opposite: finding a "niche" that isn't overpopulated and working to become a key player in that niche can be a viable key to success.
Deinonychus restrains its prey, a miscellaneous psittacosaurid, in the manner described in Fowler 2011. Photoshop CS4, 2012.

Question 6: What was your favorite dinosaur growing up?  How about today?

EW: My favorite dinosaur has been Deinonychus for as long as I remember! Though the version of it I loved growing up and the version today are vastly different, haha.
Despite being represented by not one but two sleeping fossils, the troodontid Mei long surely wasn't sleeping at every hour. Photoshop CS4, 2012.

Question 7: Jurassic Park and Land Before Time (opposite ends of the spectrum I know) were the movies I remember as a kid that fueled my passion for dinosaurs. What was your most memorable movie?

EW: I'd have to say those two are the biggest ones I can think of, too. Neither movie did a very good job depicting dinosaurs as realistic, natural animals ('90s accuracy notwithstanding) but each of them are pretty important in the cultural perception of dinosaurs. To be honest, though, I've never been all that interested in dinosaur movies in general. The way the media portrays dinosaurs - and the way our culture seems to prefer them - has very little relation to my scientific and artistic interest in paleontology.
Microraptor gui launches from a rock, taking advantage of its four wings. Photoshop CS4, 2012.

Question 8: Dinosaurs and the animals that lived at the same time as them were amazing creatures. Why do you feel dinosaurs continue to fascinate us?

EW: I can't speak for everyone else, but the fascination to me comes from the excitement of uncovering more and more about the lives and appearance of these animals as science marches on. Paleontology as a science is like the greatest detective story ever written: each new piece of data allows us to make new inferences and draw new conclusions about these animals, the way they looked and behaved and their relationships to one another and the environment they lived in. And as paleoillustrators, it's our unique job to use this information to reconstruct the most accurate and most interesting depictions of them. In my opinion there's no field in existence to which art is more important than paleontology, and that will always keep me engaged in it.
The purported baby megalosauroid Sciurumimus perches on a rock near the sea. Photoshop CS4, 2012.

Question 9: What is your favorite time period?

EW: I'm sure this is a fairly common sentiment, but I'd have to say that the early Cretaceous holds my greatest interest, mostly for the incredible diversification of feathered dinosaurs that was going on during that time. The unique preservation conditions in the Liaoning region of China make for a much greater sampling of this evolutionary experimentation than could be expected from the fossil record, and seeing the new fossils continuously coming out of that region never gets old for me.
Utahraptor, one of the largest known dromaeosaurids, may have sometimes combed the beach for snacks. Photoshop CS4, 2013.
Question 10: Do you have any other hobbies or interests (paleo or non paleo related)?

EW: The line between professional work and hobby has often been a bit blurry for me, especially regarding illustration, birding and photography. Birding (and bird photography) is probably my biggest hobby outside of illustration and paleontology. Working with the NJ Audubon Society taught me to regard birding in a more scientific manner - such as learning how to do point counts and so on - and a lot of these skills have transferred over into my everyday birding experiences. I also enjoy hiking, camping, and being outside in general, but I'm also fairly into video games, science fiction literature, and occasionally writing.

That's all for this Thursday!  If you are interested in seeing more of Emily's work simply click here.  Join me next Thursday where I think we may be meeting another living fossil!

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