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Helen Grey is a Melbourne based science teacher and artist with a highly technical, photorealistic approach to wildlife illustration. Helen's impressive educational background in the sciences include majors in biology and zoology, finding her well placed to depict animal physiology with an astonishing level of precision, accuracy and care. Typically working with a customised toolkit of Faber Castell Polychromo pencils and a textile quick unpick, Helen's meticulously layered portraits can take up to 50 hours to complete.
We've really enjoyed supporting Helen on her creative journey and we're lucky to have her as our featured artist on the one year anniversary of printing and reproducing her art. Read on for an insightful look into Helen's practise and the sheer scale of work which goes into creating her photorealistic masterpieces.
Tell us about your educational background. How did you get started with illustration?
I have no formal education in illustration and art beyond what was done as part of normal curriculum while in school as a student. If I want to learn a new technique, I either go to Youtube, experiment with an idea I have, or learn from someone else who I think has a great method. My actual educational background is one of sciences, where I was initially studying biomedicine with the intention to go into medicine before discovering that career pathway was not for me. I then altered my degree so that it was a bachelor of science majoring in biology and zoology, and bachelor of psychology so that I could complete my Masters in teaching as a postgraduate.
I love animals, and am fascinated with their physiology and behaviours. I find that when you are focussing on a creature with such dedication to achieve high detail, you learn so much about them.- Helen Grey
I had always loved to draw, and as a very young kid I would trace animals from paused TV documentaries or from encyclopaedias or other books from the library. I was the kind of student in school who would have a sketch book with me, and if I finished work early I would ask if I could draw which was usually OK with my teachers. In uni things slowed down with my art as I simply had less time, but I still loved it and did it where I could. Most of my earlier work while a student was animals as it is today, but also ‘fan art’ of monsters or creatures from games, shows, and movies I liked as well as custom fantasy creatures/monsters, or extinct fauna illustrations.
What attracts you to wildlife portraiture as a focus in your work?
I love animals, and am fascinated with their physiology and behaviours. I find that when you are focussing on a creature with such dedication to achieve high detail, you learn so much about them. I am particularly fascinated with the animals that are less mainstream such as reptiles and amphibians, and love that I am constantly learning more about them. I taught a zoology unit for half a year at one of our state universities and loved every minute of it; it gave me more love for these creatures and a more intimate understanding of their physiology which assisted me in illustrating them.
Talk us through your creative process when beginning a new piece. Do you find you are always evolving your process or do you stick to a tried and true method?
I am definitely always evolving and trying new things. I have only been using etching as a technique these last few months after seeing a fellow artist succeed so well with their scratch board work. I thought: “could I use a similar principle with pencil drawing?” Suffice to say I was quite proud of myself and my little textile unpicker when I discovered it did work, until I realised that this wasn’t a new concept and actually a legitimate technique used with pencil artists. Similar can be said with my experimentation with blending: do I use a solvent? Should I stick with burnishing? Should I try undercoating with watercolour first? How does sandpaper or pastel paper affect the final result in pencil work? The scientist in me is always questioning and trying new things to see what works best. I love it.
As for the creative process, this can vary depending on what the piece is. If it is a commission, it can be either a direct photo a client wishes for me to recreate in my chosen medium, or we can do a custom piece with a variety of photos for reference. If I am doing a custom piece, whether for myself or a client, I will complete a variety of ‘mock ups’ drawn roughly in pencil or in Photoshop on the computer, and keep working at it until I am happy with the composition and lighting. I may look at other external reference images to gauge how light plays on certain textures such as skin or scales, or wet fur over dry etc. The process is quite fluid and very specific depending on the context of the piece. If it was a fictional creature I was designing, or an extinct animal based on scientific evidence, I would be using my understanding of anatomy and physiology while completing the drafts. I would start with the mechanics of the skeleton, decide on what amount of muscle would be required to carry such an animal, add said muscle and ligaments, then add the extra layers such as fat, skin and any other outer coatings such as feathers, fur, etc.
The level of detail and care you put into your art is astonishing. How do you structure the timeline for each piece and how long does the process usually take?
As I juggle my art with family commitments and a teaching career, this can be variable depending on the time of year. Since Easter 2018, I have been on maternity leave and only working casually so I have had the freedom to do more artwork. This will become more difficult though as work picks up and I return to more full-time hours. The timeline for each piece depends on what other commitments I have at the time, then I gauge how long I think I will need to do the planning, sketch up, and finally the actual piece itself. Most of my work is done during the evening between late afternoon/after dinner and sometimes even after midnight. Total time may be a month or two for some pieces, but that is made up the planning time which can vary depending on the piece, between 20 minutes or two hours for the “sketch up”, and between 8 hours or 50 hours of actual drawing time depending on the piece and medium I am using. As such it is possible for me to complete a piece from start to finish in an evening (such as my graphite tiger shark which was started at approximately 6pm and finished at 2am), or I may take over a month if the work is large/detailed and I have other commitments to also work around. When working with a client, I am always transparent about the timeline we will be working with, which is especially important if the client has a date in mind they want the work done by (such as an upcoming birthday).
What do you enjoy the most about doing commission work?
I think the knowledge that I am creating something special for someone that will be cherished a little more than a simple photo. Their reaction is what does it for me as well as my love with the challenge of the piece itself. Some clients have even sent me beautiful videos of the recipient of the commission receiving it (or themselves), and it has brought a tear to my eye on more than one occasion. Privacy is key, and on many occasions these moments (and even the commission itself) stays private between myself and the client and is not made public unless I have their written consent stating otherwise.
It doesn’t matter if the commission is a portrait of a loved family member who is with us or not, or a pet with fur, scales, skin or feathers: you are putting love and dedication into something for another individual. You can bring out more life and colour, create a unique pose or scenario that may not be as possible with a photo, and I love that. I have had many occasions where the commission is to draw a loved one who has passed away (pet or person), and either draw them “less sick” than seen in the photo, or without feeding tubes or other medical assistance that is otherwise visible, or a little older/younger, or with another family member they otherwise could not be with. It allows a family to have a representation of their loved one as they remember them, which sometimes isn’t possible in the photos they do actually have due to poor photo resolution, damage, or simply the photo not existing.
You use a variety of mediums to produce your work – coloured pencil, pastel and watercolour paints. What are your favourite tools of the trade when creating a new piece and how do you decide which tools to use?
At the moment I would say my favourite tools are the oil and wax based pencils and my textile unpicker. Specifically, I use Faber Castell Polychromo pencils and Prismacolor Premier pencils. This is most likely due to personal familiarity and the flexibility of where I can work. We currently have limited space at home, so my work is either on the floor or dinner table. Pencil work means less mess overall than pastel and watercolour. When I have the ability to have a dedicated art space, and more practice with the other mediums, I am sure you will see more variety.
For pencil work, there is certainly a selection process for the tools at the very beginning. I have a roll-up pencil case, and usually have my blending stubs, knead-able eraser and mechanical pencil in there at all times. The rest of the slots however are purely for the work (or works) I am doing at the time. Before I start a piece, I will take out my entire pencil collection, and only select the pencils I think I will be using to go into that pencil case. That way things are more organised, and I am more likely to be able to keep track of what I need while working. Sometimes the colour range is extensive in which case I do it in stages (such as fill the pencil case with colours for just the foreground or background) and other times I only select a handful of colours.
How have you found having your work reproduced and printed with Image Science?
I have been very happy with the work produced with Image Science. Previously I had tried a number of other companies which were all much cheaper, but none of which provided the service I required. The colours wouldn’t match, or the product looked ‘cheap’ and disappointing, or the image simply looked ‘sub-par’. This resulted in me spending a decent amount of time and money anyway on products I did not want to sell, let alone show others, even though those companies all claimed to have experience reproducing artworks. Image Science has been a dream to work with. They are professional, create a product I am proud to sell and show off, and have been very helpful in educating me about the art world and art reproductions in general.
What are your long-term goals for your illustration business?
I am honestly not sure. I would like to have the option there to continue engaging in commission work on a casual basis even when I return to full time work, or at least produce the odd artwork here and there which I can sell as an original or reproduction. It would be wonderful if I could end up out earning my day job and do this full time, but at the moment I am content with how things are. Either way, I can certainly still see myself continuing my art long into the future.
What do you have planned for the rest of 2019? Do you have any exciting commissions, projects or shop updates in the works?
Aside from private commissions I will be doing up until December, I am also trying to complete an “Australian” collection of fine art pencil animals, with the aim to produce products to help raise awareness of our wildlife in terms of conservation as well as general education. I have a lofty goal of 12 Australian natives to do, which I really hope I can manage. At the time I write this, I have completed a tawny frogmouth, echidna, tiger shark, frill neck lizard and lace monitor (goanna) for the collection. If people are curious to see this progress and learn more about our wildlife, they can follow along and get involved by following either my Instagram or Facebook accounts.
- Adam B -
Thanks so much for your detailed answer. I'm sure you hear it all the time, but you guys really are so wonderfully unique in your ability and willingness to help.