Drawn to life

A set of illustrated cartoons of the heads of eleven people with their names handwritten underneath

By Rachel Simpson

Worms, fish and … Greenland? Hugely different topics which all have one thing in common – the Museum’s First Animals exhibition online lecture series. Running every other Wednesday from May until September 2020, this series provided a fantastic insight into a wide range of topics about how the first animals lived, died, and are studied. And illustrator Rachel Simpson tells us how she drew her way through them all…

I came across this lecture series just before the first talk and I knew I had to sign up. Drawing along to lectures is a hobby I seem to have developed in the past few months as we went into lockdown and didn’t have much to do. It’s the perfect combination for me – an opportunity to listen to interesting topics and brush up on my live drawing skills at the same time. There’s no pause button, there’s no asking the webinar speaker to just go back a few slides and hold on a minute whilst I draw; it’s fast paced, it’s inspiring and it’s a great way to just create art.

Barma Booties used on the rocks at Mistaken Point, and my first drawing of the series.

I’ve done some illustration work with the Museum before so I knew that it was going to be fun. In 2018, I worked with Dr Jack Matthews illustrating Ediacaran Fossils as part of a collaborative university project between the University of Plymouth and the Museum. I was also lucky enough to be able to go to Newfoundland and see some of the fossils myself, again with Jack. This was such an incredible opportunity and opened up a whole new world of science/art collaborative work which I didn’t know about before.

The First Animals series kicked off with Jack’s talk titled Don’t walk on the rocks! – an interesting insight into how protective “Barma Booties” (some rather funky socks worn to protect fossil sites such as Mistaken Point, Newfoundland) might actually be damaging to the fossils they’re meant to be protecting. Having been to Mistaken Point myself and worn these socks, it was interesting to hear about their possible impact and to learn about the experiments conducted to prove this fact.

Of course, at the same time as Jack was talking, I was scribbling away in my sketchbook trying to form some sort of visual response to the talk. At the end of the hour I’d managed a portrait of Jack and a family of Barma-Booted tourists trampling on the fossil site. It was a start. The beginning of my lecture drawings and a point at which I can retrospectively say started a new hobby.

Annelid worms drawn with Tombow brush pens.

Over the following weeks we heard about worms from Dr Luke Parry; 3D reconstruction from Dr Imran Rahman; The Chronicles of Charnia by Dr Frankie Dunn; and the first animal skeletons from Dr Duncan Murdock. Luckily for me, all the speakers kindly included photos and descriptions of the topics they were discussing which meant that I was never short of visual inspiration for my drawings. After all, it’s hard to try and draw an annelid worm if you’ve never seen one before.

I love to look at the fossils being discussed and then try to draw a little character or creature inspired by them. They’re not scientifically accurate, nor are they always anatomically correct, but they have character and begin to bring to life the essence of something that’s been dead for many millennia. The fossils are obviously stone-coloured so I take as many liberties as possible when it comes to colour. I like to make them as vibrant and colourful as I can, so although they probably didn’t look like that, that’s how I like to think they looked.

Within my wider practice I like to use stamps as the basis of my illustrations. These however, are time consuming to make and therefore not very suitable for when I’m drawing along to lectures. As a result I’ve found myself using brush pens and pencils to make my lecture illustrations. If you’re interested in art, or thinking about getting into art, brush pens will be your best purchase. They create a wonderful quality of line and are quick and easy to use. Whereas a ballpoint pen will give you one line of a certain weight and thickness, brush pens are versatile and depending on the pressure applied, the line quality will change.

For the first few lectures I only used brush pens, but later on I decided to use coloured pencils as well, to add depth to the drawings. As I got more used to drawing in lectures I found that I was making more illustrations per talk. Early on, I managed to finish maybe a double page in my sketchbook but towards the end of the series I was filling four double pages! It’s amazing what a little bit of practice can do.

As the weeks went by the talks continued and we heard about the evolutionary origin of animals from Museum director Professor Paul Smith; an introduction to taphonomy, the study of fossilisation, by Professor Sarah Gabbott; and how the first animals moved by Professor Shuhai Xiao.

During this time I became a lot more confident drawing the specimens; looking back I can see that this was the period in which my work developed the most. My drawings began to have more character and life. The landscape drawings were slowly becoming more realistic and detailed. This was great news for me as this whole endeavour began as a way to practice my drawing skills in a timed environment.

Paul Smith’s lecture has to be my favourite of them all. He gave a wonderful talk all about the Evolutionary Origin of Animals and talked us through his fieldwork expedition to Greenland. How I would have loved to have been on that trip!

It was during Paul’s talk that I made one of my favourite drawings from the series – the plane – and coincidentally it was also at this point that I bought myself some new polychromo pencils. I started using these pencils in my illustrations on top of the Tombow brush pens. The pencils added a softer layer on top of the solid base colour from the brush pens and meant that I could add more details, shading and most importantly, the characterful eyes I love to add to my drawings.

Buoyed by this development in my drawings, and some lovely responses to my work on Instagram and Twitter, I raced through the next few weeks of talks and made twelve pages of drawings over the next four talks. Professor Derek Briggs told us all about extraordinary soft-bodied fossils; Professor Gabriela Mángano told us about the trace fossil record; and Professor Rachel Wood gave us her thoughts about what triggered the Cambrian Explosion.

Another of my favourite drawings from the series was from Derek Briggs talk about extraordinary soft-bodied fossils. Here, I made a small series of drawings based on some of the animals mentioned in the talk and as soon as I’d finished drawing them I wished that they were real and that I could pop them in a fish tank and keep them as pets. These drawings got the best response on social media too and it’s wonderful now to look back and compare these drawings to the work I was creating at the beginning of the series.

Two images of coloured drawings of extinct marine creatures side by side
Comparison between week 2, Luke Parry’s talk (left), and Week 9, Derek Briggs’ talk (right): What a difference 16 weeks of drawing practice makes!

The First Animals series may be over but keep your Wednesday evenings free because there are more talks to come! The next series, “Visions of Nature”, starts on 8 October so make sure you join us then! A huge thank you to all the speakers, to Jack for hosting and to the Museum for running the events.

To see more of Rachel’s illustrations visit www.rachelerinillustration.co.uk.

Ruskin 200 Art Competition

By Michelle Alcock, Front of House Deputy Manager

To celebrate the Museum of Natural History and the creativity it inspires, we have launched the Ruskin 200 Art Competition. It opened on Friday 8 February 2019 coinciding with the bicentenary of the birth of John Ruskin; an artist, social thinker, philanthropist and art critic of the 19th century. During the Victorian era, Ruskin’s views advocating for drawing from direct observation, both in his studies of Gothic architecture, and in his use of a detailed descriptive approach to depict nature in art, heavily influenced the design of the Museum.

WA2013.67 John Everett Millais, ‘John Ruskin’
Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

His encouragement led to artists, architects, craftsmen and scientists working together to design the Museum. As a result, they created the neo-Gothic building that stands today as a work of art and a vision of nature in its own right. The Museum’s architecture, decorative details, and collections have served as a source of inspiration for many since it opened in 1860.

Details in the Museum’s architecture, such as this carved capital, were inspired by nature and today provide further inspiration for visiting artists

This year marks the perfect opportunity to showcase the artwork of our visitors. Personally, working on the Front of House team here, I see what an inspiration the building is to our visitors. Every day we spot people of all ages setting up stools, with pencil and sketchbook at the ready, drawing in the Museum. There is so much potential inspiration; beetles carved in stone, vibrant birds’ feathers, glittering gemstones and the intricate decorative ironwork of the building, to name a few.

It is always exciting to see so many of our visitors engaging with the Museum in a creative way, but we rarely see the finished product. I’ve always wanted to know what artwork is created from this point of inspiration. Is it the starting point of a vibrant painting, an intricate pastel drawing or a graphic mixed media collage? The list of possibilities is endless.

A visitor captures the Allosaurus skull on one of our Sensing Evolution tables

Whatever your choice of creative expression, we want to see your interpretation of the Museum and what inspired you, whether it’s the architecture or the collections on display. If you are an amateur or professional artist, and over the age of sixteen, we would like you to submit your artwork to the Ruskin 200 Art Competition.

The competition is open for four months. Do send us images of your final artwork before the closing date of 19 May 2019. Selected artworks from each of the four entry categories will go on display in the Museum during the busy summer holidays.

A visitor taking part in creative activities during our special drawing weekend

Throughout 2019, we’re also running a programme of drawing activities to celebrate Ruskin’s bicentenary. It began with the Ruskin Drawing Weekend on 9 and 10 February, which included lots of different activities to begin the creative process. Look out for our Ready, Steady, Draw! workshops for younger artists coming in May too.

The full competition guidelines, along with further information on the Ruskin-related events we’re running this year, can be found on our website.

Top banner image: WA1931.47 John Ruskin, Design for a Window in the University Museum, Oxford. Image copyright Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford