printmaker specializing in large dramatic drypoints and drawings of birds
and dark coastal landscapes. Also detailed scientific and natural history
illustration. Member of the Society of Wildlife Artists. Widely traveled
Runs newly established intaglio editioning studio The Other Elephant Print
I am often
asked whether I'm an artist who became interested in birds, or an ornithologist
who started drawing. There's no straightforward answer. My mother still
embarrasses me by producing in public, drawings of eagles and vultures
executed as a three year old, and at the tender age of eleven I set about
drawing my way through the British List. I never copied a picture but
put the birds in positions of my own choosing. I got as far as moorhen.
A serious involvement in Natural History has gone hand in glove with my
art ever since, with a smattering of other adventures in art and science
thrown in. My dabblings have been as diverse as: zoo keeper; museum curator;
taxidermist; unemployed poacher; bird ringer; globe-trotter... to name
but a few. I must confess to being bitterly disappointed that a degree
in zoology never came about, but in retrospect that would almost certainly
have had a detrimental effect on my development as an artist. At the end
of the day there's no competition - the pictures come first. They are
inspired by nature and strengthened by my knowledge of it.
The first turning point came in 1985 with a long-awaited trip to Jersey
Zoo, which inspired me to do a painting. After four months the painting
was finished; a Madagascan rainforest lovingly reconstructed - not from
photographs, but from written descriptions, herbarium and museum specimens;
hanging about in hothouses soaking up the smell and handling the tame
ruffed lemur 'Marcus' at London Zoo. My mind was made up. I was jolly
well going to save up to see a rainforest for myself.
I opened a bank account with £5 my mother gave me and added to it
slowly. Over the three years it took me to reach my goal of £1000,
I'm proud to say I never robbed it once though I was constantly penniless.
The final days of saving brought me to the end of my Fine Art degree and,
amazingly I promptly made a second thousand from sales at my degree show!
The rainforest would had to wait another year, though: by this time I
was a qualified bird ringer; an opportunity had come up to go to Senegal
for three months to study European migrants in their winter quarters and
so I was off to the desert. I'd never even been on an aeroplane before
and sat there with my nose pressed against the glass wearing a stupid
grin on my face for seven hours!
This was to be the first of many travels over the subsequent years including
Ecuador, Galapagos, Shetland and the Seychelles: mostly ornithological
expeditions, but also a trip to Malaysia to illustrate moths for the Natural
History Museum, and some little drawing excursions of my own.
As a ringer, the opportunity to handle such a variety of bird species
has certainly given me a greater three-dimensional understanding - vital
for any observational drawing - and a feeling for the weight and form
of my subjects. But with a tenacity and obsessiveness I take to extremes
I was determined to go further. Thus began a series of, often bizarre,
even hilarious exploits, with the ultimate goal of understanding bird
For several years I prepared bird study skins for the Royal Albert Memorial
Museum in Exeter. I took the opportunity to draw literally hundreds of
bones, beaks, muscles, feet and feather tracts. Taxidermist colleagues
sent me their leftovers; bird hospitals sent me food-parcels of the ones
that didn't make it. Twice a day I scoured the beach and every road journey
was punctuated with a dozen stops. I sat up for two nights dismantling
a dead mallard which I christened 'Amy' and spent a further eight months
putting the skeleton back together again, drawing as I went. In 1990 I
continued this in an official capacity - for my postgraduate thesis in
Natural History Illustration at the Royal College of Art and conducted
a similar study, this time with a dead white pelican which I picked up
in Senegal. Actually it wasn't quite as simple as that - there were three
dead pelicans, a lot of mud, an all-pervading smell and some bemused customs
officials. But that's another story…
The drawings I produced are now featured in a guide to pelican rescue
and rehabilitation in Australia, and the finest original, reconstructed
painstakingly bone by bone (I never had time to reconstruct the actual
skeleton - that lives under my bed in a cardboard box), is in Vietnam.
One cosmopolitan pelican.
My 'finished' pictures are usually drypoints and drawings. I also etch,
but on the last occasion this resulted in half of the Nottinghamshire
fire brigade, the police, an ambulance and a chemical disposal unit being
called out! Inevitably the work begins with an initial idea followed up
with countless compositional drawings and supporting studies. I'll push
an idea around for some time before making the first marks on the copper
plate, scribbling down minute variations on whatever comes to hand. The
images aren't necessarily all from personal experience: a mental picture
of a place or a bird, backed up by appropriate research, can be every
bit as evocative as personal observation, and very often moreso. Nevertheless
I do produce copious field drawings and have many volumes of sketchbooks
and illustrated travel diaries as raw material which may be referred to
later. I also try to keep my drawing skills sharp by attending regular
life-drawing sessions - the ultimate workout for eye-hand co-ordination.
A second turning point came in 1995 whilst perched on a cliff top above
a seabird colony on Shetland. It was a grey and foggy day, and I was suffering
from a bad case of artist’s angst. I had been inundated with ideas
for the usual compositions of scrapping seabirds I had made my own, and
somehow they had managed to cancel one another out. Suddenly everything
I’d done up until then seemed, well, trite in comparison with the
whole harsh, competitive, life-and-death, bitter scheme of things. As
of then my beautifully researched birds became nothing more than white
specks in great dark landscapes; at times whole seabird colonies were
literally sprayed on with a few flicks of a toothbrush.
A passion for cliffs and geological features soon had me hankering after
that inaccessible viewpoint which would show the sheer magnitude of the
landscape to it’s best possible advantage. Oh, to get that kittiwake’s-eye-view:
to be able to position myself at any point in space! The answer lies,
I think, in 3D computer modelling and hopefully this will be the direction
of my next set of adventures…
My newest image is of red kites over my beloved Chilterns. Apart from
doing lots of drawings at ground level I chartered a small plane to fly
me backward and forward over the chalk ridge and cross-referenced the
aerial photographs with the OS map to place every last detail accurately.
I then asked the assistance of a geological computer whiz-kid who came
up with a pretty dynamic 3D simulation. So, if you thought my cliff faces
gave you vertigo, hold onto your seats, boys!
Over the last year I’ve been setting up a printmaking studio on
the top floor of my home. Two sperm whale ribs hang on either chimneybreast
and in the centre of the room, my pride and joy: an enormous etching press.
I shall be undertaking editioning for other printmakers under the name
of ‘The Other Elephant Print Workshop’ as well as producing
my own work, of course. Watch this space…
More of my work can be seen on my website: www.katrinacook.co.uk
of Plymouth, 1990 : BA (Hons) Fine Art (printmaking)
Thesis entitled Accuracy and Aesthetics: a reappraisal of J.J Audubon’s
‘Birds of America’.
Royal College of Art, 1992 : MA, Natural History Illustration,
Degree by research project entitled The Anatomy of Birds: an Artist’s
sales, commissions and to send comments to the artist.