Sreelatha P makes the ‘engineer-turned-wildlife artist’ transition look effortless, winning the ‘Artist of the Year 2019’ award by ‘Artists for Wildlife and Nature’ (AWN), for her magnificent rendition of mudskippers in a tussle, aptly titled ‘The Combat’. Rooted in the ‘realism’ style of painting, her other works too were widely appreciated at the annual AWN exhibition.
Her path hasn’t been without its ups and downs, but this prolific and talented artist feels that the wildlife artist community and the extended community of wildlife enthusiasts and naturalists have all contributed to kindling her now lifelong love for nature and wildlife. In conversation with Ramya Coushik, Sreelatha P traces her journey so far and discusses how the award has reaffirmed her faith in her field of choice.
Congratulations Sreelatha, on being ‘Artist of the Year-2019’. From being an engineer in a corporate world to now winning this award must have been an interesting journey. Tell us all about it.
Thank you. It is a dream opportunity to be featured on JLR Explore with some of the stalwarts I have admired and followed. During my childhood, anything other than academics was a big no with my family. But I doodled quite a bit in class. That habit stayed with me all the way till my postgraduate degree. Predictably, I followed the beaten path and joined the corporate world. It did not take me long to realise that I was a total misfit. During company takeovers, while my colleagues were moving out to join other companies, I made up my mind to change tracks entirely.
I quit my job and started pursuing performing arts while freelancing as a graphic designer. My siblings and some dear friends stood by me during this phase, while I found my feet. Owing to a family emergency, I had to quit working altogether for over two years. I utilised this period to rekindle my passion for portraits and doodling.
The choice of subjects for each of your artworks seems diverse. How did the interest in creating wildlife art happen?
My diverse interest in subjects could be because I am still at the beginning of the learning curve. I enjoy painting portraits and architecture too.
Around the time that I was reconnecting with art, I came across the works of wildlife cartoonist Rohan Chakravarty, through his blog ‘Green Humour’. His works served as great stress-busters and were informative too. I met a few naturalists while attending one of his talks and this opened up new avenues. Up to that point, my association with nature was limited to trekking and flower shows. As the saying goes, the eyes do not see what the mind does not know. I was totally ignorant of the natural wonders around me.
I then learnt about Neralu, a tree festival in Bangalore, and joined the team as a volunteer. I had the opportunity to meet like-minded artists and work on a variety of projects. The learning was immense. Eventually, I met Prasad, a prolific wildlife artist himself and the founder of ‘Artists for Wildlife and Nature’ (AWN). I owe my passion for wildlife art to his infectious enthusiasm about the field.
My maiden entry as a wildlife artist was through the ‘Artists for Birds-2018’ event of AWN, where I won the ‘Best of the show’ award for my painting of a Grey-headed Swamphen, titled ‘Kamal’. This painting is also part of a set of paintings that earned me AWN’s ‘Artist of the Year–2019’ award. My foray into wildlife art has revealed a whole new world, and I am learning something new every day.
Did you receive any formal training in art? Do you think formal training is a prerequisite?
I am largely self-taught. However, a year ago, I took up a basic course in the oil medium. I am now being mentored online by an eminent wildlife artist who is generous with sharing his knowledge not just about the nuances of art, but also wildlife in general.
I believe formal art training is not a prerequisite. Many artists I know are self-taught. There is a treasure-trove of tutorials and information available on the internet, and with discipline and a little guidance from senior artists, one can easily master the art form.
How did your association with AWN come about?
I met Prasad during one of my initial art projects. I have followed his works ever since. When AWN’s first annual show was announced, I wanted to be a part of it. I failed to make the cut in my first attempt, but I channelised my efforts into improving my technique. I felt the show was a great initiative and volunteered to help organise the event. Though we volunteers were inexperienced in setting-up such an event, we eventually pulled it off, even managing to keep it plastic-free and eco-friendly.
I volunteered to help organise AWN in 2019 too, once I was done submitting my artworks for the selection process. Each piece of art was displayed with an accompanying write-up by the artist on their impressions and experience while painting the specimen. There was also an attempt at presenting lesser-known wildlife species to the general public.
How do you feel about winning the ‘Artist of the Year-2019’ award?
I am overwhelmed with the recognition; it feels great. And the encouragement tells me that I am on the right track. As for the images I chose to paint and display at the show, I have the respective photographers to thank, for readily agreeing to let me use the images they made, as my references.
We are fortunate to have many wildlife enthusiasts and naturalists who are more than willing to share their knowledge through blogs or by means of birding, butterfly walks, and many other ways. I referred to some of these blogs and articles. I pored over books borrowed from friends, to better understand the subject I painted and its habitat. It is an enriching experience learning interesting facts about the species I paint.
Tell us about the artworks you created for the AWN awards.
In choosing my subjects for the AWN show, I tried to showcase the rich and varied biodiversity of India: the Golden-breasted Fulvetta, a songbird from the Mishimi hills in Arunachal Pradesh, is called ‘prong-sampyer-pho’ in the local Himalayan language, Lepcha. ‘Kamal’ is the Sanskrit name for the Grey-headed Swamphen.
Mudskippers can crawl and climb using their fins as limbs. They can live on land and in water. They have the ability to breathe through their skin, and the linings of their mouth and throat. The painting ‘The Combat’ depicts the typical territorial behaviour of Blue-spotted Mudskippers, with both dorsal fins raised in an aggressive dorsal display when faced with a threat. They also raise their dorsal fins and leap into the air to attract a female. While reading about mudskippers and their habitat, an illustrated story on Fiddler Crabs that I had read online came to mind. Fiddler Crabs are abundant in mangrove mudflats in the forests of Sundarbans. A curious fiddler crab completes my image of the battling mudskippers.
I was fascinated with the images I saw of fan-throated lizards. They are small and vibrant ground dwellers. Males scamper up a rock and flaunt multi-hued dewlaps (fold of loose skin hanging from the neck) during the breeding season. The one in the painting is of the genus Sarada and is called Sarada superba. I called the painting ‘The Sapphire’, for the prominent iridescent blue in its dewlap. They use the colour to communicate with each other.
Another painting is of a small tree frog, Rhacophorus lateralis, which is endemic to the Western Ghats. It is listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) Red List. This frog is light-sensitive and the otherwise green frog turns brown when exposed to flash.
Do you feel creating wildlife art is different from the other subjects you work on? If yes, in what way?
Yes, it is definitely different. One has to be intimately aware of the behaviour, habits and habitats of species while rendering wildlife. I spend a lot of time studying all these factors before beginning to paint a particular species. This is not the case when I paint other subjects.
What mediums do you work on? Any preferred medium or subject?
I am just beginning, and am trying my hand at all mediums. I am presently focusing on oils. I like working in Indian ink as well.
While I enjoy working on architectural art too, I feel that if one can portray nature and wildlife well, they can work on any subject; it covers all nuances of art.
What is your advice for others aspiring for a career in wildlife art?
Though I still have much ground to cover, there are some lessons I have gathered from my experience so far and from senior artists in the field: practice every day, observe, read informative articles that can enhance your knowledge and skills, spend as much time as possible in the field, make several study sketches, prioritise species anatomy and habitat, and finally, be open to constructive criticism.