Russian artist Tatiana Petrova with her unique observation skills is able to paint a mental picture of her subjects with unusual vividness and great detail. She translates these experiences on to the canvas with colors and brushstrokes. Her paintings are not just detailed studies of various species, each of her works captures the individual personality of the creatures that she has encountered. Capturing the expressions, gaze, behaviour of wildlife in their natural surrounding and light, she manages to give the audience an experience of having met the living being in person.
Science and art have always been seamlessly knit together in Tatiana’s life. As a child she was very attached to animals and loved to draw. She also had an innate curiosity to understand the world of all the beings that co-habited her world. She grew up admiring the illustrations of her teacher Tatiana Kapustina, who is regarded as one of the best Soviet illustrators. In school she took an extra interest in the subject Biology and was also part of the young naturalists circle at the Leningrad zoo. She furthered her study in Biology at St Petersburg University while simultaneously studying at the State Academy of Fine Art in her hometown.
As an ornithologist her doctoral research focused on bird ethology, ecology and physiology. She was unable to complete her PHD due to personal reasons, but life offered her a very interesting opportunity of being able to study animals in close proximity. She was offered to work at the Leningrad zoo as an artist, illustrator and designer, where she got to be in close quarters with a diverse group of animals. As an ethologist (studying animal behaviour) working at the zoo was beneficial as she was able to study a multitude of things about animal behaviour. She was able to observe so many wild animals, she could deepen her understanding of their anatomy, food habits, mating rituals etc. When asked about animals being kept in captivity and in zoos, she explained how this knowledge is very difficult to obtain in nature because the encounters with animals in wilderness is often very brief. She says that the amount of experience she has gathered working closely with animals in the zoo has helped her appreciate their sightings in nature. She worked almost an entire decade at the zoo where she was part of various projects and her works got showcased in wild-life magazines, wildlife art exhibitions across the world.
Having grown up reading books by Rudyard Kipling and Jim Corbett, she was fascinated by India and was keen on visiting the sub-continent. She first paid a visit to India in 2010 and travelled extensively to various national parks to witness all those species that she had observed at the zoo. She was completely elated to be in tropical country and was mesmerised by the multitude of habitats and the diversity of flora and fauna in the sub-continent. She says that her rendezvous with different creatures both small and big have been unique and beautiful. One of her most memorable moments in India was sighting elephants in the misty forests of the Corbett National Park during the occurrence of a full-lunar eclipse. She had an out-of the world experience as the landscape transformed itself when the moon was blood red rendering the sighting of these beasts a magical one. One day she hopes to write a book with her illustrations from the field documenting her journey in the forests of the Indian sub-continent.
In 2013, a scholarship from the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) brought her to India again. This time she was funded to study graphics and screen printing at Visva-Bharti University, Shantiniketan and her dissertation was centred on the history of ornithological illustrations of Indian birds in lithographs of XIX century. She is interested in encapsulating her research on birds and publishing them along with her paintings of these aerial beings making it available and accessible to both the scientists and the non-scientific community.
She has observed that many wildlife artists today have not witnessed their subjects in the wild. A current trend where more artists rely purely on photographs and other visual mediums reduces the art work to the level of skill. She shares how this approach could also lead to the problem of anthropomorphising, wherein, the artist instead of observing and understanding the behaviour of animals, projects a human feeling or emotion on to the wild beings.
Tatiana expresses that misrepresentations can often lead to misunderstandings. Stating an example she talks about how often images of yawning tigers are mis-painted as being angry and dangerous. This leads to perceiving the often shy cats as being aggressive beings. It also leads to a limited way of representing animals designed just to cater to the market. Reiterating the importance of wildlife artists being in the field she enunciates that only when artists have the experience in the wilderness will their work reflect their curiosity, care and concern.
Talking about the role of artists in conservation, Tatiana asserts that artists have the ability to draw attention to a detail, a concept, an idea or a cause through their work. It is important for an artist to be aware of the impact they can have on the world and utilise it. Artists also have the options of working alongside conservation based organisations and ensure that their skills are used in creating awareness. In activism and science education, art can be used as an effective tool to communicate ideas in simple ways that can reach to the lay-man.
As an ornithologist though her affinity is towards drawing birds, she enjoys making drawings of insects, fishes, reptiles, butterflies and organisms that are often neglected by wildlife artists. She finds every form of life inspiring and through her art workshops wants to unravel the beauty of the natural world to people of various ages, backgrounds and nationalities.
During her recent visit to Bangalore, Team Artecology had the opportunity to meet Tatiana Petrova and learn more about her work. We also got to witness her having a rendezvous with a certain Mr Robin (Magpie) who delighted her with his visits when she was outdoors with her easel. Both Tatiana and the bird had found their favourite perches by a small pond acknowledging each other’s existence. The video is a sneak peak of the artist in action as she captures this bird on canvas using her memory and observation skills.)
Words by Veena Basavarajaiah
Veena is a contemporary movement artist based in Bangalore, India. She is an independent performer and choreographer who is trained in multiple art forms and has collaborated with individuals from various fields like theatre, visual arts & music. She has done her Masters in South Asian Dance Studies from Roehampton University (UK).Her choreographic works have been featured in various festivals in many countries. She is also a dance writer for various online platforms and her essays on South Asian dance have been published in various books. Veena is a volunteer of Artecology and works with the initiative on projects that are focused on nature and science.