Remember Me

Working as a wildlife artist

With a lifelong passion for natural history and a talent for painting birds, John Gale is both a vet and an awardwinning wildlife artist. His talent has taken him to some precarious places, and he begins his story on a boat in a storm force 12 . . .

The wind was screaming at an unbearable intensity as the ‘Golden Fleece’ slammed into another huge wave – landing at 50° – as if she had been thrown down from the heavens with all the might a storm force 12 could deliver. I knew the conditions were bad as I had been thrown out of my bunk a few times and also my body had hit the ceiling on two occasions. The keel of the yacht had an additional four tonnes of concrete in it and apparently we could roll to 65° before going over, but still I thought we were never going to get through this, the most violent of storms I had ever experienced. We had been going through these chaotic conditions for seven hours in pitch darkness and the skipper was seriously concerned he was going to lose the vessel. To date, I have spent about six months on various ships and boats in the Southern Ocean and have been through some pretty dreadful storms, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine the sea could look as haunted as it did on that February morning in 2010.

What was I doing on a 20 m yacht, stuck in the middle of the Southern Ocean in a hurricane? I’m a wildlife artist and I was retuning to the Falklands having spent five weeks on the island of South Georgia. There, I had been painting and sketching albatrosses, penguins, seals and a multitude of other wildlife, as well as the stunning land-, sea- and icescapes the region has to offer. The trip had been very successful and I was returning home laden down with field sketches, paintings, videos, photographs and plaster casts of bird footprints, all to help me prepare a set of paintings and exhibits for an exhibition that was held in London this year, raising funds and awareness for albatross and seabird conservation.

I have been working as a professional wildlife artist and illustrator since 1991, concentrating primarily on birds, alongside my part-time veterinary work with small animals.

I qualified from Liverpool vet school in July 1989, and spent the first six months working in a busy mixed practice in Derby. While travelling in Borneo a few months later, I happened to meet up with a natural history publisher in the capital of Sabah, Kota Kinabalu, who was looking for an artist to illustrate a book on the ‘Birds of Mount Kinabalu’, the highest mountain between the Himalayas and Mount Wilhelm in Papua New Guinea. Whenever I am in the field looking for wildlife and birds I always carry a sketchbook and paints, and draw and record many of the species I observe. I told the publisher I was an artist and showed him the sketches I had done while travelling in Borneo. I secured the job and returned to Borneo four months later, spending 10 weeks living in the Kinabalu National Park undertaking the project. This was all a bit daunting, having not had an art lesson since O level and not really having a clue what I was doing. The project was a success and led on to further bird illustration work, which has been ongoing ever since.

During the past 20 years I have illustrated a number of bird identification field guides for various regions of the world, including the Middle East, East Africa, the Indian Ocean islands and the Thai Malay peninsular, to name a few. I have also won a number of awards, including ‘Bird illustrator of the year 1992’ and ‘Bird artist of the year 2002’. I am about to embark on a new African project, which will keep me busy for the next few years and away from big scary waves in the Southern Ocean!

Passion for natural history

Ever since I can remember I have been passionate about natural history, with a special focus on birds as well as insects and mammals. I have always painted and drawn wildlife from a very early age as well as being fascinated with anatomy. When I was 13, I had about 150 stuffed birds in my bedroom, a huge collection of skulls and bird wings, and my parents’ deep freeze was full of dead birds. This put me in good stead for getting a distinction in anatomy during the first year of vet school, and consequently confidence in my approach to surgery.

Over the years I have travelled extensively to many regions of the world in order to research the birds and wildlife that I have painted for various art and illustration projects. The longest project was illustrating a field guide to the birds of East Africa; it took me five-and-a-half years to paint about 2000 images. By the time I had finished the project I had seen about 75 per cent of all the species I had painted in the book.

Recently, I have spent a lot of time in Madagascar, working on a handbook to the birds of the Indian Ocean islands. Some of the species that I have painted are extremely rare: one such bird is the Madagascar serpent eagle, perhaps one of the rarest birds of prey in the world. Despite spending two weeks in suitable forest in northern Madagascar with guides who knew how to find this species I still failed to see it; very disappointing indeed, but that’s what can happen when looking for such elusive and rare species. Other trips in search of birds have produced encounters with tigers and 4 m snakes, hippos sticking their heads into my tent, getting lost in the rainforest, various tropical viruses and having my leg stitched up in a Thai hospital, having cut myself badly after falling down a ravine while mist netting birds.

Veterinary work

Throughout this time I have also been working as a part-time vet in small animal practice. During the past 15 years I have been based at a practice in Exeter and very much enjoy the work I do there. Three days a week I do evening surgery and I then work all day Friday. This provides me with the opportunity to investigate and follow up cases seen during the week and ensures I can offer continuity for clients. It also allows me to keep very much in touch with the daily events going on in the practice. The workload in the practice is fairly heavy, which I find ideal as it means I see a good number of cases. This keeps me abreast of medical and surgical approaches and consequently confident in what I do.

Members of the public sometimes think I’m an ‘expert’ in bird medicine just because I paint them. I can handle birds very well and tell the owners exactly what stage of moult the bird is in, where it comes from and its biology. I’m sure my avian medicine is no better than most small animal vets; however, I am always keen to work up such cases, and perhaps being confident in handling birds gives me a slight advantage in dealing with cases that are often very challenging.

Working as a full-time artist can be financially precarious and can also at times lead to an isolated existence. I find the contrast between working in the surgery and the studio the perfect balance. I just have to make sure there isn’t a large dollop of oil paint on my ear before attending evening surgery!