Plant paleoartists: an interview with Pollyanna von Knorring

For this week, I have a new format for you readers. In my effort to spread the love for plant paleoart, I thought it would be interesting to ask a few questions to some of the most accomplished plant paleoartists, to learn about their approach to their art and the steps that led them to their current career.
For the first interview, I reached out to Pollyanna von Knorring, artist in-house at the Natural History Museum of Stockholm and plant paleoartist extraordinaire, and she has been very kind in answering a few questions on her career and approach to paleoart. I hope you will find her answers as inspiring and fascinating as I did!

Selection of flower reconstruction by Pollyanna von Knorring from Early Flowers and Angiosperm Evolution, Friis et al, Cambridge 2011.

When did you first become interested in art?

  • “As far back as I can remember, I have always been drawing and painting. I also remember paging through the entire Larousse Encyclopedia of Animal Life, various art books, and a book about the Lascaux cave paintings. So in my family we were aware, quite early on as kids, of the diversity of the natural world, and had the impression that painting and drawing were a kind of everyday, normal human activity that even extended back thousands of years. We were supplied with generous amounts of paper and crayons, colored pencils, watercolors – and time. Drawing and painting were definitely something I used a lot of time on, growing up.”      

When did you first become interested in extinct plants?

  • “As a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I enrolled in a Scientific Illustration course, and we did short internships at the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago. During one of these, I did some ink illustrations of fossil plants. I was immediately fascinated by the strange, almost alien structure of early plants.” 
Reconstruction of Jehol ferns by Pollyanna von Knorring

How did your academic background feed into your artistic career?

  • “My academic background is somewhat diverse; after two years at SAIC I transferred to the University of Chicago intending to study philosophy, and graduated with a BA in pure mathematics. Which is not an entirely useful or obvious choice for any further career plans other than becoming a mathematician, of which I had none.  But I did continue to illustrate, and my training in a scientific mode of thought, regardless of field, I think is quite useful for an illustrator in order to understand what and why a scientist wants things illustrated.”

When did you manage to obtain a more permanent position as a plant paleoartist?

  • “When I was offered a position as a scientific illustrator at The Swedish Museum of Natural History in Stockholm, after freelancing for some time there. I’m not sure I was making a definite choice, as to career. I think I was at times, a rather confused young person careerwise. Not being able to combine my love of drawing and painting with my fascination for philosophical questions, and my struggles with understanding the world of mathematics, where I was never more than a bewildered tourist, rather than a comfortable inhabitant. ” 

Was this your first career choice?

  •  “I feel as though the career gradually developed; by luck and circumstances, it chose me. I was fortunate to be there at the museum when an opportunity opened up, and I have also had the good fortune to work for some wonderful people. So I am quite happy with how things turned out in the end.”

What helped you the most in becoming a professional plant paleoartist?

  • “Being comfortable with a wide range of artist’s media, for one, and equally important, a fascination for the fossil material, regardless of how fragmentary or difficult it seems at the outset. So a kind of persistence assisted by an innate interest for the fossil material, especially with difficult cases that can involve lots of seemingly useless sketching before I understand where I am headed.”

What are the biggest influences on your art?

  • “Hopefully, the material itself, though I am a great admirer of Charles R. Knight and the atmosphere in his work, the feeling of going back in deep time in his landscapes. So, more the intention, than any attempts to replicate his work on my part, since he worked on completely different fossil material, and on a much larger scale.”

Which piece are you most proud of?

  • “I’ll allow myself that a hundred years from now, if any of my scientific illustrations stand the test of time, and advances in our understanding of the material I have illustrated. “

Which plant group do you find most pleasing to draw?

  • “I have no preferences, all plants are equally interesting to me!”
Reconstruction of Early Cretaceous plants from Mongolia by Pollyanna von Knorring.

Which technique do you believe is most appropriate for drawing extinct plants?

  •  “Now that digital publishing is so easily available, and even paper publications in color are cheaper, it is a welcome change that we can work more in color than in ink or pencil, which are the classical media for scientific illustration. Of course, there is more extrapolation involved in color reconstructions. I like working in watercolor, though I have now gone over to colored pencils, since I work faster with them. There is a lot of impressive work out there done in oil, acrylics, gouache, mixed media and digitally, so actually, whatever gets you there. I think it is up to the individual illustrator.”

What are the most challenging parts of reconstructing extinct plants, and how do you try to overcome these?

  • “Fragmentary fossil plant material is difficult, so it helps to discuss it with the scientists involved, and finding perhaps modern plant analogues we can associate to, which can help to understand difficult or complicated fragmentary structures.”  

How much should a plant paleoartist value botanical knowledge?

  • “Quite highly useful, I would say, and I really should fill in those gaps in my education someday… “

What are the most common mistakes that budding plant paleoartists might make at the beginning of their career?

  • “Perhaps becoming too specialized too early? It is probably wise to try lots of different techniques, read widely, stay curious and cultivate a sense of wonder for the natural world. This will hopefully keep you motivated through rough patches, and give you different perspectives on solving problems. On the other hand, if you are blessed early on with a clear sense of direction and purpose – go for it. 
    I would also say that you should remember, if you are in this for the long run, to take care of yourself. Avoid developing eyestrain and backaches. Stay physically active and rest your eyes (and your mind!) on beautiful landscapes. You can still be working – studying the play of natural light on different surfaces, how color affects the atmosphere in a landscape, etc. All this will be useful to you back in the studio.”

Which aspects of your work (i.e. museum work, reconstruction for general press, for scientific press) do you find most important?

  • “I think that all kinds of paleoart are equally important, but they have different purposes. Scientific illustrations are commissioned in close scientific collaboration for a peer reviewed publication. I hope that such illustrations will stand the test of time, and can be referred to and built upon when more information becomes available.
    Museum work and general press work, is based, hopefully, on the latest correct scientific illustrations available at the time, and are more an invitation to the general public to take a step into deep time, and join in discovering the world that paleontology is trying to piece together. 
    Here, there is more freedom for extrapolation, to create a complete landscape, plant or animal that appeals to the imagination, but is hopefully not too far away from the science that inspired it. Nature has time and again proven to be much more inventive than human imagination, and there is lots of exciting research being done, it is often just a matter of finding it. So I think that a blog like this one is an excellent idea, to help make paleoart more accurate and closer to the fossil evidence out there. “

 Which one do you enjoy the most?

  • “I enjoy reconstruction the most, being closest to the actual fossil material. I never tire of the process. To really understand a new plant, I try to have the “beginner’s mind” intact, first study the material without any preconception of how to reconstruct it or what it is. For me, that sense of wonder is hard to beat.”

Do you believe that scientists and artists should be collaborating more strictly? Are mixed background figures important in bridging the two sides?

  • “I have the impression that there is a lot of great work being done out there and there’s lots of bridge construction going on already.”

How would you judge the current state of plant paleoart?

  •  “Alive and healthy.”

Do you believe that including plant paleoart in the scientific literature should be a more widely accepted practice?

  • “It could certainly make heavy scientific text more entertaining, but it would probably have to stay close to good scientific evidence, or it would just get edited out.”

Can plant paleoart help to fight “plant blindness”, and how?

  • “Yes, by enlightening and fascinating the general public, and showing how the natural world is constantly under change. “

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