Peter Schouten, Into the Wild

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Bobin local Peter Schouten is a talented artist, illustrator and published author. With an exhibition currently running at the Manning Regional Art Gallery – “Into the Wild” – we caught up with Peter to find out more about his brilliant career.

Hi Peter. You’ve been in the Manning Valley for 16 years. What drew you here in the first place, and what was it that kept you here?

I am an inner city Sydney boy from birth and, as such, had little exposure to the natural world. A yearning for nature was quenched by immersing myself into books on animals, especially prehistoric animals. This fascination with the natural world and my innate ability to illustrate animals led me to a forty year career as a freelance wildlife artist. Throughout that time, my desire to replace a world of bitumen and concrete with one of trees, clean air and water strengthened. 

Twenty years ago, I finally had the financial wherewithal to make that dream a reality and, after a two year search, I discovered beautiful Bobin. What keeps me in Bobin is the land, the forests, the pristine waterways, the wildlife and, most notably, the wonderful welcoming community that live here.

You wear a couple of “hats”; that of a wildlife artist, natural history illustrator, and palaeontological illustrator. Can you explain in layman’s terms each area of your work?

A wildlife artist is a general term that can encompass all forms of natural history illustration, as well as botanical art. My viewpoint is that wildlife art is an aesthetically pleasing composition usually created for framing and hanging on the wall.

A natural history illustrator produces images specifically to convey information. The subjects are often technical in nature and can be rendered in pencil, ink or a paint medium. These works are usually commissioned by scientists or publishers and appear in scientific papers and books. If done well, an illustration should also have good aesthetic appeal.

A palaeontological illustrator/palaeoartist is someone who specialises in the reconstruction of fossil species. This is a highly specialised area of wildlife art. A palaeoartist must be skilled in animal anatomy and morphology and, together with a basic knowledge of geology, evolutionary science and botany, must also include artistic ability. Needless to say, this is a rare occupation and one that, these days, relies more and more on digital skills than being able to render with brush and paint.

You have also had 14 books published … a huge accomplishment! Can you share a bit about these with our readers?

As outlined earlier, books have always been a passion of mine, so to produce books for other people is a great honour to me.

My first book, Prehistoric Animals of Australia, began life as a series of black and white drawings of Australian megafauna that I had created out of my own interest. I presented them to Prof. Mike Archer at the University of New South Wales for his appraisal and suggested changes. He immediately loved them and thought they should go into a book – and that’s how it started.

That book and the second, The Antipodean Ark, were illustrated using graphite pencil; however, the publishers wanted colour. I have never studied art and consequently did not know how to paint, so I eased my way into it by adopting water soluble colour pencils. This allowed me to draw but to then apply a soft wash of watercolour. Eventually I gained enough confidence to use paint alone. This transition can be seen in the collection of paintings contained in Possums of the World. This was also the first of many co-authorships with my good friend Tim Flannery.

Many books on extant animals followed, until I was lured back into the prehistoric world by the astonishing new fossils that were coming out of China. I wanted to share these discoveries with the world, and I did this by collaborating with John Long to produce Feathered Dinosaurs – the Origin of Birds.

My rekindled enthusiasm for all things palaeo led to the latest book, End of the Megafauna and two others currently in production, The Antipodean Ark (an updated version) and Gondwana – both books focusing on evolution on the southern continents.

Are there particular highlights in your career you could share with us?

There are two that I would like to mention. The first is the great honour of being awarded a Member of The Order of Australia back in 2015. Initially I thought someone was having a joke on me, until I found out that this was real. I came to a realisation that maybe what I have been doing for the last forty years has been of use to someone.

The second was in 2017, when I was honoured by having a new species of marsupial lion named after myself. To someone working with animals for their entire life, an honour such as this is one of the greatest accolades that you could receive from one’s peers.

Is there any particular work you’re most proud of? If so, why?

That’s a hard question. I think the answer for me is not one particular work; rather, it is a collection of paintings. That collection is A Gap in Nature. This is a book that I did with Tim Flannery back in 2000. The premise for the book was to illustrate all animals that have become extinct due to European expansion around the planet within the last 500 years. The decision was made to illustrate all animals life-size, as an exhibition of the paintings was to accompany the release of the book. The exhibition had a large opening at the Museum of South Australia in Adelaide. 

What struck me on entering the exhibition hall was the silence of the viewers. Talk was in hushed tones, and there was an overall sense of solemnity – some viewers being moved to tears. This wasn’t the celebration I was expecting! So, I guess I am proud of this collection, because my intention was to illustrate the effect humans have had on global fauna and environments, and this was certainly achieved for viewers of that exhibition.

Where to next?

The updated Antipodean Ark will be released later this year, and I am continuing to work on my megaproject, Gondwana. Gondwana will contain about 100 large multi-species composites representing reconstructions of all major fossil sites of the southern continents over a period of about 400 million years. Needless to say, this is a challenging project.

How do people get in touch with you, or find out more information about your art?

More information is available on my website: studioschouten.com.au

Thanks Peter. Interview: Ingrid Bayer.

Peter’s art will be featured at the Manning Regional Art Gallery as part of their Into the Wild Exhibition, being held from 7th March to 14th April.

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