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Tips from Wildlife Artist of the Year winners

David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation

Wildlife Artist of the Year is David Shepherd Wildlife Foundation’s (DSWF) prestigious wildlife art competition, open to any artist over the age of 17 using a variety of techniques, mediums and styles.

The DSWF team spoke to previous Wildlife Artist of the Year winners, Stephen Rew, Andrew Pledge and DSWF Partner Artist and Human Impact category judge, Martin Aveling, about their strategies when entering this extraordinarily competitive art competition.

‘Wood Stork’ by Andrew Pledge
‘Writhe’ by Stephen Rew
pencil drawing of a turtle
‘A Plastic Plague’ by Martin Aveling

In 2019, Stephen won with his octopus sculpture, ‘Writhe’ entered in the Into the Blue category. In 2020, Andrew Pledge took gold won for his detailed Wings category entry, ‘Wood Stork’.

The exceptionally talented pencil artist, Martin Aveling has a 100% record of being shortlisted for the Wildlife Artist of the Year exhibition over the last 12 years.

Here are some practical tips for artists from these Wildlife Artist of the Year veterans:

1) Plan well in advance

An artist can enter any artwork created within the last five years, so take your time with your entry.

“In the early years, my entries were a bit of an afterthought. I submitted works that I already had lying around in my studio,”

says Martin

Entries to Wildlife Artist of the Year open annually in September and close in February, but there is nothing to stop artists working on their entry months, even years, in advance.

“As the competition grew in esteem and became more competitive, I changed my strategy and put Wildlife Artist of the Year at the centre of my plans. I now start thinking about the following year’s competition even before the current exhibition has ended,”

says Martin

Be considered when entering a completed artwork – it might be worth trying to create a unique piece exclusively for the competition.

2) Diversify your risk

It is a law of numbers – by entering multiple categories, artists can diversify their risk, after all your entry fee directly helps endangered species.

Categories like the Urban Wildlife and the Into the Blue attract fewer entries each year compared to Facing Extinction.

“I’m extremely fortunate to work in a wide range of disciplines, and I use that to my advantage and aim to submit a variety of entries across the categories,”

says Stephen Rew

Martin Aveling has the same idea:

In terms of strategy, you might try and spread the risk by entering multiple categories, or you could put all your eggs in one basket and target one category with multiple works,”  

says Martin

3) Focus on storytelling and talking points

“Storytelling is something I keep at the forefront of my mind when approaching a new artwork. I now use Wildlife Artist of the Year to make a statement about conservation issues,”

says Martin. 

This may involve some research and fully understanding your chosen subject matter by incorporating biological insights into your artworks. Find creative ways to illustrate symbiotic relationships, food webs, flagship species, keystone species and ecosystem function.

The judges are passionate about the natural world, and imaginative entries that show an in-depth knowledge of that species will not go unnoticed. This is very much in the same vein as the Human Impact Category that uses art to create awareness for topical environmental issues.

Alternatively, artists can highlight current conservation issues in your artworks, like the Australian fires or the supposed link of the Covid-19 virus to pangolins, and the illegal wildlife trade. 

“The narrative for wildlife is a lot bleaker than it once was, and I believe that wildlife art should be reflecting that,”

explains Martin. 

In the 2020 exhibition, Martin created a burning ‘Koala’ artwork that sent a poignant message about the impact of the wildfires in Australia. 

Shortlisted artworks that made a powerful state about the illegal wildlife trade and species extinction were: Shane Swann’s ‘One Hundred Endangered and Recently Extinct Species’, Charlotte Pack’s ‘100 Elephants’ and Bin Zhou’s storybook artwork, ‘Teeth’

This is very much in the same vein as the Human Impact category (ages 16 to 22) that uses art to create awareness for topical environmental issues. The Human Impact category focuses on technical implementation as well as conservation message. 

4) Match your subject matter to medium

Understand that certain species lend themselves to different mediums, and it is worth seeing what subject matter or category might enhance your particular style. An artist who does this well is previous Into the Blue category winner and DSWF Partner Artist, Nick Oneill his medium and technique are ideal for capturing the essence of marine creatures. 

5) Stay true to your style

This is an art competition so mastery of your chosen or preferred technique, medium and style is essential. 

My practical tip to all up and coming artists is to sketch, sketch and keep sketching. Throwing down ideas in simple line drawings quickly whittles out the good ideas from bad and shows you where to focus your energy,

says Stephen. 

Show the judges that you have mastered your technique and can create something in your signature flair your artwork should be shortlisted.

“I put a monumental amount of effort into creating my octopus, from the design, to physically sculpting and shaping, to the mottled finish of the bronze, it all came together exactly as I planned, and that was thankfully recognised by the judges,”  

says Stephen

Stay true to your artistic style, favoured medium and preferred subject matter. Andrew Pledge won for his ingenious and masterful use of gold leaf when creating his detailed ‘Wood Stock’.

“When I completed ‘Wood Stork’ it was the first time, I had painted in over 10 years and I stuck to my preferred subject matter and medium. Produce something that’s personal to you as an artist,”

says Andrew

Andrew’s wild muses are often seemingly unattractive and overlooked birds like vultures, hornbills and his ‘Wood Stock’.

Follow our Instagram account (DSWFwildlifeart) or sign up for updates from DSWF for more inspiration relating to Wildlife Artist of the Year. Enter Wildlife Artist of the Year 2021 here.

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