Mapping The Natural World: Meet Jane Tomlinson

Mapping The Natural World: Meet Jane Tomlinson

Mapping The Natural World, Jane Tomlinson

Some artists just know how to use color and detail to an absolutely captivating effect, and scrolling through social media one day we couldn’t help but be stopped in our tracks by the most beautiful painting of a map of the British Isles surrounded by swirling birds of all hue and size. Seeking out the creator of this image, we got in touch with Jane Tomlinson to talk about what inspires her near and far, and how to continue to find meaning and joy in the natural world when all else feels lost.

Jane Tomlinson with her Magpies

When we caught up with Jane Tomlinson in October 2022, she was on hiatus from a long summer of commissions and giving herself some dedicated “me time”: it was time to focus on some pieces that she wanted to create just for the pleasure of it. In mid-September she first painted a portrait of Rocky, a horse she had been riding for years, who had to be put to sleep, and then a painting of part of the Pembrokeshire Coast Path she had walked on a recent holiday, “The Way to Ceibwr”. The result showcases the stunning geology of the cliffs, the pulsing pink of sea thrift against the gorgeous blue sea, and a fulmar, one of Jane’s favorite birds, wings outstretched, soaring overhead.

Mapping Art

Jane is a professed map nut, and she absolutely loves painting them. As she says in an introductory video on her website, “they are a fantastic way of expressing complex ideas”. Taking a break from painting the natural world, Jane had been pondering a particular map for a while, finally dedicating this autumn to its creation.

Map of the Isle of Mull by Jane Tomlinson

“I nearly always paint a map in the autumn, and this one had been hanging around my head for about six years”. If you look on her social media page, you’ll see that in mid-November she posted the finished painting of her sprawling North American Rock Music map, the development of which she would share on her Facebook page throughout the six weeks of work and 200 hours-plus it took to complete. The painting is chock-full of references to more than one hundred iconic bands, artists and images, all with mind-blowing artistic accuracy to any original motif or motto.

It is this attention to detail that first lured us into getting in touch for an interview. The piece that caught our eye shows how adeptly Jane has cleverly captured the mechanisms of bird migration with the (now we see it) obvious use of labeled broad and sinuous white arrows, at the points of which, rich ochre and oranges spell out the word “summer” and a shivery and icy pale blue spell the word “winter”.

The island comprising the nations Wales, England and Scotland sits in the middle of the painting, and is flanked by the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland on the left, a huge chunk of western and northern Europe on the right, with a bit of Norway poking in top right. Distant destinations like Siberia and Argentina are referenced around the edges, and between, over and around these land masses and rolling oceans and seas, birds everywhere, gliding and wheeling: puffins, redwings, corncrakes, swallows. A bee eater chases a ring ouzel across France; a snow bunting perhaps from Svalbard comes into view, mayhap aiming for the Cairngorms in central Scotland. It is fascinating to look at, and just so helpful. This is art with the aim of teaching, learning, and informing.

Detailed Bird Migration by Jane Tomlinson

A life of information

As Jane says, “painting is my way of making sense of the world”. Exceptionally well-read, Jane has spent her life absorbing as much information about as many subjects as you can throw a paintbrush at, something which she acknowledges her upbringing, especially the influence of her father, has encouraged. She was born in Stratford-upon-Avon in England, but not before long her botanist father moved the family across the Atlantic when he worked at the University of California, which meant that a dual combination of wonder at the natural world and a love of travel was cemented early on in Jane’s life.

“My dad was a scientist, specifically, a plant pathologist, he did a degree in zoology, so he knew about lots of stuff. As a tiny girl, we'd walk around the garden and he'd say ‘look at the fungus on this tree’, and he told me the name. So, learning about the natural world was just always there.

One of my earliest recollections is watching hummingbirds in California. We would go out every weekend and look at kelp on the beach or rock formations, but for me, it was always ‘can we go and have a look at the sea lions?’ I am a huge fan of sea lions. They're brilliant. I love the way they live in these great social groups and yet seem to hate each other.”

British Finches by Jane Tomlinson

Jane recalls a childhood spent alongside her brother, Paul, both loving to draw, always surrounded by pencils, crayons and paper, making marks and splashing paint around. She describes Paul as “a genius, one who always knew he could draw” and since retirement, Paul has channeled this talent away from the built world he worked in for 30 years and into nature, like his sister. You can look at Paul’s artwork here.

The world and all its charms

“Dad gave me the travel bug, and ever since I've just wanted to see the world. I've got a curious mind which has taken us to some pretty far-flung places. We’ve been to Easter Island, and we've been to a tiny little island called Hiva Oa in the Marquesas islands, because I wanted to visit Gauguin's grave. To get there you fly to Tahiti, then you fly another three and a half hours to the east, and then you get on a smaller plane and fly another hour in a Twin Otter and you land on a speck of dirt in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. An absolutely extraordinary adventure.

The North Wind Doth Blow by Jane Tomlinson

For Moth, my husband [Moth Clark, a bird photographer], it's really all about the birds, but for me, it's all about everything, everything is fantastically interesting. I feel I have to know as much as possible to make any meaning in my art. Some people read novels, but I read Popular Science. I'm very interested in the writer Danny Dorling, he's an Oxford professor of mostly demography and geography. But I also read Tim Marshall; and Jared Diamond repeatedly. I started off with a book of his called Collapse.

Jared Diamond is actually a mad keen ornithologist, he's a polymath, one of those irritating people that can do everything. And there's also a writer called David Quammen, and a book I go back to repeatedly is called The Song of the Dodo. It's about extinctions, and it’s the sort of book I wish had been around and I’d read when I was 18, because it might have turned me into a scientist.”

Artist, teach thyself

Although Jane studied Art and Art History at Oxford, her painting technique is something that she developed herself much later.

“In a way all artists are self-taught, you teach yourself by wanting to do it. I went to university and I did a degree in the history of art and visual studies, and there were practical elements, we did quite a lot of drawing, some printmaking; and weirdly, some bookbinding, but then it was Oxford. But we didn't ever paint.

Nobody taught painting, there was no How-to. You just have to have a go. And years later, when my kids were very young, my mum gave me a box of watercolors, this beautiful palette I still have here, and said ‘just get on with it’. I'd never used watercolor before, but it turns out it was as easy as falling off a log.”

Rocky in the Buttercups by Jane Tomlinson

I mention the bird migration map and how it just explains it all in one take. Of course, it isn’t a comprehensive guide, just an overview, but a beautiful one nonetheless, and it instantly makes sense. For avid bird enthusiasts, looking at migration data can feature quite highly, but ultimately the way it is usually presented will be in tables and charts with accompanying high-level maps, criss-crossed with pins and different coloured zig-zag lines which takes effort to digest. I ask how the arrow imagery came about, and how hard was it to choose the species she would eventually feature?

“A friend said ‘Oh, wouldn't it be nice to have some kind of really easy to look at graphical illustration of who goes where and when?’ I thought God yes, it would be. For me, [migration data] is too much, and you normally also have to refer to a key. I just wanted it to be – bam! all there. Of course, I couldn't possibly paint all the birds in a precise location, so I've had to dumb it down a bit. But for most people, that's all they need.

It took me ages to work out, although when I look at it now, I think why did it take me so long? Once I’d figured the directions out, it was simple, it kind of built itself. The painting I find easy; it’s the research that takes the time. A blank sheet of paper is terribly scary, but once you’ve got a few things on it, you can build on those foundations, then the painting will take on its own life. Unless you're an artist, people don't get that, but usually between 20 to 30% of the way in, a painting takes you by the hand and guides you.

Jane Tomlinson

But I didn't want to make any amateur schoolgirl errors, so we asked a friend over who is a mad keen birder who’s got this really big fat book on bird migrations of the world. We were able to check my lists for accuracy, and fill in any gaps.”

Art as income

The map went on to be featured on Autumnwatch, a beloved part of a series of BBC broadcasts that highlight the seasonal changes each year. That must have been thrilling, I say.

“I finished it in the summer last year, then just put it out there on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Out of the blue, I was contacted by a BBC producer: do you mind if we use it? Well, I almost bit his arm off. It was as simple as that. I sent them the digital file and they made a big print of it and used it on the show. Within minutes, even seconds, when they hadn’t even put a caption up on the screen, they just mentioned my name, immediately, my social media started going off. So it was really heartening that people reacted so favorably.”

Green Revolution by Jane Tomlinson

Jane sells some of her art on her website here in the form of prints, naturally, but you can also buy it in non-hanging-on-the-wall format such as mugs, tea towels, and calendars here. This is a vital source of income, but one that has seen its fair share of ups and downs.

“It surprises most people to learn that I don't do art for a full-time job. I mean, I'd just be destitute, right? I do have a part-time job. But when Covid came along, I do feel guilty to say this but I had the most rewarding pandemic, I couldn't paint and sell things fast enough.

But of course, every day hundreds of people were dying and suffering and struggling, so there was that guilt, because there was me stuck at home with my lovely husband in our little house and the birds outside and my paintbox, and better still, no one could disturb us.”

I mention that survivor guilt is a strange phenomenon, but during the pandemic, all anyone really ever had access to was nature, with the rise in birdwatching and bird-feeding having been well-documented. So here was an artist whose connection to nature and ability to make art in the most beautiful of ways meant that she just happened to be in the right place at the wrong time, and there should be no guilt in creating something so full of color and joy that people wanted, and needed, to look at.

But now a new, if mostly foreseen and expected trial has begun.

Love Is Green by Jane Tomlinson

“Now, though, because of the cost-of-living crisis. People just aren’t buying luxury items like art. They have no confidence to spend money on anything other than food and heating. But we're not going to starve, nobody’s going to take our house away from us, and we can pay the bills. And at the moment that feels a bit like a win!”

The longest tsunami

Our conversation turns to the inevitable: the dire situation that the world faces, globally. During her years of reading and research for her natural world art, she must have learned of the overwhelming evidence of what is happening in terms of climate change, habitat loss and species in peril, and I ask if she has any kind of coping mechanism to balance out that knowledge without going mad from despair; I also ask if she is familiar, which she is, with the term ‘shifting baseline syndrome’. It is a question that sparks a mixture of sadness and anger.

“Forty years ago, when I was going on the bus to school, there would be clouds of lapwings rising up from the fields. You don't see that anymore. I heard a turtle dove a couple of summers ago over at RSPB Otmoor, and I realized as I heard that purring, I haven't heard that since I was a child. All of a sudden, that space between my childhood, and hearing it again, was all compressed.

Angels in St. Giles by Jane Tomlinson

Extinction events are happening now! It’s not going to come suddenly like a tsunami, it’s happening already and will continue. I don't know if I have got a coping mechanism for that. Or perhaps, part of the coping mechanism is to get out there and see everything before it all disappears. Because, unfortunately, that beautiful tapestry will be much diminished. I don't think all birds will be wiped out because there are some species which are just so damn smart, and survivors, they'll go on. I’m talking about jackdaws, the crows, wood pigeons, mallards, all the generalists. But the loss of even one species is appalling.”

Acknowledgement by governments of the critical issues at stake are, in Jane’s and many others’ world-view, absolutely intrinsic to a reversal in the calamity that looks to lie ahead if the world keeps going the way it is. Jane’s brow furrows at the frustrating lack of decision-making the world over.

“It would help, wouldn’t it, if the powers that be actually made tax incentives, for example, if all new houses that went up had to have a solar array, and an electricity storage battery, and very basic stuff like this. That would be a start. Or if everyone who is lucky enough to get house martins nesting in their eaves, instead of knocking the nest off, why don't they just sweep up the guano that they seem to be so offended by. What a simple thing that would be.

Song from the Wood by Jane Tomlinson

Maybe another coping mechanism I have is we have a lovely little bungalow on a reasonably big patch of land here, and we have done everything in our power to attract the local wildlife and make it a place of safety. I can't control anything else except what we have there. Half of the garden is turned over to a wildflower patch. I've put flowers in that are specifically meant to help the insects, and some days you have to watch where you walk because the place is full of frogs.

There are birds everywhere; we get deer and foxes in the garden at night. There are owls. The butterflies we get are extraordinary in the sun. It's because we've let things go mad and do their own thing. Also taking control of our own lives and our own footprint: we don't eat meat; we generate our own electricity; we're trying to do the right things. And I understand that we are in a very privileged position to be able to do that.

But we're trying to make the changes in our own life that have the least impact on the planet and do everything in our power to protect things. And yes, of course people sometimes say to me, ‘oh, but you got on a plane…’ and it’s an argument you can never win. But you do what you can, I'll bang the drum, I'll stand up for what I think is right, and I will call out injustices, whether they are social injustices or environmental injustices where I see them. That doesn't always make me popular, but it helps me sleep at night.”

Bird Migration Map by Jane Tomlinson

We can all be warriors

Jane concludes our chat with an admission that being told what to do is not always going to get the desired effect, and that access to the right information is key. That’s why her reading and research for her paintings are so important to her.

“It's not for me to tell people how to live their lives; I wish it was! They would stop listening because I would start swearing! But I don't want to come over as a sort of Smart Alec, holier than thou, righteous eco-warrior. Even though I am! People have to work it out for themselves.

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