Recently, the niche market of Icelandic-bird-guides-in-English gained a new addition in the form of “BIRDS,” a translation of Hjörleifur Hjartarson and Rán Flygenring’s award-winning ornithological guide. The volume is illustrated in Rán’s distinctive drawing style, which provides ample means of identifying the birds while also enhancing the character and eccentricities of each species (Icelanders love to anthropomorphize the country’s feathered fauna).
Birds, front and back
“We wanted to create an emotional connection between the readers and the birds,” explains Rán, who is currently sojourning in New Zealand—another bird paradise. “That’s why Hjörleifur’s writing pays so much attention to the characteristics of each species and the folklore surrounding it. I applied all sorts of stylistic and technical devices to the illustration in order to find an approach that suited each bird best.”
She admits that prior to working on the book, her knowledge of feathered creatures was rather limited. “I couldn’t have cared less about birds,” she says. “They were up there with ancestry studies: No thank you! Now, however, I love them.
“To prepare, I went through dozens of bird guides and looked at mounted birds. I also kept my eyes open for any birds I could see in the wild.” She laughs. “Drawing birds from the front and back is tricky as hell! You learn a lot just by watching a couple of sparrows fluttering around; see all sorts of angles that you won’t find in any book.”
Jumping into the deep end and tackling new and unfamiliar subjects is par for the course in terms of the way Rán approaches her work as an artist and illustrator.
“I’m concerned with not stagnating creatively,” she confesses. “I’ve been working in this field for so long that sometimes I get completely fed up with drawing. There’s a certain skill involved in preserving the joy I find in my work. It’s not really that I have to force myself to the sketch pad, but when you’ve been working with certain forms and styles for a long time, you end up creating a brand for yourself, and if you create something that works, there is always going to be a demand for more of the same. Of course you want to be able to earn a living with your art, but sometimes it comes at the risk of becoming caught in repetition.”
The importance of play
Having to create art that has a set deadline and page count can be draining for Rán, but she has found various ways of counteracting such fatigue. “I’ve actually resorted to drawing on napkins and the backs of envelopes,” she says, “just to trick my brain and pretend that it’s all fun and games—that I’m just goofing around.”
She stresses that she finds that state of play much preferable to the sort of “flow” that some artists talk about. “What I find the most useful in my process is the same sort of unbridled creativity you experience in childhood,” she says. “I have to make sure that I have the space to play. In recent years, spending time with my son has given me so many additional opportunities to do that—to just goof around with him. Like, we went to the beach the other day, and there was a three-legged dog that tagged along with us, and we decided to draw bones in the sand for him. We ended up drawing all kinds of bones, big and small, even though the dog never seemed particularly appreciative.”
Honesty and art
Frowning, she continues: “Something like that, just playing around, it releases some energy that helps overcome blocks that you might develop in your art. Finding that creative place by playing and goofing around always delivers better work. It leaves behind a grain of honest joy. My goal has never really been to capture something artistic or beautiful. I just want to make something that’s honest. It’s fine if it’s a little messy or impulsive, just as long as it’s honest.”
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