Garden Stories with Thomas Jackson June 27 2021

Thomas Jackson is an Australian artist and illustrator who was born in Bolton, United Kingdom. Moving to Sydney, Australia as a child, he was instantly drawn to the natural wildlife of this new country. Fascinated by the local animals and landscapes, he drew inspiration from his new home, as well as scientific plant and animal specimens, entomology and taxidermy. Today, Thomas puts a modern take on natural history illustration, painstakingly creating smaller scale works for galleries and translating these into large scale public murals.

Interview by Joseph Estorninho. Photos supplied by Thomas Jackson.

You draw inspiration from scientific illustration. Do you consider education part of the purpose of your work?

Absolutely. I really try to highlight local species and use my work as a platform to show the beauty and uniqueness of Australia’s native biodiversity. I think it’s really important—especially with the world as it is now—to visualise issues that threaten our wildlife and the environments that support this life. In recent times we are losing more species to climate change, mining and land clearing, and this has really affected me and my work practice and the subjects I choose to paint.

What do you use as reference for your artworks?

I try to get as much reference material myself as I can, but I’m not a very good photographer. All of the plant life and some animal photos are my own, but I can't always get the images I really need. So I’ve befriended a number of wildlife photographers through social media and have worked to build relationships with them so that I can use their images with their permission. This has been great for me as I’ve forged new friendships and relationships with other creatives which helps invigorate my work. I have also met a number of people that work within our state parks, as well as ecologists, who know a lot more about the species I paint. They help me understand these species better and give more substance to my work.

Your images tend to include some ecology: you almost always depict an animal or insect interacting with flora. Is this just an aesthetic decision or is there another thought behind it?

There is an element of aesthetic reasoning, but I also make sure that the species are in some way interacting. I wouldn’t have a Western Australian bird species on an east coast plant for example. I also like to have birds such as honeyeaters on a flowering plant to show the correlation between this species and a food source.

What draws you to particular animals?

It really could be anything. I might see a bird on a bush way interacting with a specific flower and think, "That's already an artwork!" It might also be an environmental news piece talking about a new species or just a great photo that I stumble across that inspires me.

I love the inclusion of the abstract line or dot you sometimes include. Sometimes it's in the background and sometimes it's three dimensional and interacts with the other elements. Can you tell us what inspired this?

I started mostly doing big shapes or circles in the background because I’d dropped my brush and made an ugly mark, but then I really started to enjoy it so kept going. Now I’m just loving playing around with these more contemporary shapes and how it is so different from the natural history inspiration.

Do you live or work close to nature?

I live in Sydney’s inner west, so not so close to the bush, but there are a lot of great bird species in the local area. We have a family of wrens that visit our garden as well as New Holland honeyeaters and red wattle birds. We are also not too far from the National Park and the Blue Mountains. Also, my partner's parents live in the country so we still get out of the big smoke.

Has COVID made you think differently about your work or changed it at all?

Yeah, definitely. It's been really hard on a lot of creatives and really feel for everyone through this. I have been doing okay, but have had to shift my practice a little to make sure I can still make enough to keep going. But I am super positive and have actually had a pretty good time through the pandemic. In some way I feel it's brought people closer to each other and has encouraged everyone to make more of an effort in reaching out to one another.

Your mural work is especially striking and not just because of the scale! What are some of the unique challenges that come with public works like these?

Every one has its own challenges. I always get lost when speaking to people about a site as all I see are the hazards and don’t talk about the artwork. Every one is different but usually its just the usual stuff like access to the site, what lift will I need, are there powerlines overhead etc etc.

Is narrative and viewer interaction something you think about differently with mural work as opposed to small scale works like the ones you're showing with us?

Yeah I’ve been trying to do a snake mural for years and no one wants one. I think doing public works there are so many different considerations like, colour, shape and mass appeal. For example, I don’t think people realise that a lot of birds have quite piercing almost glowing eyes that can make the artwork seem a little menacing. Within my gallery works I can really experiment more and feel it allows me a little more creative control over my subject matter.

What is something you have to have with you to create?

Law and Order. Anyone who knows me will agree.

If you had to be a combination of three animals what would they be?

Shark, Snake, Bat. The perfect predator. hahaha. But also, fly, swim, venom.

Thank you for your time, Thomas!