Merging science with art

Laguna Beach artist who specializes in scientific illustration is showing for the fourth time at the Sawdust Art Festival.

July 19, 2012|By Imran Vittachi

Karen Talbot counts a microscope among the tools of her art.

In a town renowned for plein air painting, this Laguna Beach resident comes from a rarer breed of specialist who works outdoors.

Talbot is a scientific illustrator. For her work, she will roam the local hills — and even snorkel underwater off Laguna — in search of her artistic subjects: birds, wild flowers, fish and other species of fresh or saltwater marine life.

Talbot is one of the many artists exhibiting at the Sawdust Art Festival the summertime show underway at 935 Laguna Canyon Road. Stop by her booth, No. 338, and her illustrations of fish, birds and plants may remind the viewer of painted and drawn images of flora and fauna depicted in back issues of National Geographic magazine, biology class textbooks or with display cases in a natural history museum.

"It's sort meditative for me," Talbot, 40, said of her art, which can demand painstaking attention to detail.


She paints mostly in watercolor, but, for her illustration of an Allen's Hummingbird (on display in her booth) she drew it on archival paper with waxed, colored pencils. The drawing of the tiny bird is small compared with others in her large portfolio, yet it required some 150 layers of coloring, Talbot said.

The microscope, equipped with a camera to take pictures of the magnified images, came in handy when she had to work on an illustration of a copepod, Tigriopus Californicus. Reed Mariculture a San Jose area company that makes aquaculture products, commissioned Talbot to draw images of the marine crustacean for a label that would go on its bottles for Tigger-Feast, a food product for aquariums made from the species.

"They overnighted [a sample] to me, and in real-life they're about as big as a speck of pepper," Talbot said.

Talbot grew up in Maryland. She first became interested in creating art from themes having to do with nature as a little girl. She drew images of birds from a field guide owned by her mother, a birding enthusiast.

One of Talbot's first jobs out of college was as an archaeologist for an American colonial history museum on the East Coast. The job required artistic skills such as illustration, she said. Talbot's early subjects included colonial artifacts and Native American arrowheads.

Because scientific illustration requires such skill and precision in the art work, Talbot reckons that such images capture details on animal specimens that can elude a camera.

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