This week, we interviewed Amy Jean Porter, an artist and naturalist who writes Wild Life, a newsletter with illustrations and writing about animals, humans and nature.
What's your Substack about in one sentence?
Animal encounters and illustrated musings about humans and nature.
Where did you learn to draw, and how did you develop your illustration style?
I come from a long line of women who drew birds. I've been drawing since I was a kid and kept at it, with a few classes in college. I became more obsessive about drawing in my twenties, when it was the thing that settled and grounded me.
I've always been more of a line person (sharp, sharp lines) rather than big brush strokes, but recently I've enjoyed playing more with color and chance. My favorite medium is gouache, which is kind of like an opaque watercolor. It's soft and smells delicious and the colors are fantastic. It dries fast, so you can work quickly.
Your Substack is a combination of both narrative and visuals. How do you feel this helps paint a more complete picture of your subject?
I love the possibilities of text and image. Early in my career I did a series of 300+ drawings [called] North American Mammals Speak the Truth and Often Flatter You Unnecessarily. I found phrases in contemporary print media that were "truths" or "flatteries" and captured them in the way that a naturalist – say, Audubon – might capture and document a species. Looking at those drawings now, the series is a time capsule from 2003, since many of the printed sources no longer exist and our cultural voice has changed.
My newsletter has more of a traditional relationship between text and image. I want my drawings to set a tone for the text – they are loose and colorful and fleeting in a sense, true sketches – and hopefully provide a jolt of creative energy. Our understanding of animals is colored by our perceptions. Scientists are trained to take themselves out of the equation, and rightly so, but I can be an artist and observer. I can create a space where the more personal connections to animals can be explored.
You've drawn more than 1,200 species of animals. Where do you find new subjects?
I have this crazy idea that I will draw every creature on the planet. Obviously this is impossible, but it is a goal that sustains.
What do you think animals have to teach us about ourselves?
Most of us have very little exposure to wild animals, but I think everyone has a moment or small story to tell. I'm curious about what happens when you see a wild animal – an owl in the park, a bunny under a bush, a deer bounding through the woods. There is that second of surprise – of feeling like you stumbled into a secret world. What is that moment? How does it change your day?
I saw a bobcat for the first time this summer and nearly lost my mind. It felt so otherworldly, and yet that animal is absolutely real and part of everyday life. We share a habitat. The wilderness isn't "out there" somewhere. We're part of it. There are owls in New York City, foxes in London, and maybe mice in your garage or birds at your window.
Architecture and language tend to act as barriers to the natural world – we're in our little boxes, naming things – but I think they can also be bridges, the points at which we intersect. It feels like a design problem to me, and one that we can potentially solve: how to coexist with wild animals and live alongside. For the newsletter, I'm beginning with the most common animals, the ones who have, in many respects, already figured out how to live with us. I'm hoping readers will contribute their stories and that we'll gain some kind of lived experience together.
What's an animal that's surprisingly difficult to draw?
I'm working on drawings for a book called Insectpedia by Eric Eaton (forthcoming from Princeton University Press). Bugs are difficult to draw because of their small size, but there's also an interesting ick factor – I had a hard time drawing a head louse, for example. (Beetles, however, are fantastic.)
Who's another Substack writer you'd recommend?
Edith Zimmerman's Drawing Links is a favorite and inspired me to start my newsletter. Her drawings and comics bring some magic to the unique predicament of being human (the strangest animal of all).
Subscribe to Amy’s newsletter, Wild Life.