The Rio Negro Sketchbook

Who says art and science are entirely separate disciplines?

Onça 2

Jaguar by Laura House

We care about what we see — and the more closely we observe, the more we understand. And there’s no better way of  observing closely than through creating art. And what we create, we care for. So any scientific endeavour involving conservation, species diversity or habitat sustainability, depends on our power of observation.

Tomorrow’s scientists should start sharpening their skills of observation today. That’s why we’re embarking on a cultural project for young people in Brazil and beyond, combining education, art and conservation awareness in Amazonia.

In February 2016 wildlife artist and illustrator Laura House – she’s my daughter – will be running a series of workshops for local children in the lower Rio Negro region of the Brazilian Amazon. I’ll be travelling with her as the  fixer, dogsbody, companion and writer. The objective is to combine art, education and conservation in a playful package that helps the children in riverside communities to interact with nature surrounding them in creative ways, and to appreciate its beauty.


Laura House

If Amazonia’s children are, as many conservationists believe,  best-placed to become the long-term guardians of the region’s sustainability,  then engaging their enthusiasm and inspiring their participation is a work of great importance not just for life sciences, but for maintaining species diversity — and perhaps even helping to mitigate climate change.

Wildlife artist and illustrator Laura House

Sloth mother and offspring by Laura House

Here’s the proposition for the workshops set out in  visual format with Laura’s  captions in Portuguese:

Laura Workshop poster large

Laura’s workshop poster

That’s why Laura will be bringing her skills both as an artist and as a teacher to the  Rio Negro to run a series of workshops with local children in local schools. At this time of writing we don’t quite know  how many events there will be. But we do  know that  between 1st Feb and 16th Feb  these will take place in Tumbira, on the river’s western bank, and later at Tres Unidos, an inidgenous community  on the opposite bank. The coordination is being arranged by  Amazonia’s leading NGO,  FAS (Fundação Amazonas Sustentável) which has its  field base in Tumbira. The core proposition of FAS — to make Amazonia’s forests more valuable standing than when cut for lumber — is one we wholeheartedly support.  Likewise we support the strategy FAS has developed  to make this possible: keeping Amazonia’s ribeirinho people in rural communities in order to make a life based on traditional yet sustainable extractive industries  that become economically viable thanks to financial support from donors (these include  Coca Cola, Samsung and others).

You can read  the background to this  trip and its inspiration in the work of the 19th century naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace (who visited the Rio Negro 160 years ago)  by clicking here. You can also see Laura’s animal drawings and engravings here. A background document describing the Rio Negro Project can also be accessed by clicking here.

Jaguar by Laura House

Jaguar by Laura House

Laura is experienced in giving workshops: you can see more of her drawings  by clicking  on this website and at this Facebook page. Since October 2015 she has been working in Colombia and has  visited schools in  remote areas of the Orinoco River basin not dissimilar from the Brazilian Amazon.

Laura class

Laura leading class in Colombia’s Orinoco River basin

She was born in Brazil and speaks Portuguese. She’s also a qualified teacher as well as holding an MA in education and leadership. She currently works for  UK educational charity TeachFirst,  where she coordinates the work of  primary school teachers in  London. Recently she has been helping to train new teachers in Colombia.

Class 2

Laura leading class in Colombia’s Orinoco River basin

We don’t of course, know what animals will turn up. For the children in Brazil, Laura will  be working with familiar animals living in close proximity with communities. Some may be pets, some predators or pests –  and some may habitually turn up on the plate. The common thread is that these creatures are best understood when observed with care through the artistic process. Learning how to look is an essential feature of learning how to draw, no matter whether the creature in question may be great or small.


All creatures great and small

Laura will encourage the children to  bring their imagination, their narratives, their stories – and even their pets to workshops, where art materials will be provided.

macaw sketches

Drawing macaws from life demands patience

It’s hoped that part of the collective output will be murals painted by the group, as well as individual artistic efforts. Drawing live creatures isn’t always easy, as they tend to jump around. Here’s an image of  some of the lemurs Laura has been drawing in London zoo.

wallace pike2

These lemurs are almost too jumpy to draw!

The images  created on the Rio Negro  by Brazilian children under Laura’s guidance will be collected, and we hope evetually to produce a book that shows young people  all around the world –  including young would-be scientists  – what it’s like to  live in an environment where the pristine forest of a century ago has gone forever, yet where nature can still intervene in village life in unexpected ways.

Wallace landscape 2

19th century pristine Amazonia – no longer

Above all, we hope the result will help to ignite the enthusiasm of young people for the conservation cause — no matter whether their interests focus on animals wild or domestic, or plants of the edible or inedible kind.


Laura’s a plant and botanical illutsrator too

What’s important, of course, is that children are entertained and find that  conservation  can be playful and engaging in its own right – not as an imposition from the adult world.

Other products may emerge from these workshops too. In Colombia, Laura has been experimenting with the interface between the very traditional draughtsmanship skills of the illustrator, and the high-tech world of  IT and software. Specifically, her drawings of  well-known Colombian birds  (Colombian sparrow and falcon) have been used to create 3D models burned/cut into wood panels by laser printing technique.


Bogota’s familiar sparrow-like Copetón after model assembled

Bird 1These shapes can then be painted by  children, pressed out and assembled. The idea is that they make an informative and also creative teaching tool  for the children of Colombia to gain better understanding of the creatures around them.

eagle bird

Colombian Bailarín falcon (Elanus Leucarus)

Perhaps as a result of the Rio Negro workshops, Laura’s work  can help Brazilian children to gain better understanding of the birds and animals of the Amazon using similar painted wooden cutouts. For that to happen, we’ll need some  technical and financial support with the model making process.

Until quite recently, being a scientist meant you also had to be an artist. Before the invention of photography, the discoveries of natural historians visiting remote places would only be credited if they were able to draw what they’d seen. Today the ability to observe, record and describe is still important.

Let’s close with the words of one young scientist, describing his excitement as he set off on his own journey to the Amazon. The date was 1848 and the 24-year-old traveller was Alfred Russel Wallace. These are the opening words of   A Narrative of Travels on the Amazon and Rio Negro:

“An earnest desire to visit a tropical country, to behold the  luxuriance of animal and vegetable life said to exist there, and to see with my own eyes all those wonders  I had so much delighted to read of in the narratives of travellers.”


IMG_2898We look forward to keeping you updated on the progress of the workshops that will form the content of our artist’s Rio Negro Sketchbook.