Editor’s note: For this month’s issue, we wanted an authoritative editorial on how artists can foster a love of Florida’s natural environment through their work. Since our team consists of three journalists, we knew we could not write this post with such authority. We reached out to Dawn Witherington, a Florida artist who specializes in graphic design and scientific illustration, to write this piece.  

Witherington’s art and design are prominent in natural history books, posters, exhibits and a line of sea-themed greeting cards. She has an extensive portfolio of scientific illustration and is co-author of six books: “Florida’s Living Beaches,” “Florida’s Seashells,” “Living Beaches of Georgia and the Carolinas,” “Seashells of Georgia and the Carolinas,” and “Our Sea Turtles,” a Gold Medal award-winning book for nature. View her work at: drawnbydawn.com

This poster is one example of Dawn Witherington’s beautiful and educational illustrations.

By Dawn Witherington

I love Florida, and I love its nature. But to live in this state is to witness change, and unfortunately, loss. So, I realized early on that I needed to foster an appreciation for natural Florida. I needed to share the love. My ability to share was through art.

Like many artists, what I lack in nerve I make up for in focus and patience. I relish the observation of nature’s detail and enjoy taking on the challenge of reproducing the beauty of what I see. The leaves, bark, feathers, fur, scales, and glint in the eye, all represent the essence of plants and animals that are truly wonderful to behold. If only all could see this hidden wonder.

My role as a biological illustrator has been to reveal what I see as honestly as I can. This requires an idealistic approach, attention to detail, and a lot of time. Unfortunately, this artistic immersion turns out to be a tough way to make a living. But just arriving at this endeavor necessitated an extensive journey.

The beginning of my career as a biological illustrator wasn’t so much fraught with failure as it was vexed with volunteerism. In starting out, I did a lot of work for free. But the investments opened opportunities for success and allowed me to follow my heart toward a career.

“In many cases, there are only partial visual references to describe how beautiful and valuable this nature is.”

Success included an ability to pay for rent and food, but the greatest part of my achievement was acceptance. Having my art appreciated as a critical element within powerful conservation messages has always been my professional goal. My objectives have been to provide the visual elements that elicit both curiosity and emotion on the path toward understanding, appreciation and conservation action.

My role in conservation is to reveal the plant, animal or ecological system that biological experts know well but the general public does not. It’s a challenge. In many cases, there are only partial visual references to describe how beautiful and valuable this nature is.

I often find myself assembling diverse bits and pieces, visual and otherwise, to inform a representation of a rarely seen creature. The work typically involves partnering with conservation biologists, with exchanges reminiscent of a police sketch artist interviewing a witness. It can be frustrating, but it’s important.

For many subjects of my art, representing them in a compelling conservation story helps circumvent the obscurity that might lead to oblivion. But don’t let me convince you that the work isn’t fun and rewarding. It is. It gets me out and about, with exposure to some of the most amazing natural features of our world. And it gives me abundant opportunities to share the love.

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Dawn Witherington: Fostering a Love For Nature Through Art