A woman painting birds on a mural

WINGED WALL: Jane Kim paints a mural of birds at Cornell University in New York.

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Avian Artist

Painter Jane Kim’s monumental murals help people connect with nature

What shape are a robin's tail feathers? What precise shade of blue is the gleam in a pelican’s eye? Questions like these are what Jane Kim ponders while she works. As a science illustrator, Kim creates beautiful and painstakingly accurate portrayals of plants and animals. Her work helps educate the public about the natural world.

A few years ago, Kim completed one of her most ambitious projects yet: a three-story mural at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Ithaca, New York. It celebrates bird evolution—the process by which organisms diversify into new species over time. The Wall of Birds includes life-sized paintings of more than 240 birds—one from every living bird family, or category of related species. They stretch across a giant world map, with each bird depicted in its native region.

Planning and painting the mural took more than two-and-a-half years. Kim spoke to Science World about her process and why she focuses on nature in her art.

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Science illustrator Jane Kim

What motivated you to become a science illustrator?

I’ve loved the natural world since I was little. I was obsessed with plants and animals. I did a lot of art projects as a kid, but the idea of being a professional artist didn’t enter my mind until high school. That’s when I started taking sculpture and figure-drawing classes and decided I wanted to go to art school.

In art school, I experimented with different styles and subject matter. But after I graduated, I returned to my love of nature. I completed a certificate program in scientific illustration. After trying out a few different formats, I realized I wanted to make large-scale public art exhibits in spaces where many people can see them.

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ROUGH SKETCHES: Kim positions her drawings of birds from New Zealand in the correct location on the wall.

How did you end up painting The Wall of Birds?

After my certificate program, I got an internship at the Cornell Lab. I worked on illustrations for educational materials, scientific papers, and whatever else they needed.

Around the same time, I won a national design contest with a proposal for a blue whale mural. The director of the Cornell Lab found out about it. He asked if I’d be interested in painting a mural of the evolution of birds in the lab’s visitor center. He had envisioned one for the building ever since it was constructed in the early 2000s. He’d asked other artists over the years, but they’d all said no, because it seemed like too big of a project. To me it sounded perfect.

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UNDERWATER ART: Kim created this mural depicting sea creatures for the National Aquarium in Maryland.

What process did you follow to make sure the mural looked as realistic as possible?

The lab gave me a list of bird species to use. I started by doing basic research about where each one lived, how it behaved, and, of course, what it looked like. I searched for photographs, watched videos, and even looked at preserved specimens in museum collections.

Next, I sketched each bird on paper and had a scientific advisor look them over. I often had to go back to the drawing board two or three times before I managed to depict everything correctly. Once my drawing was accurate, I scanned it into a computer, scaled it to life-size, and printed it. Sometimes the printouts were huge, like in the case of the ostrich, which is 2.7 meters (9 feet) tall.

Finally, I worked with a team of artists to trace the scaled drawings onto the wall and fill in the base colors I’d chosen for each bird. Then I painted in the details with acrylic paint.

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FINISHING TOUCHES: Kim adds in a secretary bird’s final details.

What difficulties do you encounter when creating large-scale scientific illustrations?

Even though a lot of planning goes into a big mural, you can’t anticipate everything. So you have to be flexible and ready to solve problems as they arise. For example, while working on The Wall of Birds, I spent about six hours rendering the face of a cassowary, a large, flightless Australian bird. I added the level of detail I would to a regular-size painting. But when I looked at the mural from the balcony, like a visitor would, I realized you could barely see any of the details I had painted. I had to go back and exaggerate the bird’s features so they could be seen from a distance. I learned to focus my efforts on the features that would make the birds feel as alive as possible.

How does nature inspire you?

We can learn so much about ourselves by observing the natural world. I want my art to help people see that they’re not separate from nature but a part of it. My favorite compliment after someone views one of my works is when he or she says, “I notice this plant or animal all the time now. I never paid attention to it before.” If they notice that species, perhaps they’ll care more about it. If my work helps people be more aware of nature, I consider that a big win.

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