Nora Sherwood

Blood, sweat, tears — and a little Beatrix Potter

Lincoln City's Nora Sherwood left a lucrative career in geographic information systems to become a natural science illustrator

The daughter of a foreign service diplomat, Nora Sherwood has lived the life of a world adventurer from the start. Born in Colombia, she graduated high school in Spain and, in between, lived in Sweden, Finland, and Chile. She returned to the United States to attend the University of Colorado at Boulder, then embarked on a highly lucrative, but largely unknown, career in geographic information systems (think Google Maps).

After raising a family, she walked away from geographic information in favor of a career she wasn’t, to be honest, quite ready for. Not that it stopped her. Today, Sherwood is a successful natural science illustrator whose clients include Williams Sonoma, Oregon State University, and the High Desert Museum in Bend.

Lincoln City artist Nora Sherwood is scheduled to teach a workshop on bird illustration this summer at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology.
Lincoln City artist Nora Sherwood is scheduled to teach a workshop on bird illustration this summer at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology.

Sherwood recently hosted a virtual tour of her studio in Lincoln City and is scheduled to teach a July workshop at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology (it’s full, but there’s a waiting list). We talked with Sherwood about her career as a natural science illustrator.

So about the midlife career change — what made you trade a career in technology for one in the arts?

Sherwood: It’s kind of complicated. There are two main reasons. First, I got into that field very early on and rode a really interesting wave of trying to help people understand how that tool could be applied. When I got to the point of telling people I was into geographic information systems and they stopped asking, “What is that?,” I realized it was time to get into something else. I started a family and took time out to raise my kids. Geographic information systems is a fast-moving field. When I was able to focus again full-time, the field had gone past me. I would have needed to do some significant retraining, and with a family I just didn’t want to do that.

Why natural science illustration?

I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what I wanted to do next. I have always liked science illustration. I like the style of that artwork. There are programs where you can be taught how to be a science illustrator. I looked into that. If I had looked into it better, I might have realized how much money I was leaving on the table. (Laughs.)

Sherwood works primarily in watercolor, but also uses colored pencils, pen and ink, graphite and scratchboard. She says an involved illustration, like these ospreys building a nest, can take 50 hours to complete.
Sherwood works primarily in watercolor, but also uses colored pencils, pen and ink, graphite and scratchboard. She says an involved illustration, such as these ospreys building a nest, can take 50 hours to complete.

Are you a natural artist?

No, I am not. That was kind of the crazy part. The program at the University of Washington assumed you would already be an artist. I had the rude shock of realizing my art skills were not good enough. Fortunately, the Gage Academy of Art (a four-year art school oriented toward adults) was nearby, and I took all the basic drawing and color-theory classes it offered. It’s been blood, sweat, and tears. I felt a little bit desperate. I had walked away from my career. I had to do this. I graduated in 2014 from the University of Washington with a Certificate of Natural Science Illustration.

On your webpage, you talk about some of the illustrators who have influenced the field, Maria Sibylla Merian and John James Audubon. But your favorite is…

Beatrix Potter. She’s thought of as the “Peter Rabbit lady.” But she turned to doing those books partly out of frustration at not being taken seriously for her studies of mycology.

In this ever-changing age of technology, does science illustration still have value?

I think sometimes a piece of artwork is much more beautiful than a photograph, so that you will actually want to look at it. You might blow by a photograph of the same subject.

What about from a practical standpoint?

I get asked to do projects for people who need stuff you can’t photograph. I’ve drawn a lot of blister beetles. They’re a commercially important beetle used in surgery as a blistering agent so that medicines can be put in subcutaneously. I worked with a professor in entomology who needed drawings of blister beetles. The differences are really subtle, so that you need to see those differences only and not the whole beetle. You need to simplify it.

The Western Painted Turtle is native to Oregon. On a post for the Burke Blog, Sherwood writes: “Science illustrators don’t render individual specimens, but rather often illustrate an accurate ideal,” a composite of attributes from multiple specimens that can be used to illustrate guiding characteristics in scientific papers, journals, and field guides.
Sherwood says she enjoys illustrating reptiles, such as this Western Painted Turtle. On a post for the Burke Blog, Sherwood writes: “Science illustrators don’t render individual specimens, but rather often illustrate an accurate ideal,” a composite of attributes from multiple specimens that can be used to show guiding characteristics in scientific papers, journals, and field guides.

What is your favorite subject?

I am pretty much known for birds.

What is the most difficult?

I’m not as good a botanical artist as I would like to be. I’m still getting better at that.

How long does it take you to complete an illustration?

The simplest I would ever do would be five hours – for maybe a 5-inch portrait of a little bird. At the other end, 50 hours. That might be something more like a 13-by-19 illustration of a pair of ospreys building a nest.

You’ve lived all over the world. What drew you to the coast?

I really had no say in the matter. We lived in Steamboat Springs, Colo. My husband is from Southern California, and he wanted to get back to the beach, but not California. We moved in 2014. I didn’t like it initially. I thought, “Oh my gosh, how am I going to make this work?” But now I think this is a wonderful town for an artist.

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Oregon Cultural Trust, investing in Oregon’s arts, humanities and heritage, and the Lincoln County Cultural Coalition.