The Artistry of Karen Phillipps

phillipps-mackinnon-lu
Renowned animal artist Karen Phillipps (L) stands with team members John MacKinnon (R) and Hefen ‘Monica’ Lu on the wedding day of MacKinnon and Lu, Hong Kong, 1994. Phillipps and MacKinnon co-authored, and Lu translated into Chinese, the pioneering work A Field Guide to the Birds of China (2000), the most influential book ever written about the birds of China. On 6 Feb. 2020, cancer took the life of Phillipps. In this post, written exclusively for shanghaibirding.com, MacKinnon describes the qualities that made Phillipps a great wildlife artist. (John MacKinnon)

by John MacKinnon
for shanghaibirding.com

John MacKinnon
John MacKinnon

On 6 February we lost to cancer the well-known and much-loved bird and animal artist Karen Phillipps. I was privileged to be her partner in our Field Guide to the Birds of China. Her loss is a huge one, not only for her family and friends, but also for the birding and conservation fraternity of Southeast Asia, East Asia, and especially China.

Karen was born in Sabah, Borneo and spent much of her life in countries she loved among the creatures she loved, and her love is starkly clear in the great legacy of her illustrations.

She had a unique, inimitable style. Her birds and animals are not a photographic likeness nor are they an exactly measured and scientifically accurate rendering. They simply present these creatures through Karen’s eyes. They capture the essentials, omit fussy, irrelevant details, and express the living soul and spirit before her. Her pictures are clean, vibrant, and beautiful.

She carried her sketchbook, a tiny watercolour palette, and bottle of water wherever she went, and she could complete a colour sketch with added notes in a couple of minutes. Later she referred to these field notes when laying out more formal plates for the many books she illustrated. I had the pleasure of working with her not only on the China guide but also on A Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo, Sumatra, Java and Bali.

Karen had the ability to conceive the layout of entire plates and would paint the birds in composite scenes, sometimes overlapping and always covering as much of the white paper as she could manage. I am now assembling a new field guide, but my new artists paint single birds, and it is up to me to juggle them around across the plate, trying to make sensible arrangements that keep close to taxonomic order but place comparable species close together. Karen did all that in her head before putting brush to paper. It was an enviable talent. Sometimes, I would have preferred to include many of her “done in the field sketches” which captured so much immediate jizz of her subjects. I hope her brother Quentin, who inherits her works, will do just that. Much of her best work lies unseen in old notebooks.

Many of Karen’s paintings will be reproduced in the forthcoming New Bird Field Guide for China (The Commercial Press), where they can continue to delight and inspire China’s fast-growing bird-loving community.

ILLUSTRATIONS

orioles-phillipps
Phillipps had the enviable talent of conceiving the layout of entire plates. An example of Phillipps’s technique is her plate for orioles and Asian Fairy Bluebird for the Field Guide to the Birds of China. (Karen Phillipps)
Karen Phillipps-technique
Even the best photographs can confuse for purposes of identification. Variance of lighting, shadows, too much detail of fine plumage—all these can draw from the essentials. Here are some examples of the contrast between photography and painting. Clockwise from top left: (a) a photo-like painting of Pine Grosbeak, (b) a clear photo of Ashy-throated Warbler, (c) a scientifically accurate illustration of Ashy-throated Warbler, and (d) Karen Phillipps’s quick and simple presentation of Ashy-throated Warbler. (a: Xiao Yao b: Craig Brelsford c: Yang Xiao Nong d: Karen Phillipps)

MORE ON JOHN MACKINNON AND KAREN PHILLIPPS

— Read about MacKinnon and Phillipps’s masterpiece A Field Guide to the Birds of China and its importance to Shanghai birders: Field Guides to the Birds of Shanghai

— Read the posts MacKinnon has authored for shanghaibirding.com: Author: John MacKinnon

— Read about MacKinnon’s historic visit to Shanghai and his day birding with the shanghaibirding.com team: John MacKinnon in Shanghai

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John MacKinnon

John MacKinnon is a consultant to shanghaibirding.com and co-author of A Field Guide to the Birds of China. Since its publication in 2000, this pioneering work has been the standard guide to the birds of China for foreign and Chinese birders alike. MacKinnon wrote the primate and ungulate sections of Mammals of China and is primary author of China's master plan to save the Giant Panda. In 1992 MacKinnon was part of the Vietnam-based team that discovered new large mammals, among them Saola. MacKinnon has been a regular adviser to the Chinese government on biodiversity issues for more than 20 years and is currently the chief technical adviser to a UNDP GEF project to strengthen protection of wetland sites in six provinces in China.

3 thoughts on “The Artistry of Karen Phillipps”

  1. Dear John—Although I never met Karen, I still felt sad when I heard about her passing, because I felt I knew her. When Craig and I first started studying birds together, your Field Guide was the first book I read, and Karen’s paintings were the very first paintings of a bird that I ever studied. Also the picture of the three of you on your wedding day is very beautiful, everyone was so happy that day. Thank you John, for this post on Karen, a great artist!

    1. “A Field Guide to the Birds of Borneo, Sumatra, Java, and Bali”, one day in 2004 a young man received this book from a Thai doctor whom passed away in Pittsburgh, Pa. After turning through those pages for hours on end, dreaming of Sunbirds, Trogons, and Pitta in the wild, I packed up my family and moved to Singapore, starting a new life and a lifelong hobby…. Thank you Karen. To her family and friends, I tell you…. she inspired me.

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