In love with the wilds of India and passionate about art, botanical illustrator Nirupa Rao uses her talent with the paintbrush to spread the message of conservation far and wide. A National Geographic grant awardee and currently working on an exciting new project on swamp forests, Nirupa took some time out from her busy schedule to chat with Team YFN about what it takes to become a botanical illustrator.

What do you do? What would you say your job entails?

I am primarily a botanical illustrator, though I also occasionally illustrate animals, depending on the project. I like working on a project-basis. For instance, I worked with ecologists Divya Mudappa and TR Shankar Raman of the Nature Conservation Foundation on a book titled Pillars of Life: Magnificent Trees of the Western Ghats. Such projects involve some field work, to view and sketch these species in their habitat. It involves a lot of liasoning with the ecologists as well, who (in this instance) selected appropriate species, and gave me detailed feedback on my paintings, to ensure accuracy. In the case of PoL, Divya and Sridhar wrote the text, and I compiled it all together into a book using InDesign. So overall, my job entails field work, research, painting and design.

What was your educational journey, if any, to establish yourself in this field?

My educational journey hasn’t been directly related to my field at all. I am a botanical artist who has studied neither botany nor art. When I started out in this field, I did a short online course with artist Elaine Searle. The rest has been learned on the job. 

What attracted you to create botanical illustrations? Were you always passionate about it or did you develop interest in it over time?

Although I grew up in the city (Bangalore), nature played a big role in my childhood. Being only a few hours drive from the Western Ghats, I spent most of my childhood holidays in the jungles and grasslands. I’ve always thought plants were infinitely fascinating—even as a child, I gravitated toward drawing plants without realising that botanical art existed as a genre in its own right. I have quite a few botanists, horticulturalists and gardeners in my family, so I became interested in botanical art as a medium through which I could translate and share these experiences with others.

What advice would you give to someone considering biological illustration as a field? 

It isn’t a very structured profession, so you have to make your own way. There is a lot of freedom in designing your own projects and being your own boss, but the downside is that you spend a lot of time working alone, and sometimes in a bit of a vacuum.

Of course you also have to find ways to fund your work, so I’d suggest looking up grant programmes, getting freelance work with nature/conservation magazines/organisations, and also taking on other part-time projects to supplement your income, if necessary.

For me, it’s been very important to learn as many skills as possible. For instance, using Photoshop and InDesign (in addition to hand-painting) allows me to edit and lay out my projects myself. That way I can take responsibility for a project from start to finish. 

Are there any courses, books, resources or practices you recommend, to help budding illustrators to make a career in this field?

There are a lot of online courses you can take up from around the world, depending on whose style you are most attracted to. In India, I know of Sangeetha Kadur and Hemalatha Pradhan, who take workshops/courses in person. For books, I like Sarah Simblet. 

Where can our readers find your beautiful illustrations and learn more about you?