Interview with Morgane Antoine

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My name is Morgane Antoine and I’m a French wildlife artist renowned for capturing my subjects in amazingly detailed and realistic paintings. Oh, and I love snow leopards!

Q. What medium do you work in and why?

I work with acrylics mostly because I can overlay as many layers as needed to get the detail I want without having to wait very long for the paint to dry contrary to oils. I also love the vibrant colors and nice satin finish look you get. On top of it, with modern material, you can work with heavy or soft body acrylics, mediums of all sorts, acrylic inks and even acrylic pens which open a world of possibilities. Glazing, airbrushing, toothbrushing (yes you read that right), playing with textures of all kind, the fun is endless!

Q. Tell me your story? Where did your love of art begin?

Like many artists, I’ve always loved to draw and paint and started creating from a very young age. I’ve dabbled with pencils and watercolor as a kid, covering the margins of my school notebooks with swarms of creatures but it never went farther than that because I chose to follow a science curriculum and had to put this creative side on hold. I started my career as an engineer but unforeseen health issues eventually forced me to change my path and work from home. So I naturally came back to my first love and I’ve never regretted this choice!   

Q. You describe yourself as self-taught, what was that process like?

A lot of trial and errors! A lot of observation too to try and emulate the techniques of hyperrealism masters such as Robert Bateman, Carl Brenders or Terry Isaac. There weren’t so many online resources as there are today so it took me a few years to refine and adapt the techniques but in the end, I found my own path and a way of working with which I’m comfortable… for now. Because it’s a never-ending process and I see a lot of areas that still could be improved in my practice!

Q. You’re now in a position of international renown, how did that come about and what changes has it made to your life?

Well it didn’t happen overnight but progressively came about through continuous perseverance, countless hours of work, a healthy dose of audacity and a pinch of luck I would say.  There wasn’t much of a market for wildlife art in France when I started so I had to look elsewhere to find my own niche. North America and the UK seemed the logical choice as I had already sold some pieces there early on and collectors were much more enthusiastic about my work, particularly my miniatures. This dedication and efforts led to awards and consistent sales and before long I was barely able to keep up with the demand. Doors opened for new show opportunities, art society memberships, galleries, museums and so on.  
The change it has made (apart from the heavy logistics of international business!) is that it has allowed me to embrace the career of a full time professional artist and to make a living from my passion.

Over the Ledge is my signature piece and probably the painting that really launched my career.

Q. What is it about the natural world that drives you to capture it? Why is it so inspiring?

From a graphic point of view, wild animals are a wonderful challenge for any artist: with their incredible diversity of habitats, shapes, colors, textures and behaviors they are fascinating subjects of study. But beyond the artistic appeal, when you know that many species are threatened and on the brink of extinction, painting and showing them becomes a necessity, a duty to raise awareness, educate the public and support conservation efforts.

Q. Were you always interested in nature?

Yes, I’ve always marveled at all the natural wonders the world has to offer and I’ve always felt a deep connection to Mother Nature. I am aware that we are part of a bigger ecosystem where every living being has its place and usefulness. I am always trying with my work to capture the true essence and spirit of my subjects, from the small insects to the large mammal predators, from the top of the sky to the bottom of the ocean. And 2020 has shown us that sharing the beauty of our world through art has never been more important than today.

Q. You paint a lot of subjects from around the world. Is that the result of a lot travel or do you do a lot of research from France? Or both?

I did a lot of travel when I was younger and it definitely opened my mind to other subjects and places. It spiked my curiosity and made me want to explore other species which are not native to Europe. But I usually only paint subjects that I have been able to see for myself, study carefully and photograph (even though it’s in captivity) as my approach is both technical and naturalist.  I think that an intimate knowledge is key to faithfully portray any creature so research (usually from France) coupled with direct observation (from wherever the species might be seen) is fundamental.

Q. What’s your creative process? How do you work?

It usually starts with an experience, whether an animal or a place that evokes something to me, be it an attitude, a certain light, an interesting balance or composition. I try to capture the scene on camera and work from there as my technique is too slow be used directly in plein air and I doubt that the animal would pose for me for hours, days or even weeks! But it’s not just a simple copy of the photo. I like to combine several references to fulfill my vision, if I have started with a picture of a landscape then I will try to find the perfect species to inhabit this particular place, if I have started with a shot of an animal then I try to put it back in its natural environment. There you can see where the naturalist approach is useful in selecting the correct habitat for the right sub-species, the right season for the particular coat/feather pattern, the correct build or anatomy for the right specimen and so on. Then the artistic approach takes over and I do many sketches to refine the composition and get something that pleases the eye and tells a story. I usually choose a color palette at this point that suits the mood of the piece. After that, most of the creative process in itself is done and it’s just a matter of putting paint onto the canvas and playing with my techniques and other tricks to get it to look like I want!

Snowcat is a good example to show you how I work. I had spent hours observing this little bobcat who, at that time, was mostly resting. I almost missed it when she suddenly woke up with the zoomies and started to run like crazy (and believe me these small cats are fast) and managed to get a very blurry shot by some miracle. The photo was really bad but the attitude of the cat inspired me so I kept the subject and completely changed the background and the season. I had to adjust the cat’s fur to give it the fluffy look of a winter coat, match the light and shadows of the different elements and cool down the colors. And then go crazy on the powder snow to accentuate the feeling of movement (my desk and my clothes still remember that experience as I still have droplets of white paint everywhere!).  

Q. You also want to show people how to paint like you do, how to create some very special effects on canvas, why do you feel this is important?

How can you achieve fur so realistic you can almost stroke the animal? What kind of brush do you use to get lines so fine? How do you get that 3D feel and depth? How do you paint the hair and whiskers? I’ve heard these questions so often that it made me realize that people are really curious about my techniques and that it would be interesting to share some of them. As a self-taught artist, I know all about the frustration and struggle to get the right texture or effects and while I cannot condense in a day or two a lifetime of practice, there are definitely some tips and shortcuts I can teach my students so they can improve their skills and their grasp of wildlife art. Besides, I love to share my passion and I feel the world really needs more animal artists!

Q. How do you teach?

I like to use a step-by-step approach to break down what seems to be a daunting task into easy-to-follow stages. For example, people usually have trouble with the fur texture because you have to take into account many parameters such as the length or the direction of the hair all the while struggling to get the right consistency and color of the paint and this can be overwhelming and frustrating when you are just starting out. So I’m basically showing them that it is possible, by working smartly and with the right techniques and tools, to dissociate all the difficulties and face the challenges one after the other rather than all at once. And that these principles can then be applied to many other subjects!

I’ve got a step-by-step below. You can see that on the left otter I start by blocking the basic colors (a shade darker) and roughly place the lights and shadows. Then I do a mapping of the hair direction in only one light color that will guide me for the next layers. I then use a glazing technique to put back the colors. And repeat a cycle of dark layer to adjust the values, light layer to refine the hair structure/texture and glazing layers to play with the hues. And I finish with the small facial details and a few highlights here and there. Sounds easy enough, right?

Q. What is the difference between creating and teaching? Do the two overlap?

Creating is for me a very intuitive process where I rarely stop to think about what or why I’m doing this or that. My brushes are just an extension of my fingers and it all just flows naturally from my eyes to the canvas.

Teaching, on the other side, calls for an explanation of what you’re doing so students can reproduce what you are showing them. You need to be able to consciously analyze, synthetize and pass on your processes, gestures, steps and so on.

I would say that the two do not really overlap but rather the latter results from the former. I sometimes have my lightbulb moments when I’m painting and I suddenly think ‘oh, this would be great to show how I just did this on my next workshop!’ and take a moment to scribble down a few notes before I go back on autopilot

Q. What’s it like to be an artist in lockdown, what changes, what are the challenges, what are the opportunities?

Well, truth be told, to be an artist in lockdown, if you only consider studio practice, hasn’t changed much from before as it’s mostly long hours alone with just yourself and your work!

What has changed for me is all the dynamics around the studio, mainly exhibitions and interactions of all sorts with the public and collectors, logistics and material partners. Most of the events I was supposed to take part in this year (and even some in 2021) have been cancelled or moved online. So you need to find a way to reach out and connect with art lovers, wherever they might be, and bring them to your virtual art world. It’s a lot of work “behind the screen” to upgrade my e-shop, improve my social media presence (I just started an Instagram account, something I had never really taken the time to do or rather never had the incentive!) and simply get better at marketing. 

Not being allowed out to gather reference material forced me to have a fresh look at some old photos that have turned out to be good models.
And I’ve been able to start on larger, different paintings, accept a few more commissions and even try out new things as I don’t have the urgency to create pieces for some cancelled shows.

So all in all, despite the fact that I can’t deny it’s going to be a tough ride, I think it’s going to have a positive impact because it’s been an opportunity to grow and get better at what I do.

Q. A lot of people might have used lockdown as an opportunity to get into art as a hobby, or even possibly going further and started to make work to sell, what advice would you give someone in this position?

If you are thinking of turning pro and living from your art, please bear in mind that while it’s probably one of the most rewarding occupations that exists, it is also a very unpredictable job at the best of times so it’s going to be even more challenging and uncertain in the months and, most likely, years to come. This is not for the faint of heart and this is not a choice to make lightly so I would recommend keeping a safety net if at all possible for now (part-time job etc.). Many things are changing and there will definitely be new opportunities, persevere and be smart enough to recognize and seize them. And no matter what you’re doing and why you’re doing it,  keep creating, keep growing, and above all keep having fun!

Find Morgane’s art, contact details and more on her website: https://www.morganeantoine.com/artist.

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