Peter Marsack

Wildlife artist and illustrator

Peter originally trained as a biologist, but has always been fascinated by natural history and can’t remember a time when he wasn’t drawing and painting wildlife.  Having parents who worked for United Nations, he had the good luck to grow up in some interesting parts of the world, from Yemen and Afghanistan to Sri Lanka and Malaysia, before ending up at school and university in the UK. When Peter came to Australia in 1980 he knew he had finally found his home, and spent the next decade working as a research biologist with the Department of Agriculture in WA, a job that took him into the remote bush for weeks at a time.

This training and experiences led him to form an interest in the space where science and art overlap, and over the past 25 years Peter has worked as a freelance natural history artist and illustrator, trying to bring together scientific accuracy and the wonder of the living subject.

In the 1990s, Peter decided to put art ahead of science, and came to Newcastle to study Plant and Wildlife Illustration at Newcastle University. Since then most of his work has been around illustrating birds for identification, firstly as a senior artist for the multi-volume Handbook of Australian, New Zealand and Antarctic Birds (HANZAB), and more recently as one of three artists to illustrate the Australian Bird Guide, published by CSIRO in 2017. The Australian Bird Guide was awarded the Whitley Medal for 2017, for the best book on Australian Animals published that year; it went on to win Small Publisher Adult Book of the Year in the 2018 Australian Book Industry Awards.

With Peter’s background in science and decades of illustrating birds for identification, plus time in the field, it has taught him a lot about looking carefully at the subjects and the importance of understanding structure and function, but of course there is much more to wildlife art than accuracy. Peter was lucky to meet William T (Bill) Cooper during a visit to north Queensland, and over the years Bill became a friend and mentor to Peter.

Peter strives to create art that connects with his experience of the subject, trying to convey the feelings that made a moment memorable but doing it through the lens of a careful scientific observer.

Nature is extraordinary enough that he sees no need to improve on it in his artwork. Peter believes it is challenging enough communicating just what he sees and feels. Working on this basis, he was a prize-winner in the inaugural Waterhouse Natural History Art Prize (2003), and a finalist in 2004. He collaborated with ACT naturalist and author Ian Fraser on A Bush Capital Year, an illustrated natural history of Canberra across the seasons (CSIRO Publishing 2011). This gave Peter a chance to paint a huge range of natural history subjects and move outside the requirements of illustration to show details of light and shade and habitat. This book went on to win a Whitley Certificate for regional natural history.

Peter has returned to Newcastle, an area he has always loved for its own natural beauty and easy access to so much more wilderness. Now is the perfect time for Peter to concentrate on developing his fine art practice and focus on communicating some of the many experiences that he has enjoyed in the field. For Peter, drawing and painting wildlife is an essential part of the way he connects with and appreciates the natural environment.

Peter say’s “drawing demands that you look with a purpose, to really see whatever it is that catches your interest. It takes a different, more immediate, kind of attention than photography, and is rewarding in the way it concentrates the mind, grows skills and builds deep memories. The process of learning how to paint is never-ending, and bringing together the components of a painting to make a convincing whole will always be a satisfying challenge”.