Artist behind the art: Crafting tales of the natural world through illustrations

PHOTO: Facebook/darelseow

In another universe, Darel Seow would probably be a palaeontologist or wildlife biologist — maybe the real star of Jurassic World (move over Chris Pratt) because of his obsession with nature and animals, which began from a love for dinosaurs at a young age. 

The illustrator, storyteller, and quite possibly part dinosaur himself (his words, not ours) loves the wonders of the natural world, infusing it with his brand of wry wit and the whimsy.

He has worked with several museums: the National Museum of Singapore, Asian Civilisations Museum, and the British Museum (wah seh).

For the latter, his work Teaching History With 100 Objects was an infographic brochure accompanying the popular BBC Radio 4 Series of the same name to introduce kids to world history. It was also distributed to classrooms around the UK. Ups la!

Darel has also illustrated three children's picture books, including one that was released just last month — Marvellous Mammals: A Wild A to Z of Southeast Asia, in collaboration with ecologist Debby Ng to showcase lesser-known animals of Southeast Asia. Links to buy book here (we got you fam).

His work with kids doesn't stop there. Darel loves teaching and has conducted several workshops and school visits — he enjoys inspiring students to express themselves in pictures.

We speak to the visual storyteller about his artistic journey (and how NS put him on this path), his fascination with nature, and why he loves what he does.

You have worked on massive murals like the Unnatural History you did with Lee Xin Li, to picture books like the "Marvellous Mammals: A Wild A to Z of Southeast Asia". What are some of your most memorable partnerships and what made them so awesome?

I think the most exciting thing about working together is how different each collaboration is — be it personalities, ways of working or the new possibilities that open up when we get to combine what we do best!

The two mentioned above are particularly memorable since they explore a topic which I find immensely important — the relationship between man and nature.

They're also probably the longest projects I've collaborated on as well, and we were treated to the full range of emotions from stress, insecurity, and helplessness, to great delight when the work was finally out!

Which one was the most challenging and how long did it take to complete?

I'm sure Xin Li would agree with you that the mural was an extremely challenging project, especially since we had to cope with the world changing in the most unexpected of ways.

It began just before Circuit Breaker, and the final leg of our programmes ended in the middle of this year.

We shared a studio for a year before that and expected the collaboration to involve just walking over to each other's desk to develop the work and let it grow organically.

Circuit Breaker meant getting used to a different mode of life and I struggled with motivation, purpose, and focus, on top of having to navigate collaborating remotely on the same piece of work.

The massive scale also meant my Mac almost gave up multiple times, but I'm really glad that it turned out how it did and sparked many great discussions!

(Click here to read Xin Li's side of the story).

A lot of the work you do are with museums — is there a reason for that?

I'd say it's because I'm a massive fan of museums! It's a pity that many think museums are boring, and I discovered that working with museums is a perfect way for me to share my love of learning about the world in a way that gets others excited too.

Museums are a treasure trove of stories and it's always exciting to see how these narratives are told from various perspectives depending on the focus of the collection.

Or for example, how an animal is depicted differently across the world and what it symbolises can vary drastically across cultures. I'm especially glad to design for younger audiences, and I hope this passion will rub off on them!

You conduct many artist talks and workshops. What inspired you to want to teach art?

I'd prefer to think of myself as a facilitator guiding others in the space where they have full permission to create and make mistakes, for that's the basis of creativity!

Unlike classes in school, I pop into the lives of others for just a short period of time during workshops, so I need to give students something that they can carry with them.

I always focus on getting students to observe carefully and think in different ways, for many solutions will avail themselves to you after.

There's so much focus on subjects in school, even though we take the world in visually, so I think that we should be a lot better equipped to communicate that way.

Ultimately, it's about sharing what brings me joy, and I hope it gets others interested and inspired to create, regardless of form.

What inspired you to become an illustrator? Do you remember the first thing you ever drew?

It's definitely a dinosaur given how obsessed I was with them! I even recall how the way I drew them evolved over an intense few months as I borrowed from the many great artists that brought prehistory to life.

PHOTO: Darel Seow

Here's a drawing from when I was three, and I'm really glad my parents hung on to my early works.

I don't quite like drawing as much as many other illustrators (my sketchbooks are filled with more words than pictures), but I absolutely love imagining and crafting stories that I choose to represent visually, both because it's something I found I had some form of aptitude for, and also since it's a great way of communicating with others.

Did your NS experience influence your artistic pursuits in any way?

Most definitely! I'd go so far as to say that NS was instrumental in placing me on this path, as it was something I dreaded very much.

This made it extremely clear that whatever I did after had to be something that I could see myself doing for the rest of my life. It also gave me time to make lots of work.

I recall sketching in camp during the week, then rushing out digital illustrations on weekends which I submitted to Threadless.

This was one of the pioneering crowdsourced design platforms where you could submit designs and the best ones would be picked (to be printed on clothing and other products).

The community provided great feedback and I learnt so much in the early years of my design career.

What have you learnt most about creativity and the creative industry from this venture?

Something I need to be reminded time and time again, is that we all struggle and don't really know what we're doing! It's so easy to feel discouraged looking at the amazing work out there.

For example, when visiting the Bologna Children's Book Fair a few years ago, all I wanted to do was to find the saddest corner and cry. I clearly remember that it was both because of how beautiful everything was and how much of a gap I felt there was between the quality of work on display and my own.

The next few days there showed me just how much of creativity is experimenting over and over, and reassured me that even the most hallowed illustrators freak out when they're stuck on a project with looming deadlines.

That never goes away, but it also means there's no point trying to outrun it. It's tough when you're under pressure, but it also means I should enjoy the process more.

What are some big misconceptions people have about Singapore artists and illustrators?

Ah, I'd say it's that lots of people think that freelance life is really chill, and it's especially interesting how everyone gets to experience a bit of this as we've moved to working from home.

The pandemic has also reminded all of us how important works of creations are — whether it's a book, show or performance — to tide you through troubling times, instead of a mere luxury that many relegate it to. I'd love to recommend the book Frederick by Leo Lionni that elegantly explores this idea.

Finally, and as many times as it might have been said, we need to be properly paid for what we do! Although it's a privilege to create, it's still a job and this is the only way to ensure that we carry on making more for the rest of our lives!

Who and what are your inspirations and why?

Sir David Attenborough  — His distinctive disembodied voice introduced me to the wonders of the natural world and I'm sure it's the same for many others.

Christoph Niemann — He's a complete genius at seeing the everyday differently and I especially love how honest he is about his struggles when creating.

Nature  — Whenever I think I've designed something interesting, I discover an animal that's far more bizarre and weird, and I live in constant awe of how we share this natural world with endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful.

What's next for you and what's your dream project to work on?

Following on from the challenges of last year, 2021 has been really busy, filled with projects I've found both extremely challenging and meaningful.

Friends will laugh as they read this, where I'll publicly commit to working on a new picture book of my own for the nth year running!

This is always a tough question since I am terribly indecisive! It would combine what I love (nature and stories), while working in a team with others who are equally passionate and contributing their unique skills, to create something that is for everyone!

I'm a firm believer that design needs to be made accessible and inclusive and I always aspire to create work that speaks to the young and old, for it is this ability to connect through my work that makes it so meaningful.

I must also add, it needs to have enough space to develop and grow, so that means enough time and budget as well!

What do you enjoy most about being an illustrator in Singapore?

PHOTO: Facebook/darelseow 

I love that I am doing something I find meaningful in a way that allows me to combine all my interests. I love being able to chart my own path to explore whatever is presently important to me. I love that it gives me the freedom to determine how I want to work.

I love that I never know what project is coming up next, and that there are many stranger ones where that came from.

And lastly, I love that I can be a champion for stories that speak to people and remind others that we're all part of something greater.

This article was first published in Wonderwall.sg.