Interview with Niels Meyer-Westfeld

We welcome a new artist, Niels Meyer-Westfeld onto the Excio platform today. He is an artist who creates beautiful, realistic illustrations depicting New Zealand's birds and wildlife. In this interview, you can learn more about Niels and his work.

Niels Meyer-Westfeld with his book Land of Birds

Niels Meyer-Westfeld with his book Land of Birds

What is it about birds that inspires you?

It is nature’s design that fascinates me. There is incredible beauty in every detail, you can look at any single feather and there is so much to it, more than the eye can see. This is what keeps me going and I’ll never stop because I’m never quite happy with my work and I always have to do another one!

Recently someone brought me a dead Tui and it was probably the first time I held one in my hands and it was really incredible. It has amazing colours in the feathers – photo's never do it justice. You suddenly realise how beautiful they are. On a cloudy day they look like a black bird but really they are not. But even a black bird is beautiful in its own way. You just start looking at structures and every detail – branches or moss as you go into the forest and start noticing small details everywhere.

Birds come naturally in NZ as a subject, the underlying thing is nature, it could have been anything. If I lived in Brazil ,for example, I would draw exotic animals and in Africa, elephants. But I live in NZ and here birds come naturally. Natures design, perfection, details are amazing! I have got a Condor feather – it sits on their typical wings but it has such an amazing curve and perfect design!

If you were to design something like this man-made it would be quite expensive to develop – very light, very strong, so nature shows us the design at its best! We are always looking at natures design and mimicking it in the human world... Most of the time human inventions are based on nature, even electricity, and glasses etc all come from nature.

This interest in nature is why I’m drawing things. It is my way of dealing with it. There is always more than meets the eye. Especially with insects – they are hardly explored. A few are getting public attention, but most of them are really overlooked.

Juvenile Morepork by Niels Meyer-Westfeld

What is your favourite bird?

I don't have one! They are all great. I draw mainly NZ birds but it doesn't mean they are my favourite. It would be unfair to other birds! It is just because I look at them – I live here and you have to start from somewhere.

How long have you been creating art?

Basically all my life. I started out drawing insects. At our house (we live near the beach) we leave night lights on and our doorstep one morning was covered in insects – even a Puriri Moth, it was so big and green! Did you know, it lives its first 7 years as a caterpillar and they then come out as a butterfly and lives for only another 24 hours. They are basically starving in their last phase as they don’t have eating tools, but it is really incredible.

I started drawing birds 7 or 8 years ago… in 2008. Before then I did more landscapes and watercolours, you name it – everything really. It was always a hobby and I always tried different things. I wanted to do this book and for the first time in my life, I just focused on the topic of birds.

Puriri Moth by Niels Meyer-Westfeld

How long did it take to get all the artwork for the book?

About 6 years.

I met a publisher who was keen to publish a book. So I did drawings and writing – it wasn’t supposed to be a scientific book, it was more personal. The next one will be similar in style but it is still early days – I only started last year!

Can we buy this book online? Is it a hard copy or only an ebook?

It sold out! But there might be some copies left on Amazon or Trade Me. It was a hard copy, old-fashioned. We selected the paper very carefully to make it look like sketch paper.

How was your art discovered?

By the publisher really, he is the Uncle of a friend of mine – She is a kiwi girl but he was in England. She said 'Your work is amazing! You should get in touch!' So I emailed him and he said 'Yes, we publish NZ artists' and from there it went. He is a really good man and he was very supportive of me.

You weren't selling your artwork before the book?

No, not really. I always kept it as a hobby – I didn’t want anyone to tell me what to do, so I didn’t make any sales, I kept it to myself. I was a graphic designer by day and this was always my hobby after work, just an interest. Now, with exhibitions in galleries and sales, I need to dedicate more of my time to it and create further works. I’d love to do this full time, but at the moment it is not paying my bills.

How long does a typical illustration take you to complete?

If it is just an illustration, a couple of weeks. But the biggest thing, before I even start drawing, is setting everything up – to find everything, take a photo, sketches etc. I’m not using any other sources other than my own and it is a fun part for me. I have to go out and find the bird or whatever it is I'm looking for, which is a fun thing to do in NZ! So, I have it all perfectly lined up and ready to go ahead of time, then it will probably take about 2 weeks of working a couple of hours a day. I start with graphite pencil and then when I’m sure where it all goes I use my colour pencils and do colour layers on top.

Kea chain by Niels Meyer-Westfeld

Do you use computer equipment to finish your drawing?

No, not really, only when I get a drawing ready for printing, sometimes adjusting colours in photoshop.

Do your kids use your colour pencils?

Yess! A lot! Every time I’m running out of a colour I just check my sons’ desks – they don’t understand, for them, it is just another pencil! I don’t use special pencils just mainly Prismacolor because I’m used to their colours. I first do the drawing in black and then add colour. Sometimes it surprisingly quickly becomes what you want it to be. Maybe two or three layers and then it's done. I think every media has its own challenges. I find it really annoying if something goes wrong and I'll sometimes put drawings away to come back later.

Niels, What should we know about you?

I was born in Germany, did a degree in graphic design, but never did anything in biology. I’ve got an MA from Saint Martins in London where I studied graphic design and I have a degree in Hannover as well. First I worked in London for a public transport company and then a computer game company. I did a lot of freelancing in London and had my own company with a friend. Then I met my wife, she was a kiwi and had to return to NZ, so I followed her. We have got two kids now.

In New Zealand we have all kinds of birds, so I don’t have to go far and then the facts and information I just search it and read about it. I need to know what I’m drawing! So it really interests me and doesn’t feel like I 'have' to do it. My dad was always interested in botany, so maybe I got it from him, he is always making notes and is even a bit nerdy!

Where can people buy/find your work?

At the moment I have an exhibition at ‘Exhibitions Gallery’, 20 Brandon St, Wellington and 19A Osbourne St, Newmarket, Auckland and also an exhibition at Zealandia. I only work with one gallery where I’m exhibitin