A colorful Allen's Hummingbird is just one of the many subjects painted by conservation artist and scientific illustrator Karen Talbot.

A colorful Allen's Hummingbird is just one of the many subjects painted by conservation artist and scientific illustrator Karen Talbot. (DON LEACH / July 19, 2012)

Karen Talbot counts a microscope among the tools of her art.

In a town renowned for plein air painting, this Laguna Beach resident comes from a rarer breed of specialist who works outdoors.

Talbot is a scientific illustrator. For her work, she will roam the local hills — and even snorkel underwater off Laguna — in search of her artistic subjects: birds, wild flowers, fish and other species of fresh or saltwater marine life.

Talbot is one of the many artists exhibiting at the Sawdust Art Festival the summertime show underway at 935 Laguna Canyon Road. Stop by her booth, No. 338, and her illustrations of fish, birds and plants may remind the viewer of painted and drawn images of flora and fauna depicted in back issues of National Geographic magazine, biology class textbooks or with display cases in a natural history museum.

"It's sort meditative for me," Talbot, 40, said of her art, which can demand painstaking attention to detail.

She paints mostly in watercolor, but, for her illustration of an Allen's Hummingbird (on display in her booth) she drew it on archival paper with waxed, colored pencils. The drawing of the tiny bird is small compared with others in her large portfolio, yet it required some 150 layers of coloring, Talbot said.

The microscope, equipped with a camera to take pictures of the magnified images, came in handy when she had to work on an illustration of a copepod, Tigriopus Californicus. Reed Mariculture a San Jose area company that makes aquaculture products, commissioned Talbot to draw images of the marine crustacean for a label that would go on its bottles for Tigger-Feast, a food product for aquariums made from the species.

"They overnighted [a sample] to me, and in real-life they're about as big as a speck of pepper," Talbot said.

Talbot grew up in Maryland. She first became interested in creating art from themes having to do with nature as a little girl. She drew images of birds from a field guide owned by her mother, a birding enthusiast.

One of Talbot's first jobs out of college was as an archaeologist for an American colonial history museum on the East Coast. The job required artistic skills such as illustration, she said. Talbot's early subjects included colonial artifacts and Native American arrowheads.

Because scientific illustration requires such skill and precision in the art work, Talbot reckons that such images capture details on animal specimens that can elude a camera.

"You can communicate things in ways that a photograph can't," she said, pointing to the fine-pointed scales on her picture of a Russian River Steelhead, which she drew in using a needle.

Her work regularly takes her outdoors. Some times, she will wade in streams with a fishing pole to actually angle for her subjects — which she will eat later on, she said.

Anglers have commissioned Talbot to illustrate prized catches. A couple fresh back from a honeymoon to Costa Rica once commissioned her to make a life-sized illustration of a Rooster Fish, which the groom caught on a sports fishing expedition.

At other times she works indoors, such as during visits to the archives of the Los Angeles County Natural History Museum, where she uses preserved and stuffed specimens of birds and fish as models for scientific illustrations.

Talbot has been serious about work as a scientific illustrator for four years now. This year marks the fourth time that she is showing at the Sawdust art Festival, but the first in which she is working full-time as a freelance scientific illustrator.

Last year, she quit her teaching job at the private Sage Hill School in Newport Coast, where she taught ninth-grade history since 2005, to concentrate on her illustration work full-time. She is also an environmentally-minded artist, who contributes 10% percent of proceeds from sales of her pieces to nonprofits working in conservation.

She and her husband Ret, who split their time between their home in Laguna Canyon and a cabin south of Jackson Hole, Wyo., are now working together on a book about a tropical fish. The Bangaii Cardinalfish, whose habitat is the Indonesian archipelago, is in danger of being overfished because it is a popular aquarium fish among collectors, Talbot said.

Ret is collaborating with other writers to contribute chapters to the book, while Karen is illustrating it with her drawings. The book, which will have photographs, is due out in September. Reef to Rainforest Media, based in Shelburne, Vt., will publish it.

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