Karen Carr
Karen Carr
Scientist Profile: Karen Carr Natural History and Wildlife Artist
by Marc Airhart
August 2002

Karen Carr is a natural history artist living in New Mexico. She creates illustrations that convey scientific information for museums, zoos, scientists and publications. Her work has appeared in magazines such as Earth, Natural History, and Scientific American. Her subjects range from ancient dinosaurs to modern dolphins, lions and insects.

"Big Bend T-Rex" 2000 by Karen Carr
Was there some early experience with wildlife that made you want to study animals?

When I was about six years old, in first grade, my mom was getting her degree in biology. She wrapped up her master's when I was 13. And we went on field trips with her. She started us on insect collections. I spent a lot of spare time running around the University of Texas in Arlington's Biology hallways playing with the snakes and rats and looking at what the beetles were eating and all that kind of thing, feeding anemones.

And at the same time, my father was working for the Fort Worth Children's Museum. Now it's the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. And he was their staff artist. And I spent a lot of time at that museum also, looking at the work that my dad did. And I just loved all of it. I basically knew I wanted to do that from that time forward.

How did you turn your interests in biology and art into a career?

I was real interested in science and biology all through high school, and actually, I got accepted at the University of Texas at Austin in their chemistry department and went down there to register and I went over just to look at the art department and I got waylaid by the chairman of the art department. And got to talking to him. They weren't registering yet. But I had real high grades and anyway, he convinced me to register there instead. [she laughs] I'd basically been drawing since I was six.

Then, I graduated and went into advertising for about 10 years because one of my primary motives was to support myself. But it was, I thought, rather soulless work. I was not very happy in it. I decided I was going to toss it and go for what I wanted to do. And it was a big risk, but I decided to do it.

"How Do Frogs Swallow with Their Eyes?" - Illustrated by Karen Carr
Going from advertising to scientific illustration must have been a big change.

Advertising did give me a really good grounding in working with clients and deadlines and design -- so that I could just jump right in and that's what I did. And between word of mouth and pounding the pavement -- it's very hard for the first three years -- I got a career going. And then I met up with Louis Jacobs through the Fort Worth Museum of Science -- they were one of my first clients. They introduced me to Louis -- who is a very fine paleontologist currently working at SMU -- and his wife Bonnie Jacobs -- who's a very fine paleobotanist. And Louis and I started doing work together and I learned a ton there. I had apprenticed under my father -- who's a very fine artist -- and we still work together. So I guess I was just very lucky and met the right people at the right time and decided to take the right risks at the right time.

He [Louis Jacobs] was a technical advisor for the first project I did for the Fort Worth museum. And they were real worried that we wouldn't get on because apparently Louis wasn't patient with some people. But we hit it off very well. I basically said, "Look, I'm here to do this job, I'm not here to tell you what to do, you tell me what to do and you treat me with respect and I won't yell at you." -- and we hit it off! [laughs] We're very good friends -- he, his wife, and his family -- we're all good friends.

Do scientists consider you a fellow scientist? an educator? an artist?

Oh, definitely not a scientist, I don't claim to be that. Maybe a naturalist. But I don't claim to be a scientist. That's not my background. My job is to learn fast, to listen and to present the information that they want to present. And it's one of the privileges of the job that it's an ongoing education. But I certainly do not present myself as a scientist.

Most of the time, I get along very well working with scientists. I've worked with quite a number of them. And now I can show them my credentials and show them my work and I usually have a very good time working with them. And the way I work is I present layouts, I present multi-stage images and they have lots of opportunities to modify things, which is their job. My job is to make a good picture and their job is to keep it along scientific lines. Now in paleontology, what is correct often depends on who you're working with. It's not a real black and white science. That's another reason I certainly wouldn't put my foot down and say, "It has to be this way!"

What do you hope to accomplish with your work?

To present an environment to help the imagination along. Actually it's so hard to look at bones and say, "Gosh, this was a living animal stomping around on the planet." No matter how much you intellectually know that, emotionally it's real difficult. I think these images help that. And the more excited people are about that, the more they're likely to investigate further.

"Karongasaurus and Malawisuchus" 1999 by Karen Carr
How do you deal with painting a dinosaur when scientists disagree about what they should look like?

Well, one thing I do is I only work with people who are accredited, who are people who are respected in the field. At least, that way, I know there's some reasonable science behind their opinion. And the other thing I do is whether I'm working with an individual or a group, at the beginning I sit down and say, "Okay, who has the final say?" And the person that is going to say yes or no on this interpretation. And then I go with that person's interpretation and then if they have something that is controversial or different from the standard opinion -- which is okay, because lots of times, people are right -- but I put my name as the artist and I say okay, this is by the interpretation of whoever the scientist is.

Usually, it's very obvious who the scientist is. With the recent article in Scientific American, it was obvious that Ryosuke Motani was the author. It's pretty obvious that that's his interpretation. With the work at the Oklahoma museum, we put some spines on some of the sauropods, which I think some people have questions about, but the lead scientist is Richard L. Cifelli, and that's what he wanted and it's his museum, so I don't have a problem with that. In someone else's museum, I'll do what they want me to do.

Do you get angry letters from scientists saying you got the thing wrong?

No. I get them from artists. [she laughs] Yeah, it's funny. Artists will say, "Well that's not how I would have done it." Well, that's okay. That's how this scientist would have done it. And the thing is whatever I do is going to be out of date very quickly because things are coming to light so quickly now. All you can do is the best you can with the information you have at that time. And people simply have to understand that.

"Pachyrhachis" 2000 by Karen Carr
Has the science ever changed on you? In other words, did you ever paint some ancient creature and then 10 years later, new research shows that the creature had a different number of toes or something?

No. Fortunately, paleontologists are very conservative. So even though a lot of new information comes to light, no one is going to say, "All right, here is what it is." They'll say, "This is very interesting, we'll need ten years to study this and decide what to make of it."

But I did get to work on some really neat stuff that's very current and very exciting. I did a project on a snake out of Israel with Mike Polcyn. And he had come across a specimen in the new York museum and was working with other scientists. He's a mosasaur specialist. And he took this specimen that was embedded in a resin and was also very delicate. It was an old specimen and that was the way to protect it at that time [preserving it in resin]. He took it and did a CAT scan on it and did a digital 3-D image of it and was able to look at parts of it that were not visible earlier and was able to make a very convincing case for the relationship between snakes and mosasaurs. So that was really fun to be in on. That's the kind of thing that I've been doing.

I would like to do some of the more radical interpretations. But since I usually work with paleontologists, they don't tend to be radical. They tend to be very conservative.

Radical interpretations? Like what?

Oh, you know sometimes it might be fun to do some radical color or put feathers on T. Rex or something. [laughs] Some of the farther out stuff. You know, I try to keep it within the realm of what my client is trying to say.

"Mosasaurs" Texas Parks and Wildlife Department 2000 by Karen Carr
Has a researcher ever said, hey, in working with you on a project or by simply looking at some of your work, it helped me understand the animal better?

Oh, I did. I was working with Mike [Polcyn] on a mosasaur and he had brought images and some very exact drawings that he had done and so I was doing a reconstruction of the head of this guy and he was all in pieces, so I took him and put him together and fleshed him out and Mike got there and said this snout is way too long. This long snout is particular to this one type of mosasaur and this one is not it. And I said, "Okay, but I measured this and I think this is right." And he want back and he put it together and he measured it three or four times and he said, "Wow! You're right! I never put it together like that!" I wish I could tell you specifically what it was, but apparently, it was important. All I did was piece it together.

And then I did a reconstruction of a little crocodilian -- Malawisuchus with Elizabeth Gomani when she was a grad student with Louis and we did the animal and he came to look at it and he said, "Oh, those legs are way too long. The animal's not that tall. That's bizarre looking." So we both went down there with our calipers again and measured and measured and measured it and we said, "Yes it is. They are that long. It does look like that!" So Louis said, "Oh, okay." So, it's fun. We sort of get involved in real science.

For the Oklahoma murals, I took basic proportions from the literature for an animal -- you know the average proportion on the smilodon [a saber toothed cat] is so many centimeters for the humerus and so many centimeters for the skull -- and it was for many animals -- and that's what I did all this from. But when I got up there and gave all that information to the person who was directing it, he said, "Well ours isn't that size." And I said, "No?" And I spent all day measuring all their animals so that we could do all the specimens, and they were maybe 10 centimeters off. Who's going to know? But they by god were the size of their specimens. "I want our smilodon in there!"

Scientific American Cover:
"Temnodontosaurus" 2000 by Karen Carr
If you're painting a living animal, you probably go to see them in action. How do you paint something that you've never seen alive -- say a dinosaur?

Well, the only thing you can do is first talk to the scientist you're working with about the mechanics of the animal. And then, find something contemporary that's analogous, like a graviform, like an elephant or an emu or try and watch animals that are descendants or that have coevolutionary tendencies that are built like that animal would have been built or that would have lived in the same niche that that animal lived in. If you're doing phytosaurs, it's good to look at crocodiles, even though crocodiles really aren't related to phytosaurs, but they sure look like each other and they had the same niche, so you can draw a lot of suppositions from that. That's the only thing you can do. It's guesswork.

Now they're doing some neat work where you can take a digital model of the animals and restrict the bone movement based on muscle attachments from places on the bones that show you where there are insertions and show you where the muscles originate and you can make good guesses about how the muscles would have worked. And then you can do a model on it and get more information on how the animal would have moved. And that's pretty cool! [laughs]

It would tell you, "You can't rotate this humerus any farther out than this because this muscle would have restricted it." And then you set up the parameters and then watch it walk. Isn't that cool? [laughs] I'm trying to learn one of the 3-D modeling programs. Mike Polcyn and I have great plans if we ever get time clear fro the other projects. That's what we want to do, especially with mosasaurs.

Is your field changing as new digital technology becomes available?

Well, Mike [Polcyn] is very into the CAT scanning. Once you get a CAT scan, you can take it to an engineering firm where they take the digital information and a laser and a pool of liquid resin. And the laser heats the resin, a paper thin layer at a time so that you build up a model of the animal and it's like if you took little pieces of tissue cut just the right way and stacked them on top of each other until you got a skull. And then you have a hard resin, very accurate model of the animal that you took the CAT scan of. Then you have all the interior spaces and any textural qualities and you can cut into it without cutting into the fossil. You don't have to cut into the fossil. So, yeah, new technology is doing great things for paleontology. I've seen it done. It is so cool! [laughs]

"Lions" 1995 by Karen Carr
What inspires you?

Just nature itself. That's why I moved out into the middle of nowhere. I wanted to be in one of the dark places on the planet at night. And I wanted to be where there are still wild animals left and there's puma, bear and peccary out here. I want to witness it while it's still here. And that's the bottom line. And if I can leave any kind of a record behind me, then that will be fantastic, if there's anything that lasts. The best you can do is give it a shot.

What's your worst nightmare, regarding the work you're doing right now?

You know when I was in advertising, I would just get gut wrenching panic attacks because some little thing might not be right and then thousands of dollars might have been spent on it and it would come down to you and everyone would come down on you and it was so unimportant in the big scheme of things. [she laughs] And that's one of the reasons I got out of it. If I do something wrong -- and I don't very often -- I'll just fix it. I fix it and I apologize. And if you expect more than that, then you're expecting more than the world should deliver.

It's what I want to be doing. I'm a very lucky person -- I'm living where I want to be living and I'm doing what I want to be doing. And I've got three ponies. I've got what I want. How much more could you ask in life? [she laughs]

How many other people do what you do?

There are getting to be more and more. I know of quite a few people and I think that's a good sign. A healthy economy has a lot of people participating and a healthy industry has a lot of people participating. If there was only one or two people doing it, I would say it's probably not a very healthy industry. So I think that's probably pretty good. And there's probably room for some more.

Karen Carr
Karen Carr

At the time of writing, Carr is working on "500 feet of murals for the Audubon Institute for their new Insectorium. A really neat project..... lots of giant bugs." She's also "working on two murals for the New Mexico Museum of Natural History in Albuquerque, a children's book on paleo sharks for Harper Collins, finishing up the Lewis and Clark Museum with my Dad, Bill Carr, and a new mural and some additional work for The Newark Museum."

To find out more about Karen Carr, visit her on the web at: http://www.karencarr.com/