Profile: Karen Carr Natural History and Wildlife Artist
by Marc Airhart
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.
Was there some early experience with
wildlife that made you want to study animals?
"Big Bend T-Rex" © 2000 by Karen Carr
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
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.
Going from advertising to
scientific illustration must have been a big change.
"How Do Frogs
Swallow with Their Eyes?" - Illustrated by Karen
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
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
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
How do you deal with painting a dinosaur
when scientists disagree about what they should look like?
Malawisuchus" © 1999 by Karen Carr
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
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.
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?
"Pachyrhachis" © 2000 by Karen Carr
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.
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?
"Mosasaurs" Texas Parks
and Wildlife Department © 2000 by Karen Carr
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!"
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?
"Temnodontosaurus" © 2000 by Karen Carr
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
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
Is your field changing as new digital technology becomes
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]
What inspires you?
"Lions" © 1995 by Karen Carr
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
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
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/