Art & Culture

Wild About Natural Forms

For as long as we have created art, we have incorporated representations of the natural world into our works. From prehistoric cave paintings in France to petroglyphs in North America, depictions of animals and nature are a theme we have returned to for thousands of years. 

When we think of nature in art, we tend to think about two-dimensional artists. Impressionist painters such as Van Gogh or Monet. In Canada, our art is dominated by painters who set out to document nature and wilderness such as Tom Thompson, the Group of Seven, and Emily Carr. 

A painting features stylized mountains and clouds behind a lake, all painted in shades of blue.
Lake and Mountains by Lawren S Harris. Photo via the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Less frequently, we think about three dimensional representations of nature, and yet, just like painting, we have been carving and sculpting natural subjects for thousands of years. The earliest known representation is the Lingjing bird, a 13,000 year old bone carving. Today, the natural world continues to be a source of inspiration for artists working in a variety of mediums. 

A dark brown bird figurine, roughly carved from burnt bone.
Lingjing bird. Photo by Francesco D’Errico and Luc Doyon via ABC News.

Dale Chilhuly is one of the best known artists who uses modern techniques to capture natural forms. His blown glass sculptures have been installed in botanical gardens around the world, and reflect the intersection between nature and the artistic form. 

Dozens of purple glass spikes are interspersed in a desert scene amongst saguro cacti. The glass artwork range in size from five to ten feet tall, mimicing the cacti.
Chihuly in the Desert. Installation at the Desert Botanical Garden. Photo via Tempe Tourism.

It’s not only big names like Chihuly or glass artists who are exploring organic forms inspired by the natural world. Across mediums, artists are using nature to create intriguing works of art. 

Embroiderer Meredith Woolnough uses machine embroidery to create multi-coloured representations of plant and ocean life. By sewing onto dissolvable fabric, her detailed artworks appear to float in space. 

A set of nine embroidered images of coral, in three rows of three. Each is completed in blue-green colours and shows the intricate connections and patterns of the coral.
Coral Structure Grid by Meredith Woolnough. Photo by the artist.

Other textile artists like Amanda Cobbett combine embroidery with papier mache to create three dimensional representations of the forest floor that are eerily lifelike. 

A set of four embroidered, lifelike representations of lichen. Each embroidery is attached to a papier mache stick.
Lichens by Amanda Cobbett. Photo via Textile Artist.

Taking a more hands-on approach, New Zealand artist Hannah Kwasnycia, hand stitches her embroidered representations of lichens, mold, and corals. 

An embroidery hoop contains a close-up representation of moss and lichen in shades of green and grey. The embroidery includes different textures and is enhanced with beadwork.
Botanical embroidery by Hannah Kwasnycia. Photo via

Nature is a common subject for paper artists as well. Origami artist Robert Lang has created a variety of animal figures, taking folded paper to an entirely new level. 

A skeleton of a allosaurus made from brown paper using origami techiniques.
Allosaurus Skeleton, Opus 326 by Robert J. Lang. Photo by the artist.

Meanwhile, cut paper artist Pippa Dyrlaga incorporates images of leaves and other natural themes into her delicate artworks. 

Leaves from the ginkgo tree have been cut from white paper. Each vein of the leaf is cut individually. Some of the leaves are edges in gold paint.
Gingko+leaves by Pippa Dyrlaga. Photo by the artist.

Perhaps no other medium embraces the natural form as much as ceramics. Not only does pottery lend itself to smooth, organic lines, but its ability to be carved and molded opens up a realm of possibilities for natural shapes and subjects. 

Ceramic artists such as Alice Ballard, focus on seed pods as a metaphor for feminine potential, resulting in a catalog of varying works around a single theme.

A ceramic seed pod with overlapping scales descending to a point. The pod is glazed with shades of brown, green, and pink.
Seed pod by Alice Ballard. Photo by the artist.

In contrast, KellyJean Ohl’s sculptures are less directly representative, but are still highly evocative of the natural world. 

A set of cylinderical ceramic forms, arranged in a row. Each of the cylinders is carved with different geometric patterns and glazed in brown, white, and black. Some of the cylinders are brought to a point.
Ceramic wall elements by KellyJean Ohl. Photo via Lanesboro Arts.

No matter the medium, artists have never stopped making art that depicts nature. Whether their artwork embodies some of the smallest aspects of the natural world, such as seeds or lichens or it echoes trees and coral reefs, we continue to be drawn to the world around us for inspiration.