Very few individuals in the world have been fortunate to lay eyes on an Annamite-striped Rabbit, a unique rabbit with stripes like a tiger, only discovered by science in Southeast Asia in the mid-90s. Among them, however, is GWC associate conservation scientist Andrew Tilker, and thanks to his friend artist Dao Van Hoang, Tilker will be reminded of the experience in the most beautiful possible way: in a stunning one-of-a-kind painting of the lagomorph.
The Annamite-striped Rabbit painting is only one of the many acrylic paintings and sketches that make up Hoang’s extensive portfolio of endangered species, many of them endemic to Southeast Asia, including one of GWC’s priority species, the elusive antelope-like Saola (depicted in Hoang’s painting at the top of the page). We connected with Hoang to learn more about his artwork, his inspiration and his passion for capturing the beauty of the world’s biodiversity. You can view more of his work and learn more about him on his website: http://www.daovanhoang.com/
Here’s what we we learned:
Q. What role can artwork like yours play in helping people appreciate endangered and rare species?
A. In Southeast Asia, animals don’t have much dignity, to say the least. Wild animals are mostly seen as food, and they become rare and endangered for that reason. People see them as pieces of meat, dead, discolored, dismembered and disfigured as body parts like blood, fur, scales, dried in the sun, rotten on transport vehicles, tortured…no matter how beautiful they are alive. I want to give them their dignity as beautiful creatures, species that have as much of a right to live on Earth as Homo sapiens. I think artwork like mine can help people appreciate animals in their glory.
Q. Where do you get the inspiration for your artwork?
A. I get inspiration from reading books and watching wildlife documentaries, but mostly from watching animals in the real world. Even when I don’t see them, I get a lot of inspiration from being in their wild habitats with biologist friends, who share their animal encounter stories. Then I try to imagine them in certain settings, times of days, atmosphere, rain or snow, their behavior, things they do, things they eat, how they interact with other species, predator-prey etc. Art from great wildlife masters such as Robert Bateman and Ray Harris Ching also provide lots of guidance. Every now and then, a great photograph or a piece of abstract art can also give me ideas.
Q. What do you hope people feel when they see your artwork?
A. I would like people to be enchanted, to feel empathy for the creature. I also want to transfer certain scientific knowledge. If you get to know more about an animal, its uniqueness, you will see it more like a single creature rather than a mass food source or other commodity for humans’ use. I want them to say: “I’d like to know this animal better.”
Q. How did you develop your love of animals? How did wildlife become the focus of your artwork?
A. My love of animals and passion for wildlife art came at three significant stages: from a very early age of maybe two years old, I was already very interested in animals. My mum used to take me to the zoo. I collected images from books—in the ‘60s in Vietnam, books on animals were rare and mostly in black and white, but I knew almost all the animals of North America and Africa through books. In the ‘80s, when I started living in France, I came across a R. Bateman book and always wanted to paint wildlife like him. Then in the late ‘90s, when I returned to my country, I got interested in the wildlife of Southeast Asia, which are so diverse, so exciting but also so poorly known. I wanted to paint them so that people would learn about their existence—and their beauty, too.
Q. What was the motivation for creating the beautiful Annamite-striped Rabbit painting?
A. I met biologist Andrew Tilker, a researcher in the Annamite, during an exhibition in Phnom Penh. He talked about his work there on Annamite-striped Rabbit and other animals. The Annamite-striped Rabbit that I knew of before started to come alive in a more tangible way, especially when reading his blogs. This painting is the start of a future series of paintings that I want to do of all the charismatic animals of the Annamite, which we call Truong Son (Long Mountains Range in Vietnamese).
Q. Have you ever seen an Annamite-striped Rabbit? If not, what was it like capturing it in a painting?
A. I’ve never seen the rare Annamite-striped Rabbit except in photos, which makes it difficult to capture in painting but also exciting as a challenge. I also like painting extinct animals (from which exist only fossil bones or partly broken skulls) for the same reason: it’s a good kick to the imagination, envisioning their anatomy, their stance, their pose, then imagining the habitat, the weather, the climate they live in—or used to. Then I imagine the way the light hits them, producing contrast, making the image more believable, but also poetic.
Q. In addition to painting, do you do other forms of artwork? If so, what?
A. I make clay models sometimes before starting a painting, to help see the volume. I do quite a lot of artwork digitally, too. I write occasionally, and would like to get more into sculpture, wood carving, lithography. But for now I haven’t explored all my potential with acrylic on canvas, so I’m still very happy going with it for a while.
Q. What is your favorite wildlife species, and why?
A. It’s very hard to decide. I love reptiles, snakes, lizards and frogs, but also birds and big cats. I got to paint a lot of primates and have started to like them in particular recently. I even enjoy drawing species that are not often loved by people, such as hyenas, rats, spiders and scorpion. But if I’m forced to decide on one favorite animal, I would say it is very cliché: the tiger. Exciting to watch, exciting to paint.
Q. Anything else you’d like for people to know about you or your artwork?
A. I love traveling, especially in the tropics. I have been in almost 30 countries to date, across five continents. I want to see the tortoises in the Galapagos, the Komodo dragons in the wild, birds of paradise in Papua. For me, painting is not for the sake of making art, but a way of learning. By going through an animal’s anatomy with my brush, I get to understand how its body works, skin, muscle and bones. I get to know them better, how they live, how they feel, sitting up there on a branch, wet in stormy weather, for example. I wish I could make wildlife art for the rest of my life, and I hope my art contributes to the conservation of the species.