Wild Art: The Anatomy of a Living Flatlay

Never work with children or animals, they say.

Pfft. It can’t be that hard, can it?

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I’ve been a licensed wildlife carer for more than 20 years and a duck, chicken and other random animal carer for almost as long. For all of that time, I have taken photos of the animals in my care as a record of how they have progressed. And as an artist, I have been inspired by the animals and their antics, and used those ideas in my artwork.

australian native botanical flatlay

So with the rise of Instagram and flatlays over the past few years, it seemed only natural to combine art and my animals in my Instagram feed, just as anyone else might showcase their interests.

But, working with animals comes with a few responsibilities. For me, the welfare of an animal is far more important than a photo, so of all animals that stay with me, only a few - those who are happy to be handled and be in my company - will make it into my photos.

And even with those few, most of my animal photoshoots generally descend into chaos.

But, I believe the best images come from chaos. It is where the real character of the animal and of the artwork come out. A sugar glider eating the props is far more fun than one sitting in a corner. A pigeon walking out on an Easter photoshoot shows more attitude than one sitting beside the drawings and a photobombing chicken can bring a bit of fun to an otherwise ordinary image

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So how does it all happen? With a great sense of fun and an understanding that all plans are about to go out the window. Of course, it is probably much easier to work with a domesticated animal such as a cat or a dog, but even they can have a bad day. With that in mind, here are a few tips I follow when I’m creating an image.

1. Be understanding.

If the animal isn’t interested or doesn’t want to participate, then it is not going to happen. The comfort and welfare of an animal is more important than any photo you will ever take.

This is why I keep backup, or stunt animals on hand. It keeps me prepared for those times when the real animal doesn’t want to take part. As you can see by this example, I have carefully crafted look-a-likes to take the place of a real animal and honestly, you can barely tell the difference.

Bernard the Wonder Pigeon and his twin brother Irvine

Bernard the Wonder Pigeon and his twin brother Irvine

2. Be prepared.

Have all your elements ready and styled before you introduce the animal. You may also want to take a few ‘before’ photos to make sure the lighting and setup is what you want, because once the animal is in the picture you will have less time to fuss about.

I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent vacuuming up birdseed and leaves after an animal has invited itself into my photoshoot before I was ready

The before and after shots of a bird flatlay with Bernard the Wonder Pigeon

The before and after shots of a bird flatlay with Bernard the Wonder Pigeon

3. Be flexible.

This one is two-fold. First, go in with a plan but be willing to change it as the animal might have other ideas. Sometimes when you just let things happen naturally, you end up with more candid character shots, which I think are much better.

And secondly, with regard to being flexible, when a rogue chicken skips out on you mid photoshoot, you need to have limbered up beforehand so you can duck and weave through the garden retrieve her. You’ve got to stretch those muscles beforehand so you don’t end up with an injury!

4. Make sure everyone is having fun.

Why do it if you’re not.

5. Don’t have any animals?

Just create life from something silly.