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Karen Carr

Karen Carr Studio, Inc., Silver City, NM, USA
— Interview conducted April, 2010

Karen Carr is a wildlife and natural history artist specializing in digital painting whose work has appeared in publications, zoos, museums and parks across the United States, Japan and Europe. As an undergrad, Karen studied natural sciences and physics in addition to art and later received her BFA from North Texas State University. Prior to starting her own business, she took graduate courses in anatomy and business at The University of Texas in Dallas. She apprenticed for a few years with her father, but since then, Karen has built an international client list that includes some of the most prominent research organizations and scientific publications in the world, including The Audubon Institute; The Smithsonian Institution; The Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology; Southern Methodist University; Science, Scientific American, and Nature magazines; The Dinosaur Society; and more. She has also authored or illustrated more than a half-dozen books for young readers.

Karen at the computer working on a digital illustration of arctic dinosaurs for Scientific American magazine. Photo courtesy of Karen Carr Studio, Inc.
Q: Your career was influenced by your artist father and scientist mother. How did that help you get your business off the ground?
A: I grew up in a household where my dad was self-employed so I think that helped a whole lot — just learning what it's like to be self-employed. Then as soon as I graduated, I went to work for a company. After about nine months there, I decided that I didn't like working for other people. So I went to the University of Texas in Dallas and took some graduate courses in business, basic accounting, some economics, and marketing, and then I set up as an independent contractor working under my dad. I did that until I was 28, for about five years.

Then my husband, Ralph, and I had a daughter and I sort of went through my mid-life crisis early. I thought "Boy, I don't like advertising; this is not any fun. I like art but I don't like advertising." What I really wanted to do was natural history images for museums, so I decided to go for it.

Q: What happened next?
A: I put together an appropriate portfolio and started beating the streets. My husband was very supportive. I just started going around saying "Hey, here I am!" and I was fortunate enough to get a project with the Dallas Zoo and then one with the Fort Worth Museum. And they put me in contact with Dr. Louis Jacobs.

Louis and I started working together and I realized that this was definitely the kind of work I did enjoy doing. It was just big puzzles. You're given bits and pieces of information and you help somebody assemble it visually. I also enjoyed learning about the subject matter. I've always been of the opinion that education has got to be ongoing or you're just going to fall behind. I always budgeted $500 for books for every job. I'd buy tons of books and then I'd start reading.

Also, at that point I did my first digital image. I had done my first two projects as oil paintings. That's how it was done; that's still how a lot of people do it. You paint it about one-third size, as tight as you can, and they make a copy shot and blow it up. But I created my first painting in Corel Painter and I never looked back. The business just grew from there.

A section from one of a series of murals that Karen did for the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins at the Smithsonian. This depicts early humans at Gesher Benot Ya'aqov in Israel 790,000 years ago. Courtesy of Karen Carr Studio, Inc.
Q: The subject matter you've been asked to illustrate varies quite a bit. Do you have a particular fondness for paleo-related subjects?
A: We do a lot of stuff because if you specialize too much you can't stay in business. But I do like the paleo subject matter; that's my favorite. I like doing reconstructions of a single animal, especially a new species. No one's done it before, and you're working with the person who found it; those are really fun. But what I really like is putting together an environment — the animals and the plants that don't exist any more — and to make it real for people.

I think about what the environment would have looked like — what several animals in a herd together would have looked like; what a chase would have looked like; or what somebody skinning an elephant would have looked like — and help people imagine it.

Q: Can you describe your interaction with the paleontologists you've worked with?
A: I haven't met any that are not fun to work with. They all have their own personalities. Most are very well respected in their field so they expect a certain amount of deference, which is due, and we try to deliver that. But on the other hand, they're all willing to learn about what's necessary for the process. Paleontologists are happy to hear you go "You know what we can do …." and they're like, "Oh that's a cool idea" or "No, that wouldn't work because they wouldn't have done that at this time" or something. They're always receptive.

Another section from one of Karen's murals at the Koch Hall of Human Origins. This shows a group of Neanderthals at Shanidar, Iraq, between 35,000 and 45,000 years ago. Courtesy of Karen Carr Studio, Inc.
Q: Have you had many opportunities to join paleontologists in the field?
A: Oh yes, but for me the digging is totally boring! I love watching it. I love just being in the field with the people. I'll cook or wash socks or keep records, no problem. I've spent day after day gently carving away at rocks to see if there's something in there. I guess I'm not lucky or I don't have a good eye or I'm not very good at it or they put me where I'm not going to do any damage. I've gone to Ethiopia and spent a lot of time in Texas. I've done some in Indiana. I think I enjoy doing lab work and grinding and prepping and stuff way more than the digging.

Q: Business aside, is there a paleo-related project that you would like to do just because it would be really interesting or fun?
A: I'll be working with Louis and Bonnie Jacobs on their work at Chilga in Ethiopia and in Angola. We'd like to produce some images and animations to tell the stories of the changing environments that they've been finding in those two areas. And I'm real excited about that because it's not "here's an animal" — it's a whole environment through time and how it changed and how the plants and animals were affected.

We did a lot of animation images for the hominid hall at the Smithsonian. That was something new for us, and we want to offer more of that type of service.

A leopard feeds on an early hominid in this closeup from another of Karen's murals at the Koch Hall of Human Origins. Courtesy of Karen Carr Studio, Inc.
Q: What software are you using for your animations?
A: We're still investigating that. We're interested in learning three-dimensional modeling as well as animation; for the modeling, we're working on Lightwave and ZBrush right now and we may invest in Maya. And then we're looking at different animation programs. We've got a new intern that we're bringing along; I think we're going to hire him this summer to tutor us on what he's learned over the year and I also have some assignments for him. We work on PCs so we're basically looking at the packages that we can use with those.

Q: How do you move from a digital file to a large mural?
A: We did a mural series for the Audobon Institute Insectarium in a 100-foot-long hallway with 13-foot ceilings; we covered the walls on each side, floor to ceiling. We had to deliver those murals as multiple files because nobody would be able to open a single file at full size. Each file was output as a strip and then applied. We'd give them strip A, strip B, strip C — and they'd have a 10-pixel overlap. The resolution depends on how close the viewer will be. If one can walk right up to the artwork, you don't want it to be pixelated — you'd want a fairly high resolution image. If it's back behind an object or it's 20 feet away, the eye can't pick up the details so you can use a much lower resolution.

A holiday portrait of the Karen Carr Studio family. From left are Jensen Huang, John Lund, Bill Carr (Karen's dad), Kyla Clark, Karen, Ralph Gauer, Alaina Dunivan, and Erica Burleigh. The canines are Phoebe, Katie, and Topper. Photo courtesy of Karen Carr Studio, Inc.
Our process is very much like producing an image on a wall using traditional methods. When you're painting a mural, you're working on one small section — you have to back up to see the whole image. Then you go back in and balance it, but you have to keep the whole thing in your head while you work. It's the same on the computer, only you don't have to walk back and forth — you can zoom in and zoom out. You're just moving pixels around instead of pigment.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who is interested in becoming a paleoartist?
A: First I'd say hook up with a paleontologist, which is not difficult, because they're always looking for people to produce images. Usually if I'm working directly for a paleontologist it's for free because they don't have any money. But that's where you get your credentials and your learning and your training and your contacts. So hook up with somebody who can help you and teach you; and do some volunteer work in the lab so that you're learning about the material. Once you have enough material for a portfolio, then I would say make sure you have a web presence. Use what you've learned and what you've produced as your credentials; then it's basically just hitting the streets and selling yourself.


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