Getting to know: New Zealand based Artist Auntie Betty Illustration

Located in beautiful Christchurch, Papanui is home to Betty Busby of and Auntie Betty Illustration, an artist with a passion for wildlife art.

Betty’s art focuses on raising awareness for New Zealand’s unique and often rare and endangered wildlife, ranging from realistic watercolour and colour pencil artworks to more stylised embroidered pieces. Betty also dabbles with quirky, humorous illustrations of dancing and musical animals.

Betty was recently interviewed, and she answered a few questions about her life and art.

Auntie Betty Illustration wildlife artist drawing colourWatercolour New Zealand based artist Betty Busby painting in her art studio 

How did you get started with your artwork?

I illustrated my first book as a teenager. Mum wrote a story for us about South African garden creatures. My sister wrote it out by hand, and I illustrated it for my younger cousins. It was a labour of love, but the illustration bug had bitten, and I thought it would be amazing to be a book illustrator.

What is your background?

I started out in the fashion industry, but I just did not have what it takes to deal with the social demands and time pressures involved. I worked several different jobs (sewing machinist in a soft furnishing factory, insurance claims and tutoring children with learning issues, which I still do). Being busy with work and sport, I stopped drawing until my eldest niece was about two years old. She inspired me to write a story about a patchwork elephant, which I illustrated three times to get right – but I was back drawing. I have not looked back since.

How have you developed your career?

By drawing and painting a lot and accepting constructive criticism (usually from Mum or Dad, who are very talented in their own right). Mum does pyrography and Dad is an astro. Photographer, with a background of copper artwork. I have read as many art books as I can get my hands on, watched Youtube tutorials, taken courses and kept drawing and painting, regardless of other people’s subjective opinions. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and artists are never able to please everyone.

Who are your primary influences?

I fell in love with Eric Kincaid and Beatrix Potter’s illustrations when I was a child. I discovered James Gurney’s work as an adult. I loved their realistic but anthropomorphic illustrations and hoped to create picture books like theirs. I have moved into wildlife illustration instead, but they are still my inspiration. Instagram has also inspired me. I have seen incredible artwork by artists around the world.

Auntie Betty Illustration wildlife artist wearing doodlewear Malherbe’s Parakeet sweatshirtNZ Wildlife Artist Betty Busby wearing her Malherbe’s Parakeet art print sweatshirt

What inspires you?

Nature – the colours, textures, shapes and variety are a never-ending source of inspiration. The thousands of species of animals and plants are all fascinating. I would need to live five lifetimes to paint and embroider all I want to.

What do you do when you're not feeling inspired to make art? What restores your mojo?

Haha! Sleeping usually helps me bounce back. I love reading too and listening to audiobooks or music while I am working. Generally, if I am run down or in the dumps walking the dogs and getting away from work and people really help ‘recharge the batteries.’

What do you want your art to say to your audience?

I hope my wildlife art says "Please become aware of our threatened status. Please do your best to ensure I have a future."

How do you go about making new art?

I start by scribbling a lot of rough sketches. My initial rough sketch is usually unintelligible to anyone but me. I use bank paper to refine sketches (sometimes three or four times) until I get it looking the way I want. When I paint, I use light, loose layers initially, gradually build saturation and create fine details last. I learned to wire-frame illustration characters through one of Nina Rycroft’s courses, and love using this method for animating anthropomorphic animals and insects.

What mediums do you apply in your artwork?

I only use three media: watercolour, coloured pencil and embroidery. I love them all and choose a particular medium based on which best suits the subject or theme. I love the transparency and glazing qualities of watercolour. I love coloured pencil as it is brilliant for high detail work, and I love embroidery because needlework displays texture and pieces develop as I go along, often ending up quite different from how I originally planned because like Topsy, they just grow.


aunty betty illustration watercolour colour wheel

Watercolour colour wheel by Bumble-Bees Art and Crafts - source: Instagram

What is your most valuable artistic tool? Is there anything you simply cannot live without?

A watercolour palette containing:

  • primary red, yellow and blue.
  • cool red, yellow and blue.
  • warm red, yellow and blue.
  • bright opera rose (magenta), lemon yellow and cyan.
  • a dark brown.

If you have these, you can mix any colour including black. I never paint with white watercolour because it is flaky and never opaque enough to provide a decent covering.

What is the most rewarding aspect of being an artist?

Working from home and having endless opportunities to create and problem-solve. From my desk, I love watching the birds in the garden too. I work much longer hours than I did when I was employed, but it does not feel oppressive.

Auntie Betty Illustration wildlife artist taking photographs

Do you make use of photographs as references?

Yes, I do – I take some photos myself, but mostly I use photos taken by extremely talented and generous photographers and scientists who allow me to paint from their photos. They have access to species that I do not, as many of our endangered species live in very remote areas.

Tell us something unique about yourself

I grew up in South Africa, where the wildlife is extraordinary. I love living in New Zealand, as our wildlife is so unique, fascinating and very vulnerable. I am grateful we have the world wide web at our fingertips, as this has made it possible to research the most rare animals from the comfort of my home, and to connect with photographers far and wide.

In my other (younger) life, I used to enjoy figure skating as a member of a synchronised team. There is something wonderful about skimming like a bird, but 5:30 am practices and too many injuries were not quite as wonderful.

Do you have any advice for someone who wants to make art their full-time job

Build a business before quitting your day job. I did not have that option as I was made redundant and built a business from nothing without any financial resources, which has been extremely hard. We need to remember that only a handful of artists become really wealthy and many others who are just as talented don’t.

Do you have any advice for aspiring artists?

Draw and paint what you love and be willing to accept valid, objective, constructive criticism. Learn to distinguish subjective criticism (based on personal taste) from advice that will build your work. Be willing to try new things: media, approaches, subject matter, etc.


Auntie Betty Illustration wildlife artist by doodlewear Pied Fantail sweatshirt
Pied Fantail art print sweatshirt by NZ Wildlife Artist  Bumble-Bees Art and Crafts.

Why is it so important to you to paint endangered species?

There are many wildlife artists, but few focus on less well-known endangered species. I think it is imperative we remind ourselves that our lifestyle actions affect other people but also animals and plants, and there are over 40,000 endangered species around the world. Sadly, many of New Zealand’s native animals and plants are threatened. Some species have a lot of exposure, like the kākāpō and takahe, but most Kiwis have never heard of some of our rarest and most endangered species, like the eyelash seaweed, Cape Turnagain pimelea moth, Malherbe’s Parakeet (orange-fronted kakariki) or the cobble skink. I have always loved drawing insects and animals most people would never think to paint, even if they are ‘little, brown, mottled’ birds, insects, lizards or fish. I think they should have their PR moment, too.

Have you got any questions for Betty? Please leave your question in the comments section below.

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