Disney Story Artist David G. Derrick Jr. leverages his craft to relate the needs and virtues of nature to children.

Like Beatrix Potter and other fable-weaving artists of old, this form of storytelling through art has proved a magical medium for captivating young minds and imparting valuable lessons for centuries. Since Potter penned her first tale, the tradition has evolved somewhat. Digital tools help animate the artists drawings, yet illustration remains the foundation for educating children about nature and science.

Digital Art by David G. Derrick Jr.

I’ve asked Dave to describe how he uses art to teach children about nature…

If conservation, natural history education and science are to touch and influence future generations of naturalist they must continue to evolve. Learning about nature needs to be fun and natural. If learning about nature is didactic and boring then kids will gravitate toward other activities. Picasso said every child is an artist, and I firmly believe that every child is also a naturalist.

Schools separate art and science. Though they use opposing sides of the brain art and science complement each other. You can only draw what you know. If you want to draw an elephant you need to know their anatomy, you need to know about their behavior and how their environment shapes their lives. If you draw an elephant’s anatomy and behavior it will be more firmly rooted in the child’s brain.

Bitnoora Adonia a conservation manager at the Uganda Wildlife Authority echoes these sentiments and used them to foster understanding and conservation for Bwindi Impenetrable Forest: “Art is a good tool that has been used in many countries to help children and adults who can not read and write to understand modern concepts and theories. In 1990s we used it alot in Uganda to make rural communities around Bwindi Impenetrable National Park to understand and appreciate conservation values of the protected area”.

I drag my children through beaches, forests and grasslands to learn about animals through observation and art. By expressing what they know and feel through art children can make a lasting and personal relationship with nature.

Learning about nature should be fun. In my picture books I use my art and storytelling to teach and entertain kids about nature. In Animals Don’t So I Won’t I veil animal education with entertainment as Ben the main character tries to get out of cleaning his room by being a beetle, only to learn that if he really wants to be a beetle he has to clean someone else’s mess…an elephant’s. This fun pattern repeats itself as Ben tries to be a penguin, leopard, hippo, crocodile, bear, slug and chimp. With each scenario the reader learns a fun entertaining fact about the featured animal.

In my book I’m the Scariest Thing in the Jungle I pit two alpha predators against each other. Both the tiger cub and the young crocodile brag and boast that each is the scariest and set out to prove it by vanishing in the grass, stalking in the water and climbing trees. In the end they actual find something even scarier than they are.

With a sketchbook in hand I love to take my kids to wild places. Together we watch and observe wildlife. I have found this is the best way to learn about an animal or ecosystem. We call it Wild Art! We recently finished two videos which document our artistic and animal education. In Cambria California within view of the famous Hearst Castle elephant seals congregate every year to breed and mate. It is a spectacular and safe way to watch the world’s largest pinniped. We watched we sketched and I even decided to animate to help teach about elephant seals.

In world’s first national park (Yellowstone) my kids and I documented many different animals including grizzly bear, black bear, pronghorn, elk and bison. We recently finished making another Wild Art documentary on Bison. Through sketching, sculpting and painting we teach about North America’s largest animal.

Not every excursion needs to be wild and exotic. Nature is all around us, it’s even in our own backyards. During the summertime we love to catch and document the insects that call our backyards home. Our undisputed favorite is the jumping spider.

Art and Science don’t need to be separate they can work together to help us and our children appreciate the wonders of the natural world.

David Derrick is the author of Sid the Squid and the Search for the Perfect Job and Animals Don’t, So I Won’t! He is a story artist at DreamWorks Feature Animation on the films Megamind, How to Train Your Dragon, Bee Movie and Flushed Away, and the Rise of the Guardians, based upon a book by William Joyce. A sculptor of wildlife in bronze, he studied fine art at the University of Utah and graduated from California Institute of the Arts (CALARTS), where his films won a student Emmy award.

A wildlife artist and bronze sculptor, he wrote African Diaries: Sketches & Observations. He has participated in the United Nations 2009 Year of the Gorilla campaign. David has donated artwork to raise awareness and funds to save these primates and their habitat. In December 2009, he was awarded the AFC Conservation Artist Award for my ongoing efforts in supporting conservation primarily of gorillas and chimpanzees. The “Artists for Conservation” award is awarded monthly to honor a member for outstanding artistic talent and extraordinary contribution to the conservation cause.

Inga Yandell
Explorer and media producer, passionate about nature, culture and travel. Combining science and conservation with investigative journalism to provide resources and opportunities for creative exploration.