From IWU Magazine, Winter 2011-12
Drawn from Life
Illustrator Patricia J. Wynne ’67 captures both the fine details and essence of her
Wynne at her home studio.She describes her “perfect day” as a Sunday in her studio,
creating art. “Drawing is relaxing. It’s the thing I love to do the most.”
Artwork by PATRICIA J. WYNNE ’67
Story by CELESTE HUTTES
Whether fueling a flight of fancy or capturing, in captivating detail, the creatures
that share our planet, the art of Patricia J. Wynne informs, illuminates and inspires.
Not bad for a woman who doesn’t consider herself a natural-born artist.
“I don’t believe you’re born with it. It’s work,” says Wynne, who graduated from Wesleyan
with an art degree in 1967 and has enjoyed a thriving career in New York City for
almost four decades. “I believe art is a matter of endeavor.”
Her own artistic journey began while growing up on a farm near Chicago, in what is
now Burr Ridge. “I always knew from a very early age that I wanted to be an artist,”
she says. “It never occurred to me that I would do anything else. I have always drawn
In a career spanning nearly 50 years, Wynne has created countless pieces of art that
speak to scholars and schoolchildren alike. She has illustrated more than 170 books
for children and adults, and her work regularly appears in national publications such
as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Food and Wine, Cricket and Scientific American.
Along the way, Wynne has won accolades from Parenting magazine, the John Burroughs
Association and the National Science Teachers Association. In 2008 she received the
Theodore Seuss Geisel Award for her illustrations in Hello, Bumblebee Bat, authored by Darrin Lunde. The award, named for the famed “Dr. Seuss,” is given annually
to the author and illustrator of the best book for beginning readers.
In 2010, a retrospective of her work — Trophies: 45 Years in the Hunt — ran at the Mehu Gallery in Manhattan. For the exhibit’s catalog, Helen Jackson
Zakin, emeritus chair of State University of New York at Oswego’s art department,
described what distinguishes Wynne’s work.
“Patricia’s imagination, her ability to translate complex ideas into pictures and
her unceasing drive to learn as much as possible about that which she depicts are
the qualities that are central to her drawing, sculpture and prints,” wrote Zakin.
Those qualities flourished when she arrived on the Illinois Wesleyan campus as, in
her words, “a completely nave country girl.”
At Wesleyan, she came into her own as part of a circle of art majors where “everybody
knew everybody.” The cozy atmosphere offered a welcome change from the large Chicago
high school she felt lost in a sea of students.
“Wesleyan was the first place I could just be me,” Wynne says. “I had a wonderful
time at Wesleyan. I loved my professors.”
The budding artist relished the wide diversity offered in her art classes, from woodcuts
and lithographs to silk-screening and sculpting. “We studied lots of different mediums;
we weren’t allowed to specialize,” says Wynne. “The University gave me a wonderful
view of what’s available in the arts. I really got it all at Wesleyan.”
Self -portrait as a student (1965)
Wynne completed a rare self-portrait during her years at Illinois Wesleyan. While
home for the holidays recovering from final exams, she suddenly realized she’d forgotten
to get a Christmas present for her mother. The gift was born in the living room, as
she sat in front of a mirror. “I was such a serious kid,” she says now, gazing at
the crayon sketch. “I was there [at Wesleyan] to learn to be an artist. Nothing else
mattered. I can see in this self-portrait how hard I was trying to be the best I could
One lesson from her time at IWU she didn’t take to heart came from a printmaking instructor who advised his students never to
marry another artist. She was persuaded otherwise when she met Maceo Mitchell while
studying printmaking at the University of Iowa in the 1960s. Today they share a spacious
apartment overlooking Central Park, complete with his and her private studios.
Their 42-year marriage has supported a loving, competitive spirit between two successful
artists. As Wynne informed her husband early on, “I want you to succeed tremendously,
but I want to do better.” And the feeling is mutual.
“It’s never been a problem — it’s such fun,” says Wynne. “We understand each other;
it’s an advantage. We can be quite honest with each other.”
Both went into teaching after earning their master’s degrees. It was while Wynne
taught printmaking and drawing at the University of Windsor, Ontario, that she first
advertised as a freelance scientific illustrator with a “tight hand,” a “good pen-and-inker.”
Once settled in New York City, Wynne looked for natural history (“rats and bats”)
jobs with books, newspapers and magazines.
Living in the Big Apple required some adjustments for the self-described country girl.
On the farm where she grew up, she helped take care of the animals. “When I first
came to New York, I was depressed not to have those chores in the morning,” Wynne
says. Her mood improved after she accumulated a menagerie — which now includes six
finches, five turtles, two cats, six lizards and more than 60 fish — to care for at
the start of her day.
Wynne’s lifelong affinity for animals shines in her work. From the lowliest insect
to the mightiest mammal, she is known for almost uncanny accuracy in her depictions
of the natural world. Her rare skill makes her sought-after among biologists seeking
to convey complex information. As one satisfied scientist said about one of her illustrations,
“The figure conveys more of the story than I could get across with a tray full of
To achieve a striking realism in portraying everything from the Arctic food chain
to rhino evolution, Wynne draws from films, books, the Internet and her own memory.
Ideally, she is able to study live specimens. At Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, she recently
spent several days sketching beluga whales, and this winter she will return to Bloomington
to draw the wallaroos at Miller Park Zoo for a children’s book.
“I know nothing about science, but I’m always curious,” says Wynne. When she is unsure
how to draw something, she has access to some of the best minds in science, including
Nobel Prize winners with whom she has worked during her 25-year relationship with
Scientific American. (Wynne also maintains an office part-time at the American Museum of Natural History,
where she provides illustrations for peer-reviewed scientific articles.)
The laser-like precision of Wynne’s hand is somehow matched by an ability to infuse
her work with an ineffable spirit.
“There is always a kind of animism to my work,” says Wynne. “For me, artistically,
they have souls; they are endowed with a spirit beyond the zoological. I see life
as having deeper meaning — that matters to me.”
Wynne is also inspired by history. In fact, she was so taken with a course at Wesleyan
on ancient Egypt that she nearly abandoned art for archaeology.
When she finds herself “stuck” on a piece, she will often research the subject’s history
or mythology to help bring it to life.
For Kitsune, Wynne used themes from Japanese legend.
Such was the case with Kitsune, a tiny fox Wynne created for a miniature show. Feeling it was missing something,
Wynne found the spark she was seeking in an online search about the mythology of the
fox. She began working with imagery from Japanese legend, where the fox is guardian
of the rice and sprouts nine tails that blaze light (think “fox fire”) when it turns
100 years old. These elements, she says, allowed her to “finish it with a twist.”
Just as she seamlessly fuses physical realism with spiritual essence, Wynne is a master
at blending the business of art with her own artistic self-expression — sometimes
quite literally. For example, in The Maneater’s Dream and Remembering Wyoming, Wynne deftly builds fine art around previously completed commercial jobs. She is
also not squeamish about selling the fruits of her creative labor. Her advice to young
artists: “Find what satisfies your aesthetic and pays the rent. Make something that reflects you and not just the job.”
“When I start a piece, it becomes very personal to me,” says Wynne, who sometimes
expresses this connection by depicting herself in her fine-art pieces. “I don’t do
it for vanity. Sometimes I think I belong in there. It allows me to participate in
the art at more than one level. It’s me looking at the art from the inside.”
Among thousands of her creations born over the years, Wynne does not have a single
favorite. As a ruthless editor of her own work, she says, “If I didn’t like them,
I would destroy them. If it’s intact, I probably love it.”
“I say to my drawings, ‘Now go out there and do what you can.’ That’s the job of art
— to communicate with other people. It has to speak to somebody. If it doesn’t, it’s
Seldom failing to find their voice, Wynne’s pieces usually speak the language of enchantment.
As she says, “When a piece finds someone that falls in love with it … it’s a kind
To visit the School of Art’s website, click here.
To visit Patricia Wynne’s website, click here.