Stephen Nash’s world is populated by the bushiness of eyebrows, the length of tails, and the exact color of skin or fur. An award-winning illustrator, Nash has spent over 30 years at Stony Brook, where he has honed his craft of creating artistic renderings of gibbons, monkeys, apes, gorillas, and numerous others.
British-born and trained, Nash, who is a visiting research associate in the Department of Anatomical Sciences at Stony Brook, came to Long Island in 1982 at the request of Russell Mittermeier, the president of Conservation International. The combination has become a force in conservation, raising awareness of, and potential threats to, numerous primates, as well as other species, such as tree kangaroos in Papua, New Guinea and baobab trees in Madagascar.
Nash provided illustrations, compiled over the course of his career, for a book published last spring called “Mammals of the World: Primates.” At 10.5 pounds, the hard-cover book, which Mittermeier and others edited, is equal to the weight of about 67 mouse lemurs.
Animals are often not cooperative when it comes to posing for pictures, especially when a scientist would like to take a photo that reflects something unique about its physical appearance.
Illustrators like Nash, whose wife Lucille Betti-Nash shares the same profession and works at Stony Brook, use a combination of photos and videos, descriptions from available literature and discussions with current scientists to create images that most closely resemble animals that sometimes rely on staying away from human, and other mammalian, eyes to survive.
He starts by sending an email sketch to scientists all around the world. These researchers appreciate the attention Nash pays to details to make sure he creates an image that illustrates the unique differences among species.
“His care in the posing and portrayal of nonhuman primates communicates the beauty and splendor” of these animals, explained Jeffrey French, a psychology professor at the University of Nebraska, Omaha. French said Nash’s work is “unexcelled by anyone else in the business,” and scientists and conservationists “value the opportunity to have [him] produce artwork for their books, articles and press releases.”
Nash said his job is to be a “servant of science.” If, for example, one gibbon species looks different from another by the bushiness of its eyebrows, he will “do my best to produce illustrations of that.”
Technology has enabled the process to become more efficient. In the earlier days, after he graduated from the Royal College of Art in London, where he studied natural history illustration, he might have started with a preliminary version of a gorilla that needed a longer neck or a darker back. “That might have required starting a new drawing,” he said. “Nowadays, I can make changes and send back a new version, virtually within minutes.”
Nash said he loves working with colored pencils. He appreciates how he can buy colored pencils that have hundreds of colors, although he still finds he has to apply some color alchemy to create an exact visual match. He wets a paintbrush and brushes over the pencil strokes, uniting the colors.
“All sorts of special structures in nature — the iridescence of a butterfly’s wing or the special shine on a snake’s scale — might require special blending or a special treatment,” he said.
Nash has a favorite primate: the cotton-top tamarin, which was one of the first he drew. The matamata turtle is his favorite animal, while the fern is his favorite plant, and Darwin’s frog is his favorite reptile.
“Everyone should have these favorite natural phenomena,” he suggested. “Ideally, you get involved and you find out all you can about them.”
Residents of Stony Brook, Nash and his wife have a few of their illustrations on the walls of their home. They also have images of primates from the 1800s and early 1900s on their walls. The couple has dug ponds and planted native plants to maximize biodiversity in their backyard.
Nash’s wife, a birdwatcher who gets up at 4 am each year as a part of the Christmas Bird Count, has seen more than 100 bird species in their yard. “Our house and garden is an expression of us,” he said.
The couple hasn’t done illustrations of each other. While that might be something they’d consider if and when they retire, Nash doesn’t expect to slow down any time soon, especially since his longtime colleague Mittermeier remains active. “While [Mittermeier] is working, he’ll be doing wonderful things I want to illustrate.”