Drawing the essence of a bird: the art of Milly Formby


Last month I was privileged to interview three amazing, up-and-coming wildlife artists about their work. “Interview” is perhaps too strong a word as the three artists prompted more insights from each other than I did. This post features Milly Formby, who grew up in West Gippsland and now lives and draws in Perth.


“I’m always going down to the Swan River here, and I love just walking along the sand and feeling the sand between my toes and walking in the water and looking at the reflection of the light on the water, and the shells and the colours, and wishing that I could capture every tiny little bit of it on paper.

I’d probably describe myself as a zoological illustrator. My artwork is inspired by nature and the world I see around me, especially bird life. I work with pencils on paper mainly but I’ve tried all types of media. When I’m drawing a bird, I guess I’m trying to capture some kind of essence of the bird. I’m trying to capture a moment. I see a lot of beauty in the world around me and I want to capture that and share it with people.

I started drawing when I was in primary school but I didn’t take it seriously until I was about 16. I did an art degree and worked as a weaver for a while and then went on to science. It wasn’t until I did my zoology degree that I had this light bulb moment and realized, “Oh I love animals and I really miss being creative,” and I put the two together. That’s what I’m working towards now; building up my folio so I can do this as my job. It would be amazing to be a full-time artist.


I think people connect with nature really easily. Kids love going to the park and the zoo and seeing animals. As we get older we lose that a bit but people often re-connect with nature through art. When you’re an artist you’re able to draw people’s attention to all those beautiful details.

I couldn’t tell you how many hours I put into a picture. When I’m doing something I’m passionate about, time doesn’t matter. I went through this incredible creative block for a while because I felt like everything I did had to be perfect. It wasn’t until I was able to let that go, and say, “You know what, I just don’t care, I’m just going to do what I enjoy,” that things started to flow.


I have a real desire for my art to be used in science communication and to promote the conservation of birds. I’ve donated some of my work to Birdlife Australia to use in field guides and greeting cards. I love that they can use my work to raise money because I’m so passionate about conservation.

“It’s a really satisfying experience to create something and then go: “Oh wow. I did that – wow”. You kind of surprise yourself.

I have a quote that I’ve stuck on the wall of my studio and it says: “The doing is the thing.” It just reminds me to sit down and “to do” because that’s what it’s about. It’s not about the finished product – it’s a wonderful bonus that you end up with this beautiful artwork at the end of it, but it’s not what it’s about. It’s about the process.

Millie plovers


All illustrations are by Milly Formby, used with permission. You can view more of Milly’s work at her web site. Many thanks to all three artists for their enthusiastic conversation. The original transcript has been edited and condensed to improve readability.

This interview was originally posted at the wonderful Wild Melbourne web site. You can read the original version here. If you are using a phone or tablet, check out this dynamic version, it looks fantastic. I hope you enjoy it.

More Nature Blogger interviews

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