Tender Art For the World-World Weary Heart: Katrin Berge’s Shimmering Nature Themed-Graphite Drawings

Interview by Elizah Leigh
Katrin Berge

The saccharine, jazz hands-style vibe of the online domain inarguably offers us a great escape from our various emotional burdens. Even when it comes to urgently addressing our wilting, post-workday vital signs, an hours-long social media defibrillation sesh often gets us right back on track…well, sort of. As deliciously addictive as it is to lose ourselves in an endless onslaught of twirling whirligigs and neon-pulsing flippadeedoodahdays, as soon as we sign off, reality’s maelstrom once again compels us to desperately search for light amid the darkness of insanity.

Rather than indulging in any more soaring crystalline sugar highs that ultimately drop-kick us right back down into mopey-town, Katrin Berge’s lovingly rendered naturalistic visions offer a sustained level of emotional sustenance that is deeply anchored in old-fashioned authenticity. Her precisely laid down pencil strokes cut through the cacophony of the online world in an instant, bringing the simple sweetness of slumbering squirrels, avian voyagers, and various other woodland enchantments front and centre.

The Norwegian artist’s work - which is a refreshing return to the heart and soul of inspired creative expression - tenderly swaddles the beholder in a blanket of soul-soothing hope.

 

 

Interview with Katrin Berge

For fourteen years, you augmented your artist-derived income with a non-art job at a commercial book shop, however - in the past twelve months - you’ve reached a huge milestone in your fine art career. Congratulations on being able to support yourself solely through your art! That must feel like an “I have officially arrived!” moment.

Yay, thank you!

Reaching this point has been a gradual process, but taking that leap of faith has really worked out for me. As a natural born catastrophe-thinker who finds it hard not to worry about the future so much, letting go of that part-time financial safety net was daunting but as I only have myself to think about, I thought why not take the leap and find out. Now that I’m the boss of my own time and energy, though, the income that I bring in as a full-time artist is actually a little bit better than what I previously earned. I’ve even become more mindful about spending and saving money.

 

 

Katrin Berge Limited Edition Print

Would you say that from the very beginning of your artistic journey, you embraced a ‘come hell or high water, I’m going to make this happen!’ frame of mind?

Oh absolutely. I don't feel like myself or feel happy if I go too long without drawing or working with new ideas.

Being an artist is my entire identity…it just is! It infiltrates all parts of me and how I live.

 

 

In spite of tougher days when it may have seemed tempting to fling your pencils into a wood chipper, how did you manage to still keep your eye on the ‘full-time working artist’ prize?

I don’t like to give up on my hopes, wishes and ideas, so when I realised that working as a full-time artist is absolutely possible, I had a strong desire to make it happen. Being stubborn really did work to my advantage!

 

 

Most parents - out of concern for their child’s financial stability - might be inclined to shoot down professional art making aspirations as nothing more than a romantic pipe dream. What was your family’s reaction to your desire to pursue an artistic path?

I guess they trusted that I would be fine in whatever career path I ended up in. I'm very grateful that they acknowledged and encouraged my strong interest in art rather than trying to steer me away from it.

 

 

Katrin Berge Flora

What early signs pointed toward the journey that you’re traversing today?

From a young age, I was addicted to the 'high' and joy of engaging in creative activities. I didn't need to rely on my parents to locate projects or hobbies - I always found them myself, both indoors and outside in nature.

I was also influenced a great deal by my naturally creative mother who exposed me to ceramics, watercolour, knitting and crocheting plus the dreamy-surreal paintings that filled my aunt Lillian’s art studio.

 

 

At what point did your aptitude for art - and drawing in particular - begin to reveal itself?

Rather than being a Michelangelo amongst my peers, I was an ordinary child who liked to draw pooping horses and anthropomorphic flowers. I was approximately 15 years old when I tried drawing far more seriously. I recall coming home from school and quite spontaneously creating a portrait of Leonardo DiCaprio in my notebook using a small poster of him that was hanging on my bedroom wall as a visual reference.

 

 

Was there something particularly notable about your graphite version of Leo that made your parents think you should pursue art far more seriously?

That portrait must have made an impact on them because that Christmas, they gifted me a beautiful antique-looking small suitcase filled with lots of painting and drawing equipment. I didn't even try the paints - I was only interested in the drawing equipment and haven't stopped since!

 

 

Today’s aspiring artists have access to countless resources - the vast majority of them just a few keyboard clicks away - that inevitably help them to fast-track their creative development. Do you think that it was a hindrance or a benefit to your artistic journey that your younger self had no access to a computer or internet service?

I got completely obsessed with drawing as a teen, passionately developing my skills at a fairly fast rate just by figuring everything out by myself. The only tools that I used were my eyesight, a pencil, paper and my good friend, an eraser.

I often created hyper-realistic copies of the make-up and perfume advertisements that I saw in magazines.

With practice, I became quite good at capturing the right proportions in my celebrity portraits without using a grid. Looking back on my artistic efforts, it’s hard to believe that I had so much patience.

 

 

Katrin Berge Earthling

What are your thoughts on parental support/encouragement not resonating to the same degree as outside voices that tell us we have a special skill worth pursuing?

Outside encouragement was a driving force in my own artistic pursuit. I will always be grateful to one teacher in particular for his praise of me when I was a teenaged student. For my school assignments, he’d often ask me to draw extra nice items, including the very cute glossy patent leather shoes that his daughter wore as a toddler. Years later, he ended up purchasing my drawing of her shoes - maybe he gave it to her as a gift?! - and then he and his daughter both ended up buying a couple of giclée prints from me, too, which was so nice!

 

 

Each of your astoundingly hyper-detailed graphite drawings takes an average a few weeks to complete. To what do you attribute your extreme level of rendering patience?

The detail-oriented technique that I use in my art practice - and my ‘control freak’ tendencies in other aspects of my life - might be due to the fact that I am on the OCD spectrum.

Quite fortunately, that doesn’t hinder my productivity in work or life. People rarely think of artists as being very organised and neat, but even as a child, I thrived in the presence of order and symmetry.

 

 

Perhaps your natural inclination for precision explains why you’ve mastered the art of creating a menagerie of creatures with seemingly downy soft fur.

I love making fur look realistic – it can be a meditative process. I use a 0.2 mechanical pencil to work up tiny light strokes in several layers.

For darker areas, I switch over to regular graded pencils which help me to create an even softer impression of fur. I find that the deeper graphite pigmentation makes the shape of an animal seem far more three-dimensional.

 

 

As an artist who thrives in the presence of structure and order, it seems especially surprising that you never pre-sketch your compositions. Does that suggest that a bit of improvisation is a natural part of your practice?

Rather than pre-sketching the ideas and details that I want to include in a visual composition, I write them down as points of reference. When I start working on a blank page, my artistic concept is already in my mind and it generally takes shape in graphite just like I imagined it would. There are other times when what may have seemed like a good idea in my mind doesn't actually work on paper. In those cases, I rely on intuition and improvisation to alter the composition and various elements/details in a pleasing way.

 

 

Do you believe that even when one’s attention to detail requires an immense time commitment, it is still possible to be a prolific creator?

I think so! I have been averaging about ten to eleven works of art per year, and in 2024 alone, four of my drawings are in varying stages of completion.

 

 

Katrin Berge Garden of Jorga

Please describe what the experience of being in the creative zone is like for you.

I never wait for inspiration - I just sit down and pick up the pencil. I don't think it’s possible for any human being to have complete silence in their head, myself included, but I find that music calms my mind so I can get into the zone. Weird thoughts and images often creep into my psyche - sometimes like a calm trickling water stream, and other times like a roaring waterfall - before inevitably slipping away.

 

 

Some of the old-school creatives who have had a notable impact on your art include Joris Hoefnagel and his son Jacob Hoefnagel, Maria Sibylla Merian, Louis Moe, Theodor Kittelsen and Helen Beatrix Potter. What makes the vintage illustration aesthetic so appealing to you?

I just love the aesthetics of old school-drawing equipment and the tactile nature of paper. I have a nice collection of old postcards - especially from the Victorian era - that I love to look through once in a while for inspiration.

 

 

Although your refined rendering truly shines in its monochromatic state, why don’t you enhance your naturalistic subjects with coloured pigments?

I'm very much inspired by coloured art, particularly vintage work with muted tones. However, in my personal art practice, I am drawn to the very timeless beauty of graphite expression. During my university studies, I used other art materials but always returned to graphite pencils. I love being able to capture so many contrasting variations in light and shadow with a simple monochromatic palette.

 

 

Do you anticipate that your naturalistic universe will remain colour-free for the foreseeable future?

I’m perfectly happy using graphite and have no plans to expand the colour spectrum of my work or use other art mediums. Perhaps the urge to bring colour into my art will happen to me later in life. It would have to be a very strong calling, and I’d surely keep my creative experimentations to myself for a while before finally sharing them with others. We'll just have to wait and see!

 

 

Katrin Berge The Ringbearer

Your art predominantly celebrates wildlife/naturalistic subjects rather than the human form. Is that a reflection of your Norwegian heritage and personal belief that being ensconced in the natural world significantly boosts one’s well-being and happiness?

My love for the natural world really did take root when I was a young girl. While my dad worked at sea, my mother looked after me – often using nature as my ‘classroom’ since I didn’t attend kindergarten – an experience that I’m truly grateful for. Ultimately, I like the idea of my art providing people with comfort and joy while also helping them to recognise and respect the beauty of the natural world surrounding us.

 

 

Are the timeless natural elements that you incorporate into your graphite drawings plucked straight from your mind’s eye or do you rely on reference images?

I prefer drawing animals and plants in a naturalistic way, so I use photos as a visual guide only - I never create an exact graphite replica of an image.Whenever I incorporate elements like mushrooms, grass, leaves and wood textures into my work, I rely on my mind’s eye or I refer to various real botanicals that I personally collect and dry.

 

 

Your visual reference material also includes dead specimens that you find during nature walks, which some might think is a tad bit morbid, but that certainly shows your scientific leanings.

I am a little bit of a geek when it comes to biology, natural history, science and evolution. If art didn’t work out for me, I would imagine that pursuing a career as a biologist, paleontologist or archaeologist might be really cool and interesting. Dead insects and animal skulls are a great source of creative inspiration for my graphite drawings. In particular, I really love finding owl pellets since the bones of small rodents and birds can often be found inside.

 

 

Given your environmental leanings and concern about the state of our planet, does manifesting innocent creatures on paper help keep your spirit afloat?  

The issues that we’re facing today haven't changed my artistic expression significantly, however lately I haven’t been drawing visual compositions with dark/surreal elements like skulls. Instead, I’ve been creating more classically beautiful and sweet motifs, as I find them a comfort in the uncertain and worrying times we live in. I hope these more sweet and soothing motifs are a comfort to those that see them as well.

 

 

Katrin Berge Artist

Did your dearly departed dwarf hamster Louie – who looks just like a wood mouse - inspire any of your mouse-based drawings? It seems like you are especially fond of those often-misunderstood creatures.

I feel very fortunate to have had Louie in my life for three years – he was just the sweetest, funniest, strong-willed little guy! Although he wasn’t actually a life model for my drawings, he was always a source of inspiration to me. My love and fascination for small rodents can be traced back to my childhood when our attic would become a wintertime haven for wood mice. I grew up with various family pets, too, and learned that when it comes to animal companions, size doesn't matter. Louie was a tiny man with a big personality - I miss him so much.

 

 

Imposter syndrome seems to plague lots of creatives who are under the mistaken impression that they must achieve x, y and z before their place in the arts can be truly legitimised. What has your personal experience been?

Rather than pursuing a formal fine arts degree, I earned a Bachelor’s and a Master’s degree in visual communication and illustration from Bergen National Academy of the Arts. I guess I've always felt like an artist, but calling myself a fine artist only seemed official once I landed my first solo exhibition in 2016.

 

 

In your daily art practice, what reinforces your certainty that you are living your best creative life?

To draw something in a good and realistic way, you have to understand what you are looking at, what the parts consists of, and how they are built. I find great pleasure in ‘cracking the nut’ – in researching the composition of snake skin and scales, for example, and ultimately experiencing that ‘eureka moment’ where it all comes together. There are few things that are more satisfying and endorphin-inducing than manifesting a concept on paper that actually looks as good as the image in my mind!

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