Hyper-realistic animal portraits: an interview with Janine Heschl 

26 November 2020
Orangutan hyperrealism embroidery portrait 'Orangutan' 90x70cm by Janine Heschl. Image credit: Martin Wacht.
We chat to embroidery expert and hyper-realism extraordinaire, Janine Heschl about her auctioned artwork, her love for endangered animals and how she discovered stitching…

In 2018 Austrian-born textile artist, Janine Heschl found herself standing on a platform next to Dr Jane Goodall. That night her chimpanzee portrait of Wounda was auctioned, raising 6,500€ for the Jane Goodall Institute. She rates it as her greatest achievement. An experience that left her humbled, yet empowered – she realised how powerful art could be.

Dr. Jane Goodall Wounda and Janine Heschl with hyper-realistic portrait

Dr. Jane Goodall, Wounda and Janine Heschl. Image credit: JGI Austria.

“Just like the threads of this embroidery… we are all tightly connected and woven together and we need to take care of each other.” Dr Jane Goodall DBE, UN Messenger of Peace, primatologist and anthropologist.

Just nine years earlier Janine purchased her first sewing machine on a whim. She was driven by a deep need to produce something tangible, something to take pride in. Her early sewing attempts showed little promise – she struggled to follow patterns and stitch straight lines! 

Yet today, Janine produces amazing hyper-realistic portraits of endangered animals, capturing their plight and their beauty in stitch. Read on to find out how this happened…

What was the turning point?

I was about to give up when I came across Poppy Treffrey and Alisa Burke – artists I still admire today. They taught me how to stitch outside the box and sketch with my needle. I experimented, doodled with thread and found so much joy in that freedom. The more I did this, the more a new world opened up – the world of embroidery. My sketches turned into full paintings, filling out entire areas with thread. Soon I discovered shades and hues, highlights and contrast really make all the difference. It’s a process that’s evolved over the past five years.

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What drew you to hyper-realism?

My main focus lies with endangered animals. I want to portray their plight and preserve their beauty – we may not be able to enjoy them forever. This drove me to attempt photorealism. Also I’m very competitive with myself – I always want a new challenge. It might be a shadow across short fur, horns or wet noses – with every new subject I want to leave my comfort zone and grow. And I am not done yet! Hyper-realism has become a driving force in my art – I enjoy the way it lets me stretch.

hyper-realistic chimpanzee portrait by Janine Heschl

Chimpanzee portrait commissioned to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Gombe National Park in Tanzania.

What process do you go through when preparing a new piece? 

I spend hours on the internet searching. I have a list of animals I want to stitch, but I go by instinct – it’s the tingling at the back of my neck that chooses the next subject. Image chosen, I use simple Photoshop techniques to get a tracing pattern and sketch it on my base fabric with a large light board. I end up adding many unnecessary details, as all will be covered by fabric later on, but the drawing is like a mini-study of the animal.

What happens next?

I create a very detailed fabric collage using batik fabrics. Again, I add more details than needed. These serve as my map, allowing me to navigate through my often life-size portraits. It acts as another study of the animal. I learn where the fur growth changes direction or lighting reacts in the eyes.

I spend as much time identifying the right thread colours before stitching can start. To get the best results, I use the thinnest thread I can find. And for every colour I single out, I choose about four to five shades to create realism. Understanding the tonal range is crucial. I use Amann threads, a German brand – also known by their consumer brand, Mettler.

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What sewing machines do you use?

I use a regular Brother Innov-Is 550 SE sewing machine for most of my work. I also have my 1918 built Singer 107W102. It’s an original flat embroidery machine that has been motorised. I can embroider a very unique fur texture due to the long strands it stitches. It’s taken my realism to a whole new level. I still get very excited every time I use this power house of a sewing machine!

Looking for sewing machine advice? Don't miss our guide to choosing the right sewing machine for embroidery.

How do you achieve life-like results?

I stitch what I see. The trick is that I study my subjects with great intensity, staring at my reference photos for a long time. This is essential to my process. I focus on tiny details, zooming in on an area and translating it into thread. My portraits can take up to four months, working two to three hours a day sometimes. I hope that it will all come together like a big jigsaw puzzle in the end, when I finally zoom out!

African Lion by Janine Heschl

The making of a wildlife portrait: 'African Lion' 80x60cm. Image credit: Martin Wacht.

Which part of the process do you enjoy most?

I absolutely love stitching fur – adding the tiniest details can achieve the biggest effects. I keep being surprised by how much a portrait can change, when extra highlights are added.

And least?

Whiskers! They’re always the last thing I stitch. Not once have I finished them thinking they look good. I am seriously considering getting plastic ones! Also preparing pieces for exhibitions, but there’s nothing worse than presenting beautiful artwork in a sloppy way.

Portrait Wounda by Janine Heschl 40x40cm Credit Martin Wacht

'Wounda' 40x40cm. Image credit Martin Wacht.

What about your exhibitions?

The auction of my Wounda portrait made me realise the impact art can have and how it can be used to raise awareness  – and funds! In 2019 I teamed up with the ‘Jane Goodall Institute – Austria’, to curate an exhibition called #BeJane. It was to honour Dr Goodall and her mission to protect not only chimpanzees but all living creatures on this planet. Artists from all over the world produced incredible work reflecting how she has influenced them in their art and their lives. It was an overwhelming experience and raised over 11,000€.

One thing that is truly close to my heart and I hope will take place is gifting Dr Jane Goodall my chimpanzee portrait. It was specially commissioned to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Gombe National Park in Tanzania, where her journey began all these years ago.

Don't miss our overview of embroidery techniques where you can explore more incredible possibilities with needle and thread! 

Any closing words of advice?

It’s simple – practice and experiment. You can only excel with daily practice. Even if it’s just 5 minutes sketching, jotting down ideas or playing with the colour wheel. I stitch or draw every day. Secondly you need to experiment. You’ll find your artistic style by leaving your comfort zone, not being afraid to fail and embracing mistakes.

See more of Janine's beautiful work on her website or over on Instagram – @textile_wildlife_art.

From large animals to tiny food... meet another talented embroiderer as we talk miniature food with Ipnot!

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