Artist's Whimsical Watercolor Animals Bring Attention to Conservation

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Watercolor dolphin
Zhang says she didn't believe narwhals were real for the longest time.

Cathy Zhang /

When the corporate rat race got her down, Cathy Zhang picked up a paintbrush and never looked back. Turning away from the disillusionment of constant ladder-climbing, she found her calling creating whimsical modern watercolor portraits of animals. Wrapped up in her art is a message, as well. Zhang uses her images to bring attention to conservation issues surrounding the species she paints.

We caught up with Zhang to celebrate her work and to find out more about what it's been like becoming a full-time artist, and how she sees her work making a difference in the world.

watercolor fox print
Zhang asked on social media if the purple ear looked out of place or matches the fox's defiant look?. Cathy Zhang /

Treehugger: Your love of painting stemmed from trying out the #The100DayProject movement. What was that discovery process like for you?

Cathy Zhang: The premise of #The100DayProject was to choose an activity — not limited to art mediums — and do it every day for 100 days and share it on Instagram with a broader community. I stumbled upon it on Instagram at a time when I felt really creatively deprived of my career in an analytical and technical field. I felt that painting was an accessible medium to help me fill that void. Even though I had never painted in watercolor before this project, the novelty of it called to me.

I started off small. I didn’t want to commit to a project that would be so time-consuming that it would deter me from doing it in the first place, so I allowed myself to have easy days where I could paint anything for 20 minutes. Some of my earlier artwork from the project were simple things like leaves, shapes, or a bird that I copied from another painting online. Eventually, I built a habit of carving out time to paint every night after work and would spend an increasing amount of time brainstorming and researching ideas.

Before the end of the 100-day period, I had an inkling that this was more than a one-and-done project. On some days, I really felt like my job was getting in the way of my art because I couldn’t wait to get home and start painting. However, it was ludicrous to think I could make a new career out of this new “hobby.” Lo and behold, I decided to do that just that six months later.

water peregrin
Zhang describes her peregrine falcon: 'F is for FALCON. Or feathers, or flight, flying thingy.'. Cathy Zhang /

Why have animals become your main subject?

I had been a proud (and often clueless) owner of various domesticated pets: turtle, rabbit, fish, hamster, parakeets, and currently a dog. I have always loved animals, but my fascination with wild animals has been at a superficial level because of their inaccessibility.

It felt natural for me to choose animals as my main painting subject, but it also gave me the opportunity and motivation to learn more about them. Many animals are still like mystical creatures to me, so it’s a constant experience of discovery. I love to read about the way they live, communicate, adapt, and the different ways they establish familial hierarchy and pecking order in their tribes.

Recently, I was embarrassed to admit that I didn’t know narwhals are real until several friends confessed the same. Because it is hard for us to access their natural habitat, I have a great appreciation for the extremely patient and hardy nature photographers and filmmakers who capture moments in the wild for the rest of us to savor.

Creatively, my goal of painting animals is to capture their essence as well as to humanize them a little with expressions and personalities without turning them into full-on comic characters. Because of the playful and positive nature of many of my animals, many of my art prints are popular wall decor for nurseries and children’s rooms. However, I have also been commissioned to paint animals for adults, so tweaking my style to the audience has been a fun way to grow my skills.

You often use your subjects to help bring attention to conservation issues. What wildlife issues are closest to your heart?

The effects of climate change on wildlife habitats and preservation are closest to my heart. Currently, I am working on an animal alphabet series in which I paint an animal that starts with each letter of the alphabet. I often accompany my Instagram posts of the painting with interesting animal facts.

It is harrowing how often I come across an endangered or critically endangered species just by selecting animal names at random. While many of them are also threatened due to poaching, I feel that the long-term effects of climate change on wildlife are less understood than illegal animal hunting.

What we often don’t realize are the critical roles that animals play in keeping our ecosystem in balance. When we lose a keystone species, it throws off the food chain and can be detrimental to an entire ecosystem.

watercolor lynx
Zhang creates the Spanish lynx, considered the most endangered cat in the world. Cathy Zhang /

Do you have any particular species you love to paint the most?

Although it is difficult to single out any particular species, I have grown fond of big wild cats. For example, the Spanish lynx and cheetah were two of my recent favorite subjects. Before big cats, I was obsessed with dinosaurs for a short period, especially by playing around with the oxymoronic theme of having prehistoric dinosaurs decked out in modern tech. Most of the animals I paint have at least two legs and no more than four which eliminates snakes and insects for reasons you can imagine.

Watercolor heron
The Blue Heron is taller and much heavier than a Great Egret; smaller and much less bulky than a Sandhill Crane, notes Zhang. Cathy Zhang /

Your art is a beautiful mix of grace and fun. How did you find your style?

I think an artist’s style and choice of medium are often reflective of one’s personality. Honing a style that is truly idiosyncratic to an artist takes many years. Personally, I tend to resist too much structure and appreciate spontaneity. However, I am also rational and like to stay organized. This might explain why I choose to paint real-life subjects in a more abstract style to appeal to both my logical and imaginative side. By recognizing that a style takes many years to develop, I am certain that my style and subject of interest will evolve over time, as will my answer to this question.

watercolor sheep
Zhang says she likes how fierce the mother looks in this one. Cathy Zhang /

Watercolor is a relatively unpredictable medium. What makes you love using this as opposed to other types of paints?

I had limited exposure to acrylic and oil paint before, but the novelty of watercolor piqued my curiosity. It was also a very popular medium on Instagram as it is supposedly the most accessible medium for people who are not formally trained in the arts. What got me hooked on it over time is its unpredictable nature. While many expresses that watercolor is a difficult medium to control, I think the lack of control makes watercolor very forgiving and never boring because it rewards those who learn to appreciate it for what it is and never ceases to deliver surprises. These surprises also come with many frustrations, but so far the rewards far outweigh the drawbacks.

watercolor lion
Zhang's lion was inspired by Chinese brush calligraphy. Cathy Zhang /

You found painting after having had a go at more corporate life. What has changed for you personally after finding a new profession and passion?

One of the clearest mental and emotional shifts I’ve experienced since pursuing this new profession is that I no longer dread Sunday nights and Monday mornings. Art has become a more frequent conversation topic and source of joy for my family, in-laws, and friends because unlike many fields of work, people can actually see the products I produce and the responses they elicit. I assume most are cautiously supportive of my drastic career change or thankfully keep their skepticism to themselves (just kidding). Outside of my existing circles of friends who are mostly professionals, I am also grateful to have gained a community of artist and designer friends through Instagram. They have been a source of inspiration and optimism for me.

Although I am pursuing my passion and really cherish the freedom that comes with being self-employed, this is not the end-all, be-all dream and there are still challenges I face daily. The fear of failure is present every day. Imposter syndrome also creeps up from time to time when I inevitably compare myself to other peers, artists, and businesses who have been around longer, or seem to have caught a lucky break. Unlike my previous career choices, choosing a creative career that promises no financial stability can be scary.

What gets me through the tough days is that inner compass that reminds me I’m traveling down a long and windy road, but it is in the right direction.