Science Illustrated: Q&A with Brenna Quinlan

April 1st, 2021

Activism and illustration go hand-in-hand, as we found out when we spoke to Brenna Quinlan, the artist behind the seriously cute illustrations in Bee Detectives. In this blog, find out how permaculture and sustainability inspire her work.
Illustrator Brenna Quinlan crouches in a green field smiling to camera, patting a white goat that stands next to her.

Brenna Quinlan gets her creative energy from her passion for sustainability, environmentalism, social justice and climate action. (Photo: Mara Ripani)


Cover of Bee Detectives, featuring a bright illustration of two children surrounded by a beehive, a chalkboard and wild flowers.

Bee Detectives

Ever wanted to know more about the native bees you find in your backyard? The Bee Detectives are here to help! In Bee Detectives, join Olivia and Hamish as they explore the wonders of Australia’s native bees, and be inspired to become a Bee Detective, too.

The talent behind the bright and brilliant illustrations in this story is Brenna Quinlan, an illustrator and educator who strives to make the world a better place through her art and her actions. She shared with us some fabulous behind-the-scenes tidbits, and told us about how her path to becoming an illustrator has been shaped by her passions for permaculture, sustainability and climate action. 


Who or what inspired you to become an artist and illustrator?

Some of my earliest memories are of taking absolute delight in drawing the world around me. When I was 6 years old, I went along with my mum to her evening art classes in classical painting techniques. Mum stopped going after a while, but I was hooked. They called me ‘Little Brenna’ because I was the youngest by about 15 years, and I had to have a special easel so I could reach my canvas.

The illustration side of things was a bit of a fluke. After studying Fine Art at uni, and training at the Charles Cecil school of Art in Florence, Italy, I was well on my way to a life as a portrait artist. Then I headed to South America, and accidentally spent the next 6 years learning about permaculture and sustainability, volunteering at permaculture farms, and riding my bicycle across the Americas. As my awareness of the climate crisis grew, I started to question my path in life. Was portrait art enough? Was it meaningful? Was it making a difference?

Upon my return to Australia, I sought out the co-originator of permaculture, David Holmgren, and he and his partner Su Dennett took me on as their intern. A few months in, David asked if I would illustrate his book Retrosuburbia, an excellent guide to living a resilient life for those based in the city or suburbs. I took the job, and became an illustrator overnight. It felt like the answer I had been looking for landed right in my lap.


A close-up photo of Brenna Quinlan using watercolour paints to colour in an illustration from Bee Detectives.

Brenna illustrating an image from Bee Detectives. (Photo: Mara Ripani)


Do you think science illustration requires a different creative approach?

They say that a blank page can be an artist’s worst enemy, where enabling constraints give us something to work with. Science illustration is limiting in that the subject matter has to be shown with sufficient detail to be recognisable and useful to the viewer. But, to use the example of Bee Detectives, drawing a bee on every page wouldn’t make for a very dynamic picture book. I love the creative challenge of weaving the scientific drawings into a broader theme that brings them to life. You can see examples of this in Bee Detectives – the resin bee is shown in a photograph, and its nest is shown in a drawing in Olivia’s notebook, while other bees are shown under a magnifying glass or drawn on a chalk board.


Can you share any interesting behind-the-scenes details about illustrating this book?

Up until Bee Detectives, I drew everything by hand with pencils, erasers and pen on paper. Just before I started this book, a family member gave me an iPad that they weren’t using, and I got up the courage to try it out.

It. Was. Fantastic. On the iPad, I can draw just as I normally would, and I can save things in layers, erase things easily, and move things around the page to get the layout just right. I still print off the line drawings and paint them in watercolour by hand, because I love the beauty of watercolours. But this was my big step into the digital world, and I’m so glad I took it.




What kinds of stories do you love to illustrate?

Humour is really important where environmental or climate messaging is concerned. Facts and literal analogies can send us all to sleep, but humour and vibrancy are what people love to engage with. Imagine if climate messaging was as popular as cat videos on the internet?

I dedicate all of my creative energy to work in the field of sustainability, environmentalism, social justice and climate action – in other words, I only work on what’s making the world a better place. So any book that marries humour with any combination of those themes would be a dream project to work on.


How do you overcome creative block?

Creative block happens when our lives aren’t set up to facilitate the generation and capture of ideas. My creativity and ideas are a huge part of why I live the way I do. I think things up on my morning run, I keep a notebook near me all the time to record any ideas that I have, and I’m constantly drawing, reading, writing and thinking. As a result, when I sit down to draw a book like Bee Detectives, the tap is already flowing, so to speak.

It’s also important to get enough sleep, and if all else fails, have a sneaky piece of dark chocolate to up the creative revs.



Do you have any tips or advice for aspiring illustrators?

As creatives, we have an opportunity to use our talents to make good in the world. Find a cause that you’re passionate about and throw yourself behind making change in that area. My ‘art as activism’ motivates me to draw every single day. At the end of each day, I go to bed feeling like I’ve done my best. It’s my outlet and my therapy – through my art I process and act on the big themes happening in the world today. On a practical level, having a specific niche means that I am offered more work than I know what to do with, so artists with a cause win on all fronts!


Bee Detectives is written by Vanessa Ryan-Rendall and illustrated by Brenna Quinlan, and is available to purchase on our website and from all good bookstores. To discover more about Brenna’s work check out her website.