Painting Fauna & Flora with Nina Valkhoff

Written by Polya Pencheva

When you’re a young artist everything excites you. Even drawing the outside part of the door to your salsa class. You give everything you have to make your teacher happy, and you paint. You draw what you have been asked to because you go to art school. You try to capture the ecstatic movements in a painting. Every brush stroke is an expression of yourself. Your voice. Your love for art. And suddenly you become a well-known street artist.

This… Doesn’t always work like that. But sometimes it does. And this is exactly what happened to Nina Valkhoff, a muralist from Rotterdam, Netherlands. The video call starts and on the other screen pops up a friendly face with a sparkling smile, enthusiastic to tell her story. Talking about art must be one of Valkhoff’s favourite topics because this interview has passed by in an instant. Her friendliness allows to have a friendly conversation that doesn’t feel much like an interview. It feels more as a chat with an old friend. This discussion reveals a lot about Valkhoff not only as a muralist but also as an individual.

Nina Valkhoff 
Photo: Jenny Callanan

Valkhoff is renowned for her colorful murals depicting different wild animals. Today, her style is known not only in the Netherlands but across the globe in countries including Ireland, Argentina, France, and Mexico. Her unique style is realistic with a touch of magic, often emphasizing extinct animals. Her hand has painted murals portraying birds, foxes, tigers, and many flowers that cohabit city streets. They all reflect her perspective about showing the beauty of wildlife and her own appreciation for it.

“Focusing on animals and plants is my big love. They are my endless source of inspiration. And they are also an expression of subtle activism. I often get asked about some of the animals I’ve painted. For example, I have explained that the ant eater is an endangered species. And this is my way to raise awareness of certain species.”

“Focusing on animals and plants is my big love. They are my endless source of inspiration. And they are also an expression of subtle activism.”

Animals have inspired and featured art since our earlier ancestors were drawing on the walls of caves. They provide the perfect means to explore not only nature but also the wild, the parts of this world that we as humans wouldn’t dare to come closer to. The animal kingdom has been a source of inspiration for many artists, regardless of their type of work. Reintroducing nature within urban landscapes allows people to rediscover the environment. From raising awareness about animal rights to simply appreciating the beauty of the creatures, there are a lot of themes found in animal-inspired street art.

“I like foxes a lot. And they keep coming back. Herons as well. They look like these tropical birds but at the same time they are just walking outside. Usually, I would see one of them standing next to the water and I would think how impressive they are. They are actually very big animals. And they’re just walking through the city. I think this is intriguing. But I also like cats a lot.”

Thinking back to the Zoom call in September, Valkoff resembles the foxes on her murals. Her ginger hair is reminiscent of these ashy creatures that grasp one’s attention. Her smile almost dissipates the shaky Zoom connection, and it is as almost as if I were in Rotterdam sitting across a coffee table and having this conversation in person.

And while inspiration is key to creating a beautiful mural, it also takes time, effort, and sometimes an assistant. Many times, her assistant has helped Valkhoff with her deadlines. He started out as an intern. “I generally don’t take interns. But he asked me three times and eventually I decided to give him a chance. He is a very cool guy.” What started as help for just a few hours turned into a long-term collaboration. Yet, most of the time she completes her murals on her own.

One of the questions that always kept me interested was how long it takes to create a fully finished mural. My scarce knowledge on the topic made me think it would take a few months at the very least. “It is funny because the size of the mural doesn’t really matter. It takes me two and a half weeks for almost everything. This is standard. And it doesn’t really matter if it is a very high building or just seven meter walls. In fact, when you go so big, you don’t focus this much on the details. And this makes the whole process a lot faster. And when working on a small mural, you see everything. Then I start thinking about all the shadows that I want to add.”

Being a world-famous artist allows you to travel to different locations. Yet again sometimes painting at a certain location could be challenging. When Valkhoff was asked about her favourite location to paint she gave a very Dutch answer which made so much sense at the same time. “Anywhere where there is no sun.” Now, ‘why?’ would be the next question.

“I want clouds. And maybe a tiny bit of rain. I actually worked in Ireland. And I feel that my best work is there because of the weather and because my body belongs to this climate. And I feel good.” When painting in Curaçao she found it too warm. “My whole body was resisting the sun and the heat.” But every now and then she has to deal with this type of weather when there is an important job.

“It doesn’t really matter if it is a very high building or just seven meter walls. In fact, when you go so big, you don’t focus this much on the details.”

“I just came back from Paris, and I had to work while there was a heatwave. It was more than 35 degrees the whole time, so I was waking up at 5am to work in the mornings. I was working on an important mural for PETA. The goal was to raise awareness about crocodiles. It was a sign of protest against the use of crocodile leather for bags.” This mural also aims to inspire people to rethink the type of bags they purchase and spark discussion about the choice of cruelty-free alternatives.

Another thing I always wondered; was how do you transfer a drawing to an enormous wall? As an art enthusiast myself, I have always wanted to know as much as possible about the art world regardless of the type of art. And now I got the chance to learn first-hand from a well-known professional. Valkhoff uses “very old-school gridwork”. This means that once a drawing is done on a piece of paper, lines are drawn horizontally and vertically to form a square grid. Then Valkhoff makes something similar on the wall. And once the wall is divided into smaller pieces it makes it easier for her to transpose her visuals.

“My style is very rigid,” points out Valkhoff. “If I have a plan, I execute it. It is generally smooth and detailed.” Which is also something one can easily notice when observing some of Valkhoff’s murals. They come to life, and everything starts moving once it catches your eye.

Overall, street art is not always about conveying an important message. At times, it brings value just by making different areas and neighborhoods more beautiful and picturesque. “You can also have something that just makes the people living in this area proud. That same thing could make them also feel good about their neighborhood in general as well,” concludes Valkhoff.

“You can also have something that just makes the people living in this area proud. That same thing could make them also feel good about their neighborhood in general as well,”

Polya Pencheva obtained her master’s degree in Journalism from the University of Groningen and the Netherlands and likes to talk about traveling, entertainment, street art, and innovation in her stories. During her free time, she enjoys playing board games and reading. Her favorite superhero is Spider-Man and she believes that with great power comes great responsibility. The way to her heart is black coffee, a good book and some chocolate.