Yesterday I was fortunate enough to have the great pleasure of being invited to the private viewing of the annual Society of Wildlife Artists annual exhibition by an exhibiting artist, Brin Edwards (more on him later).
This year is a special year for the SWLA - it’s the charity’s 50th year of existence and to commemorate that, a hardback book had been published, called “The Natural Eye” – available to buy here.
The SWLA also managed to bag a hero of mine (and many, many, many others) to open the exhibition yesterday – Sir David Attenborough.
Now I had forgotten in my haste to invite my wildlife-loving sister and brother-in-law that they were “friends” of the SWLA anyway and had been to many of these private viewings over the years, but invited them I did anyway (they already had tickets!) and off we toddled to the Mall Galleries next to Admiralty Arch in London, after a quick bite to eat (a little bit of whitebait for me) at the Ship and Shovell pub below Charing Cross Station yesterday.
I guess this “wildlife blog” has now temporarily turned into some kind of bastardised review website, but whilst it is (temporarily) in that mode – my thoughts on the SWLA, it’s artist members, yesterday and Sir.David are incoherently rambled by me below….
I briefly used to live and work in London (when I first met my (now) wife) but don’t tend to get up to “The Big Smoke” much these days. Quite deliberately so – it sets my teeth on edge. It’s not my natural habitat (much more my sister’s who works at the Natural History Museum) and it was quite an effort for me to return (silly though that sounds I know).
I did spot a hare in a distant horse pasture on the way up to London on the train, between Egham and Staines – and smiled briefly, before the train rumbled slowly past the Young Offenders Institute at Feltham which permanently sits under a dark cloud and my smile disappeared.
Anyway…. Enough of the journey. What was the exhibition like?
I’d never been to a wildlife art exhibition – only wildlife photography exhibitions – but have always been interested in art (especially wildlife art of course) and have had a couple of drawings published by Collins (for the birds of bucks book many years ago – pencil drawings of a whinchat’s head if I remember correctly). So I was very much looking forward to seeing all the art. It did not disappoint.
Sir David Attenborough opened up the exhibition magnificently – I’d not seen him in the flesh before and even though he clearly is pushing on a bit (that’s a polite understatement) his professionalism and thoughts were incredibly well-put, succinct and very powerful.
We’ll need a national day of mourning when Sir David Attenborough disappears for sure - as my brother in law said – he is irreplaceable.
Sir David is speaking when the photo below was taken and I am very visible in the shot (look for a sky blue pair of shoulders mid distance and to the left of the shot).
What of the artwork though?
I have pretty strong opinions about art – that is to say paint rather than pixels (or film) – and tend to like “arty art” rather than realism.
If it’s realism you’re after… take a photo.
That said there is some realistic artwork I am amazed by – it clearly takes immense skill to paint something so realistically it looks like a photo from a distance.
In the main…. I tend to like my art all “arty farty” and certainly leaning towards impressionistic rather than realistic.
I like having to explore a painting – the light, the colours and the shapes – how does it make me feel – and why it makes me feel that way.
I like bold paintings made with bold paint strokes (and very often big square brushes), vivid oils and a lot of impasto work.
One of my favourite artists is Arthur Maderson, an Irish impasto expert (who doesn’t paint wildlife). His light on water (rivers) impastos are so incredible I could gaze at them all day (honey…. If you’re reading this, you know what to save up for - for a big birthday!)
I tend also to shy away from watercolours. I find them a little weak. Insipid. Apologetic. Twee.
My sister gave me food for thought on watercolours though. She said “Yes… but very often there’s a freshness to watercolour”. I went round the exhibition yesterday searching for “freshness” in watercolours and of course she was spot on (she has a very good artistic eye my sister) – there is indeed a clean quality to many watercolours – a real freshness. Maybe I’ll put watercolours back on my “in” list!
Brin Edwards was the artist that sent me invitations to the SWLA private viewing after I’d waxed lyrical about his work on a wildlife website forum. I’d also (as it happens) poured a great deal of water on many other wildlife artists (both SWLA members and not) whilst singing Brin’s praises.
I find an awful lot of wildlife art twee beyond belief.
Every feather on the bird is perfect and drawn with such detail – all power and strength and vision and feeling is lost in the anal desire to recreate every teensy weensy detail and it leaves me stone cold generally.
Alastair Proud’s work is like that – incredibly detailed and very realistic – he is immensely skilled for sure, but his beautiful paintings of eagles soaring over glens intrigue me for less than a few seconds generally.
Add all that to the fact that there’s an awful lot of wildlife art out there depicting otters playing in seaweed or bears lying on an ice-flow or badgers leaving their sett for the night.
That’s not the dirty, bloody, raw, impressive, powerful, moving, fascinating wildlife I know and love.
That’s a twee representation of what the artist thinks is wildlife (you might as well paint a picture of some dogs playing poker as far as I’m concerned rather than try to depict the actual character of your subject) – although to be fair, rather like wildlife photography – it’s the bears and badgers and otters that sell, rather than a dove being torn apart by a hawk or a caterpillar being devoured by a cuckoo.
I think I prefer wildlife that’s been painted by someone who knows a little about his or her subject and hasn’t relied on Walt Disney to teach them their zoology. There’s more of that around than you’d think, you know…
A lot of wildlife art is too fussy for me also – too shackled to as many wee marks as possible on the canvas – my eyes get lost in all this mess. I think some artists forget when to put their brushes down and STOP. A huge skill in oils and acrylics I think (you can fuss over them for ever as an artist) rather than watercolours (you tend to only get one go at getting a watercolour “right”).
People who know me from wildlife photography circles might know I often like to take very “clean” images and images with quite a lot of negative space. There’s no need to fill the frame or canvas with one’s subject – in fact that often decreases the strength of the final image – I think this is often overlooked in wildlife art and photography.
Back to Brin Edwards.
His work is very inspiring and very recognisable indeed – as he uses very vivid colours (some of which are a little strange I admit) and blocks in light or reflected light on water with immense skill and confidence.
He is very capable of drawing life-like detailed work also (in fact that’s how he started in his art) but I love the fact he leaves detail behind these days (often) and concentrates on light and colour. And yet the “character” of the birds he paints shines through. I spent a good 5 minutes gazing at his drake shoveler painting yesterday, amazed at how he’d got the cock-sure shoveler “look” just right, with big bold block painting – a real feat.
I got talking to Brin at yesterday’s viewing for some time - and picked his brains on a lot of topics – a gentleman - and he’s certainly inspired me to take up a paintbrush again – for the first time since my Art ‘O’ level. (I got an ‘A’ grade in case you wondered - but that was a LONG time ago!)
Nick Derry won two awards at yesterday’s viewing. Another artist whose work impressed me massively at the Mall. Not as much as Brin’s work admittedly (it’s a little messier and more confusing to my eyes) but very VERY impressive and certainly not twee at all.
There was a lot of good stuff on show yesterday but also a whole lot of twee chocolate-boxy type art. Good for children’s books but that’s about all really.
There was also a fair amount of guff too.
I won’t go into the guff, or what I regarded as guff, here (I’ll start ranting if I do) but I’ll give you one quick pointer – Darren Rees.
One thing that struck me about yesterday’s exhibitors in the main (or the exhibition itself anyway) was the lack of HUGE art – 6 foot by 8 foot canvases – show stoppers. I was left wondering whether that is a deliberate ploy by the SWLA – to only really exhibit small or smallish work. Sure there was a very large and realistic painting of a black-headed gull dancing across a wet sand bar but that was all as far as large paintings were concerned.
Brin did explain to me the fact that the SWLA council were very conscious of NOT having one artist’s work dominate eye line, so I guess it is a deliberate ploy by the SWLA – a shame I think. Most of the paintings were very similar in size and most were “small”.
I’ve waffled on for waaaay too long again.
If you are into your art and into wildlife, I’d thoroughly recommend a quick trip to the Mall galleries to view this SWLA 50th year exhibition.
I’ve certainly been inspired to put down the camera and lenses for a while and see what I can do with a canvas a pencil and a few oils over the next few months or a year or so – it’ll probably all end in tears but who knows?