My husband went up to Nxai Pan in the Makgadikgadi some years ago to check out the site of a possible project. On this trip was an amateur photographer who took several shots of a lone elephant which had been dusting itself with the salty white sands of the pan. The project was an eco lodge – David was part of the team putting the tender document together and I was asked to add illustrations and tart it up a bit in the hope that it would get noticed above the others. The cover was a glorious photo of the elephant – ‘that,’ said David, ‘is the painting I want.’
And so began a long drawn out attempt at a huge wildlife painting in oils for David’s fiftieth birthday. It should be noted that I paint mainly in watercolour. I do not paint animals. I do not do big. Of course I didn’t get very far….. birthdays came and went and finally I started a watercolour for his sixtieth. The struggle with the elephant went on: how to convey the isolated majesty of that huge beast within a bleak but beautiful landscape?
I had and still have many distractions that keep me from the easel – but an invitation to be part of a group show in Gaborone sent me back to the half finished work. Incredible how a deadline sharpens the focus and clears the mind of non-essentials! Finally, in his sixty third year, David has his Elephant at Nxai Pan. I really have to pick up the pace a bit…..!
My youngest daughter graduated in July so I escaped the dry, winter cold of Botswana for what I thought would be the wet, summer cold of Wales to attend the Graduation. It was a magical day – the countryside was beautiful and the weather glorious – so we decided to go road tripping to Land’s End! The sun shone with barely a wobble for two weeks as we punted about the south-west in a hired Chevy Spark, braving heat and humidity and Cornwall’s tourists! Of course that included us – but meeting up with Ken and Dora Howard on Sennen Beach made me feel a little less like a foreigner. Artists have been painting Cornwall forever, and having seen its beaches and harbours through Ken’s eyes for many years, it was wonderful to see them in real life! I even managed a sketch or two…..
I tried numerous studies of St. Michael’s Mount and the harbour – they did not turn out well but I have lots of photo references so I shall work on it! Mousehole harbour and the beach at Sennen were just as I imagined from Ken’s paintings and as Dora invited us for supper, we got to see St. Clement’s Studio with its interior landscape of easels and paintings – if that doesn’t inspire me nothing will!!!
I start my mornings with breakfast at Delis and I have been squinting at this scene for years – checking out the dark against light etc… My daily paintings were not getting done so sketching at breakfast seemed a good idea and I think I am getting it!!!
My dream has always been to have an art studio. I tried to run one a few years ago which I gave up as I had no idea of business but I LOVED having a space of my own. I didn’t really have a plan or a vision for it, just an idea that ‘stuff’ (Art) would happen and as long as I managed to pay the rent it was fine! Not so. That law about work expanding to fit the time available to do it was one that I knew well and I couldn’t be creative and free AND be business minded at the same time. So I closed it and ‘worked’ from home and eventually was simply involved in Art through various organisations.
My daughter Phillipa is a gifted photographer and after three years of exploring and wandering around London, Scotland and Grahamstown she wanted to come home – to live and work in Botswana. I have always wanted to print gift wrap and greeting cards so the idea of a publishing company using Phill’s photos and quirky art and poetry, combined with my fine art and cartoons started to take shape and we formed a company. Each of us has our own identity as artists but our commercial work is published through Artists Inc. Studio. I believe we are the first fine art publishing business in Botswana and as we want to fly the flag and to be authentic we print our cards in Botswana. We have not yet succeeded in producing exactly what we want but will persevere – I now have a vision for the studio and for our business! On 21 July we finally had an Opening Party to celebrate our art, our space and our new adventure!
I said this was the year for going back to school – more like going back to Finishing School! This last workshop with Alison Nicholls took place at The Bush House, a small, luxurious lodge in Madikwe Game Reserve. It was a perfect way for me to see and study wildlife. I am not a wildlife artist but I live in Africa and not drawing or painting animals is like never drawing from the figure – in fact figures are much easier because people shapes don’t vary as much as you would suppose. On the other hand, is there a more ridiculous animal than a giraffe? Perhaps an elephant? Or a rhino….. African animals are the weirdest shapes and they move constantly – very hard to draw!
In spite of living in Botswana for thirty years, I have rarely travelled and have seen little of the country or its wildlife. Alison Nicholls lived in Gaborone for just a few years and she and her husband seem to have spent every possible moment in the bush. This has led to a passionate involvement in conservation and a full time career as a wildlife artist in America. I, on the other hand, am very nervous around elephants and cannot sketch them while they stare back. This is why The Bush House was perfect. Sitting on the edge of the lawn looking out at the waterhole there was a constant procession of thirsty animals. With sketchbook and paints on hand there was ample opportunity to study the forms and gestures of antelope, elephant, buffalo, baboon…. an absolute feast for the eyes!
The more I struggled with trunks and horns the more I began to appreciate Alison’s advice to always start with the body and use a basic template of circles to create the form. Knowledge of animal anatomy and habits helps enormously when you can’t quite see what is happening because the grass is obscuring something! (See post concerning zebra feet) After a few days my elephants started to look like elephants – but they are all very bad models!
The trip was organised by Africa Geographic and we spent the four nights at The Bush House in Madikwe, just over the border (and less than an hour from home for me!) Fabulously comfortable – it may not be everyone’s idea of a safari but it suited me! Good food, attentive staff and masses of animals made it a good location for the art safari and of course Alison’s knowledge and understanding of both animals AND watercolour made it a perfect painting experience too.
Blogging is a strange thing to do because it is extremely personal and yet accessible to anyone who cares to read it. However I am an artist, I have a business and increasingly I feel I have something to offer. The internet has opened up a whole world to me – I adore facebook, I even learned to quilt on youtube! There are such numbers of people out there it is not hard to imagine someone else who paints, is married with grown up children, has a passion for watercolour and lives with six cats…. So I see this blog as not really about me, but a sharing of a life that seems ordinary and yet is extraordinarily satisfying. It is about the things that make me happy and keep me excited about painting, places and people. It is about the artist part of me – nothing else.