I’m afraid I don’t have much staying power – the initial thrill of painting wears off as I get into difficulties and there is always something new and exciting in the garden (or over the fence!) that I want to paint. However, I think I must revisit some of these unresolved masterpieces. I have the finished pictures in my head – I just don’t know how to get them onto paper!!
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…..!
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.