Not for the first time I face a crisis of identity. Long-billed Dowitcher and Short-billed Dowitcher proves tricky every time. Then there's Grasshopper and Savi's Warbler that always keeps me reeling. No, there is something more fundamental at stake and it concerns a question that I've been asked several times now; 'so when are you going to get a proper job then?' You see, compared to doctors, farmers, tornado pilots and ninety per cent of the working population I guess I don't qualify for a proper job. Just what do I do? My job description has expanded somewhat over the years. Artist and occasional tour leader looked like becoming tour leader and occasional artist for a while. At this moment, perhaps wildlife artist, tour leader and occasional writer would fit. Then there's that other old chestnut; 'Jack of all trades...' Yes, I know how it ends, and I'm constantly aware that my divisions of labour can leave me never mastering and finishing all those paintings that chase around my head. The trouble is, I so enjoy the variety of pursuits that, at this moment, are part of my life. You see, leading wildlife tours is a delight, and brings together my two passions of nature and art. The spectacles I witness are the raw materials for many paintings, from Texan hawks chasing ten million bats, to polar bears asleep on the tundra. Sometimes though, they can seem two different worlds.
The occasion of watching my first ever killer whales springs to mind. We had just witnessed one of the most exhilarating wildlife experiences to be had anywhere, and this was in British waters, off Sumburgh, Shetland. It was simply, one of the most memorable mornings of my life. As I sat down and worked away at a series of sketches, trying to bring some order and sense to the melee of giant black fins and cowering seals, one guest looked over my shoulder and commented 'you're just a big kid really'. One man's art is another man's childish doodles I suppose. So how did I get to this place? From a young kid with a keen interest in birds and a talent for drawing, to that big kid with wildlife and painting integral to his very being. Putting something together for my website seems an appropriate time to review the origins and development of my work.
Looking back, I can't remember a time when I wasn't fascinated by nature. I couldn't watch enough TV programmes on wildlife and wounded or abandoned birds turned up in the kitchen on more than a couple of occasions. My bird watching started modestly with walks in the local woods stalking Jays, Woodpeckers and little brown things. What were those birds creeping around? It was no good; I had to find out more. My friend Paul and I decided to join the local YOC group that, by chance, was led by an energetic middle-aged rock-n-roller by the name of George. (I was later to find out that natural history attracts many such individuals, most of them hairy). We listened with mouths open as he'd tell us of Hobbies over his house and birds we'd never heard of, let alone dreamed of, at the local gravel pits. Was he telling fibs or was he mistaken? These birds were rare and hardly ever seen - it said so in my Observer Book of Birds.
By another twist of fate we found we could monopolise George's attention as bird watching was not the done thing amongst Andover's youth, and the YOC attendance had dwindled to three. With our guide and mentor, and his Morris Traveller (with resident fungi) we set off eager to expand our knowledge on matters ornithological. The prime south coast localities between Portland Bill and Pagham harbour were all within easy reach and my tick list grew and grew. What was happening to me? I knew something was odd when I missed the FA Cup Final for the first time, to go to watch Honey Buzzards displaying over a New Forest enclosure. There was to be no turning back - I was hooked.
I had always drawn and painted as a child and my doodles predictably had a wildlife theme. Even while at primary school my walls were covered with crude copies of Baloo the Bear and Bagheera the Panther. It seemed inevitable then, that my painting and bird watching interests should develop hand in hand. However, my formal art training stopped at A level and it was only after I completed my degree course in Maths that I realised my real interest lay in painting and natural history. After university I spent one academic year teaching maths during which time the interest shown in my work prompted me to seriously consider painting and illustrating full-time. It was at this point I realised that there was much to learn and two decades on I'm still learning.
When I'm outdoors, I most often paint in watercolour as it has a freshness and immediacy that I enjoy. It's handy and quick for field sketches though it can take a while to dry in the depths of winter. I have tried to keep to the traditional techniques with watercolour, using transparent washes. However if a painting demands successive washes or sponging out to achieve the desired accuracy, then so be it. Bold brushwork should attempt to describe colour and tone. If you need to correct by adding more or indeed taking away paint then such an approach is honest if a little messy. In 1993, my first solo book Bird Impressions was published. This was a collection of watercolours, most of which were painted in situ. At the time there was no doubting the influences that had informed and shaped my style, namely Charles Tunnicliffe and Lars Jonsson.
After Bird Impressions I started working on larger paintings in opaque media as a response to different influences. I have always looked outside the wildlife art genre and admired the great painters at the beginning of the twentieth century, notably Sargent, Monet and Klimt. When I visited art galleries and museums it wasn't the delicate watercolours that stayed with me. Most often, it was the large canvasses, full of vibrant colour and texture, that I admired most. I wanted to stretch my paintings, and attempt to portray the wildlife spectacles I had witnessed, and not just the wildlife species. No number of small watercolours of birds preening and resting, no matter how well they were drawn, would convey the spectacle of masses of shorebirds, gulls and terns at a high tide roost. No small sketch could come near to capturing the clamour of gulls and shearwaters around a feeding humpback whale. Sometimes size matters. Acrylic and oil paints allow me to work on a larger scale, and edit and manipulate groups of birds with more ease than watercolour. Texture can be created by using bold brushstrokes at the initial blocking in stage, with the subsequent layers on top sometimes breaking up on the uneven surface. These techniques give an interest to the paint application and the extra body within the pigment can make for a tactile experience when using the brush. Sometimes it's as if I'm sculpting the subject with successive brushstrokes.
For some people familiar only with my watercolours these large paintings seem a shift in style, but I see them as an extension of my portfolio, and a chance to portray some of the spectacles I've had the opportunity to observe. I've been asked why I don't stick to watercolours, as these are affordable and collectable, but restrict an artist and his vision will be lost. I sometimes wonder what the great artists would make of the natural wonders that we can see nowadays. Go on; team up a past master with a wildlife spectacle - a sort of 'fantasy wildlife art' if you like. Imagine what Monet would come up with, if he went whale watching? Without stugeron, no doubt a colourful impression all over the deck - boom, boom. It may be a crass proposition (and a rich vein of humour to be tapped), but my point is a worthwhile one.
Until relatively recently, we have not had the facility for watching wildlife so intimately. With telescopes we can eavesdrop into the lives of animals and study them to a sophisticated degree, and as wildlife tourists, we can benefit from decades of field craft to get close to some of the true natural wonders of the animal kingdom. It's no surprise that lots of artists now are connecting with nature at a level that previous generations could only imagine. Further, I believe some truly gifted artists are choosing wildlife as a primary theme and working within the animal art genre.
So am I happy with the wildlife artist label? Describe yourself as an artist and the world thinks you have a high opinion of yourself. Describe yourself as a painter and someone will offer that their dining room needs a coat of emulsion. My paintings concern my encounters with wildlife and relate to the circumstances that I viewed the subjects. For many people, this pretty much defines wildlife art, but I'd argue that it is a very human characteristic to celebrate nature, and my work documents a personal emotional and visual response to the world around us. Yet, if I'm stuck with the wildlife artist label, then I cannot complain. After all, I am an artist that, for the foreseeable future, will no doubt choose wildlife as a theme. No doubt too, that for a while to come, there will be more juggling the worlds of painting, both studio and field time, wildlife tours and oh-so important family time. At times I know the balance is not as productive as it could be, for it's a somewhat inexact discipline, but hey, it beats having a proper job. DR