Friday, 8 November 2013

A welcome break - the 50th SWLA exhibition

Last Sunday I had a welcome break from the current commission I am working on.  We ventured up to London with the specific aim of visiting the Society of Wildlife Artists Exhibition at the Mall Galleries entitled The Natural Eye.

Katherine Tyrrell has written a couple of great blogposts about the exhibition on her Making a Mark blog.  They can be found at: and

This exhibition has really had an impact on me.  Many wildlife art portraits are very photo-realistic, as Katherine mentions on her blog.  The work produced is still often stunning, but it is now that I realise at times something is missing.  I will share thoughts about this further on.

It was such a refreshing exhibition and it was a treat to walk into a wildlife art exhibition and not be overwhelmed by a selection of big cat paintings.  This made me think of when I exhibited with another well known wildlife art society a few years ago.  My painting of a Hazel Dormouse was surrounded and somewhat overwhelmed, by paintings of rather exotic species in all different shapes and sizes. 

I am digressing.  I wanted to share with you a few images from the exhibition, that caught my attention and why they appealed to me.  I took these images personally, so therefore the copyright of them remains with me, but copyright of the actual artwork depicted remains with the artist.  Any thoughts and opinions I express are purely my own.

Brin Edwards - left: Assington Waxwings, Seven of Fifty-seven
right: Barn Owl hunting.  Oil
Brin's work has such an amazing quality to it.  I had previously seen it at the New Naturalists Collectors Club Symposium.
These two pieces had such vibrant colours. so much energy and the picture on the left almost had a stained-glass window effect.
As a novice print-maker I always love coming to this exhibition to see the variety of prints and especially those produced from lino-cuts.  These two by Chris Sinden top: Bullfinches, bottom: In amongst the stubble, had some lovely colour qualities to them.  I was attracted to the soft, almost pastel shades used, particularly in the Bullfinch print. 
These paintings by John Foker, top: Blue Streak, middle: Nettlemonger, bottom: Lammas Kingfisher - oils.  Show me how effective small paintings can be in portraying a lot of information.

In one of the gallery's side rooms was a series of works entitled 'Out of the Frame' by three member artists.  The drawing and paintings were as a result of fieldwork from selected projects.
The sketches above are by Michael Warren, who has been visiting the same site for nearly 25 years to record the various bird species and other wildlife found there.  The site itself has been used for gravel extraction and new habitats are gradually evolving as the operations on the site become reduced.
These were just a selection of the drawings and to me they really show what good fieldwork is all about and what excellent observational skills Michael has.
As I came to the end of viewing the exhibition, I sat in one of the side rooms and felt compelled to write in my notebook words that summed up the exhibition to me.  Some of these words / descriptions are what I feel are sometimes missing in work that has a more photo-realistic approach.

The majority of artwork made me feel that I was looking through a window into the animal's life.  It almost gave me a feeling of privilege, similar at times to when I have been observing wildlife, either birding or when completing surveys.
Spirit, movement, life
So much of the animal's spirit, movement and life was shown in these works of art.
The passion of the artist really showed in these pictures and the individuality of the different artist's media and methods.
Higher value
I was left hoping that people viewing this exhibition that perhaps didn't have such a wide ranging knowledge of wildlife, would go away giving a higher value (morally and from a conservation perspective) to the animals they have seen portrayed, perhaps even those that are less well known.  This in turn leads me onto the next words I jotted down - awareness raising.
Story, narrative
So many of the pictures and sculptures had a very strong narrative to them.  Telling me the story of the animal's life / existence.
For those of you that will be in and around London this coming weekend, there is still the chance to see the exhibition at the Mall Galleries until Sunday 10th November.  The gallery is open 10am - 5pm on Saturday and the exhibition closes at 1pm on Sunday.


  1. great post Sarah and lovely to see these pictures from what looked like a totally inspiring exhibition.

    1. Thanks Jarnie - perhaps a day trip next year ??

  2. This looks like a really inspiring exhibition, it's a real shame it's too late now for me to go and see it but I really enjoyed reading your post about it, and also Katherine's- looks like some really well deserved winners of the categories! And those field sketches are just wonderful. I would rather hang a page of a field notebook on my wall than a photorealistic painting any day.

    What bothers me about photorealistic painting, it makes me wonder what they used as reference. If the painting is a copy of a photo that doesn't belong to the artist, then surely the photographer of the original photo should be credited alongside the painter? (unless the photo is stock in the public domain of course.) And if the photo was taken by the artist, why paint it all over again? You already have the photo. Why not use what you observed about the animal to inform your portrait of it, and make something totally new? I don't have a good camera but I think that actually helps me sketch more- the other day I was sketching herons from a hide, and I took a quick reference photo, but it will be blurry because I had to zoom in a lot, and I will need my sketches if I want to make a finished painting, because they captured more details and poses.

    1. Thank you Esther.

      Using photos is always a tricky subject. I only use my own photographs and if I need some photo reference of a species for an illustration, I do ask around to other colleagues and they are normally very supportive.

      Photos are very easy reference material for those that do not have such direct access to the outside or if they live in an area that they do not find that inspiring. I must admit, sometimes I have to use photos of species that I haven't got any field sketches for, as often I am up against a tight deadline for illustrations.

      A big positive for me, as a result of the exhibition, is I feel that in 2014 I need to make more effort to get out sketching in the field. So think that will my new year's resolution.

      Happy painting !

  3. Your perspective on the show is very interesting and insightful. I enjoyed seeing through your eyes since I won't get there myself!

    1. Thank you Janene, it certainly was inspiring !


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