Sunday Book Review – The Natural Eye by The Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA)

nateyeThe Society of Wildlife Artists is 50 this year – Happy Birthday SWLA!  I was quite surprised it had been around that long.

The funds raised from sales of this book will assist the SWLA in giving bursaries – so think of it as an easy Christmas present for anyone with an interest in wildlife which will support a good cause.

Anyone given this book will love it if they have the faintest feeling for wildlife.

The book contains pictures (mostly drawings and paintings – but some of sculptures too) with some words by their artists alongside.  I liked this, as I did the occasional photographs of some artists, because it made me feel that I knew a little more about the head behind the pen or paintbrush.

I also liked the fact that the artists were listed alphabetically which caused some interesting contrasts as one turned the pages.  I enjoyed the orange tips by Richard Tratt being followed by a great tit by Esther Tyson – such very different styles!  But both had masses of style – just different.

There were some of my favourite artists and some of my least favourites too – but your favourites will be different from mine.

I have one plea for wildlife artists – please use your skills to get over more conservation messages.  Just sometimes, please get out of your and our comfort zones and do something more political.  I remember one of the most striking paintings I have ever seen at an SWLA exhibition – it was some years ago and I can’t remember the artist, I’m afraid.  I may not even be correctly remembering the painting but my memory was of a nest of hen harriers in the heather with the shadow of a man with a gun falling  over the ground.  It made a big impression on me because of its imagery – and was very beautiful too.  More please, artists!

Even my least favourite bird was made to look passably attractive by the skill of Federico Gemma (p47).

The opening words by Chris Packham (Foreword), Robert Gillmor (Founder and Past President), Harriet Mead (Current President) and Bruce Pearson (Former President) are well worth reading.

At £20 it’s a good buy and can be acquired direct from the SWLA – click here.

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18 Replies to “Sunday Book Review – The Natural Eye by The Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA)”

  1. Morning Mark.

    I find overwhelming majority of wildlife art (and most wildlife photography also) to be twee as [insert your own expletive here] - a massive disappointment for someone who regularly looks at the SWLA website for inspiration - there is very little.

    There's so much to draw, paint, photograph out there, so why is 70% of the stuff pretty birds in pretty trees or pretty otters in pretty kelp beds or pretty snow leopards in pretty mountain vistas. Dull dull dull. No thought, no humour, no intrigue, no message, no politics. Admittedly technically competent but in the main... dull dull dull.

    I've always thought the point of good "art" (maybe pointless by definition?) was to elicit a strong emotional response from the onlooker. (Does it make them gasp, think, swoon, vomit, peer, investigate, sweat, smile, laugh, frown).
    90% of wildlife art leaves me stone cold in this respect (including most SWLA members' work) and therefore I don't regard it as good art at all. I don't even regard it as art. You might as well take a photo of your subject. A pretty dull photo at that.

    A real shame and a real opportunity for someone to make a whole load of moolah, someone who is technically good (can draw, paint, adheres to the rules of perspective etc) and also THINKS.

    1. Doug - morning! Very formal.

      Artists have to make a living - but I agree that a little more diversity would be good. The question is, are your pockets deep enough to make it worthwhile for artists to diversify a little more? And if not yours then someone's?

      I think it is a lovely book and i find some of the art in it inspiring, and lovely too. There is a big place for 'lovely' in our lives.

      1. "There is a big place for ‘lovely’ in our lives".
        Speak for yourself Mark.
        I'm more than *cough* lovely enough already thanks very much....

        That said, there is always a place in my life for the (lovely?) oil paintings of Brin Edwards.
        This is because he believes:
        "A great deal of wildlife art is to my mind a slave to detail for its own sake and is the poorer for it. To say much with few marks and gestures is the aim and driving force behind my work". (QUOTE).

        I will certainly be visiting the 50th year SWLA exhibition at the Mall galleries this autumn if only to see his work hung on a wall.

        Check out his website and in particular the image 15 on this page (extreme bottom left) entitled "sparkle".
        The way Brin captures light is magnificent.
        Or indeed, "lovely"?

        Anyway, I'll let you get on with writing your book on pigeons.

        My loveliest regards
        (now THAT'S formal).


        1. Thanks Doug for putting in the link to Brin's work. His website shows he can do detail and formal but his free style is much more exciting.
          On the general topic: Veolia Wildlife Photog of the Year comp. has a category for controversy/Man's dead hand on nature/ extreme cruelty and it is painful to view. Those images haunt the mind long term. This shows some nature photographers are not afraid to jump into hot water.

    2. Doug, I feel you are being unfair here, creating a bit of a straw man. We all recognise what it is that you know you don't like, but in my view the SWLA is not in that place, indeed has worked hard and successfully to move the genre away from it. I shall go along to the SWLA exhibition as usual in October and I'm sure I shall find much good art.

      BTW lots of illustration is also "art" Who would say that Fabre's watercolours were not art? And here's a funny one: by Jodef Lada, who did the cartoons for The Good Soldier Schweik.

        1. Maybe. But shall we do a count together at the exhibition in October, to see whether we get to:

          "70% of the stuff pretty birds in pretty trees or pretty otters in pretty kelp beds or pretty snow leopards in pretty mountain vistas."

          That's what I mean by "straw man".

          I write this in my study, privileged to be surrounded by works by Robert Greenhalf, (early) David Koster, Joy Parsons and Nick Pollard amongst others. Not a pretty bird in a pretty tree amongst them.

          1. Yessss. I know what you meant by "straw man" Alan.
            I get the distinct impression that you and I would disagree about many things.
            You think I'm being unfair.
            I don't.
            You are amused by a picture of a woodpecker using an axe.
            I'm not.

            Etc... etc.... ad nauseum.

  2. Mark, The answer to the question of 'I cant remember who he was' is Paul Henery, previous police wildlife officer in Northumbria. I agree that was an excellent painting.

  3. I fully agree with what Doug MD has remarked in his first comment, but there is an side issue to being a bit more political, one artist not famed for his wildlife recently producded an artwork featuring Hen Harriers and got some PR out of it. Sometimes I feel some artists can produce a bit of art with political statements but are only doing it to further their own career etc.
    But as already mentioned can the artist afford to produce more politically inspired art pieces...where's the market? Which brings me to "pro" photographers can they also afford too, I know of two "pro" wildlife photographers who would be dropped by their agencies/organisation(NGO) because they do not wish to be embroilled in any political debate and if the photographer does go off and do something politically charged, will be dropped from their agency..did you know I've sold more images of Robins then Barn Owls for example and it's the same with any other photographer, people and agencies want species that people can easily identify with. I'll give another example last year I took an image of young Barn Owl that had been injured and was close to starving to death, I took an image, notified the local ringer, the owl was found dead, now when I went to use that image to try and highlight the problems barnies face, I was accused and investigated!! on case it was my possible actions that had caused the injuries! So there is a risk.
    But here's a challenge, if twee images of birds isn't to your taste how about a few suggestions or if you're camera/brush orientated try a few projects, you'll soon discover the pitfalls of "political" images

    1. "But here’s a challenge, if twee images of birds isn’t to your taste how about a few suggestions or if you’re camera/brush orientated try a few projects, you’ll soon discover the pitfalls of “political” images"

      Doesn't have to be political Douglas.
      Just something that produces an emotion other than "aaaah.... that's lovely isn't it".

      My most successful image in terms of money earned, interest in and most "plaudits received" (and not just in terms of BWPA commendation in 2011) was this image...

        1. I see where you're coming from with that image, but here is part of the problem, where I can see the statement the image illustrates and how it could be used to get a message across, there are sadly only a small amount of people who "get it", how many would/have said "arggh how sad" or worse "why didn't you stop it". Now that also brings another important element in art/photography..eduacte/education, but again my mind goes back to an Oystercatcher that won picture of the week on Birdguides a couple of years ago. The Oystercather had some plastic stuck to it's mandeville, now most applauded the image for it's statement, but there were some who said "why didn't you help it" and some even questioned wether the image was staged!!
          Even in my experience and some of the experiences of people I know (and some I don't) a lot of negative feelings can be directed at the person who created the image when you try something either political or that shows an animals behaviour eg sprawk chowing down on a starling, it's also wort considering your image was entered for an award (well done by the way), but would you have been either able to sell that image or display it were it would get a lot of publicity (press) or would it be ignored as it's too "political" and would upset a certain (large) section of society?

          1. Douglas -
            You say:
            "I see where you’re coming from with that image, but here is part of the problem, where I can see the statement the image illustrates and how it could be used to get a message across, there are sadly only a small amount of people who “get it”, how many would/have said “arggh how sad” or worse “why didn’t you stop it”."

            To be frank, I don't think you actually "get it"...

            The photo was taken because it seemed like it would be a powerful image at the time and then publicised to provoke reaction and divide opinion. All aims were met. There was never a singular statement or message behind the photo.
            I've had all manner of people reacting in all manner of ways to me about it - including all the ways you mention above (and worse).

            When I entered it into the BWPA a few years ago I wondered whether a)it was good enough to be commended and b)if it was "good" enough, whether the BWPA would be "brave" enough to commend it. I was surprised therefore when it was commended and displayed.

            You also say:
            "but would you have been either able to sell that image"
            Yes. Often.
            "or display it w(h)ere it would get a lot of publicity (press)"
            Yes. All over the national press in autumn 2011.
            "or would it be ignored as it’s too “political” and would upset a certain (large) section of society"?
            Generally not. Surprising perhaps.

            Now I'm not a pro photographer, so I don't have to mind my P's and Q's - so I guess I'm lucky in that respect. That's where I think you're correct.

            PS. I hope that oystercatcher was taken to hospital.
            Maybe Stoke Mandeville hospital?

  4. I review a number of art books and what strikes me about most of them is the story behind them. Troubled waters by Bruce Pearson captured the problems facing Albatrosses with much of his work done on the boats at sea with amazing skill just to keep the pencil behind his ear never mind the paper on his board! American Birding sketch book by Michael Warren tells the story of his trip around America to create images for postage stamps and of course the birds he saw. John Threlfall's latest book 'Drawn to the edge' travels around the coast of Britain and I was amazed how many of the locations I had been to. 'Jewels beyond the plough' tells the story of our rare wild flower meadows and what we might find in them. Amazing. All books by Langford press.

  5. Mmmm is in the eye of the beholder. So are importance, relevance, skillfulness, meaning amd depth. What were once bold even shocking paintings can become- with mass reproduction rather tame, look at what critics said of the first Impressionist Exhibition. I have always believed that art is and should be anything you want it to be. I love the cat picture because I can relate to it as a gardener in London who hears on a weekly basis that ' Tigger' is too slow/ uninterested/ lazy to go after birds, it's a nice composition too


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