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Robin Hill Artist & Naturalist

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Commentary


I have studied and painted birds in a number of countries and continents: in various parts of Africa, much of Australia and Britain, some of the European countries, and now on the American continent. I'm often asked whether I get bored painting birds — but consider the difference between an ostrich and a hummingbird, about as much as between an oak tree and a daisy. Even if the variety of birds were my criterion for avoiding professional boredom, the world contains well over eight thousand species. Most of these I shall never see, nor have time to paint.

However, there is usually so much more to a picture than the central subject. The possible arrangements of a composition are as limitless as the variety of the natural world. Painting the branch, the patch of earth, the rock, upon which the bird sits is only the first step in depicting the bird's environment. In studying flowers and foliage, the many ways reflections happen in water, a tangle of grass blades, I am led on endlessly, delving into nature. The element of interpretation is vital, as I seek to add something of myself to the painting. The only limits are personal. My choice of this or that diagonal, balance of mass against detail, dark against light, is a matter of my own aesthetics.

The years at art school set me on the path, but one has to keep pursuing creativity and honing the sensibilities as well as the senses. One essential is to return to the source: subjects are ten-a-penny, but it is composition that is the challenge; and for that, studying nature is the inspiration.


Snow Leopard

Also, looking at art helps a great deal. Steeping oneself in Botticelli, Durer, and Reubens is a continuing education in composition. Absorbing the figure drawings of Michelangelo is almost as good as attending life classes.

One does not work in a creative vacuum. There are always influences. However, there is also the stern necessity of making one's own statement. Early on, for example, when I first realized that I wanted to paint birds seriously, I made the decision about "birds in the landscape."

The majority of wildlife painters up to the mid-twentieth century had depicted creatures in their total setting. Bison roamed a prairie that rolled to the edge of the picture frame and a distant horizon divided the scene. Grouse rocketed over heather-clad hills patchworked with cloud shadows where streams wound back into plummy blue distances. Much of this was excellently conceived and painted. Wonderful artists like the Swede Bruno Liljifors or England's Archibald Thorburn are examples of the very best.


As much as I enjoyed such paintings, I wanted to break away from the landscape approach and make a more contemporary statement. For one thing, however beautiful those earlier paintings were, I felt that they restricted the imagination. I decided to leave something for the viewer to contribute to my pictures: some space for the play of their own fancies.

One influence that modified my approach to painting was the Oriental. In certain Japanese screens or certain beautiful Chinese scroll paintings of birds and mammals, there is exactly that use of mass and detail balanced against space that I find missing in much of Occidental wildlife painting. Monkeys sit on twisted branches over a stream that has enough substance to sway reeds as it passes, yet purls off into the mists of nowhere. Birds dash on angled wings over waterfalls that drop off into airy spaces.

So, in whatever way I could, I tried to refine my own compositions. Many of my early paintings were too stark. Slowly I began to understand and find the balance — minute detail set off against bulk, line contrasted with wash, dark against light, one small patch of lambent color in a haze of grey. Continued on next page.


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