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Robin Hill Artist & Naturalist

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Commentary (continued)


It is not straightforward; there can be no formula. Each picture is approached warily, as a new problem. Some I do indeed fill from edge to edge; others are almost minimalist paintings. I have come to a kind of manifesto for myself — create depth but not distance, so that even in a "filled in" painting, I seldom set out to create a landscape in the normal sense of the word. In the more open pictures, I think (or, more accurately, feel) carefully about the white spaces. They too have their designed shapes, and their correctness can be spoilt by the intrusion of a single twig or grass stalk.

Nothing in all this is rigid; eventually, there are no rules. I don't believe that one can arbitrarily impose style. The subject, and sometimes the purpose of the painting, should set the style. For example, when I planned the pictures in the book The Waterfowl of North America, I conceived them as eventually hanging on a wall, but they were also composed with the book in mind. Consequently, the size and shape of the page were an influence, as were the limitations of the printing process. One of my triptychs, measuring nine feet by five feet, makes quite different demands of composition, style, and technique.

One has to nurture an open-mindedness while composing, a naivete almost. With each painting, we are granted a new start in life. Sometimes this new start is bungled. Studies are mad, rough colour sketches assayed. One attempts to put it all together in a felicitous way, but it sours. Occasionally I will be halfway through a painting before the dark, suppressed doubt surfaces and with it the realization that the picture is beyond saving.


To be creative is to be a conduit. The perfect line, the exact tone, the sweetest brush marks are all just there — available, waiting. Sometimes the pipeline is frozen; on others, a miserable trickle will seep through, so you persevere. On those very special days of grace, the way is clear; all is simple and easy. Drawings create themselves at the end of the pencil, paint flows, time ceases to exist, and what looks like six days' work will "just happen" in but two. After the fever and the labour and the satisfaction of finishing something, comes the nagging question: Is it ART?

This is a relatively new question and one that, willy-nilly, the wildlife painter is being forced to confront. I don't think it cropped up in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The few excellent painters who took wildlife as their subject considered themselves, in their innocence, as perfectly legitimate artists, while the public and the critics pretty much concurred. It is the recent rash and profusion of the genre that has brought out the question.

Flower Lady

Since the mid-1960s, we have seen an enormous bustle and stir in wildlife painting. Where once there were dozens, now hundreds, perhaps thousands, are earning their living in the business. Most of what is produced is second rate or worse — but this is true of any branch of the arts.

I would venture that most art critics, most curators of public art museums and the commercial galleries typified by Madison Avenue or Bond Street do not consider wildlife painting to be Art. This implies I suppose, that what these painters are doing is illustration. Why the whole genre should be labeled thus is difficult to pin down. Are there no real artists practicing in the field of wildlife?

What are the criteria? Excellence is not one of them. Many painters, absolutely acknowledged as artists, are not particularly good at what they do. We accept that there are great artists, poor artists and every grade in between. Conversely, there are illustrators at the top of their professions who would never be considered artists. Continued on next page.


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