One of our greatest wildlife artists reveals how he paints in the wildest places of the globe – on hardboard, coated with filler, and thrown in the back of a Land Rover.

An interest in the natural world and the desire to express this in paint is evident throughout the history of art. No doubt the earliest examples of wildlife painting are almost as old as man himself. Scratched, drawn or painted on the walls of once-forgotten caves at such places as Lascaux and Altamira, these wonderful, vigorous and expressive works can date back as far as 25,000 BC. A glance at any subsequent era, whether Roman, Renaissance, Victorian or modern, reveals wildlife as a subject which continually inspires artists, either as a realistic or symbolic central theme or in a supporting background role.

In recent times, concern for the environment and wildlife conservation have renewed a general awareness that we are not the only members of the animal kingdom to inhabit this planet, although we are the ones with the most influence and ability to preserve it. This concern has been matched by a greater demand and interest in wildlife painting. Keith Shackleton has noticed a trend for more members of the public to buy and commission wildlife subjects, as well as the large companies and organisations. The Royal Society of Wildlife Artists is flourishing and there is an encouraging climate for young painters. In his view, “there has never been a richer time”.

An itinerant artist

Keith Shackleton has painted wildlife subjects all his life. He regards himself as fortunate that, inseparable from his other loves as an explorer and naturalist, he has always been able to enjoy painting. He is an honest painter, concentrating on what he knows and understands. Unlike some, he doesn’t speak in incomprehensible riddles about motives, methods and visual messages. Indeed, as in his excellent book Wildlife and Wilderness: An Artist’s World, which hopefully will be reprinted, he is lucid and direct in his opinions and not afraid to “tweak the bells of a few artistic sacred cows”.

Different commissions have sent Keith to all parts of the globe. In addition to the Royal Society of Wildlife Artists, he is a member of the Royal Society of Marine Artists. So, whether asked to paint British Steel yachts, a Shell oil rig in the North Sea or elephants in Africa, he is happy to explore his way of meeting the challenge of each new subject and capturing it in oils. But it is the polar regions which regularly lure him back. A lonely albatross patrolling mountainous seas, huddled penguins fidgeting on an ice ledge, or broody, pure white snow petrels at one with their Antarctic landscape are the kind of subjects which make his most memorable pictures and distinguish him as a great painter of wildlife and wilderness.

Sandwich Terns on Number 3, oil, 18" x 24". Occasionally there is something quite intriguing for the wildlife artist in themes where the natural and the man-made create a striking contrast.

True to nature

In painting wildlife there is often a conflict between representational accuracy and artistic interpretation. “The greatest trap,” says Keith Shackleton, “is to confuse reality with photography.” He warns of the dangers of “allowing your knowledge of what is there to cloud what you are actually seeing”. Look at a swan against the sunset, for example. Is it really white? Whilst it is essential to capture characteristics, proportions and the right sort of attitude and behaviour of the subject as well as its correct context or setting, painting in every surface detail marking isn’t necessarily a good idea. The quality to stress in a wildlife work is the fact that you are painting a living subject. With a bird in flight, for example, the emphasis needs to be more on creating a sense of movement and life than setting down each feather shape and pattern.

A love of nature is essential: wildlife should be studied at first hand. Like any subject the more you observe it, become involved with it and understand it, the more likely you are to paint it with conviction and impact. Think of all those telling anatomical studies of horses by Leonardo and Stubbs. Keith Shackleton recalls boyhood drawings of dead birds and other creatures picked up at the roadside. The camera, wildlife book, magazine, video and museum should be regarded as supplementary sources of information rather than starting points. Whether a butterfly on the buddleia in your back garden, birds at the bird-table or sheep in a nearby field, there are plenty of accessible subjects. The advice is to paint what you can observe. This approach will lead to more rewarding and successful results than one which tries to emulate those well-worn, often contrived and romanticised themes such as dust-trailed bull elephants charging through the Indian scrub or cuddly koalas.

For Keith Shackleton the principal aim is for “an exciting painting composition with a wildlife dimension.” He is a “great believer in characterising animals to look more like themselves.” As in all painting, a little emphasis or exaggeration is often necessary to bring home a point. And contributing to the animal character is the setting in which we view it: animal plus element. “Landscape gives your mood,” he says. Paintings such as On the Graham Coast: Snow Petrel (below) beautifully illustrate this point. He comments: “I think a man would need to be a little short on imagination to feel no trace of awe and unease in such places.”

On the Graham Coast: Snow Petrel, oil, 30" x 40". Animal and element.

The landscape setting contributes to our understanding and adds to the visual impact, Keith Shackleton describes this picture as a "cameo of Antarctica itself - a warm-blooded, elusive living thing in a frozen environment of snow, water and rock.

On location

“It’s wrong to get yourself involved in things you’ve never seen,” suggests Keith Shackleton. “You don’t have to go any distance at all to paint wildlife.” He was quick to point out various ways in which reference material might be gathered and used. Field drawings are obviously the best. Often his personal approach here is not for anything very detailed but almost diagrammatic visual notes – the surface map of markings, the flight pattern of a bird and so on. These provide an aide-mémoire.

Following his caution to “be extremely careful what you do with a photograph”, he recognises their value for checking such details as the claw of a bird. He relies a good deal on observation and memory. Written notes, too, are a help. He recommends sketching at the zoo and even from television film, which, almost like the real thing, shows animals in action and is entirely different from copying a static photograph. In addition to the fact that it can stifle freshness and originality, another pitfall of a poor photograph is that a cast shadow is easily confused with a surface marking.

Chin-strap Penguins, oil 24" x 30". Note the attitude and grouping of these amusing creatures. Maybe this is an example of "characterising animals to look more like themselves," but to succeed in wildlife painting you need to observe animal behaviour and emphasise salient features.

Materials and methods

Since childhood Keith Shackleton has painted only in oil paints. The “horrendously unforgiving medium of watercolour” is, he says, “for orderly minds, gestalt perception of the most clinical kind, the patience of Job and tremendous natural ability”. I’m sure he has the latter quality, if not some of the former, and I’m not entirely convinced therefore that he could find “watercolours too difficult”!

His pictures are generally quite large, say 24 x 36in, are always painted on the rough side of “honest hardboard”. Frowned upon by traditionalists I dare says, but honest hardboard is easily cut to whatever shape and size you want and can even be cropped later to redeem an almost good painting. Other qualities which Keith Shackleton finds endearing about this support are its resistance to maltreatment, when thrown in the back of a Land Rover for example, and the fact that it is easily patched up if damaged. Also, a painting which isn’t working out can be “slow-marched off to the workshop and rubbed down with a power sanding machine”. He prepares the hardboard by coating it with Polyfilla applied with a squeegee, so that in fact all the initial texture is lost. The Polyfilla is then sanded and given a coating of primer.

Successful Osprey, oil 24" x 36". The composition may be intuitive but the sweep of rushing water helps to dramatise this impressive wildlife moment.

He may work on specific subjects for commissions, serious studio compositions painted from sketches and other resource material, or perhaps something which has caught his imagination, maybe when looking through the binoculars, and has been noted as a potentially good idea. Initially he likes to “scribble in with charcoal to get the feel of it”, though sometimes goes “straight in with paint, depending how clear in my mind it is”. To start with, the general areas are blocked in with thin paint. He advises “covering the whole thing with paint, no matter how thin, so that you can see where you’re going”. He enjoys the manipulative qualities of oil paint: “You can get what you want.”

Working from tear-off palettes, appropriate colours are arranged in sequence: cold on the left, warm on the right and white in the middle. He admits to being “brutal with brushes” but finds that some of his old nylon or bristle brushes are useful for special effects. I suppose in many ways natures sets the palette, with most paintings restrained in colour range and consequently all the more subtle and harmonious in their effects. Light is often a feature. Catching snow-capped peaks, angry waves or banks of cloud, contrasts of light, as always, add mood and interest.

It is important to establish authentic relative scale between the subject and its setting – the size of bullrush to bird, for example. Keith Shackleton relies on intuitive composition and usually starts by drawing in the wildlife subject and then designing around this. His experienced eye can visualise the whole scene and translate this into an interesting composition which skilfully presents a description of nature in a personal and strikingly beautiful way.

Along the ice-foot: Orca Whales, oil, 15" x 36".

In meeting Keith Shackleton two points struck me more than any others: to paint well you need to understand your subject matter; and painting, though perhaps never quite as successful as we should like, should nevertheless be enjoyable. The best wildlife artists will share his love of nature, of exploring, and of capturing in paint some of nature’s infinite variety of ideas. Describing the moment when, in his days as an aviator, he came across a party of wild geese at cloud height, Keith Shackleton writes: “They looked great and were where they belonged.” A reason for his success is surely that his wildlife always looks great and it is always where it belongs.

Keith Shackleton was talking to Oliver Lange