A love of nature

Wildlife artist Martin Ridley says:  'As a source of inspiration, animals cannot be beaten'

Wildlife is a tremendously exciting and challenging subject for artists and, as Martin Ridley demonstrates in his sensitively observed and beautifully painted compositions, there is no need to travel far in order to fine good ideas. Martin is not interested in the clichéd images of near-extinct gorillas or huge bull elephants charging through the dusty scrub, but prefers instead the wildlife of the UK, and in particular British mammals. He studies these at various locations in his home county of Gloucestershire and also spends weeks at a time travelling and camping in other, mainly west coast areas, where he can watch and record different species in their natural environment. For him, it is vital that the principal source of information is from actual observation and experience.

Mountain Hares.  Oil on board.  16” x 71”

Working from life

Obviously, a genuine love of nature is essential for any wildlife artist. “I began to be interested in wildlife at the age of about nine or ten,” Martin recalls, “and within a couple of years I was doing an awful lot of drawing and painting and filling up classroom walls. This zeal for nature has never waned. As a source of inspiration, wildlife cannot be beaten. I get my buzz from seeing animals in the wild and, rather than creating a portrait or an identifying image of a specific animal, my paintings aim to capture a particular moment and mood. In fact, a lot of paintings evolve as a kind of glorified diary of what I’ve been up to, perhaps also combining this with ideas from my sketchbook, memory or imagination in order to emphasise a special quality within the work.”

Martin’s advice is to paint what you can observe, using images in magazines, photographs, video film and other reference material only when specific information is required to back up your own sketches, notes and paintings made on location.  Like any subject the more you observe wildlife, become involved with it and understand it, the more likely you are to paint it successfully.

“What I am trying to do,” explains Martin, “is to make something tangible from a particular wildlife situation. While I don’t want it to be awkward or incorrect in any way, equally it needn’t have everything there – less is more. By simply suggesting a mood, a detail or an aspect of behaviour you can, I think, create a more pleasing result than that achieved by knitting away with a tiny brush. Detail is useful as a focal point within the picture or as a delicate fretwork to set off a subject, but you can easily kill an idea by concentrating too much on animal markings, features, hair and so on. In my paintings, the principal aim is to share a wildlife experience or a special idea that I’ve got in my mind.”

Bewick’s Swans, Lapwing and Pintail.  Oil on board.  17½” x 31”

In the field

One of the difficulties for a wildlife artist is knowing where to look for suitable ideas. There are several lakeside and tree hides as well as other sites that Martin regularly visits for on-going and season projects, and he also makes field trips. Over the years he has built up a knowledge of good areas in which to work, camp and track different species.  These include Pembrokeshire and other parts of Wales, the Lake District, the west coast of Scotland, the Shetland Isles and the Scillies.

“Sometimes I am away for a month,” he says, “just roaming about, finding ideas, doing a number of paintings on site, and sketching and taking photographs.” On location he usually concentrates on small habitat studies in oils, jots down notes and information, and makes some drawings and watercolours. He uses a special pochade box that will carry wet pictures and also takes along an easel, a telescope, binoculars and other equipment in a rucksack.

To seek out and work with wild animals does, of course, require sound fieldcraft skills and much patience. Even when you have found an interesting site and you are well-concealed and ready to paint or sketch, you cannot rely on the animals staying put for very long. And they certainly won’t keep still! “Start with small sketches of no more than six or seven lines and taking no longer than a few seconds,” advises Martin. “If you watch an animal moving around and then pick an instance and look away, you can almost feel the shape in your mind’s eye – just briefly. Quickly draw a rough outline of the main limbs and pose.

“Such sketches may be totally embarrassing to start with, but after a short time you will begin to develop hand/eye co-ordination. From about a hundred of these sketches you will probably find that five or so have a lovely active pose that you could not have captured by any other means. Now begin to look at individual details of the bird or mammal. For example, you could consider the size of a bird’s bill in relation to its head. Draw that a number of times until it seems right and, working in this way, build up information about the rest of the animal. You only really experience an increased learning curve about a particular species when you tackle this type of sketching, because you are observing and questioning what’s there.”

Golden Eagle and Deer Paths.  Oil on board.  24” x 34”

Thoughtful composition

Even so, when it comes to gathering first-hand information wildlife artists are, as Martin says, “always up against it.” Therefore, location work will often need to be supplemented with other material: “Anything,” he says, “that will help you understand your subject.” This might include collecting bird’s wings from road casualties, skulls and other animal matter, making models, and using reference photographs, magazine clippings and video footage. In particular he will use this type of reference at the end of a painting to check details. But he emphasises that what is most important is that the idea and design of the painting are original. “Reference material should not dictate what you paint,” he stresses. “It is just a tool to help you capture a certain idea or effect.”

Martin enjoys the distinctive quality, covering power and forgiving nature of oils, and to achieve the contrasting effects of light and dark, surface textures and subtle colouring that are notable in his work he dilutes the paint with artists’ turpentine until it has a fluid, creamy consistency. He paints on prepared and primed MDF board, slightly tinted with acrylic paint, and also canvas boards or stretched canvases. His palette, which he describes as a “fairly conventional one”, includes cerulean, ultramarine, cobalt, cadmium yellow deep, lemon yellow, cadmium red light, burnt sienna, burnt umber, alizarin crimson, phthalo green and titanium white.

As Martin points out, a weak composition will always undermine the success of an idea, no matter how skilfully it is painted. Consequently, before beginning a studio picture, he will spend whatever time is needed on carefully planning the composition. This won’t necessarily mean that he will stick rigidly to the proposed design when it comes to the actual painting, for further adjustments and perhaps a degree of simplification may be required in order to create the greatest impact. But a well-planned idea will give structure and generate confidence towards a fluent, effective result.  
Lots of ideas are explored in the composition rough. When necessary he will cut out and paste on new sheets of paper so that the scale, shape or position of an object can be altered. “Also, I might have some parts of the picture on separate sheets of paper that I’m just moving around and trying out in different places,” says Martin. “And spaces are an important consideration too, both as a means of balancing and contrasting the positive elements of the design and for animals to move into.”

Eiders.  Oil on board.  10½” x 15½”

Studio Work

The shapes and proportions are transferred onto the painting board or canvas, either by squaring-up or by placing a graphite-covered sheet of paper between the support and the composition study and redrawing the outlines. These guidelines are usually enhanced with some further pencil drawing on the board itself before Martin begins to paint. He may start with some acrylic washes, using just a couple of colours, to clarify the general lights and darks. But, more often, having planned the tonal distribution in the composition rough, he has the confidence to work directly in oils.

He begins with the sky or background areas, which will set the mood and tonal key of the painting, and works towards the foreground. In the main he doesn’t adopt the conventional fat over lean oil painting method or use glazing techniques, finding that working wet into wet better suits the sort of paint quality and effects he requires. The soft edges of clouds and similar blended effects are created by dabbing a large soft-haired brush across the wet surface. “While the sky is still wet I like to add the horizon line or whatever meets the sky and blend this in, so that the edges aren’t too harsh,” Martin explains. “After that I try to get the rest of the picture filled in quite quickly, aiming to pull the whole composition together.”

Martin will allow some of the underlying tint to show through where this will enhance a particular colour or effect. Indeed, sometimes boards are deliberately prepared with a certain colour – perhaps a bright yellow for an evening light – to help create the desired mood or atmosphere in the painting.

Mostly he uses sizes 2 or 3 filbert hog brushes, which are quite versatile and will suit a range of techniques, although he normally switches to round Dalon or Prolene synthetic brushes in the final stages of the painting, as these give “lovely clean lines”. For animal whiskers and other fine details, the initial brush line can be modified or thinned by painting up to it or slightly over it with some of the ‘negative’ surrounding colour. As for painting animal fur: “The real crux,” says Martin, “is where the fur breaks and you can see down into it, that’s what adds the texture to it. But suggest, rather than paint every hair.”

Capturing that magical wildlife moment depends on quite a number of things. Enthusiasm, patience and perseverance all play their part, but as Martin’s work shows, success also depends on acquiring as much knowledge as you can about wildlife, studying animals in their natural surroundings, and interpreting what you see in an original and individual way.

And with such varied subject matter there is always scope for new ideas and fresh challenges. “I deliberately challenge myself all the time,” says Martin. “I discipline myself to push things in a direction that I haven’t tried before, and consequently I find that I learn more quickly than if I were merely to repeat ideas and methods.”

Hovering Barn Owl.  Oil on board, 30” x 24”.