THE WINNER of the Birdwatch/Swarovski Artist of the Year 2011 Award has spoken of how experiencing nature and drawing from life led him to winning one of the world’s top wildlife art prizes at the Society of Wildlife Artists’ annual exhibition.
ORKNEY-based artist Tim Wootton’s expansive and naturalistic charcoal piece entitled North Haven, Fair Isle; dark and intermediate phase Arctic Skuas received the award, along with a prize of £1,000 plus birding optics from sponsors Swarovski. The prize was presented by wildlife documentary presenter and conservationist Mark Carwardine and SWLA president Harriet Mead.
Wootton, who in true artistic style couldn’t afford the high travel costs to go to the ceremony in London, said: “It’s just as well I didn’t go to the presentation. I was in bits, very emotional, when I found out by email that I had won. This is the most prestigious award in bird art in Britain.
“It’s 20 years since I was shortlisted for the Swarovski Young European Bird Artist of the Year award in 1991 at the SWLA. That was a culmination of five years consecutive exhibiting for the Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA). At the time I thought, my career is on track. I will be a wildlife artist.
“From then on I started to be an illustrator and that pinched my art off me. I was using the same tools and doing interpretations for wildlife parks and suchlike, but it was prescriptive as opposed to being art-led. But over the last 20 years I have been doing paintings in between but it has been image led.
“I’d have to think about finding something to paint and then go out to find the reference material for it, which could be sketches or photographs. For example, for a painting of a merlin on a fencepost I would find the post and then the reference for the merlin.
“It was only when I started working towards a submission to the SWLA about five years ago, and kept getting rejected for paintings which I thought were good, which I thought were meaningful and honest, that I realised I’d gone wrong.
“It was all because I was putting the cart before the horse. So I went out and started drawing from life.”
Writing and drawing for his book, Drawing & Painting Birds, published last year by the The Crowood Press, also helped him clarify what he thought about wildlife art.
“I realised what I was about was drawing from life. Now I go out with the sketchbook, drawing and experiencing wildlife, birds and the habitats, being a part of them. I come back with a whole conglomeration of images, writing and ideas. The ideas for paintings were then coming from nature itself. That’s made a huge difference to my work.
“I was going out and something would strike me. Perhaps an Arctic skua chasing a common gull. It’s like the Impressionists who would go out to look to nature. The essence of the finished painting is different. There’s an undefinable vibrancy to the drawing. The only thing of any value for me now is experiencing what happens in the natural world.
“Then I have to use guile and craft to recreate what I have seen with integrity and honesty. If you look at my paintings now, I have seen each of these birds. You have to work quickly to sketch outlines. Working from the back of a boat is brilliant because things move so quickly. You have to work fast and can’t get proportions completely dead on. It’s all about GISS – general impression of size and shape – catching the character as opposed to worrying too much about the detail.”
He also camped out in a derelict farmhouse on the uninhabited Orkney isle of Swona this summer with a group of fellow local artists. “I had never been on an art fieldtrip with other artists before. I had three full days and the chance to pack a lunch and sit on the cliffs from about 9am till 6pm just with the birds and the light. I became absorbed in the whole place. When I came back I painted constantly for four weeks with all the ideas.”
Does he consider that his art is useful for conservation and recording habitat and bird populations? Twenty years ago he raised money through selling bird paintings of 113 species to raise money for a campaign to save species in the Spanish steppes. All the paintings sold in 15 minutes and raised £780. And this year he went to Sark in the Channel Islands following an invitation from the Artists for Nature Foundation. “That was all about using art to raise awareness for issues. It is useful.”
Tim has been based in Orkney for nine years and has witnessed big declines in some bird species in the isles. “The maritime habitat seems to be in flux at the moment and we are pretty sure it is due to global warming. There has been a big decrease in sandeels which are the food for many of our birds, such as the puffin, razorbill and guillemots, who are all suffering. Where there were 3000 pairs of Arctic terns on North Hill, Papa Westray, there are now 200 at best. It looks like Arctic terns are on the way out in Britain.
“I love that whole interaction between Arctic terns and Arctic skuas, which are piratical and parasitic. You would never see an aerial battle quite so dramatic as an Arctic skua chasing a tern for a sandeel. However there isn’t that many dramatic moments from the birds in my paintings. The drama is usually the environment like great seas or moorland.”
His drawing which won the PJC Award for Drawing 2010 shows gannets plunging into the sea and this year’s Birdwatch award entry shows Arctic skuas flying just above the waves. Both are monochrome. Of this approach at certain times of the year, he says: “The change in the season manifests itself in big seas and dramatic cliffscapes, subjects ideally suited to this approach. In fact, when considering these charcoal paintings it would be difficult to see how they would be enhanced with the application of colour as they depict scenes of rock and foam, swell and spume; all fundamentally about value and key and relating less to hue.”
In the last year he has also won the title BBC Wildlife Magazine Wildlife Artist of the Year 2010, and was shortlisted for the David Shepherd Wildlife Artist of the Year prize. And he has just been elected an associate member of the Society of Wildlife Artists.
Wootton was born and raised in a small rural village in South Yorkshire, but Orkney is the place for him to be in order to chase his passion for drawing from life.
“It’s all about Orkney and being here. There’s inspiration everywhere you look, in amazing scenery and exceptional birdlife, every time I go out. Now nature itself prescribes what I draw and paint.”
Tim Wootton’s Wildscape Gallery is at 126 Victoria Street, Stromness.
© Catherine Turnbull, 2011