Wildlife artist Leon Fouche talks to Henry Bevan about growing up in the bush, and the inspirations for his paintings.
Where does your inspiration come from?
Africa’s amazing wildlife is what inspires me to draw. I spend a fair amount of time each year (with my camera, of course) in some of South Africa’s national parks. The various wildlife encounters I experience on these trips are the subjects of my next few paintings.
What made you become an artist?
I was always encouraged to draw by my parents. Art and reference materials were never far away growing up, with my mother being a wildlife artist. Being passionate about our local wildlife, I put a collection together a few months after completing high school. My work was very well received at my first local exhibition and has only grown in popularity since. I feel I’m very lucky to be able to make a living out of my passion.
What made you decide on a hyper-realistic style of art? At first, they appear to be photographs.
Drawing in every detail and achieving a photo-realistic result is just something I’m driven to do. Our animals and birds are so beautiful and perfect, I guess all I’m trying to do is do them justice.
How does your photography help your creative process?
Time spent in the bush with a good camera is vital for any wildlife artist. In order to accurately portray your subject on canvas you need to truly understand the animals and the surroundings in which you find them. The African bush has a unique feel and look to it, understanding the lighting, the plant life that your subjects relate to, and the way the animals and birds move is all so important if you wish to capture what is so special about Africa and the amazing wildlife that is found here.
Some of your paintings are very emotionally provocative, such as Cheetah With Her Cubs. What is it about animals that causes a powerful reaction in people?
I guess it’s just human nature to need that connection with nature and its wild animals. Nature’s creatures are all incredibly beautiful, and most are far more powerful than we are. It’s hard not to be in awe of them, especially when encountering them in their natural habitat.
You are an avid conservationist – can you tell us more about your efforts?
My work is an artistic tribute to the sheer beauty of the natural realm. I try where I can to make a difference by using my artworks to raise funds to help preserve our wild places and its creatures. I know my contributions don’t have a huge impact on the issues we face today, but I feel I have to do my part to help.
I’ve supported the Wildlands Conservation Trust for a few years. They work closely with the communities that surround our game reserves. I feel it’s vital to get these communities to understand the value of preserving our wildlife. I have also supported a few African wild dog and leopard projects; these are two animals I’m particularly passionate about.
You must spend a lot of time observing animals in the wild. Have there been any particularly memorable encounters?
One afternoon I came across three very young leopard cubs. They were playing on a rocky outcrop and were up and down various trees. This went on for a few hours, with their overly defensive mother occasionally charging out of the bush when a cub got too close to a vehicle.
At the end of the day, I found myself parked under a tree perhaps only three metres away from one of the cubs draped over a branch looking down curiously at me and my camera. The mother was lying a few metres behind the tree in the dense green grass where I could occasionally see her tail flicking.
When the time came to leave, my car wouldn’t start because of a flat battery. I tried using jump leads but it just wasn’t working. The cub stayed in the tree and just watched all that was going on. I feared for my life a few times, being outside the car and unaware of the whereabouts of the anxious mother and half expecting her to come charging out of the bushes at any second.
Someone was kind enough to give me a lift to the nearest camp, and I returned with two game wardens who were going to help me jump start the car. But after filling them in on the leopard situation on the way there, they were both too scared to get out of the vehicle. Fortunately, we eventually got my car running again without any nasty encounters with the mother.
I thought that was the last time I’d see those little cubs. But I returned to this part of the reserve with my girlfriend around six months later. On the morning we were leaving, I thought I’d show her where the leopard cubs had been. We arrived at the rocky outcrop and I proceeded to point out the few trees they’d been playing in. Suddenly, we both gasped as a cub appeared. Then another and another… Their rosette patterns confirmed they were the same animals. We spent a good few hours with them until they decided to move on – and vanished into the tall grass.
How does living next to Kruger impact your artwork?
Living here can become distracting — there’s always the temptation to go on a game drive when I really should be painting. I’ve found going for a drive in the early morning and working into the night is what works best for me.
What are your future plans?
I’m inspired to focus on larger projects in the future where I include a number of animals. These projects will each take several months to complete. I’d also like to focus on some of the more secretive and less-painted animals, such as pangolin, aardvark and honey badger.
What’s next on your bucket list?
Next on my bucket list would be a month or two travelling through Botswana with my cameras and my fishing rods. The Zambezi River and South Luangwa are also places I’d love to explore soon.
To see more of Leon’s art, visit www.fouchestudios.com