With her art embracing Africa’s mystique, Alison Nicholls sparks the imagination by showing the continent’s famous animals in a new light
You’ve recently come back from a trip to Africa – can you tell us about the experience?
My latest trip included time in Botswana and South Africa. I spent a week at Limpopo-Lipadi, on the Limpopo River in the Tuli Block, Botswana; a week self-driving in Kruger National Park; four nights in Umlani Bushcamp in the Timbavati; and four nights leading an art safari at Africa on Foot in the Klaserie Private Nature Reserve. The entire trip was great fun and involved a lot of sketching and many amazing sightings. I watched a large pack of wild dogs with energetic pups, some of which decided to run under our vehicle. I sketched a spotted hyena feeding on a zebra carcass and saw a throng of vultures descend in a feeding frenzy as soon as the hyena walked away. One night, a stunning orange moon rose over the Letaba River, accompanied by a deafening symphony of hippo and frogs.
Why do you sketch from life?
It is a great way to learn about wildlife – you understand the anatomy of a species, the way it moves, what it eats and how it behaves. You have to look very carefully at an animal in order to sketch it, noticing things that would otherwise escape you, and you come home with a sketchbook full of highly personal memories. Sketching in the bush is a vital part of my artistic process.
How often do you travel to the continent?
I travel to Africa once or twice a year, normally for a month, and spend most of my time in the bush, sketching wildlife. No two trips are the same because you never know what you might see.
How did living in Africa change the way you view it?
I lived in Zimbabwe from 1994 to 1996 and in Botswana from 1996 to 2002. These neighbouring countries are so different in every respect – culture, language, history, flora and fauna – that I began to appreciate the amazing diversity of Africa. The first thing I point out to people who want to know about Africa is that it is a massive continent, that every country is distinctive, and that you cannot make generalisations.
What’s your favourite African country, and why?
Botswana. I lived there for more than six years and fell in love with the Kalahari desert. It wasn’t love at first sight, though – on my first visit to Khutse Game Reserve, I remember thinking the landscape was flat and monotonous. However, as time passed I discovered the thrill of camping in the bush with no-one else around for miles, and I began to appreciate the amazing survival skills of the tough species who call the desert home. Now, I am completely addicted to the muted pastel colours of the sky, salt pans and trumpet thorn. I can’t wait to hear barking geckos and black-backed jackals. I enjoy nothing more than sundowners on the edge of a pan, watching kori bustards and gemsbok – with a sketchbook in one hand, of course!
Where’s next on your bucket list?
Ethiopia. I’m keen to see and sketch the endangered Ethiopian wolf.
You use washes of transparent colour as a way of encouraging “imagination and interpretation” – why do you feel this is an important element of your artwork, and art in general?
Using transparent washes in my studio work allows me to build up layers of colour, creating effects of light, dust, heat and space. Over the years, as I spent more time under the huge skies of the Kalahari and Namib deserts, I found myself using washes to create areas of ‘quiet space’ in my paintings, areas with little or no detail. The washes are a way of leaving room in my paintings for you to use your own imagination because I believe art and imagination go hand in hand.
What do you think your painting style says about Africa, or your experiences of living in, and visiting Africa?
My style consists of three important elements, all of which came about as a direct result of living in Africa. First are the areas of space. Second are my choice of colours. There are amazing, vibrant colours found in the African bush (think of the lilac-breasted roller or the red sun setting into a dust haze) and I use these colours to create a mood or indicate a time of day – reds and oranges for the heat of the day and cooler purples and blues for dusk and deep shadows. The third element in my work is tranquillity, which I try to achieve by limiting my palette of colours, or by depicting calm animals, behaving naturally.
How does your art support conservation?
I donate a percentage from every sale to African conservation organisations, but I also create paintings with a specific conservation theme. I produced one of these after my visit to Painted Dog Conservation in Zimbabwe where I spent time with Dr Esther van der Meer. She was researching why African wild dogs were choosing to leave Hwange National Park to live in the far more dangerous buffer zone surrounding the park. After her thesis was complete, I painted something based on her findings; and when it was sold, 40 per cent of the sale price was donated to help make the buffer zone safer for the dogs.
These artworks can bring important issues to the attention of people who may not hear about conservation in their daily lives. Art is also a great way to reach out to children and teach them the importance of conserving wild places and wildlife, which is why I teach art classes for children when I work with conservation organisations. I hope that in future years, artists will still be heading out into the African bush to sketch and paint the iconic species we enjoy seeing today.
Alison Nicholls is an artist inspired by Africa. She visits regularly to sketch in the field, lead art safaris and work with conservation organisations. She is a member of The Explorers Club, Artists for Conservation and the Society of Animal Artists. You can see more of her work by visiting artinspiredbyafrica.com.