Henry Bevan talks to Zimbabwean artist David Filer about his art process and how animals are better company than people
What is it about animals that makes them interesting to sketch?
Growing up in Zimbabwe, I have been privileged enough to have been within easy reach of our incredible wildlife, and able to witness their beauty first-hand. I’ve always been obsessed with animals and I think their blind innocence and individual quirks make them so ‘them’. This encouraged me to draw and study not just their form, but to try and capture that something deeper.
How would you describe your art style?
I love the idea of being a modern realism artist, but I am still so far from what I ultimately want to accomplish — with every drawing I want to go tighter and more detailed. I’m not sure if I’ll ever truly get to the point where I will be 100 per cent satisfied.
How did you discover an art style that suited you, especially the stripped-back style present in your work?
Trial and error. I used a lot of pencil in high school and knew I loved it from an early stage, but since then, there’ve been a multitude of ‘failures’ and ‘happy accidents’ that have allowed me to hone my style. However, it’s still a work in progress.
Would you class yourself as a dreamer?
From day one, I have had teachers, headmasters and friends constantly saying that I daydream far too much. “His head is constantly in the clouds!” Being 6ft 7in, I thought they were just being observant, but now I’ve come to recognise that I don’t spend long in reality.
How do animals make your dreams come true?
Growing up, I always wanted to be a veterinarian. There wasn’t any other option for me. I told people I wanted to work with animals and help them — they’re so much easier to deal with than humans. Life had other ideas, and unfortunately, I had to give up that dream. But I found myself in an even bigger one, whereby I get to do what I love all day, every day, while still ‘working with animals’. And indeed, through auctions and charities, in my own small way, I’m helping them too.
How would you describe your work to a stranger?
When someone asks what I do and I reply, “I’m an artist,” they always respond with asking what kind of art. I have to inevitably reply “pencil”, which always warrants the squint in their eyes as they question, “So… sketching?” This leaves me with a confused look on my face as I try to fathom how to actually explain it without sounding like I’m not really an artist but that I simply enjoy doodling in a sketchbook. The only way I can accurately describe my art is pencil realism with a touch of minimalism.
Many of your pieces focus on the eyes – what is it about eyes that is intriguing to you?
Ninety-nine per cent of the life in a drawing resides in the eyes — if you get those right, the rest of the drawing falls into place. I can be working on another area of an animal and it just won’t be succeeding, and then when I start working on their eyes as a last resort before throwing it away, I’ll suddenly have that “Aha!” moment. So much of an animal, or a human for that matter, so much of their personality, life, soul and being is in their — that’s where the spark lies.
How do you make your artwork as detailed as it is? What is your process?
Tears and tantrums basically. I’m a bit of an introvert, to be honest, so I enjoy being by myself a lot of the time. This lends itself to having countless hours dedicated to teaching myself new tricks and techniques and, if something isn’t right, I start again and again until I get something that vaguely resembles what I had in mind. There’s not even a real process, it’s just a series of layers and techniques in my arsenal that I use to carve the subject out of the paper.
How has winning the David Shepherd Wildlife Fund (DSWF) Wildlife Artist of the Year award in 2008 changed how you approach your work?
The David Shepherd Wildlife Artist of the Year award was a launch-pad for me. I will be forever grateful for their help and support. In my acceptance speech, I profusely thanked the judges — to be recognised by them for what I do was such a validation. If nothing else, it made me see myself as an actual artist and perhaps I wasn’t as bad as I thought I was!
What, or who, is your biggest inspiration?
David Shepherd is by far my biggest inspiration. He was one of the pioneers for wildlife artists and I love his style, but it was his conservation work that inspired me the most. Unfortunately, he passed away recently but his legacy lives on through his incredible family, many of whom are insanely talented artists themselves, and through his Foundation, which makes such a difference in the world of conservation. I am extremely proud to be associated with him and his organisation.
Where is next on your bucket list?
My bucket list is as tall as I am. As much as I will always be an African, I think I would gain so much in terms of inspiration and art growth by spending time in a big city such as New York or London. So who knows, I’m a blank canvas right now.