It might come as a surprise, but Robert Bateman says his heart goes to scenes of pastoral beauty before wilderness. In fact, his ideal place is his lakeside home and studio in the middle of B.C.’s Saltspring Island, with a 1930s farmhouse, a few apple trees and a host of birdfeeders in the yard. That’s not to say the prolific painter isn’t stirred by untamed nature — his powerful depictions of wildlife have brought him international recognition. Here Bateman shares more about his philosophy, inspiration and method.
The most important thing in any piece of art is the thought — what you have decided is worth doing. Having a freshness of concept is key, because so much wildlife art is the same thing over and over again.
I always try to stay open. The idea for my fairly well-known painting Cardinal and Sumac (pictured), for example, came at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. A man wearing a vermilion-red turban walked by a terracotta rust-redcoloured wall — part of an exhibit on Indian village art — and I said, “Red on red! I’ve got to do a painting like that.”
I always like my paintings best before I first start them. If they’re worth their salt, if there’s a solid, interesting idea, they always get worse, and I start to dislike them and don’t know why. When I’m immobilized, I start a new one to cheer me up. Usually, by the time I’m on my fifth, the muse has touched me, and I have a little breakthrough with the first.
It’s all about seeing your place. Georgia O’Keeffe said, “Nobody sees a flower. … To see takes time like to have a friend takes time.” Similarly, nobody sees their place, really. If all Canadians took that time, we would have a much more wonderful country. We should make “friends” of our places. That’s wildlife painting, and that’s geography.