Authentic and accurate, Colin Woolf’s wildlife paintings do so much more than simply depict nature – they draw the viewer into the landscape, as Janet Menzies explains
Colin Woolf was once told he would never be able to paint for a living. But having done so for 25 years, he understands that sporting art is much more than making a living. He has a responsibility to represent the real countryside, as he tells Janet Menzies.
Colin Woolf was always going to be a professional wildlife artist. The only problem was that nobody, including Woolf himself, quite realised it, though he admits his parents should have taken the hint. “I was four years old and I was already covering paper and they kept running out.”
Even so, Colin Woolf had no formal training in art, explaining: “When I was at school you couldn’t do art and science together and as I was all about natural history, I was guided into the zoology and science direction.”
But art would out, as he remembers. “I bumped into the art teacher at school and asked if I could take art A level, which I ended up doing in my lunch breaks although he wasn’t terribly encouraging. He actually said I would never make a living from painting – which is exactly what I have been doing for the past 25 years.”
It is easy to see why Woolf’s paintings of gamebirds and wildfowl are so desirable. Of course they are utterly authentic and accurate – he’s been studying them ever since his boyhood in the New Forest – but he also has an empathy and understanding of his subject, sometimes going so far as to paint with a feather of the species he is depicting. His study of barnacle geese grazing in a snow storm is particularly atmospheric. “My wife and I were at Islay in 2009, which was a year that the sea actually froze,” he says, explaining how it came about.
“We saw all these barnacle geese coming in and landing and the snow was falling around them. We were so struck by how silent they were. You know, normally geese are pretty noisy but these birds were coming in and feeding and hardly putting their heads up as the snow whirled round them. It was as if they were caught in the moment. So that was what I painted. I always paint exactly what I see – and that means that I really see what I am looking at.”
Somehow, Colin Woolf has also painted what can’t be seen – the silence. Like so many contemporary sporting and wildlife artists, Woolf’s work offers his viewers much more than decorative scenes of nature. He aims to draw them into a real experience of the countryside, even if it’s controversial. He demonstrated at the BBC’s Countryfile Live show but found it a depressing experience. “The problem is that they present a sanitised view of the countryside. Ninety per cent of the people walking round basically weren’t that interested. It doesn’t give an entire view of the British countryside and someone really needs to stand up and say that the countryside is a completely different place from what the BBC describes.”
SHOWING THE REAL COUNTRYSIDE
The artists who portray our countryside spend more time in it than most people and, like many of his colleagues, Woolf has a strong opinion about the difference between farm-produced foods and wild food. Surprisingly, this makes sporting and wildlife art every bit as political and topical as any weird piece of Turner Prize-winning installation art – perhaps more so, since the food we eat and the way we live in our environment are major issues of today.
Exhibiting his work gives Woolf an opportunity to engage the public with the topic. “It is always good to talk to people about wildlife and the feel-good factor is even greater when you get a young person coming along who is already interested in drawing and you can give them tips and encourage them towards a career in art,” he says. “Art is not considered as a career in schools. Even if you study at art college you are still expected to get a ‘proper job’ afterwards. And yet teenagers are given the idea they can be popstars, which is much less realistic. I have been able to make a living from art and it is a wonderful career. But you do have to work really hard and you have to be prepared to take away the safety net and really commit to it.”
Genuine commitment and engagement is the key to success in any worthwhile project, which is perhaps why today’s commercialised presentation of the countryside has largely failed to win over the public. So Woolf and his colleagues need to keep on painting, whatever the weather, not just to delight the eye but also to ask the important questions.
Colin Woolf is exhibiting at Glaziers’ Art Fair, Glaziers Hall, London Bridge, on 25th and 26th October.
For more information, visit his website at www.wildlifewatercolourpaintings.co.uk