Francesca Sanders explains to Janet Menzies why landscapes are wrongly underrated, deserving of the same attention as portraits
The Impressionist influences of sporting artist Francesca Sanders means she relies on painting in the great outdoors to capture the landscapes she depicts, finds Janet Menzies.
Find out how Red Rum launched retired jockey-turned-sculptor Philip Blacker’s career.
Take a look at how sporting artist Elie Lambert captures the beauty of the horse with vibrant colours.
Although painting en pleine air conjures up romantic images of artists at work amid rolling landscapes with their Byronic locks ruffled in the breeze, in reality Francesca Sanders had been out buying a hacksaw just before we talked. She explained: “The hacksaw is for my new design of easel. They haven’t developed a new easel since about 1820, so I am trying to make it more streamlined. I was at my parents during lockdown and I was working with Dad in the workshop to improve it. Today painting outdoors is unusual, with people painting so much from photographs. My Impressionist influences mean that I rely on being outdoors but I think we are in a minority – and I see why sometimes.”
Perhaps it is this literally down-to-earth aspect of landscape and wildlife painting that has led to the genre being considered somehow less worthy than portraiture or modernism, but Francesca Sanders believes it is more important than ever to take notice of the stories of animals in their environment that are being depicted by landscape art. “For example, landscape has no real equivalent of the BP Portrait Award and it does irritate me that it is still not so highly regarded as a genre. With a landscape you are capturing a place that will outlive you. There is a humility in our outdoor world. I feel I am doing a portrait of a place rather than a human being.”
Even Leonardo would have sympathised with her, as he had to prove to the Sforzas and the Medicis that an artist was more than just a glorified interior decorator. Sanders points out: “In the Renaissance they used religion as a narrative to tell a particular story and I think now we can recover that.”
The story Sanders wants to tell is one of today’s most pressing issues: how we can save our natural environment. “I don’t think people talk about this properly, so I want to change the conversation that we have about conservation.
“As an artist I try to take in the whole story. When I first started painting full time I went to the north of Kenya and rented a car and it broke down all the time and I met all these great people who came to help me. I learnt so much. So you don’t just paint the elephant, you paint the story, and that is part of the joy of doing it. You meet people who are trying to protect the landscape and the wildlife.”
Sanders’ experience has shown her the complexities of this mission, with conflicting pressures on wild environments. She is a trustee of Lewa Wildlife Conservancy, which works to protect Kenya’s highly endangered animals through a holistic programme of education, economic revival and protection. Sanders explains: “There is a need to understand the obvious priorities of the local people to survive and feed their families. This is the big problem. The most successful thing to do is to get local people working and employed in the conservation areas, to be invested in their landscape.”
That sense of investment is something often taken for granted by those of us lucky enough to enjoy our own landscape for recreation – to shoot, or fish, or just walk. Many of Sanders’ paintings describe the scene on the way to sport, with evocative titles like The Road North, which will resonate instantly with those heading towards the grouse in August.
She says: “I have been trying to think about the road. It is that moment, after working in the London studio, when you leave the place where you are in control all the time and you go into the wilderness where nature controls you.
“I do ask myself why that is important. I hope I am painting something that people can look at and go, ‘Yes, that means something to me.’ It is a sense of place. Whenever I paint something I am thinking, what am I trying to learn? And what I love is that I do get to learn something. When I was studying I went out to Italy and learnt the quite strict demands of portrait painting, and I have taken that Italian method and applied it to landscape and wildlife painting. So the technique of oil painting itself is always teaching you, and you shouldn’t try to control it too much. You go out to paint and you don’t know what you are going to get. I might get delayed by an elephant, and that gives you perspective. It means that I can’t really stop.”
For more details about her work, visit: francescasanders.com
To learn more about Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya, visit: lewa.org