Zaza Shelley is meticulous in her preparation, which involves hours of careful observation. The results speak for themselves. By Janet Menzies
It is rare to find sporting art that is actually about the animals but this is what Zaza Shelley has dedicated herself to. Hours of careful observation is how she achieves it, as Janet Menzies discovers.
For more sporting art, the work of Kate Brooks is full of character but never anthropomorphised and Nichola Eddery is painting the sporting giants with deliberate reference to the equine artist greats.
What is wildlife and sporting art actually about? This question is not as obvious as it may appear. Sometimes it is about art – the wonderful painterly pieces of old and contemporary masters. Sometimes it is about sport or nature. It may even be about politics, when the artist seeks to convey a message about his subject matter. Surprisingly, it is rare for wildlife and sporting art actually to be about the animals.
Zaza Shelley’s work is absolutely about the animals. Without ego or pretension, her execution and technique are dedicated to depicting the inner truth of the animal itself. Backgrounds are minimal. Expressions are massive. Zaza Shelley agrees: “I like to capture the character of the animal I am drawing. I want the viewer to see that there’s somebody in there when they look at one of my animals. If I don’t feel I have managed to do that, then the work doesn’t make it past the bin.”
Whether they know it or not, Shelley’s animals are sitting for their portraits just like humans do. “I always draw from life – and end up spending a lot of time at West Midlands Safari Park. I also work at Edinburgh Zoo. I will sit for a day with some of the animals before I start to draw. With my recent flamingo work, I spent the whole weekend just watching them and getting to know them – finding out which is the one who prefers to be on his own, which is the bossy one, and so on.”
Do Shelley’s subjects know they are being painted? “Oh yes, I feel a strong sense of communication,” stresses Zaza Shelley, but it’s not always what you might expect. “Some can be very aloof with you. I’m painting a saddleback sow at the moment and she was eating and didn’t look up once. I respect where she was coming from – but the male saddleback was eyeing me the whole time and checking me out and I liked that as well.”
One of Shelley’s favourite subjects is Yang Guang, the male giant panda at Edinburgh Zoo. The sitting began just after Yang Guang had been fed. “They had put a whole load of bamboo in a traditional hay manger for him, and he took it all out, stripped the leaves off and stacked it up alongside the manger. Then he got into the manger and made himself comfy with his feet hanging over the edge and the bamboo stash all ready within easy reach. He spent the afternoon working his way through it and he knew exactly what he was at. It just reminded me so much of some man settling in to watch the football on telly with his beers close to hand. I drew the pandas on massive sheets of brown parcel paper so that I could capture their presence. The completed work is about two metres square.”
The chimpanzees were rather less laid back. “I had started off drawing one called Paul but he obviously didn’t like me drawing him and I didn’t want to be intrusive so I started drawing his friend, Dave, instead. From the look on his face Dave had been trying to get me to draw him right from the beginning. Dave certainly knew what was going on. There was a great temptation to turn the painting round when I had finished and see what he thought of it. I wish I had.”
Some of Shelley’s subjects remain as elusive to capture as an A-list celebrity – and these are not the glamorous and rare animals you might imagine. She confesses: “Sheep. I just can’t get them. My kitchen window looks on to a sheep field and I watch their behaviour but I don’t seem able to connect. And they are about the most common farm animal, so really I must get there.”
Shelley’s other challenge is equally commonplace: poultry. Here, though, she is being helped by the strenuously narcissistic efforts of Henry, a cockerel. “I was trying to paint the hens but Henry just kept parading up and down in front of me, as if to say, ‘Have you got my best side?’ I really don’t think we are anthropomorphising these animals. When you spend so long observing them, you can tell what they are thinking, even if it is non-verbal.”
Perhaps this is a clue to her difficulties with sheep and hens – because of all animals on the planet, they have to be among the dimmest.