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Tony Foster: watercolour painter and explorer

Tony Foster: watercolour painter and explorer
26 Jul
Tony Foster is a watercolour painter, explorer, and RGS-IBG Fellow

The exhibition is all about perceptions of beauty. I couldn’t be the sole arbiter of what was considered beautiful in the world, so I asked a whole group of people that I call ‘luminaries’ – all world experts in their field – ‘Where’s the most beautiful wild place you’ve ever seen?’

Sir David Attenborough said the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen was when he put on fins and dived underwater onto a coral reef, so I had to figure out a way of painting that. I sat on the bottom with extra weight belts, and did drawings of the fish and coral on plastic drafting film.

With everybody else nominating all these places, which I was duty bound to go to, I thought I should nominate somewhere myself. So, I thought as a contrast, I would go to places I can walk to out of my own back door. Cornwall is one of the most beautiful places in the world to me, it’s just that living there you tend not to think so. There’s no real reason to have to go 8,000 miles to do a painting, there are plenty of great paintings on your own backdoor.

I’m a painter who started exploring. If I stopped exploring I’d continue to paint but if I stopped painting I wouldn’t explore. I used to be a pop artist, but in the end I got fed up with second-hand imagery. It was too far removed from what I wanted to say. So I thought, ‘What do I care about? I care about the environment; I’ve always been an environmentalist. I enjoy hiking and living outdoors. I like adventures. Perhaps I ought to do work about that?’ So I started to develop this way of working and realised that the process was almost as interesting as the work itself.

All my work is about what it’s actually like to be there, it’s not simply about putting a frame around a piece of landscape and copying it. What I want people to experience is this sense of absorbing yourself in a place; not just what the place looks like, but what it feels like, what the weather’s like, what animals you encounter and what happens to you during a period of time.

All my exhibitions have a definite theme and a definite start and finish. The new Foster Art & Wilderness Foundation was set up in order to keep them together rather than having them distributed through lots of collectors.

What’s so lovely about being a painter is that everybody is interested in what you’re doing

I don’t take photographs. I find that, first of all, the colour just isn’t subtle enough. Secondly, my paintings are about time spent, whereas a photograph is a sixtieth of a second and that’s it. Also, if you look at a photograph you find that the colour of the shadow is just a dead black. Whereas if you look at the colour of an actual shadow in real life there are all sorts of shades in there which the camera doesn’t get. So I’ve never, ever used photographs.

The place I’ve painted more than anywhere else is the Grand Canyon (see below). Certainly there are some places I’ve done that I don’t feel the need to go back to, such as Greenland for example. Some places are obviously much easier to work in than others. Rainforests are very, very difficult because you’re being bitten all the time, you’re sweating, you’re covered in mud and leeches, you’re wet. It is dismal. The Canyon I find a very comfortable place to work, although of course it can be scorchingly hot.

I cut my kit down to the absolute minimum. My paintbox is the size of about ten cigarettes, and I never use any other paintbox. Every single brushstroke in this exhibition has been done from that box. I have a folding drawing board that I’ve invented, made out of marine ply, but much lighter. That goes onto my backpack, which I then fold out and lash down to the landscape, bang in tent pegs and guy lines, peg my paper onto it and just sit and work. The process is simple, but it does take a lot of concentration.

Of course you can’t paint every leaf, although sometimes you feel you’ve got to. You have to distil it as best you can until you get that overwhelming sense of just being right inside all this stuff, but without having to depict every leaf, which literally would drive you insane.

What’s so lovely about being a painter is that everybody is interested in what you’re doing. You turn up in somebody’s little community, get your drawing board out, stretch out your paper, and everybody wants to know what on Earth you’re doing. You’re no threat to anybody, you’re not there to steal anything, you’re not there to exploit them – in fact exactly the opposite. Quite often in Nepal and places like that you become a huge part of their income.




1946 Born in Lincolnshire

1985 Debut exhibition Thoreau’s Country: Walks and Canoe Journeys Through New England

1988 Awarded the Yosemite Renaissance Prize

2002 Awarded the RGS-IBG Cherry Kearton Memorial Medal

2008 Painting at the Edge of the World: The Watercolours of Tony Foster published

2016 Exploring Beauty: Watercolour Diaries from the Wild opens in Truro

Tony Foster's latest exhibition, Exploring Beauty: Watercolour Diaries from the Wild, is on at the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro until 12 November

This was published in the August 2016 edition of Geographical magazine.

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