Exploring Beauty: Watercolour Diaries from the Wild

23 Days Painting the Canyon – From West of Navajo Point, 2013. Watercolour and graphite on paper, map, stone arrowhead by Homer Etherton 23 Days Painting the Canyon – From West of Navajo Point, 2013. Watercolour and graphite on paper, map, stone arrowhead by Homer Etherton Foster Art & Wilderness Foundation
10 Jun
New exhibition by painter-explorer Tony Foster depicts natural beauty around the world, as nominated by distinguished ‘luminaries’

John Ruskin once wrote: ‘it is not possible to find a landscape, which, if painted precisely as it is, will not make an impressive picture’. Admirable and comforting to those lesser-talented artists among us these words might be, they don’t counter the argument that the more impressive and beautiful a landscape is, the more impressive and beautiful any paintings of it will correspondingly be.

Tony Foster, RGS-IBG Fellow and renowned painter-explorer, is using his latest exhibition, supported by the new Foster Art & Wilderness Foundation, to celebrate some of the world’s most beautiful scenery, and translate it into highly attractive watercolour paintings. After collecting nominations from various ‘luminaries’ – including naturalist Sir David Attenborough, explorer Robin Hanbury-Tenison, and Director Emeritus of Kew Botanical Garden Professor Sir Ghillean Prance – of where they felt were the most beautiful places they had ever been, Foster set off, foldable drawing board strapped to his back, to locate and paint these varying scenes of beauty.

cornwallThree Ways to Describe Plantlife/Three Wildlife Observation — Tywardreath Marsh Looking South, 2015. Watercolour and graphite on paper, map, ceramic shard, acrylic box (Image: Foster Art & Wilderness Foundation)

The exhibition depicts Foster’s global journeys – from Greenland to Borneo to the Atacama desert – however it starts in Cornwall, his own back garden, which Foster nominated himself. Vivid colours of wildflowers, moss-covered boulders and twisted tree branches shows clearly his determination for this region to sit comfortably with the range of stunning landscapes and natural settings in the rest of the collection. Lush greens make Tywardreath Marsh and the Luxulyan Valley feel like they are bursting out of the frame, assisted, as with all of Foster’s paintings, by a small collection of ‘souvenirs’ included alongside each picture, to help mentally transport the observer into the natural scene, to the exact spot where Foster sat whilst painting.

reefDive 106 – Vilamendhoo (Detail), 2007. Watercolour and graphite on paper, crayon-pencil on plastic film. David Attenborough’s request for a watercolour of a coral reef meant Foster had to make initial drawings using crayon whilst underwater, before recreating them with paints back on land (Image: Foster Art & Wilderness Foundation)

The focus of the exhibition is arguably the enormous Grand Canyon painting, which stretches across an entire wall, and took Foster 23 days to complete. Along with the usual selection of souvenirs collected ‘from the field’, as well as a set of smaller accompaniments depicting various other stunning viewpoints and perspectives on the canyon, he takes advantage of an extraordinary vantage point to illustrate the landscape in staggering detail; from the constantly-varying shades of rock formation, to the assorted green vegetation, to the river flowing way below, it’s a majestic image which could easily be studied for hours.

muluLooking Out from Deer Cave, Mulu – Six Days, 2015. Watercolour and graphite on paper, beads (wood, glass, plastic), filament, animal tooth, map, glass button, acrylic box (Image: Foster Art & Wilderness Foundation)

The most pleasing characteristics of Foster’s paintings are their raw quality and the personality and humour he injects. Many paintings include notes and diary entries he has scribbled whilst painting – which vary from simply ‘Trees’ to one from his collection from Borneo which reads: ‘Every painting day starts with a swim in the river to wash off the spiders webs and biting insects’. Another goes: ‘Even quite respectable looking people seem compelled to make weird loud noises in rainforests’.

tonyTony Foster painting at Valle de la Luna, Atacama, Chile. November 2015 (Image: Mattias Lanas/Foster Art & Wilderness Foundation)

Foster speaks of his wish to inspire people to value these parts of the world simply because of their beauty, and this, his 16th ‘journey’, utilises 50 stunning paintings, created over the past decade which truly capture the essence of each location, the very best of each beautiful landscape. It’s a triumph of ambitious exploration, patience, attention to detail, and an eye for spotting – and painstakingly recreating – natural beauty in an increasingly hyperfast world.

Exploring Beauty: Watercolour Diaries from the Wild is on at the Bankside Gallery, London, until 26 June, at the Royal Cornwall Museum, Truro, from 15 July until 12 November, and at the Foster Art & Wilderness Foundation, Palo Alto, California from 27 January – December 29 2017

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