Artist inspired by a love for wildlife

Otters in Scotland
Otters in Scotland

Robert Fuller, based in Thixendale, is one of Britain’s foremost wildlife artists. His paintings sell all over the world, his trademark, highly-detailed images having been “adopted” by the RSPB and the National Trust.

He has exhibited in wildlife galleries across Europe, and he is a recognised authority on wildlife, often appearing on TV. Here, in an exclusive interview with “Pulse” author Steve Rudd, Robert waxes lyrical about painting-orientated field-trips to places as far-flung as the Galapagos Islands and the Isle of Islay..

2014 has proved to be yet another busy and exciting year for you and your artwork. What have been the highlights for you?

My visit to the Galapagos Islands in May was the most incredible fact-finding mission of my career so far. I saw so many weird and wonderful creatures, and learned so much about how conservationists are working to protect species for the future, I couldn’t put my paintbrushes down when I got back. I was so inspired that I painted five new original paintings of Galapagos species within weeks of my return and held an exhibition of this new work, as well as photographs from my journey, which seemed to also inspire many others. It was very rewarding. Also this year, I have seen some important conservation work come to fruition closer to home, my own effort to support a pair of barn owls and their fledglings having been a great success. They have even gone on to have a second brood, due to hatch soon. Barn owls are my favourite bird, and I have painted them often, but the last few years has been very difficult for local populations, and it is so rewarding to think that my small efforts to sustain the few remaining barn owls that live near Thixendale has been a success. Seeing the barn owl eggs hatch successfully was probably the greatest highlight of the year.

Reflecting on your formative years as an artist, what was it that initially motivated you to start painting with a view to making a living from doing so?

I started sketching wildlife at thirteen years of age. Art was the only subject that I excelled in at school, so to try to make a living from it was an obvious choice. My first sales were to Chester Zoo, where I had had a summer job whilst studying Wildlife Illustration at Carmarthen College of Art. I was so delighted when staff at the zoo bought the sketches of the animals I’d made in my spare-time that I decided there and then that it was possible to make a career out of my paintings.

Playing to your passion, you rapidly forged a route into wildlife painting... but did you ever commit landscapes or people’s portraits to canvas before focusing specifically on wildlife?

Wildlife has always been my first passion. Despite efforts by lecturers at Art College to try to get me to focus on other things, I always reverted to painting, or drawing wild animals or birds. Even in secondary school, I would turn assignments such as a still-life into wildlife-orientated subjects, positioning fish or fowl in my arrangements instead of fruit.

It is regularly remarked that wildlife painting is the most difficult kind of painting of all, not least because it requires incredible talent to be able to capture the essence of any animal through brushstrokes alone. What would you say is the ‘secret’ to bringing wildlife ‘to life’ in a painting?

The real secret is knowing your subject well. I spend years getting close to each fox or deer or bird that I paint, so by the time I pick up a paintbrush, it’s as though I am painting an old friend. Once you are painting something you know well, then you get each brushstroke right, and you are able to convey the very expression of their characters... which, of course, brings your picture to life.

Where and when did you stage your first exhibition, and how did you feel about the feedback you received?

My first exhibition was at Talent Fine Arts Gallery in Malton, and it was a great success. All my pictures sold out which was very encouraging.

Do you think the opening of your own gallery at Thixendale was inevitable?

I always wanted to have my own gallery, so yes... it’s an ambition I have fulfilled.

The Thixendale area aside, in which other parts of Britain do you feel ‘at home’?

I have just returned from my tenth visit to Isle of Islay in Scotland, and I would say I know it better than anywhere else. The whole island teems with wildlife, and I go there at different times of year, as often as I can, to see hares in the spring, roe deer in the summer, red stags in autumn, and barnacle geese in the winter.

In light of the quality and quantity of your output over the past decade, you have understandably garnered a reputation as being the UK’s leading painter of wildlife. How does it feel to know your paintings are so admired and sought-after?

It is an honour to be described as such, and I’m very proud to think that people like what I do.

In light of where you live and work, have you ever bumped into David Hockney?

No, but then we paint very different subjects, so we’re likely to be in different places. He has painted a landscape featuring my gallery and home in it, though!

Do you think it is fair to liken the act of painting to meditation?

I don’t think so. I usually listen to the radio when I paint, and I’m aware of the birds outside the studio, even whilst I’m concentrating on the picture in front of me – so I don’t miss any action.

You have just recently shown a selection of Galapagos-inspired work at your gallery. What do you enjoy most about inviting art connoisseurs over to Thixendale to view your work?

It’s a wonderful feeling to share my work with people. Often, they also really like wildlife, so we swap stories about sightings.

I’ve heard on the grapevine that you’re hoping to stage another exhibition in November. What form is such an exhibition likely to take, and what do you have planned in the meantime?

My next exhibition in Thixendale will be a special Christmas show focusing on the wildlife that can be found on the Yorkshire Wolds. I’m going to be picking out my favourite Yorkshire wildlife, and encouraging visitors to share their Yorkshire favourites, too. It opens on November 8th and will run until the 30th. I am also in the process of planning an exhibition at Burton Agnes Hall in which I will be showing pictures of the wildlife that can be found in landscaped grounds and award-winning gardens. That exhibition is due to run between September 12th and October 4th.

Finally, what is the best way for people interested in your work to find out more?

The best way to find out more is to visit the gallery; there are always new things happening, along with events for visitors to take part in. I also write a weekly blog and have a Facebook page which I keep up-to-date with all the latest events. My website at www.robertefuller.com is also regularly updated, and you can see most of my paintings on there.