‘Sacred space’ completed
At long last the worst kept secret in my life is out.
The gigantic commissioned charcoal engraving of an African elephant family has been completed and installed in its magnificent new home. Entitled ‘Sacred space – African elephants’ the huge work took 3 months of solid slog to bring to life…and this does not take into account the journey and time spent in Tanzania researching the subject matter.
The days, weeks and months I worked on this piece were both a joy (and like most good art) terribly taxing on my mind and body. The sheer scale demanded a type of physicality not always encountered in traditional wildlife art. But the vision I needed to create was informed and empowered by my time spent with the elephants themselves in Tanzania.so in the final analysis it simply HAD to come into existence….I owed it to the elephants…. and I owed it to Ben and Alice my marvellous, trusting clients who had enough faith in me to come up with the goods. And here come the goods now….out of that huge furniture trailer.
In the front door and it suddenly dawns on my clients just what they have gotten themselves into.
Hint….it’s very big and it’s very heavy!!
Up goes the scaffold………..all of the neighbours and friends join the fray!
My partner Christine and client Alice look on with some trepidation as Ben adds another section of scaffolding!!
I did tell you it is big guys J!!!!
My client Ben .looks impressed (or is it slightly overwhelmed?) at the scale and also the difficulty anticipated in the heavy lift up to where the artwork is to hang.
And now the final lift and settling the work onto its special hanging rails.
And finally….after all those months of planning and anticipation it has arrived. ‘Sacred space – African elephants’ is installed in its forever home and I can relax on the mezzanine viewing area.
Steve’s trip to study China’s giant pandas
ABC Ballarat - Wild art... and stories
By Margaret Burin
He's rolled around bamboo forests with giant pandas, stared deep into the eyes of large endangered lions and fled from a gigantic charging African elephant. Ballarat-based artist Steve Morvell gets to know his subjects.
see article and play interview: ABC Ballarat
WILD AUSTRALIA with Steve Morvell
Australian Artist Magazine feature
Travelling to other countries in search of wild experiences and wonderful creatures has taught me much….and some of it a little unexpected. Living as I do in Victoria’s Grampians National Park you might think I would be well aware of the beauty and uniqueness of Australian wildlife. After all I used to be a park ranger and have been a professional wildlife artist for over 30 years! My wildlife obsession pre dates even that and goes back to early childhood yet sometimes I need distance to get perspective and travelling to wild places in China, Nepal and Africa has given me that perspective.
But as they say there is no place like home and when it comes to critters you really have to go a very long way to beat the extraordinary nature of this ancient and weathered land which we know fondly as Oz. Sadly the magnificent animals of Australia have been largely ignored as an art genre. And although Oz is home to several of the world’s most highly regarded wildlife artists, doyens of the art establishment here have consistently turned an indifferent eye away from the visual celebration of beauty which is Australian Wildlife Art. Happily for us the world at large is much more in love with the animals and art of Australia than we are and consequently much of our wildlife art ends up in overseas collections. My motives in painting and drawing wild animals are simple enough. I believe we spring from this earth and thus owe her something in return. It is my goal to raise awareness of the beauty and fragility of wildlife and the habitats in which we co-exist. So much of our populations now live in big cities that our intrinsic connections to nature have atrophied at an alarming rate. We lose that link at our own peril. As Paul Watson from Sea Shepherd said recently… “Earthworms do not need humans to survive but we ourselves would quickly perish without simple earthworms” At a very basic level my art just reflects what is going on around me and what I see as important.
‘Talking point-emus’ 50 x 122cm Charcoal engraving - drawing on board.
Sharing my life with 4 emu chicks was a blessing to me. I have had a fair amount of experience with injured and orphaned wildlife rehabilitation and living in the national park has given me the chance to repair and release many different creatures over the years. But when 4 one day old emu chicks came my way as a result of farm dogs killing the parent bird on his nest I had little idea what I was letting myself in for. Raising emu chicks is a little like having small feathered race horses running around the house! They are just as highly strung and almost as fast. Sometimes my old dog would just give me a pained look and roll his eyes when the stripy little bandits found some new mischief. But zany as they were they were also incredibly trusting and thought of me as their surrogate dad. I learned to love their playful antics and as they grew to adulthood, taking more and more to the surrounding bush I went with them on long rambles learning what berries and plants were good for emus to eat. When they finally returned to a wild existence in the national park life for me seemed a little duller. But I can always remember and art is a great key in bringing that experience to life for others. In this artwork I have focussed on the bond between the four bandits(as young adults)……..pooling the light on their faces and giving you a very private, intimate window into their conversation…..though I am guessing they are probably planning some mischief!
‘Dusk-red and western grey kangaroos’ 30 x 60cm Pastel - drawing on Colourfix paper
Not everything I paint is so close to home of course and I often take off on extended field trips into the bush. This pastel painting was the end result of a field trip into Sunset Country…the red sand belt bordering the inland corner of Victoria with South Australia and New South Wales. Ancient sea beds laid down millions of years ago have been revealed by millennia of weathering and the resultant starkness is achingly beautiful and especially so at dawn and dusk. Following days of sketching and photographing in 40+ degree heat I found this waterhole and after observing kangaroos coming in to drink at sunset I decided to build myself a hide at the very edge of the water. Here I could sit hidden from view sketching and photographing the creatures who came to slake their thirst as the day began to cool. Seeing two species of kangaroo drinking side by side is a rare event and this pastel painting on Colourfix paper records a Western grey kangaroo(on the left) drinking peacefully alongside a Red kangaroo. They do not interbreed at all but are apparently content as companions for this fleeting moment as the cool evening shadow begins to push away the hot glow of daytime.
‘Golden days-dingos’ 93 x 60cm Pastel - drawing on Colourfix paper
Once common in this same region, ruthless persecution by farmers has seen the Dingo vanish completely from this fragile ecosystem…only to be replaced by feral dogs which are much larger and often much more destructive…..without the instinctive fear of humans which characterises most dingos. There are two types of dingo…the so called mountain dingo and the desert dingo. The latter tends to be more rangy with a shorter coat. A relative of the Asian pale footed wolf, the dingo was brought to Australia thousands of years ago by aboriginal people. Since that time dingos have learned to live well in most habitats including the hottest of dry deserts. This pair is snatching a rest before the sun arches into its noonday zenith and becomes too hot to tolerate. As this pastel painting demonstrates well the dingo seems almost a part of the very desert landscape which gives it life. Sometimes its baked golden colour seems to grow right from the sand itself.…..perfect camouflage for a beautifully adapted and ancient canine.
‘On the move-red kangaroo’ 38 x 46cm Pastel - drawing on Colourfix paper
Even better adapted to the harsh Australian desert is this awesome male red kangaroo. Standing 2 metres tall, its magnificent colouration is subtle and harmonises so well that often such ‘Old man reds’ remain almost invisible until they stand bolt upright at the approach of a human. Then they appear to materialise out of the very earth itself before blasting away at the speed of a running horse. The hopping gait of the kangaroo is known to be the most energy-efficient form of locomotion for any land mammal and they can maintain it for hour upon hour as they cross the vast inland desert in search of waterholes. As a subject for painting there is none better….allowing me to play with the motion and also the soft blends of warm and cool colours in the big red’s coat. Soft pastel is ideal for such subtlety and the underlying cool grey of the Colourfix paper let me use the warm pastels to greatest advantage.
‘Brega-female wedgetailed eagle’ 40 x 51cm Charcoal - Drawing engraving on board
Sketching direct from life is really the best way to learn about any subject but doubly so with wildlife. Since cameras tend to record generalities and not specifics it is in closely studying our subject through sketching that we learn kinaesthetically. This reinforces our learning and tends to stay with us much longer than any slavish adherence to photographs alone. Many days I have sat in a hide sketching and photographing wild wedgetailed eagles….both young and adult….on the nest and at large in the skies. One of the world’s largest birds of prey ‘Wedgies’ are supreme fliers and very powerful. I have observed a pair of wedgetails even pull down a female kangaroo although more commonly they take much smaller prey or carrion. In this way they help to maintain healthy and clean ecosystems and sheep graziers have now learned to value them for cleaning up the carcasses of dead stock. Thankfully this once heavily hunted and poisoned bird is again common in the skies over many rural areas. As the subject for a charcoal engraving the wedgetail is without peer. This technique gives me real power over light and dark, letting me develop precise and intricate detail where it is needed and this was pivotal in showing this bird’s fierce expression and clarity of eye.
‘Startled-young barn owl’ 30 x 46cm Charcoal - Drawing engraving on board
Further on the subject of light and dark this little barn owl is another charcoal engraving which demonstrates the tonal power of the medium. I have strongly restricted all detail to the face and immediate plumage so that the viewer’s eye has nowhere else to focus. By pushing the rest of this handsome little bird back into deep shadow I have further highlighted the intimacy and drama of the pose. Minerva is an orphaned female barn owl who was raised and returned to the wild by a very good friend of mine. She adopted him as her surrogate parent and years on still returns to visit him once or twice a year for a free handout of mice. Although barn owls are quite common in rural Australia their soundless flight and nocturnal habit means most people never see them. When they do appear out of darkness these birds are softly silent and ghostly white. Floating weightless on broad muffled wings they seem as ghosts and indeed have long been represented as spirit beings in the traditional art of Australian aborigines.
‘A flash of wings-Pacific black duck’ 51 x 37cm Pastel - Drawing on Supertooth paper
When it comes to wings there seems little that could beat the beauty of the Pacific black duck. Most people would know the ‘black duck’ from parks and gardens around the cities. They are hardy and adaptable birds and quite ordinary looking until they open out their wings. Then the magnificent metallic speculum feathers are revealed in all their glory. These feathers are usually kept hidden under the wing coverts until the duck displays them in territorial demonstrations….usually after a punch up with some neighbour. Most often they appear unassuming and quite dull but given a reason by another bird they can be quite tyranical and belligerent in defence of their territory. To an artist like me these under rated birds offer a real challenge….. that of how to show their full beauty and true character. The very great naturalist Graham Pizzey once told me he thought the Pacific black duck to be the most under rated bird in Australia and I have to agree. This pastel painting was done on Art Spectrum’s Supertooth paper which is a wonderful, robust support. It is neutral in colour and takes heaps of pastel …layer upon layer without ever giving up on the job at hand. Its superb potential for layering allowed me to build up the great depth of colours needed for the water ripples and also the rich sheen of the metallic feathers.
‘Autumn glow-sulphur crested cockatoos’ 80 x 58cm Pastel - drawing on Supertooth paper
There is a wonderful golden ash tree growing in the garden near our back door. Since we moved to the house just over 12 months ago the local cockatoos have quickly learned we sometimes sprinkle a little seed around. I am constantly stunned by the clean, pure beauty of these avian characters, snowy white against the brilliance of golden deciduous foliage. Their brilliant yellow crests seem especially appropriate in this context. ‘Autumn glow –sulphur crested cockatoos’ depicts two of these birds on their favourite perch, waiting patiently for lunch to arrive. Soft pastel on my favourite Supertooth paper was a great choice for this very difficult subject. The paper took all of the punishment I could dish out and still gave me the brilliance of complimentary cool and warm colours needed to make this painting work.
‘Pink bells-red necked wallabies’ 67 x 40cm Pastel - drawing on Supertooth paper
One of my all-time favourite critters is the red necked wallaby. Beautiful and gentle animals which are very common here in the Grampians National Park, they have often been my neighbours …… sometimes even becoming tame enough to share my breakfast muesli on the door step. In this unusual pastel painting I have combined the wallabies with another favourite of mine…the gorgeous bushland plant Pink bells which flowers so profusely in spring….illuminating the eucalypt woodlands with its vibrant colour which is fiendishly difficult to paint as it appears to shift between mauve and pink and back again depending on how you look at it. This painting for me was all about the joy of spring with its gentle richness and suffused light. Happily Art Spectrum’s Supertooth paper gave me plenty of grip to pile on the pigments without which I may not have achieved the effect I was after.
Sitting here typing on my studio deck at Halls Gap, eastern grey kangaroos lay all about me on the grass, basking in the sunshine. I too could easily be lulled into complacency under the gentle autumn sun. Ancient weathered peaks of the Grampians rising up on either side cradle this lush green valley floor. Many birds call from the bush which surrounds this heaven on earth. Ducks cruise on the lake at the bottom of my garden and snowy drifts of improbably white cockatoos chatter as they float up and down on the soft breeze. Yes this is indeed a paradise for any artist and especially so for one who is passionately obsessed with wildlife. This is the land of Australia which gave birth to me and to which I owe my love of animals. It gave rise to the many artists and friends who visit here to share nature’s beauty with me and I feel obligated to give back what I can through sharing that same beauty in my art. Many collectors have taken away my impressions of Australia and they display them happily in countries all around the world. I like to think my paintings are each doing there bit to awaken other people to the magical beauty which nature offers us so freely. It nurtures each of us and brings meaning to our lives….and I for one feel blessed by that understanding.
A much loved teacher of mine at university once told me that whenever I was in doubt I should go to nature. He said nature has all of the answers and many times I have been blessed by this wisdom ….finding my centre time and again in nature. We should all try it…..get out of the suffocating cities. Learn to breathe again and learn to see beyond artificial horizons.
*STEVE MORVELL is a highly acclaimed environmental artist, dedicated to raising human awareness of the beauty and fragility of wildlife and the habitats in which we coexist. A deep need to understand animals on their own terms takes Steve to many wild places around the world researching the creatures of his art. His powerful and evocative work is exhibited internationally, winning many major art awards and hangs in private, public and corporate collections. Steve’s studio/gallery is located at Halls Gap in Victoria’s Grampians National Park. Here he teaches classes and also displays a large range of his original artworks.
Steve also regularly leads tours to other countries and this year in September/ October he and fellow wildlife artist Stephen Powell are conducting two safari adventure tours through Tanzania where people will have the chance to learn and enjoy the amazing kaleidoscope of Africa.