by Doreen Marion Gee –
How does he do it? is always my first thought whenever I gaze at a Robert Bateman painting. The raw power of a bald eagle in flight or the cool aplomb of regal swans are so impeccably portrayed, the creatures seem brushed by a heavenly hand. The results are elegant noble creatures of excruciating beauty. Robert’s paintings seem inspired by a sense of awe at the glory of the natural world, combined with an impassioned reverence for it. Though I would never assume to know what drives the gifted artist, I caught a fleeting glimpse of the person behind the masterful strokes of colour. His art seems to be rooted in a deep empathy for the wild animals and natural world he recreates – and his zeal to understand them.
Our very own Salt Spring treasure, acclaimed artist Robert McLellan Bateman is a legend in his own time. His canvases beautify the walls of homes and museums around the world. Born in Toronto, he has been an avid naturalist and artist since childhood. His early imagination was aroused by the Group of Seven. After exploring diverse artistic styles, he adopted “realism” in his 30s. The artist’s singular finesse with a paintbrush earned him critical acclaim starting in the ’70s and continues to this day. His art draws crowds at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. and the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Just a smattering of Robert’s larger-than-life achievements include over a million copies sold of books about his art and life; multiple awards and 14 honorary doctorates; and being named an Officer of the Order of Canada and a Member of the Order of British Columbia. Many of his early works thrill audiences at The Robert Bateman Centre in Victoria, B.C.
Robert Bateman’s enthusiasm for all things wild and natural is poignantly expressed by the artist: “I can’t conceive of anything being more varied, rich and handsome than planet earth; its crowning beauty is the natural world.” This passion underlies his commitment to ecology and the preservation of nature. The last part of the quote shows Robert’s deeply empathic approach to his craft. By immersing himself within the organic world that inspires his creations, he takes an insider’s view of its heart and essence: “I want to soak it up, to understand it … then put it together and express it in my painting. This is the way I want to dedicate my life.”
“I want it to look as if what I do never happened” is Robert’s cryptic and fascinating window into the process behind his art. “I want the final picture to look like it just occurred now. I don’t want it to look staged or contrived.” Perhaps the artist’s skilled and precise brush-strokes transcend the mere canvas, giving his wild subjects an immediate realness to the viewer. It’s almost as if Robert wants people to step into his painted scenes and feel them on a visceral level.
Staring into the impossibly realistic face of Robert Bateman’s bear in his mesmerizing “Grizzly Head Study,” I swear that I can hear the animal panting. While talking with the artist, I learn why: “Whenever I paint a sentient being, I try to put myself into their skin, and experience what they are feeling. I did that with the grizzly bear.” By becoming the grizzly, Robert gives us eyes into the soul of that magnificent beast with every brush-stroke. We see and feel its strength, its power, and perhaps its vulnerabilities as it morphs into a living, breathing creature. Robert’s ability to transport us into the world of his creations reveals the genius of this innovative artist.
The candid painter quickly corrects the popular misconception that he focuses on drawing every hair and feather of his beloved wild subjects. In conveying the essence and spirit of the grizzly, he is much more interested in its whole form than its parts. “I am not after every hair. If anything, I am after the air between the hairs, the feeling of the clumps of hair, and the muscles and bones beneath the hair.” Maybe the great power and beauty of the massive animal in Robert’s painting comes from the intense empathy and feeling directing those brush strokes.
The extraordinary talents of Robert Bateman have enriched the lives of people across the globe by injecting beauty, joy and wonder into their everyday existence. His books of art and his public speaking have educated all ages on the marvels of wildlife and their habitat and the need to hold them dear. We are all fortunate that he graciously invites us into the natural world he is creating on canvas so that we can feel its pulse, power, and glory.
Grizzly Head Portrait, acrylic on board, 16″ x 24″, 2003.