Since my childhood elephants have seemed to me to be the most beautiful of nature’s animals. Its size alone and its unbelievably beautiful head with the long trunk. Since my childhood in Africa the elephant has been the animal I prize most. If one compares the tiger with the elephant, as I have done in my paintings of the two animals, they are complementary to one another. During a two-year stay in Helsingfors/Helsinki in 1985 I visited the Finnish Zoological Museum regularly, where I studied their unique collection of animal skeletons. It was a great experience to see and draw these animal skeletons. It was especially the skeletons of the tiger and the elephant that fascinated me, because they were animals I was already busy painting. It is worth mentioning that the following year I exhibited at the Frie Exhibition Gallery with the artists group Violet Sun, with a whole gallery full of 2 metre tall paintings of animal skeletons. Many were shocked at this and thought I was morbidly fixated on death. The fact was that I was trying to get inside the animal itself. The inspiration for this was from the great English animal painter, George Stubbs (1724-1806), who is best known for his horse paintings, but who has also made many studies of the horse’s skeleton. To be able to understand how a horse stood on its legs, how the head rested on the neck and all the other physical things that a painter has to understand if he is to be successful at painting an animal.
He is said to have got a dead tiger from a circus. He got it home and made extensive drawings of the animal’s anatomy and skeleton. These have later been used by students of zoology, so precisely had they been drawn. Making these skeleton studies in Finland brought a new addition to my painting, it altered my conception of the animals concerned. Before this I imagined the elephant to be a big lump of flesh, and not a mammal with a skeleton like other animals. Especially the skull caught my attention, but not least the feet, because they were so different to the idea I had of them previously. Similarly it turned out that the tiger’s skeleton was identical to the lion’s and the leopard’s, the only difference was the size. After these skeleton studies I have looked at animals I painted in a different way, because I understand what their movements and physical build are like. It gives me a freedom to paint my compositions as I know what is inside the skin of the animals.
In these two drawings of a tiger and elephant skeleton, you can see the difference between the shape of the skull and several other bones. However, both are mammals and therefore have the same bones as we humans also have. From an artist’s point of view the tiger is a wild object to paint in contrast to the large calm shape of the elephant.
I paint the tiger and its stripes with long coloured strokes. In a way it has a visible skeleton, where the stripes are its ribs. This gives the tiger a certain volume on the canvas.
These light and dark stripes also give an impression of a dynamic creature, expressing power and savagery. It is accentuated by the colours, which contribute to expressing the animals psyche. On the other hand I paint the elephant’s volume with a single colour, which gives it exactly the right shape, while thinking about how the animal has been created. Thus it is not only the contour that I perceive, – that would give a hollow impression, but the whole elephant. This helps to give the colour the correct extent on the canvas. With these pictures I experienced that if the proportions of the elephant were not correct, then the colour did not work in relation to the other colours. That gave a false colour base compared to the colour base which arose when the shape was correct.
You can see the same phenomenon in the icons from the early Renaissance, called the Sienna School. It is obvious that they too worked with these universal problems concerning shape and colour. So each time you dive inside the painting and discover something new, you have the joy of having one’s gains confirmed in another branch of art. Used in a completely different context, however.
Just as the study of animal skeletons alters one’s conception of how animals function, it is also important to find the ‘skeleton’ of the picture to understand art.
In Avignon there is a very large collection of icons from the Sienna School which I have studied assiduously.