Environmental paintings

Jonathan Sainsbury - Dodo and Grenada doves

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Dodo and Grenada doves - watercolour - 28" x 28", exhibited Society of Animal Artists USA, private collection

From childhood, I have thought about the environment and nature.  My student years were a time when DDT was widely used, bird populations were falling and Rachel Carson’s ‘Silent Spring’ was published.  The number of creatures world-wide on the Endangered Species’ list grew, Carl Andre’s ‘Bricks’ were shown at the Tate Gallery in London.  

I made a piece, that I called ‘Tiger Bricks’, which was  a framed block of bricks, painted with tiger stripes, weighing exactly the same as a Balinese tiger, which had just been declared extinct.  Ironically, after I gave it to an environmental charity, they lost it!

In art college, I painted extinct or threatened creatures.  I made animated light-boxes running on clockwork, showing painted scenes of English nature changing throughout the course of a day: the sun rising, birds singing, swallows wheeling, the sun sinking, the moon rising,  nocturnal creatures emerging.

In the early 1970s, I worked in the Scenery Department of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon.  Here I learned to paint backdrops on a large scale.  With the Company I  travelled to Japan, meeting people still affected by the Atom bomb.  Later, I went to Nepal, India, Sri Lanka, aided by the World Pheasant Association to sketch rare species in the wild.  

Conservation and environment underpin all my work.  Here are some examples:
‘Logging Elephant’, is  working Indian elephant in her harness, rust staining her hide.  She is well-cared for, valued as a working animal , but framed by bulldozer tyre marks, threatening to replace her.  ‘The Stalking Pony’ – a native Highland breed – is also shown in harness with a stag; a rainbow indicating the biblical promise that the balance of Nature and man will always be preserved.

Within my Square Series I juxtapose endangered species as deliberate arrangements: Brown Hares and Corncrakes, Brown Hares and Skylarks, Bitterns and Water-voles, Capercaillie and Red Squirrels.  The combination of endangered Grenada doves and the Dodo, which was itself a pigeon, brings together extinct and nearly-extinct within the same family, to warn of what lies ahead.

As a field-artist, I use real encounters as inspiration for subject matter.  ‘Reciprocal Arrangement’ was prompted by an oil spill in South Wales that washed up dead oiled birds on our local beach.  I drew and painted them in charcoal and watercolour, then found a pearlescent paint to show the oil sheen.  That paint was oil-based paint.  I used it.  We are all bound up in environmental impact, none of us stands outside it.

Zoos offer encounters with exotic creatures and places to observe wildlife and the interaction with visitors.  ‘Gorilla’ is a portrait of a female in Edinburgh Zoo.  She looks at me and I look at her.