The Wilderness in Watercolour: How Art Inspires Awareness in the Digital Age

LONDON 2016. Artist, Tony Foster with his painting of the Grand Canyon: “Twenty-Three Days Painting the Canyon — From West of Navajo Point.” Photo by Cecily Grange.

Tony Foster, a 70-year-old watercolour artist based in Cornwall, England, spends up to several weeks at a time in the wilderness, studying and painting his environment. From Mt Everest to the Grand Canyon he ventures out, drawing board and paint box in hand, to take a virtual snapshot of nature, to share and be appreciated amongst his eagerly awaiting followers.

His latest series, Exploring Beauty: Watercolour Diaries from the Wild, which is currently on exhibition at the Bankside Gallery in London, was created over the span of 10 years. The project was inspired by some of the most beautiful places in the world, which were nominated by leading scientists, explorers and environmentalists, including Sir David Attenborough.

Foster travelled the world to create a series of paintings which explore the earth’s natural beauty. His intention was to capture the splendour of the wilderness in his art, and inspire the world to discover and appreciate the environment which surrounds us, and to consider the need to protect it.

Tony Foster “Looking 70° ENE to Machapuchare from a Hill 400' above Tadapani.” Machapuchare, Nepal 2014. Photo by Trevor Burrows Photography. Courtesy of Foster Art & Wilderness Foundation.

“It struck me that people are becoming utterly dependent on a technological fix, which is increasing the gap between the reality and the illusion of the world. I wanted to assert the idea that if you put your iPad down and go out and spend time away from all the urban temptations, you find extraordinary things,” says Foster.

Indeed in such a seemingly time-poor and technology-dependent society, it is not surprising then, that creating fine art using a traditional technique such as watercolour is becoming a rare occupation.

“My practice is to spend as long as I need to in one place to get the full experience of it and to convey that as best I can. Particularly in the scale to which I work — paintings up to 1.5m x 2.5m — that too, now appears completely impossible to people,” says Foster.

Tony Foster painting at the Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA 2013: “Twenty-Three Days Painting the Canyon — From West of Navajo Point.” Photo by Mike Buchheir. Courtesy of Foster Art & Wilderness Foundation.

“People aren’t prepared to spend time, like they used to. One painting in this show took me three weeks on site. The more time I spend in these places, the better the work is, I think, and the more authority it’s got,” he explains.

Foster’s adventurous expeditions to create art are as much challenging as they are rewarding. His work often involves hiking, kayaking or canoeing to a location and then living off the bare essentials whilst enduring extreme weather conditions.

“When I was doing the painting in the Andes in Chile, one evening I was camped at 15,500 feet and I was on my own, sitting behind a rock trying to get out of this piercing, bitterly cold wind, eating my dinner out of a foil bag. I then crawled into my tent to escape the wind and I thought, ‘What am I doing this for? I’m nearly 70 years old. This is an absurd way to make a living.’ But then you get the painting home and you think, ‘Actually it was worth it’,” says Foster.

An adventurer at heart, and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, Foster is drawn to the unpredictable environment of the wilderness. “There is nothing like actually making the journey to a place and physically spending time there, to experience the entire sensory richness. That can never be replicated, I’m sure, and of course there is the sense of satisfaction of actually having got yourself to this place and survived whatever adventures you had on the way,” says Foster.

Foster’s paintings clearly embody the time and thoughtfulness with which they were created, which can be seen in their elaborate detail and the souvenirs carefully attached to each piece.

Tony Foster “ Wistman’s Wood Looking SSW.” Devon, United Kingdom, 2013. Photo by Trevor Burrows Photography. Courtesy of Foster Art & Wilderness Foundation.

When asked what impression he hoped to have on his audience, Foster said, “If they were awestruck by the extraordinary nature of these wonderful places in the world then that would be great. Also, of course, I would like them to have some sort of emotional response to the work.”

Without a doubt, these highly emotive paintings stir a response, just as they did for Foster’s elderly neighbour, who burst into tears at the sight of his painting of Greenland and explained that she “hadn’t realised that there were such beautiful places in our world.”

This appreciation of the environment and sense of wonder is the first step towards reconnecting with nature. Foster explains that on a subconscious level, people are able to connect with the way he created his paintings. “You can see people have this sense that this is fresh air,” he says.

Through this connection, Foster inspires his audience to consider the environment he has depicted, which is so often taken for granted. Foster stresses the importance in recognising the fragility of these ecosystems that he has so carefully captured on paper. “I think that people perhaps don’t realise quite how under threat these places are. I want people to realise that, and to think that they are extraordinarily beautiful and should be preserved for that reason,” he says.

Tony Foster “Looking Out From Deer Cave, Mulu — Six Days.” Mulu Caves, Borneo, 2015. Photo by Trevor Burrows Photography. Courtesy of Foster Art & Wilderness Foundation.

The Borneo rainforest, painted by Foster for his latest series, faces increasing risk of destruction due to deforestation and land conversion for palm oil plantations. The Indonesian government has estimated an increase in palm oil production from 20 million tonnes in 2009 to 40 million tonnes in 2020, according to the WWF foundation. Unfortunately, this is one example of many ecosystems which are under threat.

The Foster Art & Wilderness Foundation was founded by one of Foster’s patrons, the Californian businesswoman and environmentalist Jane Woodward, to promote environmental education through the exhibition of Foster’s work. Exploring Beauty: Watercolour Diaries from the Wild will be on exhibition at the centre in Palo Alto, California, from January 2017 for visits from the public, students, painting groups, and those whose work relates to the environment.

It is envisaged that the space will also be used to hold seminars, lectures and classes about resource use and the environment. Following a year-long exhibition, Foster’s work will go on tour with a lecture series about the environment and the combination of art and science.

“I am very pleased, that the works are all held together in one ownership for public use, and not only that people will come to see it as an art exhibition but also that it will be a catalyst for all these other initiatives,” says Foster.

Tony Foster is giving an illustrated talk at the Royal Watercolour Society, Bankside Gallery, London on the 22nd June 2016 from 6–8pm. Admission is free with the opportunity to make a donation to the Himalayan Trust UK. Please RSVP to info@banksidegallery.com.

Exploring Beauty: Watercolour Diaries from the Wild is open daily, free of charge at the Bankside Gallery, London from 11am-6pm until the 26th June 2016.

The exhibition transfers to the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro, 15 July — 12 November 2016.