Written by Don Heywood
Wednesday, 01 June 2011 19:13

Portraiture is usually associated with people, and it may be considered eccentric of me to identify my paintings of animals as such. Nonetheless, my technical and creative approach to the following paintings has much in common with the great tradition of portraiture in European painting, a tradition which also influenced my earlier series of paintings published as Vanishing Faces of Southern Africa. In those portraits I wanted to record the extraordinary richness of tradition that is the heritage of black South Africans, and which has been almost entirely unrecorded by fine artists. The images are set against richly coloured, but largely undifferentiated, backgrounds of dark aubergine-crimson or dense green; they are vivid, richly coloured, highly detailed, lit from an unknown source as if by lamp-or sunlight, without context or location, reaching out to the eye of the viewer.

The visual splendour and detail of tradition dress is an important element in those paintings; but equally important are the individual character, of characteristic attitude and of the personality which looks back at the viewer. It would be all too easy to quote a historical gaze which reduces the subject to cliché, to a hackneyed and already known stereotype of the individual.

The animal paintings similarly hinge on the idea of an individual indentity that reaches beyond the familiar or the predictable. But while portraits of individual black South Africans in heir tradition dress are relatively rare, and thus I was free to create my own painterly vocabulary, African animals have been much painted; there is a portrait widely familiar from a range of – often very accomplished – artists.

So the challenge was slightly different. The disciple I again chose was that of portraiture, rather than of contextualizing subjects by placing them in an equally important landscape. Some of the portraits do include elements of the habitat; the painting of the lion under the log (page 25), for instance, is in a sense a double portrait: the dead tree, rotting and sun bleached, is both counterpoint to and commentary on the female lion dozing beside it. The rocks under the leopard (page 30) is a granite outcrop in the Timbavati River area in the Ngala Game Reserve.

Where elements of the environment are included, they area specific and individual as the animals themselves.

I paint in oils, on canvas which has been double-primed to give a very smooth surface on which the paint will “sit” without “drying back” into the surface over a period of time. I have also experimented with oils on board, following in the footsteps of contemporary artists whose work I admire: Raymond Ching, Robert Bateman and of course Andrew Wyeth.

Each painting comes into being after a series of studies – not quickly observed reference or an impressionist sketch, but searching in- depth exploration of the subject. I am passionate about drawing, which I feel is a neglected discipline in the twentieth century; there are many artists whose skill with paint is enviable, but there are few to admire for their consummate technical control and draughtsmanship; those to whom I turn for inspiration in this field are from earlier centuries: Durer, Da Vinci, Raphael Michelangelo… I find that through the rigours of drawing I am continually learning about the subject of the work. Drawing fur , for instance, depends not only on the evocation of the length, direction and texture of the coat, but should also suggest the under structure of a three-dimensional form. There is a spiritual and also an anatomical reality, and truthfulness that opens the door to a kind of beauty, even in something as conventionally unattractive as the Cape vulture ( page 115).

These creatures – in their brutality, grace , strength – are simply themselves. It is this which has fascinated me. Why paint rather than photograph? For me at least; a painting somehow demands the meticulous attention of the viewer. I hope that in the following pages your attention of the viewer. I hope that in the following pages your attention is rewarded by the same excitement and intense pleasure that producing these paintings and drawings has given me.



Shortly after the highly successful launch of Donald Heywood’s first book Vanishing Faces of Southern Faces of Africa, I was sitting with him discussing where he thought his artistic ability would take him next. He intimated that, while he was fulfilled by the success of his first publication, he needed a new challenge. Although human portraiture was satisfying in itself, particularly as the drawings and the paintings were executed for the sake of conservation and preservation, he craved to do more.

As a “foreigner”, with a total fascination for our country as a whole, he wished to embark on something else that might benefit “the cause” of conservation in its broadcast form. He considered depicting wildlife, in his inimitable way. It was a subject that he loved and it afforded his artistic talent fresh challenges. He would have to master new techniques and learn to draw feathers and fur, wood, rocks and environment at large. This would be a considerable change from the textures of human skin and fabric!

I must confess that my initial reaction to this thought was less than enthusiastic – there were already so many publications depicting wildlife in its natural habitat and displaying the work of numerous accomplished artists on the subject. Don, however, assured me that his approach would be quite different. Not only was he intending to portray the wild life but he would also show, in a most detailed and explicit manner, the rock formations, termite hills and trees. This approach was proven to me while we were “on location” in some of southern Africa’s most animal-rich wilderness lodges and parks. I watched the man at work with his camera and trained eye and it was intriguing to behold.

Close-ups of tree bark, grasses, flowers and myriad other things not too often observed. Don’s approach is to draw and paint in photographic detail. It was therefore vitally important to him that the surrounding “pageant” was as accurate as the prime subject matter. At this point I tempered my concerns and raised that, with this new approach to the subject, it might work. Indeed one can only marvel at the lifelike quality of Don Heywood’s drawings.

Humanity is advancing so rapidly across this fragile globe that almost everywhere animal species are disappearing or being threatened. The need for up-to-date accounts of what still remains becomes more urgently daily! The trouble is that although this is recognised by numerous conservation organisations, there are simply not enough informed and dedicated people to provide what is currently required in the form of up-to-date and reliable inventories. This book, I feel, goes a long way in filling this need.

I find myself believing that Don Heywood’s pictures are not mere illustrations: their impact seems to be that of the vision of an artist of creatures into whose being he seems to have entered. I turn to the last illustrated page regretting that it is the last.

I was delighted to be told that part of the proceeds of the sale of this book will go to the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF). Furthermore, a print series in limited form will be produced for the benefit of WWF South Africa and the Cheetah Conservation Fund.

I sincerely hope that those conservation bodies whom Don has chosen to assist financially through the publication of this book will reap the rewards and continue unfailingly in their efforts to conserve and preserve what little is left for our children to enjoy.


Group Art Custodian

First National Bank Group


February 1997

Last Updated on Saturday, 11 June 2011 16:38