“It takes the art out of it when you paint from a photograph,” says landscape artist Bruce Backhouse, “I paint what my mind remembers.”
I went to visit Bruce at his studio in Blairgowrie a week ago, and felt that I could easily step into one of his large Kalahari landscapes, and touch the beauty of the land.
He completed a three-month residency at Tswalu Private Reserve in the Northern Cape late last year, and came away with 50 works, each one depicting a mood of that great expanse of sand, rocks and vast horizons and skies, in an exhibition entitled The clarity of wilderness. My head was giddy with pink, orange, blue, red and yellow landscapes, often with matching colour skies. And always the moody Korannaberg mountains in the far distance.
“I don’t really think about colour, I rather try to capture the atmosphere of place, where paths are forbidden,” he says.
He might take a sketchbook with him when walking out into this wonderland of rolling dunes and camelthorn trees, but puts it aside when back in the studio, relying on his memory to capture scenes on canvas or paper. Occasionally, there’s a long road stretching to the horizon in his paintings, but no telephone poles, no windmills, no towers, no living creatures. That means there’s nothing to give a sense of scale, which adds to the sense of space, and makes the small features more striking.
When not painting, his time was spent walking in this wilderness, or riding his bike, or taking a helicopter ride to get a bird’s eye view of the Kalahari.
A lot of the big oil paintings, at 1.5m by 1m, are created with horizontal features and lines, which stretch for kilometres into the distance, carrying you towards the horizon. Bruce says he first sees the horizons, then constructs the painting from there.
Bruce also paints the Karoo, in the same way, devoid of people or animals but replete with those endless horizons, tufts of dry grass, rocky outcrops and mountains rising in the distance. They are just as evocative, transporting you into the depth of this endless space.
He can complete three of the smaller paintings (70cm by 70cm) in a day, but the bigger ones take months. Sometimes he gets stuck. He puts the painting aside, and comes back to it by lying on a camp bed alongside it, looking at it, or sleeps on the vision of the unfinished painting, then completes it.
Tswalu is a 114 000ha private game reserve, in the far northern Cape, bordering Botswana. Researchers from around the world are invited to spend time on the estate. “Through accumulating a growing body of quality output on the fauna, flora and the unique habitat of the southern Kalahari we have been able to make informed conservation management decisions to better support our shared vision,” indicates the website. Visitors to the lodge can interact with these researchers “studying both iconic and more obscure species and witness scientific conservation in progress”.
The reserve has gradually been restored it to its natural state, with the introduction of game. “Tswalu is a conservation-in-progress. Damage caused by previous farming endeavours is being repaired, with fences and structures being removed, and natural processes are being restored. Tswalu’s national and regional importance as a habitat was acknowledged in 2014 when it was designated as a formally protected area.”
Scientists cover a broad range of research - from the study of grasses, to the bird life, often working in temperatures up to 40C. "It offers a vision of hope that brings together conservation, research and unrivalled safari experience."
Bruce went back to Tswalu in February, after a week of rain, to capture a green landscape. “I have never worked so hard, so easily.”
He became a full-time artist in 2004, and has exhibited in galleries across the country, with his works held in private collections in the UK, the US, Australia, Europe, and of course, South Africa.
He also did a series of sepia prints with Indian ink, and sometimes painted with twigs he picked up in the veld.
“Tswalu is a vast, magical land of infinite possibility, with sweeping vistas and a liberating sense of space,” the website enthuses. You’ll see the oryx, the pangolin, the aardvark, black-maned lions, and the ubiquitous meerkat.
It’s clearly a place to reconnect with the earth. A place to find your soul.
Bruce's works have been marketed by the Everard Read Gallery.