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Top 5 artists that inspire me: 1. Archibald Thorburn (1860-1935)

Those of you who know wildlife art obviously know who I'm talking about and know that he is an obvious first choice. Most of you, however, won't know this name, but I can guarantee you that you've seen this man's work on countless occasions.

Those of you who know wildlife art obviously know who I'm talking about and know that he is an obvious first choice. Most of you, however, won't know this name, but I can guarantee you that you've seen this man's work on countless occasions. Archibald Thorburn (1860-1935) was a Scottish artist known mostly for his groundbreaking ornithological art and gamebird pieces, but was equally skilled in depicting many other types of wildlife. He is, rightly so, regarded as one of the best wildlife artists of all time. I won't bore you with a biography- you the reader obviously have internet access- but here's a little background. Thorburn grew up in a time where only a small handful of painters were known for genuinely good wildlife art. The genre was largely overlooked by artists of the time, and most of the wildlife art that did exist were stiff, unconvincing scientific illustrations against a plain backdrop, mostly intended for natural history publications. Thorburn's beautifully harmonious depictions of genuinely lifelike birds and mammals in their natural habitat revolutionised wildlife art forever. Furthermore, Thorburn's working life coincided almost exactly with the golden age of shooting in Britain, so was extremely successful as a wildlife artist in his lifetime, and is perhaps best known for his hundreds of depictions of pheasant, grouse and woodcock.


'A covey of Ptarmigan' by Archibald Thorburn. (image: Sotheby's)

The skill in Thorburn's depictions of birds and mammals is astounding. Let's not forget that for most of his life photography, not to mention wildlife photography, was very much in it's infancy, so sketching from life was a necessity- this is why, many would argue, his works are so accurate and realistic. In fact, I admire his lightning- fast sketches almost as much as his finished works. Importantly, a great sense of flow exists in this man's work- look closer and they are not feather-by-feather, scientifically accurate, hyper-realistic renderings. What makes them brilliant is that you know they're paintings- anyone can make a photograph-like painting given patience and time. Thorburn could finish a small painting in a day, and a larger one in a week, and this you can certainly tell by looking at them. There is nothing laborious in his work- there is a beautiful spontaneity present especially in his backgrounds. Take a look at the background of the picture below- you can see the artist's quick, jerky brushstrokes as he expertly builds up the undergrowth, and, a hallmark of Thorburn, a splash of colour in the form of a few flowers or, in this case, a fly agaric mushroom.

'Cock & Hen Pheasant' by Archibald Thorburn. (image: Wikipedia)

Thorburn often visualised a painting so well that he worked with immense confidence and swiftness as he painted his birds and mammals and camoflauged them within Britain's countryside. This brings me to my next point, and that's that Thorburn was an equally skilled landscape painter as he was a wildlife painter, and all it takes to see this is to have a closer look at his backgrounds. He worked mostly in watercolour but his paintings don't look like the pale, washed out images that one normally thinks of when they hear of the medium. They look like the finest oil paintings, importantly while still being undoubtedly painted in watercolour, if what I'm trying to say makes any sense at all! He had an incredibly distinct style which generations of painters right up to the present day have attempted to emulate. I can honestly say that in my opinion Archibald Thorburn is the best watercolourist of all time, having had an expert knowledge of colour, his furred and feathered subjects, and the landscape around him and how it worked. If I had a small fraction of this man's skill I would consider myself very lucky indeed.


'Woodcock, Mallard & Kingfisher' by Archibald Thorburn. (image: Bonhams)


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