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Top 5 Artists that inspire me: 2. Charles Frederick Tunnicliffe (1901-1979)

This artist was the obvious second choice for me. Another 'bird artist', as some of these guys have become, rather incorrectly known, Charles Tunnicliffe is, along with Archibald Thorburn, one of those artists whom I can almost guarantee everyone is familiar with their work, yet many do not know the name.


Charles Tunnicliffe at work. Photo: WikiArt

A relatively recent artist, Charles Tunnicliffe, who died in 1979, was one of those great artists who incorporated a loose, contemporary-looking style in his paintings, while managing to breathe an extraordinary air of life into his subjects. He is perhaps best known as the artist of the Ladybird 'What to Look For...' series of books ('aaaww, yeah!', I hear you say) in which he depicted the British countryside and it's flora and fauna through the four seasons of the year. He worked mainly in watercolour and I consider him to be a formidable artist in this difficult medium- his artworks look effortless, yet behind the scenes were meticulously planned out and researched. Each and every one of his paintings is bursting with light and life- his ability at capturing the weather conditions was second to none. He had a very distinctive, somewhat unconventional looking style, managing to produce works that were obviously paintings and looked like paintings, but extremely lifelike and convincing at the same time, if you know what I mean.


He is well known for his many 'measured drawings' of countless species of birds, which he painted from dead specimens in his studio and served as an indispensable reference for his paintings. One thing I hugely admire about wildlife artists of old is their dedication and research into their subjects- we must not forget that up until the last few decades, photography was expensive and largely in black and white- rather useless in terms of plumage, fur colour etc. They certainly couldn't just pull out a phone and search for 'mallard wings' or 'male bullfinch' and generate thousands of reference images in an instant. They had to research and observe from nature, something that most definitely can be seen in their work all these years later.


An example of a 'measured drawing' done from a real specimen. Photo: The Charles Tunnicliffe Society

An artist that very probably inspired a generation of nature lovers. Photo: The Charles Tunnicliffe Society

Photo: Pinterest

In my opinion, as is the case with most artists, Tunnicliffe's sketches are often much more appealing than his (undoubtedly beautiful) finished works. Perhaps that's just the artist in me, but his sketches convey a remarkable movement and fluency that can only be achieved from sketching out in the wild, in nature. He had a very disciplined working process which involved first making loose life sketches, then composing 'memory sketches' back in the studio (sketches so detailed that they could pass as finished works: it's hard to believe they were done entirely from memory with no help from Google Images)! In preparation for a painting, Tunnicliffe would compose a loose 'cartoon' of the intended image, again these have a fascinating looseness and experimental quality about them and one can really get inside the head of the artist by looking at them. Finally, with all this prep work done, work would begin on the final painting. It's a method which I believe should be followed, but it's only when I sit down and an attempt a 'cartoon' or practise piece, while itching to get started on the actual painting itself, that I greatly admire the man's patience!


An example of a 'cartoon' or preparatory drawing. Photo: The Charles Tunnicliffe Society

The final composition. Photo: Pinterest

Large flocks of birds grouped together in a painting bursting with life- a characteristic I admire in many of his works. Photo: Pinterest

Tunnicliffe was a very broad artist in terms of subject matter and medium; he was very dextrous in portraiture and obtained a number of portrait commissions from notable figures in his lifetime. These were mostly undertaken in oils, a medium he was at home with as well as watercolour. However, he will be naturally remembered for his glorious paintings of the British countryside. In my opinion he stands side by side with Archibald Thorburn as the greatest wildlife artist of all time, and his art should indeed be more widely known in the broader circle of British art in general.

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