Watching and painting animals for a living has got to rank amongst the best jobs in the world since animals can do such funny things. Over the years I’ve had some hilarious encounters. Next week I will be sharing my favourite anecdotes at an art exhibition of my work at my gallery in Thixendale.
They include the winter I watched red squirrels in the Yorkshire Dales. These beautiful creatures are an increasingly rare sight, which is a shame because they are such a joy to watch. I had been following a scurry of squirrels and come to know their individual characters. Among them one particularly cheeky squirrel stood out. It had a slightly kinked tail and prominent ear tufts and I got some really great photographs of it contorting its body in the snow to scratch its behind. This squirrel had a cache of nuts that it protected fiercely and one day a pheasant wandered a little too close to the stash. It was so funny watching how the squirrel saw off this intruder; it looked like it was arguing with it.
Many of my paintings have been inspired by endearing animal behaviour I have witnessed and this is especially true of my paintings of puffins. With bright orange legs, colourful bills and a waddling walk, puffins are the clowns of the UK wildlife scene. It’s hard not to smile when you see one – especially if you spot it in flight; wings whirring away as it propels its squat little body through the air. Puffins spend eight months out at sea before flying in to our shores each spring to breed. These noisy cliff top reunions, which involve scenes of courting and fighting, are so interesting to watch.
One of my paintings features a herring gull glaring condescendingly down at a puffin.
I had been photographing a group of puffins socialising on a rock when this gull had landed amongst them. All the puffins, bar this brave one, immediately scattered – after all some species of gull will swallow a puffin whole. I watched for an anxious moment as this plucky penguin held its ground.
The herring gull was quite still for a moment as it looked down its beak at the puffin, which stood at a fraction of its size. At that, the puffin rocked back on its heels momentarily before fleeing. I named my painting Size Matters.
Amongst the most rewarding animal interactions to watch are young mammals playing together. Of course whilst it is endearing to see creatures such as fox cubs tumbling about in the grass, there is actually a very important reason for their rough play since these youngsters are learning to hunt.
Throughout the last two years I have been watching a family of weasels via cameras hidden in my garden and I have some really endearing video clips of the weasel kits splashing about in a small pond I built for them. They dive and splash about in the water, chasing one another around like children in a paddling pool.
But whilst this looks like pure fun and frolic, their behaviour is a very important part of their development. Weasels are such small animals they need make up in tenacity what they lack in size and during this play they get to test out one another’s strength in preparation for when they will have to survive on their own and form their own territories.
They say you should never work with animals or children, and whilst I understand why the adage exists, of course as a wildlife artist and a father, I’ve done both. Like when I encountered a particularly aggressive pheasant whilst on a family holiday in the Dales. Pheasants can be fiercely territorial and this bird went for me, pecking at my arm and really trying to see me off. But its feisty nature meant that I could get really close to it and I decided it would be a good subject from which to get some photographic studies of this species’ beautiful iridescent feathers.
So, after retreating from its initial assault on me, I ventured back into its territory to watch it the following day. The problem was I was meant to be in charge of my eldest daughter, who was just two at the time. I decided to let her join me. But despite being a very helpful assistant, at one point she decided to climb on my shoulders as I tried to photograph the pheasant, rendering the job almost impossible, but great fun nevertheless.
And that is the point of working with animals, or children. They can behave in such an endearing manner and at times do such utterly unpredictable things. But I wouldn’t have it any other way.
My exhibition, ‘Animals do the Funniest Things’, opens on Nov 12th and runs until Dec 4th . For details see www.robertefuller.com