A wildlife artist uses her observations of wild hares to create paintings imbued with the animal’s spirit
Early on a spring morning, Kate Wyatt stands silent in a field, sketch book in hand. In front of her is a telescope, focused on a group of hares. Kate looks through it, then influenced by what she sees, she adds to the sketches in
her book. These drawings will provide the basis of an exquisite and lifelike watercolour painting, once she returns to her Buckinghamshire studio.
One of Britain’s best-selling print artists, Kate has a particular fascination for hares. She aims to imbue her paintings with a feeling of life. “I’m aiming to capture the essence of the hare rather than a photographic image,” she says. “That means that I paint in a loose way that makes them look as if they’re moving. It’s about the dance of wildlife, constantly struggling to keep going and stay alive. Hares have so many predators, they are always on the move.”
Time for observation
Before she commits paint to paper, many hours are spent outdoors studying the animals in their natural habitat. “A lot
of my work is done outside, whatever the weather,” she says.
“I often set off early when daylight is just breaking and I won’t return until after dusk. Those are the times when you see a lot
of wild creatures.”
She observes the hares as they feed, play and move across the countryside. As well as her outdoor sketches, she takes photographs to turn into sketches. Taking short videos allows her to study them further, at home.
Her partner, Tony, also a wildlife artist, works outdoors with her. They regularly visit fields by a river and local lanes bordered by farmland. Walking up to seven miles, the couple stay out all day, until darkness falls. “I feel more alive in the open air. There is nothing better than working outside on a lovely spring day. Tony will take a Leica telescope and we each carry a pair of binoculars so we can see the hares in close up,” says Kate. “We also take a sound recorder and a video recorder as well as cameras. As we often have to lie down on the ground to get the shots of hares that we want, we usually wear waterproof clothing. Getting a hare’s eye view of the world means getting down very low to the ground.
“I pack my sketchbooks, notebooks, pens and watercolours to make quick sketches in the field, but it is difficult to draw hares outside as they are so quick,” she explains. “I rarely take an easel into the field for that reason.
“I love to be outside watching the hares, with their attractive, huge eyes. They are mysterious creatures. We don’t know everything about them. Another thing that appeals to me is that the light at different times of the year means that they always look a little different. In winter, for example, they appear to be very grey, but at other times of the year they are almost a gingery colour with dark indigo tips to their ears. There is always something new to observe.”
A lifelong passion
Kate’s love of native British creatures started in childhood. “I had a country childhood in Dorset and my father was a huge enthusiast of the natural world,” she explains. “He would always draw my attention to birds and animals. I was encouraged to go out and play. This freedom led me to explore the natural habitat of woodlands, fields, hedges and the wetlands of Dorset and Somerset. There I developed my curiosity for nature from a young age. At the same time, I was always drawing. As a child I even remember drawing on the new wallpaper at our house.”
She enjoyed art at school and studied fashion after she left, but pursued a career as a flamenco dancer. “I loved the passion of flamenco, it’s very empowering, and I have some Spanish ancestry on my great-grandmother’s side,” says Kate. It wasn’t until 2000 that she began to attend adult education art classes following the unexpected death of her husband. Here she discovered that she had a special talent for watercolour painting.
“It was like a whole new world opening up,” says Kate. “My tutor encouraged me to apply for art college. I did a degree at the University of East London and graduated in 2008. By that time I’d already started selling my paintings.”
Back in her light, airy studio at Westbury Arts Centre in Buckinghamshire, she starts to sketch up an idea. “I am seeing if I can draw what I have just observed,” she says. “I make sketches in pencil, refining them as I go along. To make sure I am happy with the sketch, I will hold them far away from me, and I check them in a mirror too. I don’t know why but using a mirror to invert the image really helps me to see it in a fresh light.”
It might take three or four days to perfect a sketch. “When
I am happy, I draw over it on tracing paper and then transfer
it to a sheet of specialist thick watercolour paper,” she says. Watercolour paper has to be thick to stop it buckling when
paint is applied.
Most of her work is on an A2 sized sheet, although she does also produce both smaller and larger works. One picture of
a badger was four feet square and was drawn in one of her favourite mediums, a large graphite pencil.
For a moving hare, a rough surfaced paper is chosen. “The texture of the paper helps to give the hares a sense of movement,” she explains. Once a sketch has been transferred, she will not rub out many lines. That can disturb the paper’s surface and affect the way that the paint blends and soaks in.
Starting to paint
When she is happy with her sketch, Kate gently removes a few lines using a very soft putty rubber. Now she begins to apply paint, working first on the hare’s eyes. “They are so expressive and they have to be right. I use a light wash of watercolours, in a blend of reds and blues. Once the eyes are looking as if they will work, I then paint the rest of the animal with another wash. This time I use a mixture of two colours called yellow ochre and cadmium yellow.” The process is repeated, building up layers of colour. Each is allowed to dry naturally before a new one is applied. “There are no hard and fast rules, but about five layers is enough. After that you start to make a muddy colour,” she says.
Now work starts on painting the background. “I put on a light wash, working quickly as watercolour always dries faster than you think,” she says. “It’s like playing with a whole orchestra of colours. You cannot control watercolour, it is unpredictable, so as the paint blends happy accidents occur
and you get an effect that you were not expecting.”
To get the effects she wants, Kate uses a number of different sized brushes. These range from a thick brush, a number 10, for washes, down to a 0 or 00 for smaller, more precise marks. Her brushes have sable tips and are handmade by Rosemary and Company in the UK. “My brushes are like my friends, I treasure them. I own about 300 in total, although I usually only have about seven on the table at any one time.”
Rousing music plays in the background while she works. “I like to listen to music with energy including ballet, opera and flamenco,” she explains. “When I am working, it’s as if my pencil or paintbrush is keeping a rhythm, almost like a dance, and music seems to help this process.”
It can take a whole week of painting until she is happy with
a picture. She then leaves it for two or three days and takes another fresh look at it. “I will leave in some pencil marks, because you lose something valuable if you rub them all out. For example, some light marks around the hare’s nose can make it look as if it is twitching.”
Finally, some fine details are added. “I might draw back into the hare’s fur with a pen dipped in paint,” she explains. “I sometimes use a white acrylic paint to highlight a few whiskers, or I could very carefully add some gold pigment using a very finely tipped brush to create highlights on the hare’s fur.”
A painting takes approximately two weeks from start to finish. “I get joy from a finished work, but I am very critical and a bit of a perfectionist,” admits Kate. “Each day is a challenge.”
Once her painting has dried thoroughly, she delivers it to a friend, Jane Brushwood of Framed, who mounts the work for her. A painting which is going to be made into a limited edition giclée print is sent to Arran Jung, a printer in Dorset. Her cards are printed by Art2Card, also based in Dorset. “I like to source everything in this country and I am passionate about small local businesses,” she says.
“I did not ever believe that I could make a living from my painting. But I am very proud that through my work, I am drawing people’s attention to the beauty of British wildlife.”
Kate is a member of the Hare Preservation Trust. It works to protect the creatures, whose numbers have declined by 80 per cent over the last 100 years. The Trust encourages farmers to provide more grass on arable farms for summer grazing, and to leave areas uncut for leverets to hide in. It recommends cutting silage from the centre of fields, to allow hares time to escape into neighbouring fields.
Words: Fiona Cumberpatch Photography: Clive Doyle