Botswana and Zimbabwe were my home for a number of years and although I have traveled extensively throughout my life, Africa inspires my art in ways unmatched by any other place. Africa is a continent of diverse peoples & cultures, huge cities & dusty villages, vast deserts and thick forest, hot swamps and cold highlands, along with some of the most iconic wildlife species on the planet. Africa defies generalization, but here are some of my most enduring memories – deep sandy tracks winding endlessly into the distance; the calm rhythmic clank of a cowbell as the cattle return home; cumulus clouds towering over the thirsty bush; the shocking shrieks of a francolin waking me in the morning; the bustle and color of a village market; and the haunting cry of a black-backed jackal above the crackle of the campfire. I’m wishing I were there right now!
Field sketching requires confidence and speed, but has taught me incredible lessons. I work in pencil first then add watercolor. I don’t have an easel or a chair because I usually stand when sketching people, or need to be in a vehicle when sketching wildlife. Decisions about light and composition must be made quickly, as the person or animal I am sketching may get up and move away at any time. In this respect field sketching is a life drawing class in the purest sense of the phrase! In addition to being great fun, it allows me to meet fascinating people, has given me a great understanding of wildlife anatomy and behavior, and is the best way I know to improve my artistic skills.
My studio paintings consist of multiple layers of transparent color which I use to both obscure and reveal the subject of each piece. Building up the layers allows me to create effects of light, dust and heat, but I use color to convey a mood or a time of day, not to mimic the colors of nature. I eliminate unnecessary detail from my compositions and often use a limited palette of colors to create a tranquil atmosphere, in which people and animals go about their daily lives, undisturbed and unaware of the viewer. Areas of ‘quiet space’ have become prominent in my work, although this was not a conscious decision, but developed gradually as I spent time under the huge skies of the Kalahari and Namib Deserts. These quiet spaces balance the areas of detail and leave room for interpretation and imagination.
My Conservation Sketching Expeditions allow me to visit African conservation organizations, sketch on site and learn in detail about conservation issues. I use the resulting sketches and paintings to raise awareness and funds for the organizations’ field work. These visits also inspired the creation of a growing body of conservation and environmental-themed paintings based on issues I have encountered in the field. It can be a real challenge to depict complex issues like human-wildlife conflict in a painting, but it has given my art layers of meaning, as well as layers of color. I support African conservation organizations by making a donation from the sale of every original painting, original field sketch and limited edition reproduction.
I am a Signature member of Artists For Conservation and the Society of Animal Artists, a member of the Explorers Club and an artist member of the Salmagundi Club. My art has been widely exhibited, including at the Botswana Mission to the United Nations in Manhattan, and the US Department of State used my art to promote the Coalition Against Wildlife Trafficking initiative. I lead Art Safaris in South Africa for Africa Geographic and frequently lecture about art, Africa, wildlife and conservation. I have lectured at the Explorers Club, in schools, for private organizations and for volunteers at the Bronx and Central Park Zoos. I am English by birth but live in Port Chester, New York with my husband, Nigel, and German Shepherd dog, Chase.
Image details, from top, left to right:
Alison Nicholls sketching in Botswana; Zebra Drinking field sketch; Alison sketching among the Maasai photo © African People & Wildlife Fund/Deirdre Leowinata; studio materials; early stages of a zebra painting; Alison working in her studio; Alison at Painted Dog Conservation; Alison sketching among the Maasai © African People & Wildlife Fund/Deirdre Leowinata; Alison with Joyce Ndakaru and Everest of the African People & Wildlife Fund; © African People & Wildlife Fund/Deirdre Leowinata; Alison leads a seminar at The Explorers Club; Alison’s art featured in Wildlife Art Magazine; Alison receiving an award at the Artists For Conservation annual exhibition.