Lindsay Scott | Out of Africa

By Bonnie Gangelhoff

Great White [1997], oil, 56 x 36., Southwest Art
Great White [1997], oil, 56 x 36.

The image startles, capturing the moment when serenity turns to horror. A herd of zebras is crossing a stream when out of nowhere a lion bolts toward the pack, water splashing in his wake. A second lion charges from another angle. Caught in our focal point is a young zebra frozen in panic. The scene is chilling—the critical moment just before the small creature will likely lose its life.

The haunting, high drama of the Lindsay Scott oil painting titled Ambush is somewhat unusual for wildlife art—in this genre most works are portraits of animals in pristine settings. “I was trying to get the feeling of chaos,” the artist explains of the piece. “I wanted to capture the feeling of how busy Africa can be. Most of the time it’s peaceful and somber, but then suddenly animals come rushing out of the bushes.”

This California woman paints such bold African wildlife scenes with assurance because she has an intimate understanding of the wild country. Scott was born and raised in Bulawayo, Zimbabwe, a haven for exotic birds and wildlife. Cobras crawled across her front yard, tribal drums pounded in the distance, and on occasion a leopard came prowling down her street. She lived in the suburbs, but by American standards it was more like bush country, she says.

Ambush [1997], oil, 46 x 70., Southwest Art
Ambush [1997], oil, 46 x 70.

Bulawayo didn’t provide the childhood entertainment typical of American suburbia, and as a youngster Scott spent her days developing such unusual abilities as detecting snakes in grass 100 yards away. From an early age, nature was her passion, and for as long as she can remember, Scott has drawn the natural world around her.

Before deciding on an art career, she worked as a botanical researcher for the University of Cape Town and as a curator of paleobotany and ornithology at the South African Museum; in both positions she gained an intimate knowledge of plant and animal structures. Today such expertise lends itself well to Scott’s lifelike depictions and, coupled with a fine-arts degree from the University of Minnesota, has earned her many honors in the art world. Most recently, in 1996, she was the featured artist at the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition, the first woman to hold that honor in the long history of the event.

Out of the Blue [1998], oil, 40 x 60., Southwest Art
Out of the Blue [1998], oil, 40 x 60.

In the early 1980s Scott became known for her detailed work in pencil. Her drawing of two doves was accepted for the prestigious Birds in Art exhibition at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, WI, in 1984, and she has been selected for the show 11 times since. But it turns out that pencil drawings were merely a way station on a journey that eventually led to oil painting in the 1990s and a reputation for capturing the body language and facial expressions of animals.

Scott’s studio is tucked away in her Ventura, CA, home, which is perched on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Mexican and African artifacts fill her studio. A Mexican paint table punctuated with worm holes stands on the Saltillo tile floor. There are woven baskets from Botswana and brightly colored fabrics from Zimbabwe. Piles of art books on California, French, and German Impressionists and other painters such as Howard Terpning and John Singer Sargent are stacked around the room.

The Dance [1998], oil, 24 x 54., Southwest Art
The Dance [1998], oil, 24 x 54.

On bright coastal days the sun splashes across her studio, which suits the artist well. “I grew up in a sunny climate, and I love to paint light,” she says. Indeed, one of the key elements in Scott’s paintings is the subtle interplay between light and dark or, as art historians call it, chiaroscuro. She seldom thinks of painting objects or animals but rather of painting the light as it reflects off them.

Scott’s palette is limited to just eight colors: French ultramarine, rose madder, naples yellow, burnt sienna, cadmium yellow, white, yellow ochre pale, and cobalt blue. In each painting, every hue contains a trace of all the others, thus linking various elements in the work together. The unifying technique also reinforces the impression that the same light is hitting each object. In Ambush, she utilizes light to carry the eye around the painting: from the illuminated water splashes in the lower corner to the white stripes of the zebra and light dappled trees. Scott confesses that lately she’s been on a “zebra binge”—their stripes make them so graphically intriguing, she says. Such declarations are a reminder that Scott’s interest in the contrasts of light and dark surfaced during her years with the pencil.

“I’m glad I did the pencil work,” Scott says. “The importance of accuracy, the discipline of learning to paint light and dark—it was all like an apprenticeship for oil painting.”

Scott begins her paintings with a pencil sketch. This allows her to work out the composition, and though many scenes may look chaotic, all the animals are carefully arranged and choreographed before she lays down her first brush stroke.

The subconscience also plays a role in Scott’s work, for she has a storehouse of memories from Africa. And yet some of the scenes she creates are born in her imagination, spontaneously unfolding on canvas. In The Dance, two cranes perform a mating ritual with outspread black and white wings set against golden grass. In the background, a line of zebras moves across a grassy savanna. On one of her yearly trips to Africa in 1997, Scott actually witnessed the mating dance in Tanzania. But the line of zebras in the painting sprang from her imagination. “In Africa,” says Scott, “when you’re observing something, there’s always something else going on in the background.”

Scott weaves wild stories on her canvases—tales of birds flirt-ing, zebras in danger, or, as in The Contenders, male zebras engaged in a power struggle. A hallmark of her work is the way she captures the body language of animals, as seen in the savage rush of two lions in Ambush.

These days Scott is feeling more comfortable with her shift from pencil to oil, but she says the transition was not an easy one. By 1990 Scott was well-known for her mastery of the pencil. But then she and her husband Brian McPhun went to live in the Virgin Islands for a year. For the first few months they had no phone, and she was cut off from the art world back in the States. With all the idleness, an old yearning re-turned—to explore oil painting. Realizing she now had plenty of time and no more excuses not to try, Scott reached for a brush.

“Technically it’s very different,” Scott says. “You have to loosen yourself up because oil has a whole life of its own. The pencil does what you want it to do; with oil, you do what it allows you to do. You have to give up control.” Yet the loss of control suddenly made the possibilities for self-expression seem endless. The sensuous nature of oil—the feel, the look, and the way it records brush strokes—was exhilarating.

It took Scott five years to feel comfortable mixing colors, but today she relishes the painterly look of her work—she wants viewers to see the brush strokes. Out of the Blue was inspired by a 1997 visit to Giverny, Claude Monet’s home in France. Months later, after she returned to California, Scott painted the work, which she describes as her translation of  Impressionism into wildlife painting. “I wanted to capture the way Monet painted atmosphere as if it were a tangible thing,” she says.

As in that piece, paintings often gel in her mind over the course of months. And Scott says that being far away from her subject matter actually helps to create a fresh vision. Once she is no longer tied to the exact scene, she can forge new imagery and make a more personal statement. Most often, at least one personal statement threads through her work: Nature is all-healing. A longtime, passionate conservationist, Scott sees her role as a wildlife artist as a way to educate and raise the consciousness of others.

“I hope that what I do en-courages people to preserve what precious little resources are left,” she says. “Nature is the most healing thing on this planet. I try to bring a little bit of that indoors.”

Photos courtesy the artist and Germantown Gallery, Germantown, NC; Holland & Holland, Beverly Hills, CA, and New York, New York; Mockingbird Gallery, Bend, OR; and Spanierman Gallery, New York, New York.