Francois Koch | Spirit of Place

By Rosemary Carstens

A painting by Francois Koch invites you to linger, to experience the outdoors through the artist’s reverent imagination. Art is as natural to Koch as breathing, and perhaps as necessary to his life. Renowned in his native South Africa for his ability to vividly portray its sun-drenched deserts, savannahs, and woodlands and the wildlife that roams them, Koch has focused his talent and keen eye for detail on dramatic landscapes of the American Southwest for more than a decade now.

Koch, age 65, cannot remember a time when he was not drawing or painting. His father began displaying Francois’ finished paintings in the window of his furniture store when the budding artist was just 12—and the paintings sold. His inspiration came from the unique terrain of the South African bush. His parents frequently took him and his two brothers camping in Kruger National Park. A territory roughly the size of New Jersey, it is one of the largest game preserves in Africa and is home to an astounding range of species. Elephants, lions, leopards, rhinos, and Cape buffalo inhabit the park, and this is the world that imprinted itself indelibly on Koch as he grew up, shaping his perspective and the fine art that would become his signature.

After studying commercial art at the Johannesburg School of Art and graduating in 1963, he did a stint as an illustrator for a large publishing company and produced freelance illustrations for magazines and advertising agencies. Wanting to escape the corporate rat race, he turned full time to fine art in 1970.

Koch was concerned that he wouldn’t be able to create accurate, true-to-life images of wildlife, so initially he was reluctant to paint them. Yet from his travels into the bush, he knew animals were often integral to a scene. Gradually he began to experiment and found that his years spent observing animal behavior, movement, and habitat had prepared him to portray the important details. He was particularly drawn to zebras and their “unique ways of standing, bunching, and clustering—those qualities that make for especially interesting compositions.”

By now Koch had married, and he and his wife, Cilicia, had two sons to share in the family tradition of camping in Kruger. The boys each had their own binoculars, cameras, and guidebooks to keep them busy and were as excited as their parents when a new animal was sighted. Rising early each morning, they’d set up at one of the watering holes to watch the wildlife coming in to drink. They often stayed several hours while Koch took photos, sketched, and sometimes painted. The work that evolved from those trips was a key component of his growing reputation, and the following years firmly established Koch as a wildlife and landscape painter. Commissions poured in, including paintings for South African embassies and the official presidential residence. His African scenes have also been showcased in prestigious wildlife art exhibitions both nationally and internationally.

Koch and Cilicia have always been very much a team—while he devotes himself to painting, she organizes the blizzard of details surrounding the business of being an artist. Interested in exploring new markets, the couple traveled to Canada and the United States in the mid-1990s. They fell in love with the rugged southwestern landscape and realized it could provide fresh potential for his career. Visiting friends in Tucson, they knew they had found their new home. Not only did they have other artist friends there who would enthusiastically support their immigration application, but Koch also felt a connection to the desert environment, which reminded him of parts of Africa. The couple began the long process of meeting immigration requirements: first coming on business visas, later obtaining green cards, and then, finally, becoming U.S. citizens in 2008.

Since arriving here, Koch has focused almost exclusively on the American western landscape, which has proven to be just as successful for him as wildlife art. At several of his one- and two-man shows, his work has sold out before opening night. He has shown in the most prestigious western art exhibitions across the country, and his paintings feature prominently in private collections as well as in the permanent collections of the National Museum of Wildlife Art in Jackson, WY, and the Booth Western Art Museum in Cartersville, GA. According to Chuck Schroeder, executive director of the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, “His landscape paintings have dazzling detail, but Francois’s attention to color and composition ensure that the beauty and serenity of the scene are never sacrificed. For an artist who has only been in the United States for a little over 10 years, he has already achieved remarkable recognition.”

Koch refers to himself as a “romantic realist.” On trips into the countryside, he takes dozens of photographs and sketches numerous field studies, carefully noting how the light falls in each location. Returning to his studio to arrange all he’s seen into one of his own unique, imagined landscapes, he often creates a detailed drawing that will become the basis of the painting. He says he knows it’s right when “my eye is happy looking at the piece. I don’t want the eye wandering around. The painting has to have a focal point to make the viewer feel relaxed. My aim is for the collector to enjoy looking at it day after day.”

The artist’s workday is legislated by the sun, an abundant resource in Arizona. His studio fills with northern light, and he begins work early, continuing until the light fades. “The light is quite good until late in the evening,” he says of summer in the desert Southwest. “But there is so much I want to paint, I just wish there were longer days and shorter nights.” Koch is in his studio every day of the week but Sunday.

Once a new composition is sketched onto the canvas, he sometimes does the entire underpainting in tonal values. As he begins to add color, it “changes things,” he says, and he reevaluates to be sure he’s achieving his goals. “It’s like putting on makeup—you have a good face to begin with and then you emphasize certain features with color.” His palette tends toward more muted earth tones rather than bright colors, and he works through to completion one painting at a time, letting each piece find its own voice. “An honesty must be brought to it,” he says.

His painting SEPTEMBER SONG is a perfect example of this melding of sight and sense. Its composition was derived from material gathered on a fall trip to Oak Creek Canyon near Sedona, AZ, and it contains many of Koch’s favorite elements—trees, rocks, water, and reflections. The way he composes these elements enables him to create immediate interest in the foreground and draw the viewer into the scene. The dark geometry of the trees provides dramatic counterpoint to the exquisite detail evident throughout. There is an implicit invitation to step into the cool shade, wade in the creek, and gaze through the leaves to the clear blue sky.

The work of other artists often provides Koch with insight into his own process. He is particularly inspired by western painter Howard Terpning and his approach to constructing scenes. An admirer of evangelist Billy Graham, Koch also tries to bring a spiritual sense of the world to his paintings. John Vanausdall, president and C.E.O. of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art in Indianapolis, says he finds the artist’s work “the perfect combination of accuracy, and yet, the more you look, the more you realize it’s not photorealism, it’s his personal impression. He has an amazing ability to capture the spirit of place.”

Spirit of place is certainly evident in SYCAMORE HAVEN, which evolved out of a visit to a ranch south of Tucson where Koch frequently paints. It’s a site he especially enjoys because it reminds him of parts of South Africa where sycamores grow. Beautiful, elegant trees are his main love, he admits, followed by rivers, creeks, and dry washes. In this restful scene, a pair of horses, framed and sheltered by the remarkably detailed broad reach of the branches, form a natural focal point. All is rendered in a rich, autumn-hued palette.

Ultimately, Koch’s paintings are not just a replication of a particular view; they are a sensitive interpretation of nature’s handiwork. As Chuck Schroeder says, “The peaceful mood of Koch’s works is nothing short of arresting. They persistently draw the viewer into a lingering exploration, hoping to ingest a bit of that quiet into a hurried life. His paintings speak intimately to viewers across the spectrum of artistic sophistication, demonstrating both spiritual and technical qualities. I believe his work will prove to have the timeless strength that defines legends in the art world.”


Settlers West Galleries, Tucson, AZ, and

Summer Show, Settlers West Galleries, May 8.
Prix de West, National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, Oklahoma City, OK, June 11-September 6.
Quest for the West, Eiteljorg Museum, Indianapolis, IN, September 11-October 10.
Western Visions Miniatures & More Show and Sale, National Museum of Wildlife Art, Jackson, WY, September 17.

Featured in March 2010