Lindsay Scott | Window to a Wild World

By Gussie Fauntleroy

It’s hard to imagine unless you’ve experienced it: a massive elephant wading so noiselessly through water that, if you were looking the other way, you wouldn’t even know he was there. But Lindsay Scott saw him. It was evening. Golden light shone on the animal’s enormous wrinkled flanks and blazed through the tops of tall grasses. In the water’s ripples were reflected the twilight glow and deep blue of the sky.

Delta Twilight, oil, 24 x 44.

“It’s so amazing to be out there in Africa in the evening,” Scott says of the experience that inspired the painting DELTA TWILIGHT. “If elephants are relaxed, they’re talking to each other and you’ll hear their ears flapping or their stomachs rumbling. But I wanted this painting to be about the silence and this big animal walking past. Those are the kinds of things that really excite me, and they’re what I try—in some small way—to capture in my work.”

Scott is an internationally known wildlife artist, yet she considers herself more accurately a portrait painter, a genre she practiced (with human subjects) in her younger years. “I don’t do generic,” she observes. Instead, she skillfully renders individuals who happen to be animals, each with a distinct personality and often-complex social relationships. And it’s not just a particular creature that comes to life on canvas, but a feeling of the land and sky, an intimate window into the animal’s own world. It’s a world the artist has been fortunate to observe many times in her 56 years.

Scott grew up in a suburb of Bulawayo, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), where her parents settled after leaving their home country of South Africa for work opportunities following World War II. It was the perfect childhood setting for the future artist, a place where the wild in wildlife—and in the land around her—was perceptible, exciting, and real. “Nature in Africa is such a powerful force. I was awestruck,” she relates, speaking from the gentler but no less magical landscape of coastal New Zealand, where she and her New Zealand-born husband, Brian McPhun, now live.

While the magnificence of the natural world became embedded in the artist’s psyche and soul, there were other early influences as well. Among them, a mother who understood a child’s need for idyllic time to nurture imagination and dreams. Then there were family picnics in wildlife parks, where Africa’s famous mega-fauna could often be spotted and watched going about their lives.

Young Warrior, colored-pencil, 20 x 12.

In high school young Lindsay’s passion for both animals and art grew stronger, although for a number of years she believed they would remain separate parts of her life. In her mid-teens she was given a book on the drawings of Leonardo da Vinci. “I looked at it and said, Yes! That’s what I want to do!” she remembers. For several years, as if under apprenticeship in a classical artists’ atelier, she drew only in pencil, determined to master black and white before moving on to colored pencil and paint.

It was during this period that Scott discovered she was actually drawing not strictly the object itself, but the multifaceted effects of light as it reflected off of the object—an understanding that remains central to her approach to art. “For example, an apple is just round, but what tells you it’s round and has got volume is the way light hits it. I realized that at a very early age,” the artist explains in her direct and amiable manner, in an accent that fuses New Zealand inflections with a trace of her family’s South African roots.

Another early life-changing experience for Scott was a two-week camping trip in the “wild back of beyond” with her all-girls high school class. The group packed in all their water, food, and equipment for survival in the wilds of the neighboring country of Botswana, which at the time contained a total of just 16 miles of paved road. Accompanied by a biologist and an ornithologist, the teens were immersed in first-hand lessons about survival, ecology, wildlife, and the intertwining relationships among them. “It was a major expedition. It was the most exciting thing I’d ever done,” Scott recounts. “All of a sudden my mind was opened up to see how things interact with each other. Ever since then, all I ever wanted to do was something related to animals.”

A high school teacher recognized Scott’s artistic talent and encouraged her to enroll in a fine art school in Cape Town, South Africa. The school’s focus was abstract art—not the ideal environment for someone whose passion was representational drawing and painting, and not a great social fit, either, she recalls: “It was an artsy crowd behaving in artsy ways. Well, that’s just not who I am.”

So she added courses in biology, botany, and zoology at another Cape Town institution, and after two years transferred to the University of Minnesota, which had a good reputation for both biology and art. Following graduation with a fine art degree and a minor in biology, Scott spent several years in Africa, Australia, and Antarctica doing botanical and ornithological research and leading natural history field trips. Then came more than two decades of living and painting in the western United States.

Through a fellow painter in Arizona, Scott became acquainted with the world of American wildlife art and some of its greats, including the late master painter Bob Kuhn. With this familiarity came the realization that art could be a full-time pursuit, and Scott jumped into it with both feet. She traveled, sketched, and took photographs of wildlife in Montana, Wyoming, New Mexico, and other parts of the West. While the flora was different, the expansive feel of the land reminded her of Africa. And as in Africa, she camped, hiked, and became familiar with the landscape and the wild inhabitants she depicted.

After establishing her career in the United States, Scott and her husband bought a 110-acre farm on the east coast of New Zealand’s northern island. Situated on a rise, the rolling pastoral setting has views of a blue bay with sailboats and ferries. Pristine beaches are no more than a mile away, and the couple often picnics on nearby islands set aside as conservation areas for rare endangered birds. Parts of their own land have been planted with more than 100,000 native subtropical trees as enhanced bird habitat. “It’s absolute paradise,” Scott says with a smile.

In her studio, with generous, even light from south-facing windows—the southern hemisphere’s equivalent of good north light—the artist uses sketches, photographs, and African experiences to portray some of that continent’s most impressive wild inhabitants. She often works in graphite or colored pencil, a time-consuming process requiring thoughtful planning, since areas of white are created by leaving the paper bare. “I love using that negative space. If a blade of grass in the foreground or a bit of an animal’s eye will be white, that’s the first thing you plan. You just don’t touch that part,” she points out.

Bad-Boys, pencil, 14 x 26.

BAD BOYS, created in pencil, brings the viewer face to face with a herd of Cape buffalo, whose reputation for beady-eyed meanness is well deserved, Scott says. Incorporating the full range of tones from black to white, the piece finds its rhythm in the fluid lines of the animals’ backs and curved horns. YOUNG WARRIOR is a colored-pencil portrait of a magnificent sable antelope with elegant ridged antlers. The rich, intense colors of dark fur and rust-red ears were produced over many hours and layer upon layer of color. The antelope’s head is turned, and a tickbird stands on his shoulder. “It’s a gentle pose, one of those quiet little moments in nature,” the artist notes.

She also captures less quiet moments: the chase, a lion bursting into a water hole, scattering birds and water and prey. In the painting NECK ‘N’ NECK, two male giraffes kick up dust as they vie for dominance in their singularly “genteel” fashion, as Scott describes it. No blood or excessive violence are part of this battle: “They whack each other with their necks,” she explains. “It creates a nice opportunity for graceful, curving shapes.”

Scott’s widely collected wildlife paintings and drawings have earned numerous honors over the years. Among them are an Award of Excellence from the Society of Animal Artists and Best of Show at the Pacific Rim Wildlife Art Show. Her work has been exhibited at London’s Natural History Museum and is in the permanent collection of such institutions as the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum and the National Museum of Wildlife Art.

Painting wildlife and helping preserve it are two sides of the same coin for Scott. She and her husband lead once-a-year African photographic safaris as a way of opening eyes, minds, and hearts to the continent she loves. She is involved with such conservation organizations as the African Wildlife Foundation and the Jane Goodall Foundation. But mainly, she draws and paints. “If there is one thing I hope people get from looking at this work,” she reflects, “it is that all of this beauty is worth trying to preserve for future generations.”

Trailside Galleries, Scottsdale, AZ, and Jackson, WY; Mockingbird Gallery, Bend, OR; Spanierman Gallery, New York, NY; The Sportsman’s Gallery & Paderewski Fine Art, Vail, CO; InSight Gallery, Fredericksburg, TX;

Featured in March 2011.