Guy Combes can teach you how to paint grass, foliage, fur, and patterns on wild animals. “I had complete immersion in African wildlife from a very young age,” he says. His dad was both a wildlife artist and a game warden in Kenya. Combes’s family raised orphaned wild animals and released them back into the wild.
At the SKB workshop in Dubois, he’ll be teaching indoors the entire time, from reference photos. But there will still be danger–a real risk that we’ll soon be taking a trip. Combes assures us that after watching his films of Africa and hearing some stories about the land and animals there, we will be on fire to go there.
Combes didn’t realize just how special his upbringing was until he went to school in England, and spent some time in the United States. “As a kid I was fascinated by animals, as any kid is, but I took for granted what I was exposed to,” says the artist. “I was always very aware of my dad’s relationship with animals. He was steeped in conservation, and had military training. My dad always hunted as a kid, and that is what gave him his knowledge of animals. He used spears and arrows–no guns–and it was for the pot. When you go out tracking an animal, that is when you learn the most about it. My dad was someone I really looked up to.”
“I grew up with a good knowledge of animals and how they behave,” says Combes. “People have misconceptions about how animals behave and how people treat them and regard them. That is one of the big reasons behind why I am so involved in conservation.”
Combes is fiercely protective of the magnificent wild animals he paints, but this does not mean he is opposed to hunting. The artist acknowledges that hunting organizations have funded conservation efforts more than any other group. One of his closest friends was once a professional hunter, and Combes calls him before painting some pictures to get insight into the featured animal’s behavior. Combes doesn’t hunt, but he wouldn’t refuse to join a hunting party and take reference photos for his paintings. He says his dad acted as a guide on occasion, but he wasn’t interested in trophy hunting. He once killed an elephant and “decided it wasn’t the thing for him,” according to Combes. Likewise, the artist appreciates how close a hunter gets to some elusive creatures.
The painter also embraces the use of game ranches and animal sanctuaries, pointing out that they are sometimes the best way to get close to big cats. The important thing is to shoot one’s own reference photos. To do so, you must be in the presence of these imposing animals. “Using my own reference carries me throughout the whole painting process,” says Combes. “It’s important that I feel that I’m fully charged up by an experience that only I have had. That is what I communicate in the painting. What I’m trying to do is to put forward my experience of the animal so that it stirs people emotionally on the same level that I’m stirred emotionally when I have encounters in the field. And some of my paintings definitely have a narrative in them; they tell the story of the relationship of the animal with the environment, something the viewer won’t expect–the unusual things that people don’t expect to see. It’s definitely a balance to put out an image that people relate to but are educated by, and are stirred emotionally by. It’s a whole package.”