Kate Wyatt: wild-eyed

Stephen Swann meets a gifted wildlife artist who finds inspiration painting the wild animals of Dorset.November 08

Kate Wyatt paints the animals of our countryside. Not for her, though, an obsessively detailed photographic realism that results in an image of a hare, say, which makes the animal look as if all life has been drained from it. For Kate, her subjects - hares, foxes, otters, badgers, squirrels, voles - have to live on the paper and so she has evolved a technique which somehow manages to bring the unpremeditated nature of the sketch and the aesthetic of a work suitable for exhibition into a synthesis.

The finished work that results from Kate's way of going about things comes from her desire to conjure up on paper the animal as a living, moving and vivid presence. To do this, her preferred medium is watercolour over which she makes marks using a pen and acrylic ink. Here's Kate: 'I keep to a certain traditional element of painting while exploring the utmost boundaries of the media I use. I like the idea of surface texture. I apply watercolour over a carefully drawn outline then take out areas with water and a brush. Then I use a pen to make additional marks, the aim always being to imbue life into the subject.'

By exploiting the expressive potential of her materials - the surface of the paper, the watercolour paint, the inks - Kate manages to communicate her intense response to her chosen subject. 'I love animals,' she says. 'I have read a lot about the native American Indians and their beliefs and how they attempted to get into the spirit of the animals on which they depended. It is the spirit of a hare or an otter that I hope my paintings come near to capturing.'

All this begins with close observation of her chosen subject. Here is Kate again, talking about one such subject: 'I have several hedgehogs in my garden. One was very large and gave me quite a surprise. I enjoy the strange noises as they snuffle and forage about, although I remember when I first heard a hedgehog I thought it sounded like an old steam kettle huffing along and I was quite alarmed at the noise. When painting a hedgehog I want to express the feeling of an earth dweller...'

Along with this close observation come many preparatory sketches. 'Drawing is very important to me,' she says, 'both in terms of the sketches and the actual finished painting.' It certainly is. A painting by Kate is as much a matter of superb draughtsmanship as it is about looseness. 'My paintings are a mixture of looseness and precision,' she explains, and she names people like Victor Ambrus of Time Team fame, Gerald Scarfe, and Arthur Rackham as influences to back up this statement. 'I also love Holbein and Durer,' she says, before adding with just the slightest hint of envy in her voice, 'Holbein especially for his fur - it's miraculous!'

The path to this almost total absorption in her art has been an interesting one to say the least. Kate was born in London in 1956. Her dad ran his own building company and her mum worked as a seamstress in Bond Street. The family moved to Weymouth when Kate was a child and she attended school at St Augustine's, then St Philomena's, before going to boarding school at St Gilda's, Langport. She took A levels in Art, History, English and RE at Weymouth Grammar and then did a Foundation Course at Bournemouth & Poole College of Art where Dorset sculptor Peter Hand was a great influence. Then flamenco dancing came into her life. 'It was an obsession,' says Kate. 'I wanted to do it for the rest of my life. Painting no longer seemed to matter.'

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Well, she didn't do it for the rest of her life but she did do it for nearly 20 years, professionally and at the highest level too. 'I formed my own company and we toured all over the place. I even taught flamenco in Spain!' Gradually though, Kate's enthusiasm for flamenco waned somewhat and she resumed her interest in painting. Then on the advice of Alistair Kendry, her tutor at the Adult Education Centre she attended in London, she did more A levels and finished up gaining a BA in Fine Art at the University of East London. From there Kate did life drawing, again at Adult Education Classes, where her tutor was Sotirakis Charalambou, and she followed this up with a Summer School course on drawing at the Prince's Drawing School in Shoreditch. 'I'm not a fan of today's art colleges,' says Kate. 'For me it all begins with drawing. Conceptual art and performance art and all the rest of it is of little interest and for me doesn't really rate as art.'

Today Kate divides her time between London where one of her daughters has just gained a place at Highgate School, and Southwell on Portland where her parents live. As for her work, she has exhibited in London, Bristol and in galleries all over the West Country and her paintings can be found in private collections not just in the UK but as far afield as the United States, Canada and Australia.

'Five years from now I would like to be living and working full time on Portland,' says Kate. 'Success would be painting better than I am now. I am not the sort to sit back and be satisfied with my work - that way I believe it would become stale.'

Stale? It is difficult to imagine Kate's work ever becoming a mere matter of potboiling - such an approach would seem to go against her whole outlook on life. For Kate Wyatt, both life and art, be that art flamenco dancing or painting, are best done full-on. 'I am an obsessive,' she says, 'and a dreamer. I love the beauty and passion of flamenco and I love the beauty and wildness of our native animals. I hope I capture some of that beauty and wildness in my paintings.'

To see more of Kate's work, visit www.katewyatt.co.uk