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" An artist cannot fail; it is a success to be one "
Charles Horton Cooley
Tags >> South Africa

If you’ve ever been in Africa on a hot afternoon when the smouldering sun is intent on roasting anything which is stupid enough to be found exposed on the dry cracked hot plate of soil, then you will know what the intense heat of such an afternoon can do to an artist’s imagination. One of my favourite things to do on days when all sane individuals have retired to the cool shade of veranda’s and trees, is to brave the scorching heat and to walk into the veld.  Once alone I locate a small hill which will afford me an open view of a valley. From such a vantage point I can see miles across the swimming and dancing landscapes as the afternoon heat brings mirages and illusions of cool water flowing across the thirsty scene.

Once out of the stinging view of the sun, the hot shade of a Mimosa tree allows me to relax and enjoy the silence of the African bush.  It is a silence like no other and at first one could be excused for thinking that you have lost your hearing in the thick silence. It is like having a pillow over your head and just as you are about to click your fingers to reassure yourself that you have not lost your hearing suddenly some flying insect races past. Its sound passes, in stereo, first from one ear, then past your face and onto the next, punctuating the silence with its buzz. As you sit and wait, slowly your ears become accustomed to the soundtrack which accompanies the scene and you begin to hear the bush as if for the first time, the scene ushered in on an overture of sound from screeching cicada beetles.

To those who are familiar with the bush this will not be a new experience and will be one which is almost taken for granted.  For me who has had his ears anaesthetised by the white noise of the city however this is like regaining consciousness after surgery. The sounds of the hot afternoon begin to penetrate my memory banks of sounds deposited from the years I was raised in Africa.

I have never found it easy to paint in the outdoors; perhaps it’s the uncertain and disorderly nature of painting away from the familiar and ordered character of my studio that I find hard. Painting with watercolour under these conditions is difficult as the heat dries out the paper and pigment very fast, adding another layer of complexity to the process. On these occasions I rely on my camera, lenses and an ability to compile a scene which I will enjoy painting on my return to my little studio. During the long cold and damp months of an English winter, painting scenes like these will bring with them the warm memories and sounds of a hot afternoon in the veld. The contrast of colours are inspiring; from the vermillion orange of the aloe flowers to the duck-egg blue of the sky and from the rich browns and khaki shades of the grass to the deep greens of the mimosa trees.


The memory of this view and the small outcrop of iron stone boulders and shady mimosa trees will serve as the canvas on which I will paint the narrative of an afternoon spent in the company of these five lovely ladies the “red heads” of Harrison Farm.

Although I have many photographs of similar scenes I have used this lovely photo taken by my good friend and owner of Harriosn Farm & Harrison Hope Wine Estate, Ronnie Vehorn The Traveling Writer

Lunch with R.D.(Bob) McKenzie

Posted by: thornwoodstudio

Tagged in: South Africa , Safari , Evolve , Creative , artists


I first met Bob and his wife Fay way back in 1981 in South Africa when I was apprenticed to an electrical engineer. At the time the McKenzie's owned the farm Gray Rocks near Queenstown in the Eastern Cape. Bob was at the time heavily involved in cattle breeding programs, dairy and various other farming operations. My company had been employed to ensure that the farms electrical installations complied with the regulations required for connection to the national grid. Now, nearly 28 years on, standing in Bob's studio in "The Barn" it seemed like that history was a world away, in another dimension.

Bob has since retired from cattle breeding, moved to a small holding  and as I understand it, only has limited involvement  with the industry; all his time now being focused on his other great passion....painting. Fay is well renowned in the area as a caterer  par excellence and, as well as catering for various occasions also runs a carvery from their lovely home which is open for limited bookings and special occasions. My reason for the visit, quite apart from the lovely lunch which Deborah, Amy and I enjoyed was to catch-up with our friends Bob and Fay and to view Bob's studio and his new works.

The studio has a number of spaces, some where Bob paints are smaller while others areas are larger where he hosts regular week-end painting workshops; I was not disappointed and found Bob's studio was just as I had always remembered  and it.  There were few works on the easel and a stack of paintings standing, either commissions awaiting collection or others requiring framing, something which Bob also does himself.


Bob paints a range of subjects but essentially he loves landscapes and seascapes and if you add a few cows to the equation it is an irresistible combination for Bob's eye. I understand that he has painted from being a young man and was inspired by many of the great artists but on a local lev, mostly by the late Les Elliott. It seems that Les inspired many people to paint including his own son Dale Elloitt who is also a well-known and respected South African Artist and friend of Bob's. 

From the first time I saw Bob's paintings at a local art exhibition I fell in love with the colours in his pallet and his ability to capture the essence of an Eastern Cape landscape. I am fortunate to own two of Bob's paintings and a print or two which still entertain my imagination and I often use them to sharpen my memories of "home" now, seated at my dinning room table over 5 000 miles from the Eastern Cape.  Bob's own words will give you a taste of how inspirational his environment is to him:

Over to you Bob ;" The fabric of the African Landscape must be one of, if not the most diverse and varied on the face of the earth. I am indeed fortunate to be situated more or less in the middle of it, here in the Eastern Cape, within easy reach of the most beautiful coastline in the world, lush tropical NAtal,the arid semi-Karoo and the incredibly varied Orange Free State. All this together with the exquisite tapestry of so many human cultures. The growing awareness of the Eastern Cape as a game farming area is drawing viewers and hunters from all corners of the  world. The area also boasts perhaps the highest concentration of pedigree livestock farms in the Republic of South Africa. All this put together makes it a veritable Eden for an artist. My deep love for all in nature makes painting this sort of environment not only a pleasure but also a privilege."

What more can be said?. I came away from The Barn and The Studio, Bob, Fay, their animals and a tasty dinner table filled and inspired. Inspired by Bob's love  for painting and also the deep fulfilling touch of friendship and a shared passion for creativity and expression.

You can see more of Bob's work on-line.


Posted August 2, 2010 by thornwoodstudio
Evolving, Journey, Travel
Tags: Colours, Home, Journey, Safari, ThornwoodStudio, Travel

My studio is quiet, almost as if it is waiting, knowing that I going away.

A good friend of mine used to have a dog that was very good at reading the signs. It seemed to know when preparations were being made and the family was getting ready for a vacation. It would sit silent, head down, and perform the saddest portrayal of rejection, worthy of an Oscar for a tragic character from a Shakespearian production.

That’s how my studio feels tonight as I gather and select the materials for my trip to South Africa. I find it amazing how this space, Thornwood Studio, has taken on a character, a personality, an almost human nature. Of course I tell myself that it is simply a room, a pre-fabricated room full of paint, canvas, bottles, brushes, books and music…..damn it, it’s my studio and an extension of me…that’s why it feels almost human; it’s a part of me and it knows it’s not going to Africa with me.

I have selected, for this trip, 12 fine pieces of watercolour paper, my, as yet unused Windsor Newton watercolour Travel set and a very limited selection of brushes, pens and watercolour pencils. I have limited space so am travelling light.

It is four years since I was last in South Africa, a land seldom far from my thoughts and longing. I have lived in England for fifteen years and love this beautiful land and the opportunity it has afforded my family and me; yet always there is this distant voice, almost like the sound of a drum beat in the night which draws my attention south and to the constellation of The Southern Cross. To deep, dark, velvety African nights enjoyed under the Milky Way and in the company of the hot crackling Thornwood fires from where my studio derives its name.  

My visit is mostly for family reasons; firstly I must deliver the ashes of my late cousin to those who will inter them in the family burial grounds at the foot of nTaba Temba a mountain in the Eastern Cape. Then I must acquaint my twelve-year-old daughter, who was born in the UK, and has little knowledge of her roots in Africa, with her family history. She will learn of her grand parents and ancestors and how they established themselves and prospered in the area known as Queenstown, a settler town named after Queen Victoria. She will tread the paths I once ran on as a little boy and she will inhale the sights, sounds and smells that will, in time to come, become the drum beat which will draw her back on her own pilgrimages and towards her own longings.

When we have visited all the sights, left our footprints on ancestral land and enjoyed the reunion of family and friends, I shall steal-away and rekindle deep memories of my own. If the spirit is willing, the flesh strong and the eye true then the twelve watercolour papers will return to England, having captured something of the colours of my memories, the scenes and the emotions of what was once my life in Africa.

Wish me well everyone and pray for creativity, vision and interpretation. That my African trip would truly be a safari of the spirit and that I would return to Thornwood Studio with tales to tell to my canvases, colours to relate to my palate and instructions to give to my brushes.   




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