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Of a feather

Updated: Aug 11, 2021

Blenheim wildlife painter Nicolas Dillon has exhibited at galleries and museums all over the world. His book Drawn to the Wild: Paintings of New Zealand Birds was published by Potton & Burton in November.

Here, Nicolas talks to us about escapism, taking inspiration from nature, and why he didn’t go to art school.

Nicolas Dillon. Painting in the field. Waihopai Valley. May 2020.

How does your childhood influence your work now?

I grew up on a farm and was surrounded by the natural world. I roamed the hills behind home whenever I could. Being an introspective child, I felt very comfortable with my own company; perhaps it was a form of escapism. Perhaps I just wanted to be a bird and fly! I was totally at home in the wild and these feelings and experiences inform my work today.

Describe your creative process.

Birds and nature are the central focus of my art and it’s critical for me to spend as much time in the field as possible. I work through a spotting scope and through the powerful eye-piece I’m transported into the bird’s world. I draw and paint directly into the sketchbook using watercolour to capture light and atmosphere. These sketchbooks pile up and form an archive of reference material in the studio, a memory bank of observation. There is something about working directly from life, the experience and knowledge gained filters down into the soul. It is stored there and can be retrieved in combination with the sketchbook when I’m working on the larger studio paintings. All my works are born from these moments in nature. Although I paint in a realistic way, I’m trying to express something beyond the visible realities; I’m seeking something intangible and harder to define.

Who are your biggest influences?

I’m currently intrigued by the French astrobiologist Nathalie Cabrol. In a strange way I feel an affinity with her work. The desire to seek and understand things beyond what we know. The sense that there is something out there beyond what we can see – the intangible again: in her case, some form of life on Mars, in my case, something beyond birds. In terms of my artistic influences, well, there are many. Anders Zorn, Joaquin Sorolla, and two Russian painters IIya Repin and Isaac Levitan. They all have a breathtaking and effortless way of painting.

What’s the most memorable response you’ve had to your work?

A collector who purchased a large oil painting I’d made of a pair of black-backed gulls. He was shocked that he had just bought a painting of birds he had never thought much of. I had to explain to him that it was about a lot more than just the gulls and that they were only a vehicle or metaphor for something much deeper and harder to define. I was thrilled. I love gulls and loved the fact that the painting moved him that much.

What book is beside your bed?

Amongst a pile of books I have a copy of my own book Drawn to the Wild, which has just been published. It’s a book about my life and art and I spent the first half of this year writing it, which was a very intense time. It’s like making a painting; I become so close to them, at the end it’s hard to see if they are good or bad. So, as I do with my paintings, I’m trying to catch myself out, hoping I might pick the book up forgetting it’s mine. Then I might see it afresh!

What’s something you’ve always wanted to try?

Perhaps I had a mis-spent youth, but then I did grow up in a wine region, Marlborough. I developed a love of wine and have a penchant for good Bordeaux. I have always wanted to try the fabled 1961 Chateau Latour. Its price is in the stratosphere, I suspect, so it will remain a dream.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?

I wrote to the artist Ray Ching when I was 15, asking him if I should go to art school or not. His advice was to travel the world, meet as many of the artists I admired and look at as much great art as I could. When I left school that is what I did.


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