Wildlife Art – Interview with Chris McClelland

 At ADL we’re always keen to talk to individuals out there in the world engaged in the subject matter our courses teach.  With our recent focus on environmentalism and agriculture we were delighted to have the opportunity to talk to Chris McClelland.  Chris is an Australian wildlife artist driven by a passion for Africa which has inspired his love and talent for capturing the amazing wildlife of the continent in incredibly detailed pencil drawings. 

 Chris used to work as a station manager for a sheep ranch in New South Wales.  Unable to pass up the chance to get his insights on agriculture and African wildlife, we caught up with him as he attended a recent conference of the Arts with his wife Margie in ADL’s home city of Canterbury. 

Tell us a little bit about your background Chris.

My background is that I have spent 43 years on the land, the last 21 years I managed a large sheep station in the Riverina of New South Wales where we would shear around 42,000 Merino sheep.  It wasn’t until I went to Africa in 1994 that I suddenly fell in love with this vast continent and got the passion to start drawing.  After I came back with my wife and daughter I wrote an article for the African Safari magazine which, at the time was based in Harare.  I remember sending them an article and threw in a pencil drawing for good measure. 

Anyway they accepted it.  And they said if I ever went back to Africa again would I be interested in writing reviews on safari lodges – but you’ll have to do a drawing of the lodges and we’ll publish that with your article and pay your immediate expenses.  I said, ‘Yeah, that sounds marvellous.’  So I repeatedly went back to Africa just before our major annual shearing operation – every year for ten years!  

We’d go to various safari lodges in Zimbabwe, writing reviews and doing my drawings.  By chance a fellow called Stuart Cranswick who owns Landela Safaris (a prominent owner of a very large and successful safari organization in Zim. Botswana and South Africa) found out about my work with the magazine.  He spoke to the Editor and asked, “Would this McClelland chap be interested in coming out and drawing my lodges?”  And so that’s how I started drawing other Safari lodges and the wildlife that abounds around them.  We were well looked after.

 So I would of course go back to the station refreshed, but every holiday I had I went back to Africa.  It had a magnetism that is hard to explain – not just for me but for Margie as well.  I’d always had an interest in Africa.  My father served as an Australian with the Royal Air Force in the Second World War, commanding an airforce base at Juba in the southern Sudan.   He came back from Africa with the skin of a leopard that he’d shot and which they thought was responsible for killing and eating a young native child near the air base. 

The leopard skin took pride of place on our sitting room floor but as a very young child then I couldn’t understand why an animal was so flat.  But I do remember that for whatever reason, I secretively took a big pair of shiny dress-making scissors from my mother’s sowing basket and went to the leopard and cut off all the whiskers from its muzzle one by one.  I can’t tell you why or what the catalyst was for what I did.  But maybe my fascination for Africa began with the introduction to that creature of many spots.

You were the manager of a sheep station.  What was it like managing such an enterprise?

Well this was a property in what they call the Riverina of New South Wales.  It’s the flattest and most open and semi-arid country on earth with major rivers running through it.  Trees border the rivers but the rest of the expansive countryside is tree-less as far as the eye can see to the huge horizon.  The ground is covered with varieties of saltbush, bluebush and some introduced species like barley grass and trefoil clover. It was my responsibility to look after 42,000 sheep on about 200,000 acres of countryside fenced into very large paddocks (our largest was 18,000 acres). 

t was my job to make sure that those sheep were producing plenty of wool of a marketable micron which entailed complex breeding programmes using embryo transplants, artificial insemination and our own stud sires in corrective mating programmes.  They had to be maintained always in good health.  So if they needed to be drenched for internal parasites it was a major operation bringing in and treating them. Generally, though in this semi arid area the sheep looked after themselves. 

It’s only times like crutching, where you annually removed the wool from around the breech to prevent flystrike, that it was all hands on deck with the stock.  Shearing is the major annual operation on these big pastoral properties.  In our case we would employ roughly 30 men in a team.  In that team you would have 12 shearers, shed overseer, penner-upper, roustabouts, wool rollers, classer, and presser.  The people who sort the fleece and press the fleece. 

And most important of all – the cook.

The Cook?

A team runs on its belly smoothly or otherwise and the ‘baitlayer’ was often a very colourful character. When asked ‘What’s on the menu today?’, the cook would generally reply ‘Same shit, different day!‘  It was often a matter of not ‘who called the cook a bastard but who called the bastard a cook!’

Twelve shearers would average around 2000 adult sheep a day, much less for the ram mob – you’re looking at up to six weeks of shearing and producing at least 1000 bales of Merino wool.  So that was major operation.  And that’s where the majority of our income came from.  Secondary income came from selling our older sheep and young ewe culls.  As sheep age, they’re not as productive and hopefully genetically inferior to the younger ewes coming on, so we would sell them.  If they were wethers they’d be trucked and shipped to the Middle East by boat. 

So Meat as the second income?

Yes meat.  But wool was the primary earner.  We had to maintain all the station infrastructure, such as our roads and airstrip.  This was done with our own grader.  We had a channel system that ran around property for about a hundred kilometres and this had to be maintained.  It was about 8 foot wide at the bottom and fifteen feet wide at the top.  Every year we’d run the grader along that 100 km of channel to remove any vegetation and rubbish before pumping water into it from the Lachlan River in the cooler months. 

There would also be spurs off the main channel which would divert water into ground tanks.  These were earthen tanks dug out of the ground by heavy plant and were about 100 meters long, 50 meters wide, around 14 feet deep and fed by many rainwater catchment drains.  If we didn’t get enough rain we’d top them with river water.  Remember we’re operating in very arid country, 12 inch annual rainfall, so we had to make the most of what we had. 

If one of our students was thinking of becoming a sheep rancher, what’s the number one tip you’d give them?

Well the number one thing you’ve got to realise is that you have to be prepared to start at the bottom.  A very hard ask for today’s younger generation.  You would start as a Jackaroo, or Jillaroo – an apprentice.  You spend the time learning the ropes.  You begin in one particular area of Australia and you’ll find that when you move to another area things change, there’s a different approach to handling stock and running the station.  It’s going to be a totally different experience to say, an area where I was working and the more intensive and higher rainfall regions of Australia.

  Now this is probably going to take four or five years before you reach a stage where you may become an overseer.  In other-words a position where you’re commanding and supervising other people on the station. It might be another five years before being competent enough to manage a large sheep or cattle station. Ideally you go to an agriculture college in-between, preferably after a few years of experience on the land.  That is pretty important today.  In my day it wasn’t absolutely necessary, though the company I worked for sent me to an Ag College for two years on full pay.

  But today it’s essential. You’ve got to have that extra business knowledge because agriculture is always changing.  New technology, new dips, drenches, more efficient ways of doing things and marketing.  We went from doing all our stock work on horses then solely on motorbikes and finally aeroplanes for spotting sheep mobs.  Two-way radios became so important for communication over large distances and for transferring information from aeroplane to bike riders.  

Let’s talk about your art.  Can you tell us a little bit about how you make these drawings?

Well a lot of people when drawing wildlife like to draw a pretty passive subject.  I like telling a story.  So you’ve got to get that information about your subjects.  So that means going to Africa, or whatever country that you’re choosing your animals from to paint or draw on canvas or paper.  That means spending a lot of time tediously observing animals in their natural habitat.

   The marvellous thing about Africa is that the guides are so well trained, and this comes from many years of supervision under strict guidelines to develop the knowledge of animals and their behaviour, particularly the most dangerous ones.  In many cases, your life depends on the knowledge of the guide.   So it’s getting that information and then using that information to do your drawing.

You’ve got to know how animals interact if you want to make a story, particularly the behaviour between predator and prey.  The way they hold their tails or their ears when they’re being aggressive or submissive. What are the associated animals that can be included with the subject?  A variety of birds have an important relationship with the larger mammals.  So you want to include all those little things as well.

So it’s information and observation which is usually forthcoming from a well trained guide.  It’s not so easy with Australian animals. 


 We don’t know enough about them.  There’s research going on now but Australian animals are more secretive and we don’t talk about their habits as much.  They’re not as big and as numerous.  And so it’s very hard to tell a story with them. It wasn’t until the sixties that a European country filmed the birth of a kangaroo embryo before it finally and firmly fixed itself to one of the teats inside the pouch, thus disproving the popular bush belief that the young joey was born on the end of the teat.

Is that why then you’ve chosen to specialise in African animals instead of Australia?  We would have thought that Australia’s unique wildlife would make it the ideal place to start.

That’s right.  But one reason is that Africa gave me the passion, and my loyalty is with that initial passion.  Nowhere else on this planet does wildlife put on a greater show than in Africa.  Look at the wildebeest migration.  Spending time with the mountain gorillas as we have done.  So many things can happen that are part of the unforgettable experience. It maybe the pink flamingos on Lake Nakuru, millions of flamingos that congregate there. 

 But I do draw quite a lot of Australian wildlife now, probably more than I did before. But only where I can tell a story.  I don’t want to draw just a pretty looking animal.  Next drawing I’m probably going to do will be the Australian red kangaroo.  But not just a Kangaroo sitting up on the plains. It’ll be two fighting kangaroos.  It’s about putting a bit of action into the drawing. 

So from a Pen to Paper perspective, what actually goes into doing one of these drawings. 

Well that depends.  You might be in the pub when you get out a pencil and start sketching on a beer mat, a couple of hippos maybe.  I’ll have one opening its mouth.  Or two fighting.  A rough sketch.  And then I’ll take it home and work on it.  Now most people would call my rough ones actual drawings that I could exhibit but they’re not (though I do put a lot of detail in them).  What I’ll do next is to start shuffling them around a bit.  Say “Well I think that one hippo has to be repositioned to balance the picture properly” or “I’ll move that one out.”   Then maybe I’ll bring in another one.  A young one and a female.  Something for the other hippos to be fighting over which tells a story. 

So I’ll make a lot of notes and I’ll correct the sketch.   Maybe I want to open the mouth more – Hippo mouths can open to an extreme 150 degrees.  Then I’ll start laying out the original drawing.  And hopefully that’ll be the final.  And then I just gradually start working on it, filling it in with graphite or coloured pencil.

So what was your first Wildlife Piece?

 Probably elephants watering on the Zambezi River.  I thought that’d make a good scene.  A collection of animals standing on the water’s edge sucking up the water or raising their heads and putting it in their mouth. You don’t get much time to yourself whilst running a big station property so Margie said “You’ve got to take Sundays off, why not use that time to draw”.  So I would devote that time to drawing. 

 When I first went to Africa and started drawing safari lodges I would draw them in a montage form.  I would draw a particular glimpse of the lodge with its thatched roof and dining area perhaps and then draw some of the animals that lived nearby.  For example, a pride of lions, or elephants running past it.  I’d incorporate those into the drawing.  

What influenced your style?

Well I’ve just really gone my own way.  You always look at other peoples’ work and get ideas from that and subtly bring other ideas into your own work.  Originally, I used to just draw an animal or group of animals with very little scenery.  I tend to include much more now.

 One thing I’ve noticed about wildlife art is that it sometimes doesn’t have typical background scenery relating to the subject drawn or painted.  I’ve seen African wildlife with American scenery in the background which is often a pity.  Another thing that the artist has to be aware of when getting photographic information of captive animals in zoos, is that you have make allowances for these animals on high nutrition, lacking exercise and therefore over-fat.  If they’re older male lions they would have superfluous mane and belly hair that they normally wouldn’t have in the wild.  Meerkats and painted hunting dogs are usually plump and sometimes exhibiting abnormal behaviour – they’re not like that in the wild.

You’ve been to Africa many times already – what countries in Africa have you been to?

 Quite a few.  Spent a fair bit of time travelling all over South Africa.  The most time has been spent in Zimbabwe and also in Botswana.  I’ve also travelled to Namibia on a number of occasions to write reviews for the magazine and Margie and I did a walk down the Fish River Canyon for six days recently.  Been to Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Zaire – now the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

  I probably had my most exhilarating experience in Zaire when a mountain gorilla called Marcel actually charged me and grabbed me by my shoulder. The funny thing was that during that time with the gorilla’s there was no fear experienced. There was probably a moment of anxiety but it was just a remarkable incident where I was more concerned with getting the video camera focussed on the silverback gorilla that had me by the shoulder than worrying about what he might do to me.  This incident occurred after following the spectacular wildebeest migration through the Serengeti in Kenya.

  In 1994, when we drove into Zaire from Uganda, it was during the Rwandan civil war.  While we were there, 12,000 Tutsis had been massacred and their bodies thrown into the Kagera River causing havoc along the foreshores of Lake Victoria and a headache for the Ugandan government. We passed blue tarpaulin UN refugee camps in Uganda but other than that the organisation did nothing to stop the massacres.   We were travelling very close to all this and when we crossed the border into Zaire, the border was closed a week or so after we left and didn’t open again until years later.

From your perspective, what’s the most pressing concern that Wildlife is facing?

 I think the greatest problem on this planet, and it’s one that people don’t want to talk about, is overpopulation.  People don’t tend to experience this.  There’s stacks of food in their supermarkets. They might go on a relaxing overseas river or ocean cruise somewhere but they don’t get out into the real world, they don’t see reality.  Many have hang-ups and keep clear of third world countries and so called poverty. The biggest problem facing Africa, and the world, is the explosion of the human race.

  Because of overpopulation, remaining wilderness is being used up for human cultivation and settlement.  We saw in parts of Zaire where the countryside had been totally cleared for cultivation and is empty except for Australian Eucalyptus which are being planted to take over from the chopped down indigenous trees.  Meanwhile, the mountain gorillas are being pushed to higher altitude on the fan-slopes of the Virunga volcanoes.  It’s happening all over, the area available to wildlife and the health of this planet is shrinking and was most noticeable in places when Margie and I flew over the vast Amazon jungle in 2009.

  Humanity is spreading out of control, and of course governments have to look after human beings first.  But there seems to be no room for a holistic approach to life. We need to live in harmony with nature – restrict the number of children we have.  We need wildlife. We can’t rely on non-renewable resources forever.  It’s something that is very noticeable in Africa as wildlife becomes isolated in scattered National Parks. 

It’s got to the stage where we have to seriously manage wildlife.  Otherwise we’re going to lose them.  We already are losing species.   Poaching of course is a big problem, an awful problem.  I know of areas in Zimbabwe where there were over 70 black rhinos in once protected conservation areas but due the incompetence of the Mugabe regime the number has been reduced to 20 or so.  It’s a huge loss of that genetic material and we’re losing it everywhere.

  Animals can’t migrate like they used to.  In Africa now they’re opening trans-frontier parks where animals from Kruger National Park in South Africa can now migrate over the dismantled border fence into Mozambique, giving animals freedom to move over larger areas, from one national park to another.  But it depends on what’s going on in those countries.  If they go into Mozambique and you’ve got a war on you’ll have the animals getting slaughtered.  Animals going into Zimbabwe will get seriously poached as long as we have a despot in charge.  It’s a real problem everywhere.

It’s very difficult though to tell people about these problems.  But we’ve got to face it.  We’ve got people in Australia now who are trying to raise attention to it, but politicians don’t want to hear it nor does the city populace.  It won’t be till we experience a catastrophic world event when those that survive will have to do something about it.  People want to live and want to survive.  I can see some awful situations in the future that our kids will have to find solutions for.  I won’t have to, but they will. 

If you had a free pass to go anywhere you wanted to draw an animal, which one would you choose?

I think I’d go to India and see the tiger.  I’d love to see tigers in the wild before it’s impossible.  Sadly, one day very soon that’ll be the case, there’s so few left.  I’d love to get some video footage of a tiger in the wild and probably do some drawings.

So where’s your next project going to be?

As far as drawing is concerned it’s going to be a fairly mundane one.  A mob of sheep coming out of the page and a sheep dog heading out in front of them.  One challenging sheep who has suddenly thought better of it, has actually pulled up in a great shower of dust as the dog with a fixed stare has checked it.  I’ll probably call it “Don’t You Dare”.   So that’s what I’m working on at the moment. What I hope to do next is go to Mongolia and go to the Naadam Festival – a very large horse display – the sixth largest festival in the world.

They do like horses in Mongolia.

 They do.  There’ll be lots of horse racing.   All this together with wrestling and archery games will make lovely video footage and wonderful photography for Margie.  Then we’ll do some travelling up through Moscow to St Petersburg. 

 I’d love to spend longer in the Brazilian Pantanal.  We went through it in 2009, and I’d love to go back there. The wildlife is almost on the same level as the wildlife in Africa, an incredible variety of species but not as easily seen. Unfortunately, you don’t see many artists drawing South American animals.  It’s not fashionable to draw them.  If you’re an American you have bears and other native animals around you and paintings of African animals are more collectable.  I’ve only drawn a few South American animals at this stage. 

Anything else you’d like to add Chris?

The conference that we’ve been attending in Canterbury has been a gathering of international people moulded in their own culture and blessed with a passion that expresses creativity in all forms.  Although very much attached spiritually to humanity itself, more importantly, there is an awareness, I think, that reaches beyond to the well-being of the planet.  I am glad that I was asked to be a part of it.

Chris McClelland Thank You very much for your time! 

  Chris McClelland’s amazing artwork of African and Australian animals can be viewed in the gallery at his website www.wildprints.com.au   Limited edition prints can be ordered online direct from the studio. Email:  [email protected]  




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