Cape Town - As a young child in the late 1960s, Noel Ashton stood on the Hermanus sea cliffs one winter’s morning, mesmerised by the sight of a whale cavorting in the water below.
It was the first time he’d seen one of these mysterious creatures and he desperately wanted to know more about it, but there were no popular books available at the time to enlighten him.
Nevertheless, the sight of that whale, and of others he observed in the seasons that followed, inspired him and set him on a life path.
Now, about 40-plus years later, the artist-cum-scientific illustrator-cum-environmentalist and his wife and conservation soulmate, Belinda, have produced the field guide he really wanted as a child.
The book is illustrated with many of Ashton’s own finely detailed paintings that – he notes with pride – are probably unique in their scientific accuracy, despite the obvious difficulties of trying to illustrate creatures that are by their nature mostly invisible to human eyes.
And he’s entirely self-taught, apart from a few brief weeks in an art school.
“I’ve always fiddled and been creative,” he recalls during an interview at his home in the Peninsula’s “Deep South”.
“I can remember painting and drawing at school (Western Province Preparatory and Kingswood College in Grahamstown), but I never took art as a subject.
“And I was at the tech for just five weeks, I think, when I realised it wasn’t for me.
“It was very much a personal, individual journey of experimentation and developing my own techniques.”
His preferred medium?
“That’s a difficult question, because I mix and match across mediums, depending on what I need to do.
“If I’m doing scientific illustrations of whales and dolphins, that’s airbrush, a difficult technique.
“For the work I’ve been doing now for my ‘52 Artworks’ project, involving a new painting each week, I’ve been using acrylic extensively, because it’s a very fast medium.
“And I love watercolours. Watercolour is the basis of my art, but it’s a matter of just using what I need to – oil or water or charcoal or acrylic or whatever.”
Ashton says he’s always been very drawn to the sea and to painting marine mammals.
“The ocean is just a part of who I am, although I do find I’m as happy in the mountains as at the edge of the sea.
“It’s part of my make-up, so whales and dolphins were a natural way of connecting with that world.
“And it’s also an environmental messaging opportunity because of people’s relationship with whales and dolphins, and by projection their relationship with the natural world.”
So how does an artist draw or paint creatures he or she can’t actually see, other than for brief glimpses as they leap out of the water or when they fetch up dead on beaches?
“A lot of my work started off in the scientific illustration domain. I did environmental and geographical sciences at UCT and so I had that scientific side, and I also had this wish to be creative and artistic. And I found scientific illustration was a wonderful way to bring these two worlds together.
“What I’ve developed over the past 30 years is a process called morphological mapping, which is a way of using scientific and morphological data, and combining that with art to end up with something extremely accurate.”
It involves working with marine scientists and searching all the available scientific literature and records to get extremely accurate data, he says.
“I could then draw up a mathematical data base and morphological map of all the proportions of every single animal – height of dorsal fin, length of beak, flipper insertion, girth, and so on, all as proportions to a length. Then it’s a question of how you render that.
“I’ve ended up with a highly precise mathematical model to which I then put complex curves – there’s not one straight line on a dolphin, thank you very much. These animals have these wonderful soft edges – first in black-and-white and then colour. It takes a lot of time.
“And that’s what’s been unique about my journey.
“I don’t think there’s anyone else in the world who’s had the craziness to do this at this kind of level of intensity.”
Ashton first honed this technique on an illustration of the endemic Heaviside’s dolphin for local whale and dolphin expert Dr Peter Best, who wanted it for the International Whaling Commission.
Just this month, he’s completed his “52 Artworks – a Year in Nature” project that involved creating a new artwork weekly, downloading it on to a blog and then writing about it, in partnership with environmental magazine Africa Geographic and building towards an exhibition scheduled for October.
“So it’s been quite an extraordinary journey this past year, as an artist and as an environmentalist, because I write about each subject. Very little marine, actually – it crept in every now and again, as it would, but it’s very much ‘a year in nature’, rather than ‘a year at the edge of the sea’.” - Weekend Argus
l Watching whales and dolphins in southern Africa by Noel & Belinda Ashton (Struik Nature)