During a trip to Tsukudu, artist John Banovich had been watching lions for over two hours from behind the wheel of a Land Cruiser, snapping photos and making field sketches, when a large male detached himself from the pride and ambled over for a look-see. Although lions were his primary focus on this safari, Banovich had also been tracking a family of cheetahs, and blood from some meat he had fed them had soaked into his camera bag. Before he knew it, the lion had hopped onto the vehicle, fracturing its retracted windshield, and treaded over Banovich with its plate-size paws to snatch the bag with its fearsome jaws. “So what did I do?” Banovich chuckles. “I tapped him on the snout with my tripod. The lion dropped the bag–and roared right in my face. `Okay, okay,’ I thought, `you can have my wallet, cash, credit cards, the title to my car–anything you want.’” Instead, the lion retired for a leisurely meal of blood-spattered canvas.
Banovich cheerfully admits to being “obsessed” by the drama of predation. (His father, a recreational hunter from Butte, Montana, used to spin bedtime stories pitting a rhino, say, against an elephant.) This spectacle, encountered daily in the bush veld, highlands, and flood plains of Africa, is the source for such signature images as The Defensive Line and The Offensive Line, a pair of 90″-long panoramic canvases that portray a face-off between a herd of Cape buffalo and a pride of lions in Kenya’s Masai-Mara Game Reserve. And it is Banovich’s readiness to confront savagery, whether explicitly or implicitly, along with his realistic yet painterly touch, his grasp of narrative moment, and the outsize scale of his work that sets him apart from much of his wildlife-artist peerage.
From an early date Banovich understood the importance of standing out from the crowd. Shortly after turning to art as a full-time career, he began painting on a large scale, creating The Power of One (not shown) and The Patriarch. The decision to “go big” entailed considerable risk, since large canvases require more time to complete and have higher price tags than smaller works. Also, he says, large-scale canvases multiply the degree of difficulty, since one must keep proportions and values consistent over a greater area. Fortunately for Banovich, both paintings sold. In fact, The Power of One helped him garner Best New Artist at the 1994 Game Conservation International Show in San Antonio, and later that year The Patriarch won Best of Show at the 1994 Pacific Rim Wildlife Art Show, making Banovich the first artist to walk away with its top prize for two consecutive years.
When Banovich returns to his studio from his annual visits to Africa, he brings a wealth of inspiration, observations, and source material, such as travel sketches and color slides. To facilitate the painting process, he stores the slides in binders and classifies them by subject: elephants; bull elephant sensing danger; bull elephant charging, frontal view. These photos, he emphasizes, serve as reference tools, never as the basis for composition. “I don’t paint from photographs,” he explains. “I photograph facts: eyes, ears, feet, and background.” Likewise, his sketches serve as documentation, but obviously not of moving subjects.
Enthusiasm, he says, is the single most important quality an artist can bring to his or her art. In January 1999, Banovich completed what is perhaps his most ambitious work, Clash of the Titans. The precipitating event–a vicious battle between two bull giraffes that he had witnessed two years earlier at Namibia’s Etosha National Park–is one rarely encountered in the wild, and it made an indelible impression on the artist. By late 1998, when Banovich’s schedule finally allowed him to begin the painting, the incident and its images had filtered so thoroughly through his psyche that he completed it in two months, whereas normally, he says, a painting of this size can easily consume half a year.
Paramount in Banovich’s mind was the sheer bulk of a mature male giraffe–which stands at 18 feet and weighs some 3,000 pounds–and for that he needed a jumbo canvas. To accommodate the increasing size of his paintings, Banovich has been experimenting with unconventional materials, replacing wooden stretcher bars with aluminum square tubing framed in wood, which makes the finished painting considerably lighter. Because stretching his previous jumbo canvas caused the linen material to buckle the aluminum tubing, with Clash of the Titans he turned to the more pliant and forgiving cotton.
Another consideration for the artist working on a grand scale is expense. The cost of producing a work like Clash of the Titans can run as high as $10,000, so careful planning and deft execution are essential. When planning his compositions, Banovich creates a series of thumbnail sketches, many simple line figures, before settling on the most persuasive image. Then he sketches with modeling and values, though for Clash of the Titans Banovich rendered a 12″-x-9″ oil painting, thus also laying the groundwork for the hues to come.
After toning the canvas with a mixture of stone-gray gesso and burnt sienna acrylic, Banovich outlines the composition, using the projected image of the finished sketch–or in this case, the miniature oil–as his guide to accurate proportions. With the aid of a ladder and a 4B graphite pencil, he sketches his subject from top to bottom, bringing in the details, the essential information that conveys volume and value.
Banovich’s greatest bugbear has been his tendency to overwork his paintings, to add too many strokes and spoil the spontaneity. The key to the simplicity of brushwork, he finds, lies in the underpainting. He uses thinned-down acrylic, which allows him to move quickly without getting caught up in absolute color. Using a wide brush, he paints the background and subject, creating texture and value. If he makes a mistake, he has learned to address it early, washing it out and using a hair dryer, if necessary, to save time. To monitor his progress, he frequently checks a mirror positioned 20 feet from the canvas.
Little of the finished layer is acrylic, although much of it shows through. Most important, perhaps, the underpainting prepares a road map for the oils. The more accurate the road map, the greater the confidence it imparts, allowing for more freedom, flamboyance, and aggression of brushwork with fewer strokes.
When satisfied with hue and value, Banovich seals the surface with an oil-based retouch varnish, which makes the acrylic look wet, providing a more accurate template for the oils. What follows Banovich describes as “drudgery,” since now he knows exactly where the painting is going. He paints from “lean to fat,” painting thinly at first and thicker toward the end, saving his lightest lights and darkest darks for the end.
Without realizing it, Banovich snapped three rolls of film during the: nine-minute fracas that was the basis for Clash of the Titans. The painting has the same effect: As the buffalo weavers fly through the rising dust and the giraffes, thunderous and warlike, pivot, and smash into each other, their entwined necks and weird faces appear strangely beautiful, almost amorous.