Claire Sandars began painting wildlife when she was living in South Africa just over a decade ago. All the animals Claire paints she has seen in the flesh and studied at close quarters, whether in Africa or in the UK. She tends to paint big, short-haired beasts as she is inspired by the smoothness and sheen of their coat and by their muscle structure. She works either from photographs she has taken from the back of a Land Rover on safari or from sketches she has made in the wild. Claire returns to Africa when she can to maintain links with her subject matter. “I need recent contact to keep me motivated,” she explains. In the meantime she paints animals that are closer to home. Claire lives in the heart of the countryside in Wiltshire, surrounded by horses and deer.
Having worked in film, Claire often turns to film and photography shots for composition inspiration. Interiors and fashion magazine shoots keep her up-to-date with colour trends. “In order for my paintings to have longevity, I want them to be both timeless and of the moment,” she says.
Claire prepares her canvases herself using the best quality materials, a process she finds immensely satisfying. She stretches very fine Italian or Belgian linen over a wooden panel, then applies multiple layers of rabbit skin glue and gesso. Gesso creates an incredibly smooth surface to work on, one that most shop-bought canvases can’t offer. Claire prefers painting on a hard surface to the give of a soft canvas as she finds it improves her brushwork.
She usually begins her pieces with a ground of brightly coloured oil paint, then she maps out the shape of the subject using a rag or a brush with turps. Hers is very much a tonal approach rather than a linear one. After the structure is mapped out, she leaves the ground to dry, then works over it in colours, often leaving the ground showing through in places.
Claire uses traditional glazing techniques – diluting the oil paint with linseed oil or other mediums – to create translucency in her paintings. Sealing fewer pigment particles in layers allows light to work its way into a painting and for undercoats to show through. A knowledge of colour theory is imperative because different coloured layers combine to create a new colour. Applying glazes also results in some parts of the painting being very glossy and some matt, so a final varnish is important to even out the surface in terms of light reflection. Varnish also enlivens the colours of oil paint, making it an exciting end to the process.
Every year or so Claire changes tack and starts a new body of work. The change might be subtle, affecting composition, colours or style, but developing is vital to give her a feeling of progression and maintain her enthusiasm for her work.