The Art of Fiona Anderson

Fiona Anderson BVSc(hons)

I am a practicing veterinarian in suburban Melbourne. I always loved animals and grew up surrounded by both our domestic pets and the farm creatures. Over the years it just seemed inevitable that I work with animals. Even my earliest memory is our one of our pets, my sister's black and white moggie having kittens on my bed.

Through my school years I loved to draw. I remember producing an illustrated book in grade two all about ducks. Later I drew mainly horses, my passion and obsession in my early teenaged years. I did manage to take art to year 12 but once I went onto university I found the demands on my time meant I did little but study and do practical work. I gradated from Melbourne University in 1989 (my only hint about my age) and started rural practice shortly after.


My dog Jessica


Like many young vets I wanted to try mixed practice. I loved going out to the farms although, to be perfectly honest, I can't think of anything worse than pregnancy testing a mob of cows. You end up covered in cow dung, flies, dust and either freezing (the only warmth being up the cow's arse) or feeling like you are going to drop dead from the heat. It was an adventure. There were those trips out where the directions ended with the comment "you can't miss the place". That usually meant that the farmer never really thought how anyone else would find his property and gave lousy directions. Or "she's in the corral" translated as mad cow racing around a yard with stout rails about 10 meters square, no race, no crush (I couldn't lasso anything to save my life). As I said an adventure and I didn't do much in the way of anything through first couple of years except learn to be a vet.

After I was cured of the country life I came back to Melbourne and joined Lort Smith Animal Hospital, a welfare veterinary practice in central Melbourne. The days there were long, we worked extremely hard and again I did little artwork. I think it would be generous to say I did a drawing a year for the eight years I worked at Lort. I did however finish writing a novel (another story - no joke intended) and learnt to write web pages.

I joined the Wildlife Artists Society of Australasia (WASA) in 2002, Friends of the Zoo (FOTZ) and then the Pastel Society. I concentrated on horses and wildlife though I drew the occasional dog or cat for someone. I also mucked round with landscapes but have issues with trees. My first love was graphite and I still adore it so I took this further and started experimenting with coloured pencils. In 2002 I exhibited Endangered at the annual WASA show. Exhibiting at a major show was both exciting and scary. The first thing I learnt was sales at shows are even rarer than the prizes so shows should be about catching up with friends and being inspired by other artists.

When I was a teenager I had a book of horse art worked with pastel on artist velour. They were so beautiful and this was my aim when I started with the pastels. I finally located some velour and tried it out. What a disaster and trying to frame it was worse. Traditional pastel is worked dark to light but this stuff only took so many layers and there was no way white pastel could be worked over a dark one. I knew I needed more information and found Lesley Harrison's brilliant book Painting Animals that Touch the Heart. I believe this book is now out of print but it taught me how to work on velour, what pastels work and how to frame the finished pieces. Velour is stunning to paint animals on but is very uncommon here in Australia, so after Lesley's guidance I was on my own again. I went to society meetings and demos and took classes down at the local council but this was all on traditional pastel techniques. Let's just say the early years were lots of hit and miss. I can remember some nasty criticism at shows however the "just another tiger" comment didn't daunt me and I kept painting them 'cos I love those strips.

I must have done something right as I was invited to exhibit at Wiregrass Gallery in 2004 and was writen up in the local paper. This was all very exciting as the level of work for a gallery has to be so much better than a society show. A friend of mine approached a gallery owner for me and I started exhibiting with Louise and Garry at the Old Post Office Gallery in Seymour. Louise has become a great friend and her tales of her life exceptionally funny. Never take yourself too seriously! I also made my own approach to Sorrento Fine Art Gallery (did it all very formally, sent a letter etc. then rang two weeks later to discover they hadn't picked up their post. Awkward moment but it all worked out and I have been exhibiting with the Sorrento Fine Art Galleries since).

Over the years I have spent a lot of time hanging out at various zoos, especially Melbourne Zoo, and there has been a massive amount of time perched in front of the tiger enclosure. Binjai having cubs for the first time was a highlight. I got to know her first litter so well that I recognised Isha on the 2012 zoo stamp. Copyright is an issue for an artist but I also prefer to work from my own photographs anyway. When you sit and watch an animal you get to know them. Isha liked to play to an audience while her brothers tended to disappear into the bamboo. She would actually come up and stare at us humans. Some other animals were shy. Mai (Melbourne's breeding female orang-utan) didn't like the long camera lens especially with her first bub. She is better in the new enclosure and all the orang-utans seem happier in their new bigger home. As an artist I was finding I wanted more from my work. I wanted to catch something about what I was painting rather than just another tiger. One of my early pieces was "Who's Studying Who?" and is a picture of Ramalon, Melbourne's male, looking at the keeper (who was standing beside me). The keeper had thrown a big chunk of meat into the moat and Ramalon couldn't find it. Ramalon isn't renowned for his smarts and I just loved the dopy expression on his face. Okay, a lot of my early work was about painting technique and just trying to make the animal look right but I was already aware I wanted more.

In the early days I did take work to lots of shows. That meant I did finally manage to win something. One of the really special ones was the people's choice award for the Bacchus Marsh Rotary (for "Stalking Butterflies" in 2008). I found out while I was standing in Dreamworld taking tiger cub photos. Really made my day! I was starting to be rather choosey about shows by 2010, usually just the Pastel Society and The Wild Awards with WASA, as work makes it hard to drop off and pick up let alone having the time to paint. I also did a group exhibition with my friends in The Pastel Palette in 2010 and that took a huge commitment of time. The show went extremely well. Unfortunately in the August of that year I ended up in hospital with a bout of pancreatitis. As a vet I had been told how painful pancreatitis is. My reply to that is Shit Yes! It did get me out of voting for the federal elction so you can't blame me for that one. Anyway I had already put in paperwork for both WASA and the Pastel Society. There was a bit of scramble to have the work but I won Best Fauna for "Best Pals" for the Pastel Society and a Bronze at the Wild Awards for "Lost in Thought" and sold nearly everything. The moral of the story is I think I overwork my show pieces and get too precious over them!

In 2009 I went to a demo on charcoal by Warwick Deane. I loathed charcoal school. Messy stuff that went everywhere and big and chunky. Just yuk. Warwick did stunning charcoal and once he showed off his technique I was hooked. His way of working with it involved grinding up a compressed charcoal then applying it with a rag and lifting it off with an eraser. I find it so fun and the best thing is a can't get so tight with it.

May 2013 I went to a workshop with Lesley Barrett, a scratchboard artist. Lesley's work is stunning and this media was something that I wanted to try in it's more adult form for several years. I had done scratchboard at school and even had a picture of a dog I did for my year 12 folio in this media however this was more like working through black paint into a white paper. Today scratchboard is made by covering the board with a clay base then black ink. This ink layer allows for a much more delicate approach and other inks can be applied to introduce colour into the drawing. I wasn't sure if I would like this media but loved the workshop and have been captivated since.

The last few years, the artwork has again suffered. My health has been poor and I spent most of 2011 off work, sick, in hospital or recovering from surgery. I am still running far less than 100%. In 2012 I finally went back to work and crazy me decided to study veterinary acupuncture. It was a hell of a work load for something I won't get much use out of at least at the practices I work at now, but I did it for my old girl Lil and for my curiosity. Lil passed away in May 2013 but for the last two years she was terribly anxious. Since I started treating her she slept better and I could pick her up and cuddle her again. Just that makes all the hard work worth it. What it does mean for the art was I didn't do much in 2012. Most of what I did was purely for myself and a little indulgent.

Being sick has made me rethink a little. I paint with friends on a Monday and that group of friends are very precious to me. I still don't have enough energy to go out at night and I haven't been to a zoo since September 2013 as I get too tired. So it's the little things like enjoying the work of a painting. I have always been more about the process of the art not the finished piece (in fact I don't like looking at my own art and am really happy when it sells 'cos it means someone loves it as much as I loved making it). I think that is more important now. As I write this (March 2014) I have just finished an elephant from a friend's photograph. I am working on a scratchboard of a snow leopard cub. I am thinking of doing another tiger painting, this one is of two of the cubs from Melbourne Zoo and the expression on one of the boys' faces is so cranky it is priceless. Picture selection is now about what takes the fancy. I paint for pleasure and because, like many artists or writers, I have that need to create. Probably what I am trying to say is find joy where you can because something like an illness can snatch it all away make just living hard.

On that rather self-pitying note (yep I am disgusted with myself) I do hope you enjoy my art and this website. I am happy for people to make tags from images (see FAQs) and will help if I can with donations of work to charities. I will update as I can and the Pastel Palette is having another show in September 2014. Otherwise I should have some work at Seymour and Sorrento but I am not sure about the society shows. I guess stay tuned.



My Mum's Dog, Tilly
Artist's Private Collection
33cm wide x 46 cm deep