There are few people on this planet who have the sense and ability to capture the spirit of an animal. Internationally acclaimed artist Edward Spera has such a gift; utilizing his artistic talents to create paintings that share his journeys into the wild. Born and raised in the Niagara Region, his passion for painting and sketching wildlife has taken him across the globe; from humpback whales in Turks and Caicos to leopards in Sri Lanka, there is no animal too elusive for Spera’s paintbrush.
I recently sat down with Spera to discuss his travels, why he chose wildlife and why he says the best is yet to come.
Gabrielle Tieman: So why wildlife?
Edward Spera: I have always been passionate about wildlife. I don’t do it just because I can do it. I do it because I love it. Just even looking at a squirrel in the backyard I am mesmerized. I have not worked a day in 23 years because when you love what you do, it is not a job.
G: Are you self-taught?
E: I am self-taught. When I was finishing up my degree [in Psychology and Philosophy] I picked up a brush and did my first painting after watching a wolf documentary and it was a ‘Eureka’ moment.
G: How do you teach yourself and reach this level?
E: I have always had some artistic inclination but I never thought this was even a potential. But it morphed into this. I had no idea this was an option until I did that first painting.
It is also my personality – I like taking on challenges. This has been a way of improving myself and this was to take the next level of self-improvement by morphing this passion into a career.
G: What gave you the travel bug?
E: My wife [Lisa] was a backpacker and traveler far before we got together. We started travelling the world together long ago and we still travel by the seat of our pants. We went to India for tigers, we were in Sri Lanka for leopards, we were in the water with humpback whales.
G: Do you only travel abroad for inspiration?
E: Every trip is an adventure. It is the rush of doing it all and my work comes from a wide range internationally. It’s just about getting the camera and getting out and exploring.
The blue jay [used for the coin design with the Canadian Mint] came from Northern Ontario. I don’t have to be half way across the world to acquire a shot that in my opinion created something as prominent as that coin design. Though there are not too many tigers in the Niagara Region, I do capture images from the area.
G: Do you always work off of your own photographs?
E: Yes. It morphed into that very quickly when my wife and I did some volunteer work in South America. Down there, on the interior in the Amazon basin, I started to take photos on weekends and in-between volunteering. And when we came back from that trip I was just itching to sit down and continue creating. That is when I started working from my own reference shots and that merger has not stopped since.
G: Do your paintings mimic your photos?
E: They mimic the reference but surpass the photos, which I demand. If I am just mimicking the photo, then why don’t I just sell the photo? I am trying to recreate the depth of field that the human eye has that there is no lens on the market that could capture; to recreate 3-dimension in a 2-dimension format.
A lot of my clients comment on this – that they just feel drawn into the piece because they can look at any aspect of it, from bottom right hand corner to the top left hand corner and anywhere in-between and see something.
G: What is your painting process?
E: I go background to foreground and lay out a line compositional drawing of the actual features. I always start on a black background for my paintings and a white background for my pencil works. I always begin monochromatically – black tones, white tones, grey tones and then I start developing in the colour tones as every detail comes forward. The larger I can create a piece the more detail I can go into with it. I will still go inch by inch and add as much detail in that inch on a grand scale as with a smaller scale.
My original paintings are done with acrylics on Masonite board. I also work on a drafting style set up so I can move it around, paint upside down, sideways and on an angle.
G: Your work is so detailed, is it tedious to capture this level of detail?
E: It is tedious. Every little hair is done one by one – there is no magic brush that does one hundred hairs at a time.
G: How long do your paintings take?
E: An average sized piece will be two – three weeks, eight hours a day, seven days a week. Bigger, bolder pieces are the better part of five weeks. I am always working. I do all of my own reproductions, I do all of my own framing.
G: What gets the creative juices flowing?
E: Getting out there to see these things gives me creative energy. You never know what you will see and what you will experience. When I am doing a body of work series for three-four months you’re stretched thin a little bit, but I know the light at the end of the tunnel is grabbing the backpacks and running off to Africa for a month or two.
I also always have some funky tunes playing. Could be anything from chill stuff to Def Leopard or ACDC – something with a heartbeat. Even club tunes.
G: Do you create multiple pieces at a time?
E: When I start a painting, I only work on that painting from start to finish. When I do my pencil works, I might do a couple of works but that is more so for technique that I have to work on a few at the same time.
G: Which median do you prefer?
E: Painting, definitely. It is my forte. But I love grey tones; I love black and white photography. When you take away the colour aspects of things you are just dealing with shape and form. The black and whites of pencil works are an enjoyable monotony.
G: What are your price points?
E: For pencil works: $1000-$2000 dollars. For introductory level for the paintings, 12×12 pieces, you are looking at $2,000-$2,500 dollars. For average sized pieces $5,000 – $6,000 dollars; and then getting up to $15,000 and higher for grander piece. It is a broad range.
G: Where do you like to work?
E: I do work in the gallery; it is not just for show. As people are looking over my shoulder I have the ability to answer everyone’s questions as I create. I also have a home based studio where I can easily work, but why not showcase what you can do?
G: What travel moment stands out as the most exciting?
E: They are all exciting in terms of what we see. Seeing a snow leopard in the wild though, that’s the holy grail of my career.
We have been seven times to see mountain gorillas. The most recent time we were in Rwanda visiting a family of about 24 strong and the big dominant silver back charged me and slammed me in the chest and sent me back flying a few feet. I was the biggest of our group and he was just showing everybody who was in charge.
In Turks and Caicos, I got hit in the head by the tail fin of an 18 foot baby humpback whale. We were snorkeling – [humpbacks] are very easy going if they are stationary and resting. Lisa, myself and the two researchers slipped into the water with our camera gear and this young one you could tell was just looking at us. And it swam up to the surface and just kept coming towards us and it spun, banked in front of us, and when it did that, its tail fin clipped me in the head while I was snapping the still shots. It was a rush.
G: Have you ever had a near death experience?
E: We have been chased up a tree by rhinos in Nepal. We were searching for tigers and we came across this mother and baby at a distance. We tried getting closer to them and as we did mom raised her head, sniff-sniffed, looked straight at us and charged. As it came charging through the brush it skidded just past the small tree we managed to climb into, grunting and looking up at us.
We were in the water once with Great White sharks off the coast of South Africa and we had a 20 foot female bite the corner of our cage and shake us around like a toy for about a minute – but it felt like an eternity. She was shaking us around and the cables and rigging that were holding us to the boat were rattling and shaking and if anything had come loose or snapped we would have plummeted 600 feet to the ocean floor and that would have been it.
G: Have these experiences changed your work?
E: It’s not that I have to get hit by anything to paint it. Trust me; I don’t want tigers to touch me. But, I love what I do and we put ourselves into positions to get as close as possible to these animals.
G: What projects are to come?
E: I have been thinking about getting into 3-dimensional work – sculpture, bronze work. Also just continuing to get out there and capture new things. One place we want to head to is Norway to capture Orcas.
G: What is the best comment you have ever received?
E: A client once told me I can pick your style of work off of a wall of other artists – because I can appreciate it from a distance, and in every step forward I appreciate it that much more even to the point where I am two inches away from it and seeing every subtle brush stroke.
I will always be flattered and honoured and humbled that someone wants something that I have created on their wall. It is a rush and that is when the adrenaline kicks in. I am doing what I love to do, and people are appreciating it.
The Edward Spera Gallery is located at 114 Queen Street in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
By Gabrielle Tieman