He has negotiated Himalayan passes, scuba-dived in the Cayman Islands, survived encounters with aggressive bears and, in short, has gone places and experienced things that most people can scarcely imagine.
Tony Foster, however, is not an idle thrill-seeker, nor professional explorer or backcountry athlete—he is a painter.
Some of Foster’s works exploring Death Valley and Copper Basin are currently on exhibit at the Gail Severn Gallery in Ketchum, where they will remain through July 29. Mountains, deserts, rivers and valleys are presented in staggering detail in Foster’s lyrical watercolors, and even the most casual observer may note how his works differ from those of his peers.
Unlike most landscape artists, Foster creates his art onsite, without the aid of photographs or sketches. For days and sometimes weeks at a time, Foster will camp out in an area to create largescale watercolor landscapes.
When asked about the most challenging or difficult location he had ever visited, he pondered a moment and merely said, “I guess Everest was pretty tough,” downplaying the fact that no other artist in history has ever painted all three of the mountain’s faces, and even few mountaineers dare to tackle Everest’s dreaded Kangshung Face, its easterly façade.
That excursion took three trips, ranging from six weeks to two months, but it yielded characteristically stunning paintings, which Foster displayed in juxtaposition to paintings of the Grand Canyon. “That was a pretty good exhibition,” he said, casually.
Once satisfied with his work, Foster relocates to his studio in Cornwall, England, to apply the necessary finishing touches, and then prepares to embark upon whatever adventure awaits next.
That’s his process. As previously mentioned, he shuns the aid of photographs and sketches, admitting to employing the latter only once: while capturing underwater images of tropical reefs off the Caymans, upon the personal recommendation of Sir David Attenborough.
One of the things that sets Foster apart from other landscape artists, besides his exotic subjects, is the ways in which he chooses to display his works. Each painting is accompanied by a corresponding journal entry and items and artifacts he picked up nearby.
“It’s not simply about putting a frame around a landscape and copying it,” he said. “It’s about trying to explain what it’s like to actually stay in a place for a while and spend time there, work onsite, camp there, to absorb the place. It’s about trying to tell the whole story.”
Foster aims to transport his audience to some of the most inaccessible places on the planet, and those objects—a small bag of sand from Death Valley, a handmade statuette representing the bear that attacked him, maybe just a twig—serve a vital role in achieving that goal.
“When you’re a kid, maybe you like to go out and collect sea shells and rocks. In a way, I’m just doing a grown-up version of that,” he said. “The things I’ve collected say something to me about where I’ve been, and I write diaries and draw maps to help place them.”
Doing this, and displaying these items alongside his paintings “helps capture what the temperature was, the people you met, what you were bitten by,” he said. “I try to make a note of those so that people understand the process as much as the product.”
In his case, the process is just as fascinating as the product. Anyone hoping to see the latter can stop by Gail Severn Gallery before July 29. To learn more about the process directly from the source, drop by The Community Library at 6 p.m. on Thursday, June 20. Foster will give a free lecture about his ongoing quest to represent the most naturally beautiful places on earth, including Sun Valley.
As for his next excursion, time will tell—literally. Foster will explore time’s role in the forming of Earth’s beauty, from the 4 million years required to transport a fossil from the ocean floor to the top of Everest, to the most fleeting moments of a sunrise.
After that, who knows? Eventually, he said, when that time comes, he will paint his home.
“I’m always travelling to wild places. It’s the sense of adventure that I like, so I’m saving Cornwall for when I’m no longer strong enough to go and do that,” he said, but he shows no signs of stopping any time soon.
Chris Melville: email@example.com