de Silva Wijeyeratne, G. (2003). In the Field With a Wildlife Artist. Serendipity. June 2003. Page 12.
Gehan de Silva Wijeyeratne on a Bird Artist who is transcending illustration into art.
“Whoopee” yelled the Tour Leader leaping up and down on the beach at Patanangala in Yala National Park. His enthusiasm was infectious and soon over twenty bird watchers from Scotland was enjoying the sight of a pod of Bottle-nosed Dolphins. They were skimming the waves which pounded the beach leaving a layer of salty froth on the sand. Leading the tour was Lester Perera a new entrant into leading Wildlife Tours. His enthusiasm and his knowledge on natural history is on par with many of the established Wildlife Tour leaders.
But something sets Lester apart from the pack. He is also an artist. Or, was he an illustrator? This may seem like splitting hairs, but in the rarefied world of wildlife art, there is an important but subtle distinction between illustration and art. Many of the biggest names in bird art for example are best known as illustrators for their plates on field guides. But speak to anyone of them, whether it is Alan Harris or Daniel Cox and they will be clear in their preference to paint rather than illustrate. With field guide plates the distinction is obvious. The artist is confined to a fairly rigid formula of illustrating the birds in a similar profile to enable a birdwatcher to distinguish one species from another. Even so, the talent of the top wildlife artists come through. Alan Harris’ plates in Birds of the Indian Subcontinent can only be described as exquisite. His paintings elevate wildlife art into fine art.
Can Lester elevate his work beyond illustration into the realm of fine art? Lester had confined his early exhibitions to illustrating rather than painting birds. In 2001, he held an exhibition which confirmed the transition had taken place. A flock of Redshanks stood beside an estuary. There was no longer the pre-occupation with feather by feather detail. But the birds were unmistakable and so was the setting. It felt right. Any birdwatcher who has birded in an estuary could have identified with the image. Furthermore it had all those indefinable characteristics which made it suitable to hang in a sitting room, not just that of a birdwatcher’s, but anyone with a sense of aesthetics. His progress was in evidence in many of the other paintings. A pair of Spurfowl painted vibrantly and with confidence. A Brown Flycatcher perched in the gloom of the mid canopy of a rainforest.
Illustration and painting need not be two schools, which are rigidly separated. A good example is that of Lars Jonsson’s work. His Birds of Europe contain many examples of work of such a painterly quality that they could be both illustrative as well as stand alone paintings. To my delight, Lester Perera has also crossed this threshold. In February of this year, we visited Mannar to see many birds which are absent in the south. On the sand dunes around Talaimannar, Amila Salgado, Wicky Wickremesekera and I edged towards a flock of gulls, terns and waders to get a closer view through our telescopes and binoculars. Lester lagged behind, sketching furiously. Back at the Manjula Inn run by Sam, he whipped out his watercolors and began applying loose brush strokes on paper. The gray flowed down the scapulars and wings and yellow added a touch of colour to the bill. To our astonishment and envy, a Large Crested Tern unfolded before our eyes in the space of ten or fifteen minutes. It was a reference painting, but easily one he could sell if he wished to. The painting had a sense of place and the bird was ‘right’. Its general size and impression of shape or “jizz’ was authentic. If Lester Perera continues in this vein, Sri Lanka will be able to claim another wildlife artist of international standard.
The writer is the CEO of a Wildlife & Adventure Travel Company. To receive his free, monthly wildlife e-Newsletter, e-mail him at with “Subscribe Wildlife News” in the message header.