by Bob Bahr
“I want you to feel more than think.”
John Banovich is explaining why he paints the way he does. Banovich paints big. His pieces often avoid a literal narrative. He is waiting for you, the viewer, to bring the rest of the story to the painting. “At every show, auction, and gallery, you see paintings with a clear and concise narrative,” says Banovich. “I don’t dismiss that. It’s important, it tells the story of natural history. But if one artistically tells the story so the viewer brings participation to it and fills out the story, well, it’s like the difference between ‘Star Wars’ and ‘The Revenant.'”
SKB is lucky to have Banovich as a featured instructor at TexArt, a workshop featuring professionals from the Society of Animal Artists. TexArt runs May 22-27 on Schreiner University’s campus, just outside of Kerrville, Texas. You can learn more about TexArt here.
What will Banovich cover in his demonstration? “I have no idea,” he says. “I will go through my process. Many people watch demos for some secret, technical information that they can take away, but it’s an insight, a philosophy, a process of thinking—that 1% that will make the difference. I’ll try to get into how I think.”
Banovich thinks big. He’s one of the biggest animal artists in the world, and he paints on large canvases. Banovich says he is just painting these creatures in the appropriate scale. “The scale is dictated by the drama,” says the artist. “To reduce the subject matter down to a small canvas or a small part of the canvas just doesn’t do it homage. They are big characters.” The artist also says that working large gives his pieces a contemporary feel.
His choice to concentrate on painting animals wasn’t really a conscious one, according to Banovich. “It chose me, I didn’t choose it,” he says. “I was drawing ‘Jungle Book’ characters at age 7. And I’ve depicted wildlife ever since. There’s no question that I was put on Earth to paint wildlife. I love the unsanitized, raw engagement, the drama that plays out everyday in the wild. To see one of my subjects in its glory, in its prime, is to see an animal that has beaten the odds—and there it is, right front of me. To know what hell it’s been through to survive in shrinking habitat, amid diseases, with human development threatening…”
That last point is important to Banovich; it is crucial for him that he experience animals in the wild. “As soon as I had enough resources, I put everything I had into trips to Africa, Asia, everywhere. Those trips have given me a plethora of painting possibilities. And you can see it in their work, the people who have submersed themselves in the subject matter. You can see it in their body of work.”
“I have a huge problem with painting from stock photos,” Banovich continues. “That doesn’t take away from the ability of some painters to pull something off, and you can admire that in a painting–the brushwork. But we have to remember that we are artists. If you are just a technician, what’s the point? As a viewer, I’m interested in your story. Why have you chosen this? I’m interested in your mind. I am interested in who you are and what your interpretation is. What’s your why? And that doesn’t come out when you are totally enslaved by your reference material.”
Banovich paints from his own photographs, but they are only part of the reference material from which he draws. “The painting may not reflect our particular experience, it’s not a literal interpretation… but it is inspired by a true story. The inspiration originated in memory but diverted from it. Memory plays a role. Photos play a role. One lion that I encountered a long time ago keeps showing up in my paintings.”
He worries that he may be chronicling land and animals that will soon be forever changed. “It’s so difficult to find areas that still have that wildness,” says Banovich, “land that is independent of man’s corrals. It’s a world I want to take my viewers to and share with them. I feel like I am painting a vanishing world, that’s my ‘why’. Early western artists were painting a fading world, a place that was going away. I feel like I am documenting this natural history that is slowly fading away. We can keep animals from going extinct, through zoos, but not the landscape that is going extinct. When it goes extinct, the word ‘wildlife’ will just mean animals in captivity. These are landscapes that these animals dominated, where they ruled. But in the future, it will be a managed wild, a managed ecosystem.”
Perhaps people are disconnected with the remaining wild places, or feel like they know them, thanks to TV shows, YouTube videos, and the like. How can artists make more people realize that wild places need to stay wild? Banovich says museums can help, and artists can play a special role.
“Museums must become engaging. The Denver Art Museum devotes much square footage to youngsters, and it’s critical to foster that demographic,” says Banovich. “Museums need to make sure the shows they have reach down to all levels of interest.”
“And yes, there are some great videos on YouTube. It’s brilliant to watch that stuff. But the problem of watching it is if we watch it together, we will see the same thing. The narratives are given to us. But when you go to a museum or gallery and stand in front of painting, nobody else exists. If there is someone standing next to you, each viewer will have a profoundly different interpretation of it. Fine art speaks to us on a very intimate level. That’s why you see so little social interaction in a gallery or museum. YouTube videos don’t allow us to participate, and they don’t speak to us at that intimate level.”
Find out more about how Banovich’s large paintings create an intimate exchange between the viewer and the art, at TexArt, May 22-27 in Kerrville, Texas. Ω