Drawing on nature for inspiration

28 Mar 2023

It’s just as well Nicolas Dillon (9688) has ignored his career adviser’s words at school.

Now a pre-eminent New Zealand wildlife artist, the Old Boy was told in no uncertain terms at Christ’s College: “We’re trying to turn out doctors and lawyers from this school and, what’s more, how will you be able to afford a BMW?”

Today one of Nic’s works, entitled Tui and harakeke, is the latest addition to the CCOBA art collection.

Nic grew up on the family farm in Waihopai Valley, south-west of Blenheim. Even though he’s travelled the world since then, the Wairau Plains are still home.

He’s spent endless hours in nature, observing birds, trying to decipher colour, tone and form and interpret their being.

But why birds?

Nic says it traces back to an incident as a young child when a Shining Cuckoo knocked itself out flying into the living room window.

“I picked it up out of the garden bed where it lay. I was mesmerised by this glossy, iridescent jewel, with its striped belly. I still wonder if that was a catalyst of some sort. The feeling of excitement and wonder in that moment is the very same feeling I still get when I'm struck by something I want to communicate in paint.”

Nic attended Christ’s College from 1980–1983, continuing to work on his paintings and drawings of birds outside school hours.

“A rich vein of artistic talent flowed through both sides of my family, although no one had taken it beyond a hobby. I had largely taught myself how to paint in watercolours, and to further those skills, my grandmother kindly paid for me to attend a weekend watercolour course with her.”

After leaving school, Nic lived at home for a year, building up a collection of paintings for his first exhibition, in Christchurch. All but one of the 16 works sold on opening night.

The following year, he travelled to the UK to visit his idol, New Zealand artist Raymond Ching, who was living in England at the time. He admired Ching’s technical ability, together with that of Swedish painter Lars Jonsson who he has subsequently met.

He spent two years overseas before returning to New Zealand where his work is keenly sought by galleries and private collectors.

“For me, drawing from life is a prerequisite for my ability to see, to, really look. Too often we don’t completely trust our eyes and fall back on preconceived ideas and stored images of what something looks like.

“The act of painting and drawing from life is like inhaling what is in front of me. In my paintings I’m after a feeling. It does not have to be or perhaps cannot be understood in words,” Nic says.

He is often asked if he still paints birds.

“To me, the natural world is a vital subject, and, to our detriment, we are losing touch with the environment and becoming removed. Trends in art come and go and I’m well aware I have been swimming against the tide.

“This has never worried me because I’ve not been a follower of fashion. I paint birds to be honest and true to myself and I continue to find it a deeply rewarding process.”

Nic has recently published Drawn to the Wild, a beautiful book of his paintings of New Zealand birds, which he has kindly donated to the John Harris Memorial Collection.