Born in England to Scottish parents, Duncan Butchart began drawing and painting as a young boy – with birds being his main field of interest. Inspired by the bird illustrations in field guides as well as the paintings of Raymond Ching, William T. Cooper and Robert Bateman, Butchart followed a traditional path with the emphasis on accuracy. Later, captivated by the delicate work of Leigh Voigt, he concentrated on black ink drawings and by submitting these for publication to ornithological bulletins and nature journals, his path as an illustrator began. In 1989, Butchart released his first limited edition set of ink drawings entitled ‘Four Small African Owls’.
In 1990 Duncan began work on the illustrations for a book ‘The Vultures of Africa’: twelve colour plates and over 100 pencil drawings; at the launch in 1992 – these artworks were on show at the Everard Read Gallery in Johannesburg where they were purchased by private collectors and First National Bank. Later, Butchart participated in two group exhibitions of wildlife art at the Everard Read Gallery in 1993 and 1994. Around this time, he also studied life drawing techniques with acclaimed South African artist Gregory Kerr.
Throughout this period, Butchart was an active volunteer in the conservation and research work of the Vulture Study Group and began a career as a freelance illustrator, photographer, publication designer and writer. Since 1996, he has worked closely with the premier safari group &Beyond (formerly CCAfrica), developing innovative resources that enrich the wildlife experience of guests and support local guides; the widely acclaimed ‘Ecological Journal’ project published the observations and findings of over 200 &Beyond guides in six countries and led to Butchart being awarded an honorary doctorate in science by the University of the Witwatersrand in 2014.
Duncan has always been absorbed with the tradition of ‘natural history art’ which dates back over 17,000 years to the prehistoric rock paintings in the caves of Lascaux in France and the 3,000 year old petroglyphs at Twyfelfontien in Namibia: animals, including birds, have always been subjects for artists. Inspired by the lively field sketches of European artists John Busby, Lars Jonsson and Bruce Pearson, he worked increasingly in watercolour and in 2006, worked under Thai artist Kamon Kamolphalin, travelling around the rainforests of Thailand, painting the woodpeckers, hornbills and other birds they encountered. A long-time admirer of the American landscape painter William Hook, Butchart attended this artist’s week-long workshop in Arizona in 2013 – Hook’s bold brushstrokes and strong sense of design were elements that he wanted to bring into his own paintings.
In 2016, Butchart began to experiment with flat colour in the ‘ligné claire’ style of Hergé (Georges Remi) who created the fabled comic-book character Tintin. Hergé’s striking graphic work of the 1940‘s and 50‘s had elements of Japanese simplicity and both Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein recognized Hergé as an inspiration for their Pop Art movement. As a boy, Duncan had been spellbound by the ‘Adventures of Tintin’, so there seemed to be a sense of serendipity in him creating bird paintings in a similar style.
To create this style, Butchart worked initially with acrylic and oil, but then moved onto digital painting. The almost complete abandonment of detail, while still retaining the accuracy of form and movement based on his field sketches and years of observing bird behaviour, means that his paintings now have more in common with ancient rock art or pop art, than they do with the almost photographic realism of most present-day wildlife artists. From owls to oystercatchers, and from detail to simplicity, Duncan Butchart’s depiction of birds has been a journey of discovery and change.
Duncan’s work and interest in nature have led him to explore wild places all over the world, including Borneo, Thailand, Peru, Brazil, Costa Rica, India, Uganda, Gabon, Tanzania, Kenya, Namibia and Botswana. He has written and illustrated several books on wildlife as well as numerous identification charts, and has been a regular contributor to ornithological bulletins and nature magazines. His latest initiative is The African Journey Collection – a series of vintage-style poster prints that celebrate Africa’s most iconic destinations.
Now living in the coastal town of Hermanus, his primary subjects are the local birds that frequent this southernmost tip of Africa – oystercatchers, gulls, terns and other shorebirds.