The first time British artist Tony Foster saw the Grand Canyon he was gob smacked.
“I remember standing on the rim one morning in 1987, and I could not believe what I was seeing,” Foster says in a recent interview.
Although he had visited many of the natural wonders of the world, the site in Arizona was one of the few that lived up to its reputation.
Foster was so impressed with the Grand Canyon, he eventually devoted an entire section to it in his new book, “Painting at the Edge of the World: The Watercolours of Tony Foster” (University of Washington Press, $75).
“Living in England, it was difficult for me to conceive the scale of a single geological phenomenon that if transported to my home country, it would stretch from Cornwall, where I live, to London,” Foster says.
After viewing the area from the rim, he ventured into the depths for several days.
“The more I saw, the more I convinced myself that I wanted to capture my impression of it through my art,” Foster reveals.
He is convinced that one of the main reasons the canyon is such an attraction for artists throughout the world is because the site, despite its popularity, has somehow retained its pristine wilderness. He points out that he is pleased that access to its remoter areas is kept strictly controlled.
Foster’s first visit in 1987 was followed by eight additional trips to the canyon, from the summer of 1987 until his last hike on the North Rim during the autumn of 2004. He spent several months in the canyon, often walking 12 to 14 miles each day just to find the best vantage points and complete his pictures. The result of his time and hard work is a series of watercolors of the site that are simply stunning.
In addition to visiting the Grand Canyon, Foster has spent the last 25 years of his life traveling to other exotic attractions, often under extreme and demanding conditions.
“I combated altitude sickness while painting the three faces of Mount Everest and even remember my paints freezing because of the cold weather,” Foster says with a laugh. Whether it was the frigid temperatures of Mount Everest or the scorching heat of the world’s most inhospitable deserts, the artist remained determined and focused.
His new book features 240 illustrations including color plates of 180 of his artworks. It is divided into 10 main sections in addition to the pages devoted to the Grand Canyon. They are Wilderness, Rainforest, Deserts, Rivers, Basin & Range, Volcanoes, Reefs & Bergs, Everest and Home Again. Some of the areas covered are the Costa Rican rain forest, the Sea of Cortez, the Cascades of Washington, the Bolivian Andres, the icebergs of Greenland, Yosemite and the wonders of Nepal and Tibet.
How was Foster able to visit so many places and accomplish so much?
“I think the key is organization,” Foster says. He also believes that knowing what’s physically possible and then putting together a plan to reach the destination are the first steps in the process.
One of his major goals is to make his pictures accessible.
“By accessible, I mean that I want people who view my pictures to have an idea of what I felt and what I saw when I executed them,” he says.
Foster has exhibited his work in major museums and galleries including the Smithsonian Institution, Yale Center for British Art, California Academy of Sciences, the Royal Watercolour Society and the Royal Geographical Society. “Painting at the Edge of the World” is the first comprehensive retrospective volume of his work.
If Foster has an enemy, it’s time.
“There are so many places I want to paint but since most of the interesting sites are scattered throughout the world, I have to make choices,” Foster says. Despite his limited time, he continues to travel throughout the world mostly on foot, by raft or canoe, to capture through watercolors some of the most beautiful sites on Earth.
There’s also loneliness.
“My wife is in Cornwall and life away from her can be extremely lonely, especially when I find myself in remote places,” he laments. Even though Foster is away for long stretches of time, he claims that it is always good to return to Tywardreath so he can sit on the sofa, eat at a table with a knife and fork, instead of eating out of a dish with a spoon while sitting on a rock.
Even while sitting on the comfortable couch in his home in Cornwall, there’s little doubt that Foster is probably busy mentally preparing for his next trip.