Birdwatch and Swarovski Optik Artist of the Year: 2022


In October, London's Mall Galleries entered the limelight when it hosted The Natural Eye, the 59th annual exhibition of the Society of Wildlife Artists. Mike Alibone joined the judges to unveil this year's winner of the prestigious Birdwatch and Swarovski Optik Artist of the Year award.

Walking around the Mall Galleries, visitors to the Society of Wildlife Artists' (SWLA) The Natural Eye exhibition in October will have been treated to an impressive array of artwork, reflecting the raw talent embodied in the unique styles of more than 80 exhibitors.

Art takes many forms and alongside the conventionally 'framed and finished' wall-hung exhibits were numerous striking works of sculpture, as well as 'out of the frame' fieldwork sketches and paintings – all of which added up to more than 300 inspiring items on display.

Included within the exhibition were some classic works by the late Robert Gillmor, founder of SWLA in 1964 and whose endeavours for 70 years encompassed not only art, but ornithology and conservation in general. As the society's secretary and president, he was an internationally recognised inspiration and fitting tributes to his life and monumental achievements were forthcoming from the speakers who took to the stage at the exhibition's opening ceremony.

I have been visiting the exhibition here annually for more than a decade and I was delighted this year to represent Birdwatch on the panel of judges for the Artist of the Year award. The range and variety of the artwork covered the full spectrum, from pin-point photographic accuracy to abstract interpretation, and choosing a winner was a far from easy task. However, the judges – Peter Antoniou (Swarovski Optik), Chris Rose (SWLA), Andrew Stock (SWLA) and myself were unanimous in selecting Stag Rocks, Evening Light by Paul Henery as the winner. Paul wins a Swarovski ATS 80 HD telescope with a 25-50x zoom eyepiece and a three-year subscription to BirdGuides Bird News Ultimate and Birdwatch magazine.

Here we present the winning entry, the close runner up and a selection of other notable works from the The Natural Eye.

The exhibition, which ran from 13-22 October 2022, has closed but the exhibits can still be viewed and purchased online at bit.ly/SWLABW2022.



Stag Rocks, Evening Light by Paul Henery


The judging panel was impressed by the accurate portrayal of rock-roosting Purple Sandpipers against a warm backdrop of late afternoon sunlight and shadows.

Paul commented: "I have been a birder and a landscape artist all my life, cutting my teeth at Cresswell Ponds, Northumberland. I now live a few miles from there and still visit regularly. I studied art at school, Newcastle College of Art and at Northumbria University. My ability to draw birds from life and to be able to base all my work on real-life experiences comes from time spent studying with John Busby on his 'Drawing Birds' course, which I did in the early 90s.

"I paint in watercolour, oils and acrylics but I have also been a printmaker. While I have painted and exhibited all my life, I also worked as a full-time Police Wildlife Crime Officer for a large part of a 30-year career.

"Stag Rocks, Evening Light shows a roosting flock of one of my favourite winter visitors, Purple Sandpiper. Stag Rocks near Bamburgh, Northumberland, is one of the best sites for 'Purps'. This image is all about an encounter which only happens a few times a year when the tide is high at about 4 pm on a sunny December day and as the sun sets, it touches the tops of the lichen-covered rocks and illuminates the birds which have been forced to the highest point by the tide. My aim is simply to tell that story and to capture that light and atmosphere."


Runner up

Snow Buntings, Holkham by Richard Allen


Coming a very close second, Richard Allen's work also enthralled the judges, particularly with his two evocative works on Snow Buntings and another depicting Northern Lapwings at dusk, the latter winning the RSPB Award for the best exhibit.

Richard commented: "I've been birding and sketching birds since my early teens in Newbury, Berkshire. I now live on the Essex coast where I have wader- and wildfowl-filled estuaries on my doorstep to inspire my love of field sketching. The late Robert Gillmor was very encouraging in my early artistic years, and the work of C F Tunnicliffe and Lars Jonsson very influential.

"Snow Buntings are a favourite species of mine and I have spent many happy hours sketching them at Holkham among the intertidal vegetation. I particularly enjoy the strong patterns of these delightful birds, especially in the low winter sunshine.

"It was a real pleasure to win the RSPB Award at the SWLA exhibition, especially as I worked on a number of illustration projects for them over the years."



Wiggle Wiggle by Max Angus


Max Angus, an elected member of SWLA, sets out to capture the weather, the landscape and the pleasure of being outdoors. Much of her inspiration is from the North Norfolk coast and its nature reserves. Reflecting here the rural charm of the wider countryside, she has neatly created a covey of Grey Partridge in hand-printed linocut.


Night Night by Tianyin Wang


Presenting his artwork in black and white, with all shades of grey in between, Tianyin Wang has developed his unique charcoal drawing technique using a combination of different charcoals to achieve a distinctive look. This style is best described as 'motion impressionism' and captures the characters of his subjects. Inspired by nature, animals and birds are his preferred subjects, depicting the details and movement that make up their spirit.


Bearded Tits by Brin Edwards


Brin Edwards has been fascinated by the appearance of birds for as long as he can remember. Painting with oils in a loose, abstract style, he aims to make bold statements and capture the essence of the birds, rather than get bogged down in too much fussy detail.


Yellow-rumped Warbler in Red Maple by Barry Van Dusen

Internationally recognised wildlife artist Barry Van Dusen lives in central Massachusetts. Birds are his favourite subjects and his preferred medium is transparent watercolour. Field sketching and painting lies at the core of his work as an artist, with sketchbooks forming the 'raw material' of his artwork. Colour is added in the field or immediately upon return to his studio.


Thistle Patch Visitors by Richard Tratt


This highly detailed and colourful oil painting by Richard Tratt reflects his consuming interest in natural history, with a particular fascination for butterflies and moths. Richard spends a great deal of time observing and sketching his subjects in their environment. Most of his wildlife paintings are finished in the studio, but much of his landscape work is painted outdoors.


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Written by: Mike Alibone

Mike Alibone is Birdwatch's Optics Editor and a keen Northamptonshire birder, where he previously served as County Recorder. He has been testing binoculars and scopes for 15 years. Follow him on Twitter: @bonxie