Interview with Ian van Zyl

Ian’s spectacular painting of Etosha Gemsbok

I had the pleasure of meeting Ian van Zyl during his recent stay at Ocean View House, in Camps Bay, Cape Town. Ian is one of South Africa’s leading, most sought after and respected wildlife artists. He was visiting Cape Town with his wife Elizabeth, and they were relaxing in the Garden Suite at Ocean View House where I met and interviewed him. What a pleasure and honour it was to meet both Ian and his lovely wife Elizabeth! Ian has a generous personality and he talked passionately yet humbly about his work, life and the world around us.

Ian’s paintings hang in the homes of South Africa’s elite and in the boardrooms of major corporations. And Ocean View House is proud to exhibit a wide collection of his paintings in their suites.

Seated in the recently renovated Garden Suite under Ian’s spectacular painting of Etosha Gemsbok we s at down to chat about his work.

Inspired by the bush

Ian’s main inspiration comes from his two to six-week retreats into remote places in the bush each year. He travels alone, self-sufficient with his trailer, tent and provisions. He goes with no fixed itinerary and in his journey of continuous learning he finds new places and discovers the unexpected. This then is his studio – a quiet solitude, where he immerses himself completely in the elements that he then captures on canvas. He explains, ‘any expert needs to understand his subject’, and this is why, when you look at a painting by Ian van Zyl, you see and feel the spirit of the Africa depicted by the master who has lovingly studied and understands his subject. Some of his favourite places for creative inspiration and retreat are vast wildernesses of Botswana and Etosha. “It is the sheer scale and vastness of the landscape and the big skies” that profoundly inspire and impact Ian. When you are in Etosha, you find yourself surrounded by a landscape that has no end, and it is here where you are humbled and contemplate how small and insignificant we are. As he says this I look at the painting of the Gemsbok on the wall and get goosebumps as feel the space, the beauty and the drama.

Vibrant, bold, dramatic

Ian captures the vast scale of the African wilderness in his paintings with bold splashes of colour like no other artist. And in that dramatic landscape, he captures the true character and essence of the animals, whether it is a herd of zebra kicking up the dust as they gallop off; or a group of inquisitive meerkats standing up and keenly observing the scene; or the grace and striking beauty of the gemsbok against a stark landscape.


What animal is your favourite, I ask. ‘The Zebra’, Ian replies. Each one is unique; no two stripes are the same. They are gregarious yet individual. Imagine zebra on a still night with a full moon night, he goes on. That is what inspired his painting of the blue zebra.

Passionate and serious about conservation – “The Message”

I quickly learned that Ian has many sides. In his work and concerns for conservation, he is earnest, passionate and serious. But then he breaks off, and with his dry humour cracks a joke and laughs infectiously.

Ian’s poem “The Message” is hard hitting. The line “We do nothing” haunted me. As individuals, how can we save the planet? Isn’t that what we all think? His reply was simple, and inspiring – individuals make up a family, who make up a community which in turn makes a nation. It starts with me. It starts with each individual. Our individual contributions are vital.

Ian is aware of the dual role he plays. He is an artist on one hand, and on the other hand, he uses his art as a powerful message about conservation. Some paintings are deeply symbolic and warn us about the dangers of our disregard for our environment and maintaining the delicate balance of nature. Ian is deeply committed to conservation and actively supports the Wildlands Conservation Trust, The Game Ranger’s Association, the SPCA and WESSA.

He explained his painting “Discard” which symbolically depicts a pair of hands discarding the treasures of the world, throwing them away. But Ian optimistically says that we can turn the situation around. By turning his painting around, the story is reversed. The hands, instead of throwing away are receiving the gifts of creation. He makes you think and importantly gives you hope.

 At home in Cape Town

So then, Ian, I ask, ‘how do you like Cape Town?’ Well, he smiles, ‘Cape Town is a fishing village with a hill!’ He loves the spectacular beauty of the Cape, where the majestic mountain meets the ocean. He loves the feeling of the Cape – it’s beauty, it’s atmosphere – you don’t just get it anywhere else in South Africa.

Ian was born in Kimberley and raised on a farm in the area. He started drawing at an early age inspired by the open spaces and wild animals that were part of his daily life. He went to school at Grey College and then further studied art at the Johannesburg School of Art.

An intimate moment with someone special

Ian is a very genuinely warm and unpretentious person. He never tires of painting and he humbly recognises that when someone buys one of his paintings it is an intimate invitation from that person to come into their home. He smiles and says – that is very special! And so ended my interview, with someone very special!


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