The Next Chapter

Robert Bateman answers the Proust questionnaire

The renowned artist talks about his favourite journey, his most-hated historical figures and why teaching is one of his life's joys.
Acclaimed wildlife painter and conservationist Robert Bateman released his memoir, Life Sketches, in November. (Simon & Schuster)

Robert Bateman is renowned for his paintings of the natural world, especially wildlife. He started sketching animals as a boy, and grew into a world traveller whose paintings of animals and birds have made him a celebrated artist in Canada and abroad. He's also an ardent conservationist. His memoir is, appropriately, titled Life Sketches. Robert Bateman answered The Next Chapter's version of the Proust questionnaire.

Name your favourite writers.

One of my favourite writers would be Ernest Thompson Seton. I like Hemingway, Laurens van der Post, James Thurber. What I like about Hemingway is not so much the macho aspect, it's his particularity. He takes you to a particular time and place, and you can almost disappear into it.

What do you value most in your friends?

A sense that they are paying attention — to the world, I mean, not necessarily to me. And that they tell good stories. I actually like people who brag a little bit about what they've done in life. If you keep everything to yourself... that's not what life is about. I think it's about sharing.

What historical figures do you most despise?

I despise all of the figures who bring misery to others, including many who are not historical but still alive right now. There are many terrible dictators, and you can go right from Pinochet back to Genghis Khan. Anyone who deliberately causes others to suffer I think is despicable.

Your favourite painter?

My favourite painter is Vermeer, and Andrew Wyeth is a close second. Both of them, especially Vermeer, capture a moment in time, and make you feel as though you were actually there. There's a sense of authenticity, and that it's not set up, in the way that Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel or The Last Supper or even Picasso's paintings are setups. This looks like you happen to walk by and see something in the corner of your eye in passing, and this artist said, "Aha! That's an ordinary moment that is precious and worth capturing." Degas is very good at the same thing.

Your favourite occupation?

My favourite occupation is teaching! I was a teacher when I was 16, at the Royal Ontario Museum's Junior Field Naturalist Club. I was a high school teacher until I was 46, and I'm still teaching. I give master class workshops for wildlife artists. That I find really fun. Painting is really work.

What is your favourite journey?

No question — going on a safari in East Africa. I've been there about a dozen times. There is nothing more wonderful from our point of view, and that includes my family because I've been lucky enough to have them along on safaris, than to be in a vehicle with roof hatches, like a Land Rover, leaning out of the roof, the wind blowing in your hair, driving at sunrise out across the plain, and you are alone with Africa. What are you going to see? You don't know until you're around the next bend, and you might see tens of thousands of wildebeests, or we do bird lists so we aim to see at least 300 species of bird on each trip.

Robert Bateman's comments have been edited and condensed.