On most days, you’ll find artist and graphic designer Rhonda Franks at home with a paintbrush in her hand and her loyal companion Izzy, a 19-year-old cockatiel, sitting on her shoulder, while she works. It’s an ideal environment in which to create the stunning paintings of wildlife that have earned her accolades in Canada and internationally, except for those times when her feathered companion decides to walk through wet paint and then onto her canvas.
“I’ve always loved to draw,” she says. “As a kid, I drew all over my school books and spent thousands of hours sketching in my room. My mom encouraged my love of art.” Franks didn’t consider a career in the field until a bit later in life. She thought she was wanted to become a corrections officer and was attending university to study sociology and psychology.
An image she saw in a wildlife calendar had her rethinking her choice of profession. The picture inspired her to paint her own version and she was pleased with the results. She signed up for a graphic design course at Mohawk College, then begin to ramp up the time she spent drawing, painting and taking photographs. Her first show in 2008 received a positive response, confirming to Franks that she was on the right path.
Her love of nature is at the root of most everything she creates. Franks grew up in the country on a farm and has always felt connected to wildlife. “I’m drawn it,” she explains. “I see the beauty in it that people might see, but not appreciate it. There’s an underlying message to what I paint. I think if we valued nature then we would do more to protect it. It is our responsibility to make sure we preserve wildlife for generations to come.”
Living on six acres just outside Burgessville, she is surrounded by inspiration in the form of local critters, from coyotes to birds of prey, and scenic walking trails. She notices things others do not – a screech owl sitting on truck or a bird of prey like an American kestrel perched on a hydro wire. “I feel at home in Oxford County. It’s so pretty all year long. It’s a friendly place and I feel that the people here share a similar mind set. They appreciate what we have and all that rural life offers.”
The details in Franks’ paintings are exquisite, beautifully nuanced and realistic. It’s not surprising to hear her say how much she loves recreating textures, whether it’s the feathers of a snowy owl, the fur of a rabbit, or the wrinkled skin of an elephant. She’s passionate about all animals – not just the ones she finds outside of her front door. She goes to places like African Lion Safari and Mountsberg Conservation Area to take photographs that will be used as the basis of her compositions.
Though she hasn’t had a chance to travel extensively, she has visited spots in North America including British Columbia where she observed a wide range of wildlife – grizzly bears, sea lions and birds. She also took classes lead by the legendary Robert Bateman. It was like an intensive art boot camp.
“It was an incredible experience,” Franks recalls. “I’ve always been an admirer of Bateman’s work so I was nervous to have my work critiqued by him. He is known to be very candid when he knows an artist is open to criticism and able to handle it. I learned from him that the important part behind a piece of art is the idea. It doesn’t really matter how you get there or execute it, as long as you have a clear concept. I know that my paintings turn out best when I connect to my subjects. I really try to capture their personalities.”
Her work appears in books, been asked to submit a design for coin by the Royal Canadian Mint and had a zebra painting used by Ducks Unlimited.
“Art is about doing it, not worrying about how you got there.”