Around the World

Last Chance to Paint – John Dyer

John Dyer's painted scenes crackle with movement and detail, all lovingly rendered in larger-than-life colours. Throughout his long career, his work has had a powerful association with the natural world - from the coast of Cornwall, to a vast experimental domed rainforest, and finally, into the heart of the Amazon.

As part of the Last Chance to Paint project, John travelled to the home of the Yawanawá tribe deep within the most vast and ancient rainforest on the planet. Travelling with his paints, an iPad, and Procreate, he helped bring the experience of the Yawanawá to a worldwide audience. He spoke with us about his transition from designer to photographer to painter, about how he felt on summer nights in the Amazon, and about how the lives of the Yawanawá are, in some respects, not so different to our own.

The Rio Gregorio by John Dyer
The Rio Gregorio by John Dyer

Hey John! Tell us a bit about yourself and how you got started in the art world.
I grew up on the beach on the north coast of Cornwall in the UK - a wild and beautiful place where I was surrounded by nature, the sound of Atlantic waves crashing onto the shore, and crickets chirping in the night. My father is an artist, and I was surrounded by art. We even had a full colour photographic lab in our house that I was able to use, as my father used it for creating his reference photos for his paintings. I spent my summers exploring the landscape, photographing, drawing and looking at nature.

These early years created me as an artist, and I specialised in art at school before doing a foundation course in art and design, and then a degree in London. My degree was wide-ranging but broadly based on design. I painted, illustrated, designed, and continued my photography. In 1989 I was awarded a travelling bursary by Thames TV to travel to the Amazon rainforest. I went to the Amazon as a photographer, but returned a painter - and I've painted ever since.

How did you come to work with the Eden Project and Survival International?
Shortly after graduating from my degree in London in 1990, I was asked by Virgin Records to be one of their youngest ever art directors, and to set up an entire new design department running on Apple Macs to design all their club remix albums. It was a great offer, but it was also the offer that forced me to decide on which path in life I was going to take. I turned them down, and moved back to Cornwall where I had grown up. I wanted to paint and be closer to nature.

I was quickly tracked down by Falmouth School of Art, who invited me to work as a part time lecturer on their journalism, graphics, and illustration degree courses. I did this for 9 years. It allowed me to pay the bills and follow my passion of being an artist. During this phase, a graphic design brief was given to the students to brand the Eden Project. This was the first I had heard of the Eden Project, and it was super exciting.

Keen to get involved, I called the art director, Sue Hill, who knew my work well. We met up, and I explained i wanted to paint the plants. Apparently I was the only artist of the 50 they had working with them who actually asked to see the plants, so she took great delight in taking me across the complex to show me the greenhouse where they were growing the plants in readiness for Eden. She told me that I could paint the 20,000 plants they had in there! So I did. Every week for months I would spend a day with those plants and the ‘Green Team’, and through this process I became Eden’s artist-in-residence, which has taken me all over the world.

I first came across Survival in 1990 when I met Robin Hanbury-Tenison, OBE (who accompanied me on Spirit of the Rainforest recently). Robin helped me to research and prepare for my original Amazon adventure in 1989 and made me a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society in London. Robin founded Survival International 50 years ago, and still presides over it today. He enrolled me as a supporter then, and I continue to support them now as they carry out their campaigns and essential work.

Could you tell us about the Last Chance to Paint Project and how it came to be?
Last year was my 50th birthday. Cornwall put on a huge retrospective exhibition of my paintings to celebrate. It was called ‘Painting the Colours of the World’. They published a beautiful coffee table book to accompany the public exhibition.The author requested that the last chapter be forward-looking, so we titled it 'Last Chance to Paint’, which is a twist on the Douglas Adams book, ‘Last Chance to See’. I am a great admirer of the late Douglas Adams, who wrote 'Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy'. His ‘Last Chance to See’ book inspired me when I was younger. When he worked on that book, Douglas travelled with zoologist Mark Carwardine, so I contacted Mark to check we could run with the ‘Last Chance to Paint’ title, and he agreed.

The power of painting rather than seeing is that children don’t have to be physically there to connect and engage in the story of these plants, animals, and people. Instead, painting provides a calm, reflective space that gives children the opportunity to wonder, question and grow their ideas about the natural world.

John Dyer paints rainforest studies in Procreate
John Dyer paints rainforest studies in Procreate

How long did it take to get to the Yawanawá tribe all up, from UK to Rainforest?
A long time! It takes a day to travel from Cornwall to London and then 30 hours of flying, an overnight stop in Brazil, a 3 hour car ride, a few hours waiting around, and a seven-hour canoe trip! All in all, around 70 hours non-stop, door to forest. It is an exhausting journey, as the Yawanawá live in a very remote corner of Brazil, just a few miles from Peru.

What’s life like in the rainforest?
Life is hard in the rainforest for me, but good for the Yawanawá people. For me, everything is risky and the resources aren't of any use, as I have little knowledge of the plants, insects, animals, and conditions. it is all potentially very dangerous. It's hot and humid too. For the Yawanawá people, the situation is almost reversed. There are still dangers, but those are offset by the Yawanawá knowledge of what is safe, which plants can be used as medicine, which spiders are fun to play with and which ones should be avoided, which snakes bite, and which leaves might conceal wasp nests. The traditions and spiritual knowledge of the Yawanawá keep them safe. They have huge respect for the dangerous animals - the snake in particular is a recurrent theme in their art and ceremonies. This innate respect for nature keeps them safe. They know which plants to use for snake bite, what to do in an emergency, and how to follow special diets if they encounter certain animals and plants.

It was the summer when I was with the Yawanawá so the days were humid and sunny, but the nights were really cold, so we had to sleep in hoodies, which was surprising. The summer is poor for hunting, as you can’t spot the animal tracks, so the tribe fish instead. They grow certain crops like cassava (which is a root vegetable), purple potatoes, and fruits. They also buy in rice.

The sound of the rainforest always inspires me - it is a constant hum of insects. Bird calls ring out across the canopy. In the evening, frogs take over the orchestra with their amazing calls. It's absolutely magical. The buttress roots on the trees, the scale of the forest and the huge variety of leaf shapes are really inspiring. As far as colour goes, the rainforest offers a palette of greens and earth colours with the very occasional smash of colour from a high up flower, tropical butterfly, or bird.

What was the most eye-opening experience you and Martha-Lilly experienced while you were living with the Yawanawá people?
Life in the tribe certainly isn’t a fairytale. All tribal peoples around the world are contemporary modern societies with varying degrees of contact with the rest of the world - ranging from no contact, to full integration with industrialised society. The Yawanawá were contacted by rubber tappers over 200 years ago and enslaved. They suffered terribly, and nearly died out. In 1984 they finally won the rights to their tribal land back, and made the conscious effort to rebuild their tribe and the tribal villages along the Rio Gregorió. This process continues today.

I stayed in Mutum, but further along the river New Mutum is now under development, bringing the number of villages to eight. It was hard to see their dependance on the outside world and everything it brings. They need a lot of diesel for their canoes and generators as they have 12 volt lighting in their houses and even the occasional flat screen TV. The tribe generates a lot of plastic waste in the form of food packaging, water bottles, and equipment. We found evidence of plastic all over the village and in the rainforest.

For me the most amazing experience was spending time with the Yawanawá children and watching them paint with annatto seed paint on the paper we brought for them. They all had an inbuilt visual and spiritual language that they used to create their paintings and they spoke gently but powerfully about the rainforest and its importance to them. This strong culture and respect for the rainforest will see them through their lives, and will eventually lead to them taking part in their tribal ceremonies where they take their sacred medicine, Uni (ayahuasca), which will bring them into direct contact with the spirits of the rainforest.

I attended one of these amazing ceremonies which went on until 3am in the morning as the tribe sang, chanted, played music, danced and consumed ayahuasca and visited the Amazon spirits. In the pitch dark with the buzz of the rainforest, a billion stars twinkling overhead, and the tribe chanting in the night, it couldn’t have felt more magical or remote.

Yuxi Yuve the Yawanawá Water Spirit by John Dyer
Yuxi Yuve the Yawanawá Water Spirit by John Dyer

How did you go painting with both Procreate and traditional media in the Amazon? Were there times where one was more suitable than the other?
Traditional media in the rainforest had its challenges, and so did using an iPad, but they also both had advantages. My acrylic paints stay very wet in the humid atmosphere - and lots of bugs tend to get stuck in the paintings too! Being fixed to the spot with an easel is great... unless you find you parked on an ants nest, as I did for my first painting (and the ants are nearly three centimetres long!)

The advantage of traditional media in this situation is it’s easier to see, there is a larger working surface, and the battery isn’t running down - which was a continuous issue for me, as in the rainforest there is no sunlight for the solar panels to charge batteries up with, so the team had to be very careful with battery use to keep all the equipment running for our videos, blogs, and satellites. I took a new iPad Mini 5 with Procreate on for my drawings, as the battery is 33 percent smaller, but still gives that same amount of drawing time.

It was amazing using Procreate in the rainforest, working on a new medium to connect to the shapes, colours and atmosphere of this special place. I have designed my own brushes that I love: a really wet background brush that allows me to lay down blobs of colour and quickly paint and colour mix them across the background as I do on my canvases with acrylics; and a painterly dry acrylic brush for the top layer. Procreate doesn’t precisely mimic traditional media, but it gets fairly close, and it's this ability to fit into to an existing working process that for me singles it out as the best art app on the iPad. It's super fast, super easy and uncluttered - so it's just me, the rainforest, and my digital painting that are able to have the creative conversation without interruption.

Procreate really became my go-to art tool in the evenings and when travelling. I would never attempt to paint whilst travelling at speed on a canoe down a tributary of the Amazon river, but Procreate with iPad mini were perfect for this. It was also amazing to be able to work in the pitch black in my hammock and to be able to pull out my iPad and get painting. I used Procreate to record the tribal ceremony, which was at night, and then the following day did an acrylic painting of that event. Procreate helped me to work up ideas that then informed my acrylic paintings.

The ability to play back the art process from Procreate is great fun, and we will be building some of these animations into our videos as they are updated to full HD quality over the next week or so.

Given an unlimited supply of power, Procreate could be the ideal travelling artist’s paint box. I had to limit my use a bit as the whole expedition ran on solar power only, and we had to keep the iPad, iPhone, two satellite units, a DSLR camera, and sound equipment all powered only from the sun for over a week, which we achieved well but with compromise on all fronts.

When is the next chapter of Last Chance to Paint, and where?
The next chapter of Last Chance to Paint is ‘Person of the Forest’ in Borneo, which will go live in September 2019. I have been invited by the Orangutan Foundation to spend time with their scientists in a very private part of the forest where I can meet and paint orangutans that are undergoing training to be released back into the wild after they lost their homes and families to palm oil plantations. 

After this I will travel north to Mulu, one of the oldest rainforests on the planet, to meet the Penan people. They were once nomadic, but were forced to settle after the destruction of 98% of their forests. What is left can no longer sustain them. I will paint in Mulu, where parts of the forest still stand. I'll also talk to the Penan to record them, paint with them, and to hopefully find out a little more about their story, culture, music and art - before it is lost.

Yawanawá Village Parrot by John Dyer
Yawanawá Village Parrot by John Dyer

What are some simple things you learnt from this experience that we can all do to help the environment, wherever we are in the world?
The environment is in danger, and we may well be living through a tipping point on planet Earth as mass extinctions and climate change accelerate. 80% of the most biodiverse and healthy regions on Earth are home to tribal people, and it is imperative that these tribes are allowed to stay on their lands, as their presence largely protects the environment.

The Yawanawá tribe have exactly the same problems as we have. They are reliant on oil for power, they have a plastic waste issue and an increasing need for money to run all of this. We shouldn’t judge or be disappointed to hear this, but understand that they are also a modern society - like us, but different. We should focus our minds on how we can use our technology and knowledge to help them to live more sustainably, and learn how to do so ourselves. The Yawanawá have a tiny footprint compared to a city like London, but if you scaled them up there would be similarities. They do, however, through their ownership of their land, protect a vast tract of Amazon rainforest.

It made me very sad when the tribe asked me to buy a cow as a gift for them for a feast. I explained why I would not, as cattle are one of the biggest drivers of deforestation and methane emissions across the world. As soon as we left the tribes’s land to make our way downriver, the slash and burn started, and the forest was entirely cleared for cattle. It was shocking to see.

So, wherever you are in the world, if you can make one small change in your life, take beef and red meat off the menu. If we all did that, we could potentially remove a vast chunk of our CO2 and methane output - as much as all the transport in the world added up. That would buy us some time to try and fix the global climate crisis. We are all in this together: families, communities, tribes, and countries. We need to make a few small changes now, and begin to learn from each other.

Browse John's vivid, lively paintings at The John Dyer Gallery, and learn more about Last Chance to Paint and the Spirit of the Rainforest project.