Shenton Safaris

Sketching among the Maasai

Welcome to the first post in the Art of Africa blog series! 
My name is Alison Nicholls and I am an artist inspired by Africa. Read on to see how and why this huge, diverse continent inspires my art. Feel free to contribute your thoughts and suggestions for future posts.

Sketching in Tanzania © African People & Wildlife Fund/Deirdre Leowinata

Sketching in Tanzania © African People & Wildlife Fund/Deirdre Leowinata

Beside me is the owner of the boma, a Maasai man in his 90s with a deeply lined face and gaping holes in his ear lobes. I am sketching one of his 12 wives, a middle-aged woman with a young child on her back, the top of the child’s head just visible above her colorful red shuka. She is milking a soft-eyed cow, rhythmically squirting a stream of milk into a narrow-topped calabash.

I would like to stand back and take in all the sights, sounds and smells of the boma, but now is not the time. Now is the time to sketch, and quickly, because the family’s essential daily tasks are more urgent than my desire to record them in my sketchbook. I do six pencil sketches in quick succession and before the cows head out to pasture everyone takes a look, the women shrieking with laughter as they see themselves on paper.

I will add watercolour to the sketches later that day, something I often have to do because of time constraints. I don’t ask people to pose for me, I just sketch whatever they are doing, so they move around a lot and I concentrate on getting as many good pencil sketches as quickly as possible. When I sit down to add watercolour it is always without reference to photos or video, and always while I’m still on site (a rule of thumb I work by to ensure that my sketches really are ‘field’ sketches). There are advantages to adding colour a little later – it allows me to experiment a little more, hence the bright purple behind the cow!

Mother's Milk field sketch                    11x14” pencil & watercolor by Alison Nicholls

Mother’s Milk field sketch – 11×14” pencil & watercolour by Alison Nicholls

Sketching people is something I only began to do three years ago. Prior to that I painted wildlife and the occasional landscape, but my visits to the African People & Wildlife Fund (APW) in Tanzania changed all that. APW is a community-based conservation organisation helping communities manage their natural resources for the mutual benefit of people & wildlife. I have visited three times now and as I stood there in the boma, my previous sketching experiences came flooding back.

The lines of the women’s bodies and the folds of the shukas seemed to flow from my pencil as fluidly as the milk from the cow. For a field sketch artist that is as good as it gets.

Milking Time Field Sketch                                11x14" pencil & watercolor by Alison Nicholls

Milking Time field sketch – 11×14″ pencil & watercolour by Alison Nicholls

I send laminated copies of my sketches back to the people who feature in them and I offered to send one for each home in this large boma, so before I left we did a quick count. In my sketchbook I wrote “31 copies needed, one for each home in boma”. I also jotted down a short note to myself “next time visit a smaller boma!”

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Alison Nicholls is an artist Inspired by Africa. She teaches guests to sketch wildlife during Africa Geographic Art Safaris and is a member of Artists For Conservation, the Society of Animal Artists and the Explorers Club. Alison donates a percentage to African conservation organisations from the sale of every painting, field sketch and limited edition reproduction.

  • Nigel


  • hazel

    Ali, these are so great. Your sketches are fabulous and it’s so interesting to read about the context in which you worked.

    • Thanks Hazel. I really couldn’t ask for a better sketching experience. I did 6 sketches in a couple of hours. Its a good job I didn’t stay for the entire day or I would have run out of paper!

  • Linda

    I love hearing more about how the sketches are produced and love that you then send something back to the people who have featured. So wonderful to have that connection after you’ve gone

    • Thanks Linda. Sending back copies of my sketches is one of the most important parts of what I do. Returning to the same area repeatedly is so rewarding, and being greeted with a hug from a woman who remembers me makes the sketching even better.

  • angela

    The sketches are beautiful and interesting!

    • Thanks Angela. When I look at them I can still hear the sounds of the boma!

  • S.w. Tsang

    They r beautiful. Love water color like hers

    • Thank you! I’ve tried many different mediums for field sketching but for me watercolor is the perfect choice.

  • Great artwork, love the sketches and hearing about how they are done makes them even more interesting. More please!

    • Thanks – there will definitely be more African field sketches coming soon!

  • Beautiful water color. Beautiful subjects.

    • Alison Nicholls

      Thank you Mefi! Watercolor can be tough but its worth the effort!

  • Laura Zander Racic

    Just a Gifted, Gifted Lady, her art is Awesome, so is her dedication to the land, people and animals

    • Alison Nicholls

      Thank you Laura. I always appreciate your comments!

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