My worldview as a Sri Lankan American wildlife artist
Last updated 7/23/2021 at 2:47pm
with Lisa A. Ratnavira
At the age of 19, I became a self-taught wildlife artist in my native country of Sri Lanka. I was inspired by the beautiful rainforest country I grew up in and wanted to share the beauty and wonder of nature with those around me. I was fortunate to have raised a baby elephant named Maya, enjoyed my father Sardha's pet leopard and macaw, and a litany of wildlife around our home.
At one of my first art shows in 1979, President JR Jayewardene blessed the ceremony and over 150 paintings sold in the exhibit. The Ratnavira name means "Hero of Gems" and our caste is jewelers. After my father saw my success as an artist, he gave his blessing on my wildlife art career, versus following the family business of gem and jewelry design.
The president collected my work and named me the Chief Advisor to him on Wildlife and Conservation for the Department of Wildlife. I also designed the logo for the Department of Wildlife and Conservation, which is still in use today.
After touring with Prince Philip through the country, we worked together on "Let them Live," a World Wildlife elephant conservation program. In addition I designed 38 nature awareness postage stamps for Sri Lanka.
During the Sri Lankan civil war (1983-2009), I was invited by both the American and Australian ambassadors to come to their countries and pursue my art career. I have been fortunate to visit over 55 countries keeping detailed sketchbooks, taking photos, and creating paintings from these travels. I paint a window into nature paying close attention to symbiotic relationships and matching the flora and fauna to it's true environment in order to capture the beautiful and accurate relationships in nature.
During my time in Sri Lanka, I sold my paintings and supplemented my art career by working as a tour guide; often clients from all over the world would send me art supplies and purchase paintings from my studio at the end of our birdwatching and nature appreciation tours.
I painted over 150 paintings for the Habarana/Cinnamon Lodge, through Walker Tours which are currently being exhibited with the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Sri Lanka. In addition, I was commissioned by the president to paint a 9 foot mural of ringneck parakeets, receiving over $237,000 U.S. dollars, for the airport in Colombo Sri Lanka.
After immigrating to the United States in 1986 due to the Sri Lankan Civil War, I began my American art career by opening Hidden Forest Art Gallery, exhibiting in elite wildlife art shows throughout the U.S., and founding Reflections of Nature in Fallbrook, California.
In addition, I became a member of the Society of Animal Artists, and exhibited in several museum tours. I enjoyed great success in Sotheby's, Christie's and Bonham's auctions as well. My largest commission has been a 42 foot African mural at Safari West in Santa Rosa, California.
My largest collection is at the San Diego Natural History Museum including 42 paintings of San Diego's endangered species, gifted on the arrival of our daughter Natalie Ann Ratnavira.
As a self-taught artist from a third world country, achieving these goals and enjoying these opportunities to share my work and the lessons I have learned from nature were absolutely beyond anything I had imagined. I studied an elephant ear plant with a raindrop in the center and seeing the perfection and unity of nature, decided early on that nature would be my teacher. I filled my sketchbooks with studies and observations.
As a Buddhist, respect for all life and nature is ingrained in my life philosophy and is a part of my canvas. Being honored as Sri Lankan American of the year by the Sri Lankan Consulate in Los Angeles for my contributions to the art world and conservation was a great honor. My continued participation with the University of Colombo on Field Guides and educational illustrations is a gift that I return to my native country through my art. Validating my philosophy of sharing "that a road was not built for one to travel upon."
I met Bill Larson in Sri Lanka in the late 1970's and, after moving to the United States, visited Bill and Jeannie Larson at their home and The Collector jewelry store, making Fallbrook my home after their warm hospitality. Since then, the Larson family has been instrumental in my art career, introducing me to elite art collectors around the world and the Gemological Institute of America, and we have worked side by side as family. I am grateful for their generous support. We are working on a book together about Tourmalines from his Himalaya Mine.
In the late 1990's, I became a naturalized citizen. I have owned my own business here in California, for over 35 years and have been actively involved in fundraising for wildlife conservation, orphanages, fire and flood victims, and children through my artwork.
The Natalie Ratnavira Education Center in Galle, Sri Lanka is a sanctuary for wildlife and a place for artists, scientists, and conservationists to stay and enjoy the unique species found there. By illustrating, writing and studying, they contribute to this unique rainforest habitat.
The Devario Sp. Nataliei fish was one I saw as a child camping with my father, and later was bestowed as an honor for our daughter Natalie Ann Ratnavira (Feb. 14, 1990-June 23, 2012). We lost her suddenly to an AVM, brain aneurysm, and she was a Wildlife Conservation student at the University of Reno where she played soccer, and a graduate of Fallbrook High School.
This legacy in her name is one way of transforming our grief into one of conservation, keeping her smile present with us. In addition, you will notice on each painting there is a dragonfly next to my signature in her loving memory. Our sons Neil, Beau and Brooks each honor her in the work that they do and in their lives. Natalie's Research Center can be viewed at @NatalieRatnaviraDonationFund on Facebook.com.
As I approach each canvas, I do so with the gratitude of loving what I do, for the past five decades as a professional artist. I relive my experiences traveling, observing nature, sketching and the loved ones who have been with me during these adventures.
I begin with a composition in mind, using my sketch books and field photos and apply oil, acryl gouache, watercolor, or acrylic depending on what I am hoping to achieve drawing directly with my brushes.
I work from dark to light and use several washes to create light and depth of field, repainting details to build the shadows and signature marks such as sun edged leaves, and insect bites and leaf litter that are known in my nature embracing canvases.
I often paint several canvases at once, especially when working with oils, as my nature is not quite as patient, as the paint takes time to dry. I feel a strong urgency to create daily and not waste the precious time allotted to each one of us. I do take breaks to work in my garden, with my animals and on my bonsais as a form of meditation and balance that I take back to each canvas.
My wife, Lisa, and I enjoy traveling and birdwatching and observing nature together when we are not exhibiting at shows or running the gallery. We enjoy hours of sketching and writing and have collaborated on "Traveling with Pen and Brush" and "Grief's Labyrinth and Other Poems" where I have illustrated her poetry. For over 23 years she has been my gallery director, my biggest fan, and my muse.
Thank you for the opportunity to discuss my art journey with you and I hope you enjoy viewing my paintings. For more images, visit http://www.gaminiratnavira.com.
A group of paintings of land and sea animals from "The Indian Ocean by Gamini Ratnavira" is being featured in a new exhibition entitled "Animal Groups," curated by David J. Wagner, Ph.D. The exhibition premiered at The Dane G. Hansen Memorial Museum in Logan, Kansas July 2, and will travel to The Sternberg Museum of Natural History at Fort Hays State University in Kansas for display during the fall semester of 2021.