Painting with sap that he extracts painstakingly from plants is what makes artist Willie Deyzel – already a non-conformist in his approach to life – even more unconventional.
“He lives very close to nature and uses anything that comes from nature to produce the colours for his art,” says sculptor Arina Venter, whose formal training has led to her lecturing in art around the world. She and her husband now live in Stilbaai, not far from the two-storey house Deyzel and his wife have occupied for about 20 years, planned and built by him with the help of two labourers near the Pauline Bohnen nature reserve, with a panoramic view of the town, its river and the ocean.
“He is a keen observer whose interpretation of what he sees is honestly portrayed in his art,” says Arina Venter.
“Of course, he knows his subject very well and every bush, every sunset, all of nature are part of his emotional make-up. These factors help him to be creative and successful as a painter who does not have a particular style. In a sense, the way he goes about reflecting his subject is almost experimental, but the end result is always right. That has really become his style.”
Willie, 82, has been drawing and painting since childhood, with no formal art training. He started using plant juices about 30 years ago while running a general dealership in Williston in the Karoo. There he also sold the household furniture he made, and tourists who arrived by the busload for the annual flower display bought the postcards he sketched.
“A doctor’s wife organised an art competition in Williston, judged by someone from Stellenbosch University art faculty,” Willie recalls. “He suggested I sell my stuff, so I started painting at the shop because I knew the surroundings so well. My clients were the tourists who came to see the flowers. I gave away more than I sold. I got R1,50 in those days for my cards. I had a visitors’ book, signed by people who came from across the entire world, and of course across South Africa.”
Studying Bushman paintings in the Karoo first alerted him to plant materials as a source of colour for his work. “Because my eye is highly developed to see colours, I could tell that the colour the bushmen used and the colour of the crassula succulent plant are precisely the same. So I started to experiment with it and made ink from it to get various colours.”
Since then he has derived his “paints” from bougainvillea, seepweeds (inkbos), wattle bark, aloes, pomegranates, peach pips, succulents, vygies, climbing saffron, berries, vrieseas, potato bush flowers, and even cochineal, a scale insect from which the crimson-coloured dye carmine is derived. He often seals his finished drawings with bees wax, and uses soot and vinegar for his pencil sketches.
“Arina has told me many times to write down my colour recipes, but it is very difficult to do that,” says Deyzel.
“I am never sure exactly what will emerge from the chemical reaction that takes place when the plant sap combines with a certain kind of paper. The colours alter and that’s why I can’t write down what is going on. I can’t even tell you exactly what is in each jar of sap. Usually I don’t know how I got the colours, because you work and you do what the brush does.
“I used to sketch pencil drawings in the veld, and later worked with pastels, but now I use only oil paints on canvas and plant sap on paper.”
When he stopped using pastels he discovered that certain paper mixed with plant juices combined to form colours. “I use peach pips because they stain very effectively. I like earth colours because they are long-lasting and don’t fade.”
Gazing at his rendition of a veld scene dominated by a stormy sky, Deyzel observes, “You can’t get this effect with oils or pastels. It is a combination of the paper, the chemical reaction, and the dyes.”
He points to one of the vast array of paintings, framed and unframed, covering the walls of his living room. “This grey blue comes from climbing saffron given to me by the botanist who created Die Tuin op Die Brak, the fynbos garden in Stilbaai.
“She told me that the flowers and some berries stained her hands. So I tried it and, for the first time, could get blue out of nature. I got the blue-grey I used for these clouds.”
Every painting coloured by nature’s bounty has a story that Deyzel must tell, his voice tinged with wonder, the energy of his enthusiasm belying his years. “This colour comes out of wattle bark, the kind that grows in the river. They use it to colour leather. It is permanent, and won’t fade. It gives a sort of shine.
“Vygies are wonderful for providing colour, and so are the flowers from the potato bush, and vrieseas make a lovely ink.”
Among the many artists who have influenced his work are Hennie Niemann snr and Gregoire Boonzaier, both living in Onrus River at the time of his acquaintance with them. He credits Boonzaier with suggesting that he use soot and vinegar for his black and white drawings.
Mostly nature studies, his art has sold widely, first through galleries and later by word of mouth. “I haven’t tried to market myself in years. I just sell from the house.”
He has exhibited in Upington, Clanwilliam, Stellenbosch, Prince Albert and Stilbaai. Alcare Aloe Products, an aloe vera factory and shop on the N2 just outside Albertinia, has a permanent exhibition of his paintings, all coloured by the aloe plants.
Paging through a photo album of his paintings, he remarks, “This one’s in Spain; this is in Albertinia; that one has gone to Pretoria. I did this picture several times. It’s a scene from Agterswartberg; when I find a beautiful place in nature, I draw it often. Sometimes I take a photo and do drawings from that.”
A painting on an easel attracts his attention, and he remarks, “I will never sell this because it has a story attached to it. It was started by someone who began to paint late in life and came to me for advice. He died before it was completed. I sandpapered it and these mountains emerged on the canvas. I filled the foreground with a steenbok.”
Deyzel’s inspiration has not come only from nature. A lot of what has driven him was inspired by poems and events. A series of 16 paintings grew out of Uys Krige’s poem, Ken Jy Die See, Meneer? Only a few paintings in that series remain on his walls.
“Other people’s work has taught me a lot. I spend hours and hours in galleries. Hugo Naude was one of my greatest inspirations. I read a lot about him. From Joe Joubert, who works with oils, I learnt a lot about detailed work. I started sealing my work with bees wax after reading that Degas did that. I learnt a lot about colour from books on art.”