Catherine Paynter is the master of magical transformations, which she transfers to canvas in dreamlike sequences. Her small house in Greyton, is explosive with colour, with knock-out scarlet gloss on all the living room walls. Catherine Paynter IS colour.


Smoky desert giraffe

The room is floor-to-ceiling books, mainly large reference tomes. Her own paintings are stacked against the walls. They are whimsical, a little fantastical, filled with exotic imagery, extraordinary marine invertebrates like the pyjama squid, the red-spotted jellyfish, starfish in all shades of purple and mauve, gypsy coloured moon crabs, crystal translucent jellyfish in powder pinks, glowing sea dragons and sparkling streams of tiny eggs in gold and silver. Everywhere there are huge canvases, one with leopards with sparkling eyes, another with crocodiles with a sly and slightly subversive look in their eyes, an imaginary creature with a fan of feathers on its head in front of a line of kangaroos.

She has perfected every shade of blue in her paintings, from her adored turquoise to phthalo blues. She is wearing turquoise trousers and Indian chandelier earrings that brush her shoulder. Her studio shelves are stacked with acrylic paints, and potions, tinctures, and pigments from opalescent through to milky frost shades and verdant greens and burnt umbers.

Born in 1949 in Johannesburg, South Africa, Catherine has been painting since she was a very young child. For inspiration she has travelled through South Africa, Swaziland, Lesotho, Botswana, Mozambique, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Malawi, Egypt, Madagascar and ventured much further — Iran, Israel, Spain, Italy as well as Winnipeg and Boston in the depths of mid-winter to observe snow.

She paints with gouache on cotton canvas to achieve a rich glowing tone in fragile superimposed layers of colour, using mica and gold, aerosol and liquid acrylic varnishes.

“I paint in acrylics which I love because they are so vibrant and so flexible and much cheaper than oils.
“It’s very versatile and dries quickly which is a big pro but what I really love are their large range of shimmering metallic paints.”

Catherine Paynter


Her paintings are seductive and, like her, empathetic, particularly with their love of Africa and everything African. A favourite is a painting of a group of slinky sapeurs (followers of a fashion and cultural movement known as La Sape – the Society of Ambiance Makers and Elegant People) from the Congo wearing white gloves as they carefully step through the undergrowth.

“I am so lucky to have been born in Africa and to have been able to travel through the continent,” she says. Many of her paintings reference tribal images. On her mantel shelf is a series of The Omo Valley people who live in South West Ethiopia and paint their bodies with thick white paint. It is certainly true to say that Travel in Africa has provided her with high-wire images and epiphanies, like no other place in the world.

“I owe this continent a tremendous debt. I have always had an enormous curiosity about how other people live and travelling around, I have had the most excitement there is to be had in the world. There is always something new, from a go-go dancer in Tanzania to a leopard with yellow eyes prowling through the undergrowth.”

Paynter is a magician, mixing colours from the earth and sky, adding touches of crazy nuance, star twinkling skies, hedged frontiers in velvety green, rising mountains in shades of grey and blue. All her works are jiggy with ethnic quirks, masks, tattoos, beaded necklaces. Sometimes just a sprinkle of Christmas decoration sequins adds a stonking touch of colour. She is not beholden to trend or art talk. When it comes to life and painting, she is very much her own person.

However, it is her combination of stoicism and innocence, her wonderful slightly offhand humour and her startling but often out of the blue remarks (‘Never trust a Hungarian because they cheat at bridge’) that underline her light but never frivolous insights into the people she is painting. As her secretary says, “Her diction is sometimes difficult to understand but she is always entertaining.”

Un Sapeur

She loves painting large animals like rhinos and giraffes, her portrait is in front of man-eating crocodiles with gaping mouths. Paynter who talks at speed out of the side of her mouth has a dry humour, telling the story about an often-married client, she says, “Every time she has a new husband, I have to paint him into the picture and paint the last one out.”

But for the many fans of her works, it is the slight edge of eccentricity in her paintings, that makes them so collectable. “I paint what I want,” she says, “what I love and what I am keen to learn more about. Nature and all the strange wonders of biology are so absolutely enticing to a painter. I am so full of curiosity. I think about the work before I start out actually painting.

“For instance, at the moment, I am visualising in my head these three figures in, I think, a place like Lesotho. They are standing on the edge of a deep valley and they have on those old Basuto hats and are wearing blankets. When I start to paint, they will just fall into place.”

Her house is a reflection of her life and her art and her small eccentricities. Among the masses of books and paintings, guarded by two large ornamental flamingos on her mantel shelf, is the most sophisticated Kenwood mixer with spinners, whisks, grinders, beaters. “I saw it on a sale and just had to have it. It can do anything.”

Here in the green landscapes of the Cape, Catherine creates art that wraps its arms around the whole continent in which she lives right at the southern tip.

Catherine undertakes commissions and is having an exhibition at Gallery F, Shortmarket Street, Cape Town on 15th November 2022.



By Lin Sampson



Banana flowers


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