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Adventure-artist Simon Combes capturing the 'Great Cats'

Web posted on: Thursday, October 15, 1998 12:39:24 PM EDT

By CNN Interactive Writer
Jamie Allen

ATLANTA (CNN) -- It's interesting what some people do for fun.

For instance, Simon Combes, an adventure artist with a love of painting the world's great cats, says he gets a kick out of walking through the African wilderness and stumbling upon a sleeping lion.

"It gives you a helluva fright," he says. "It's great when this huge lion will get up and run away like a scared rabbit."

Take a look at a few Great Cats

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It's moments like these that Combes lives and works for. His art, realistic paintings of lions, tigers and leopards in their natural surroundings, was released by the Greenwich Workshop this fall in "Great Cats: Stories and Art from a World Traveler."

The work is a collection of Combes' paintings divided into three sections: "Cats of the Jungle," "Cats of the Plains," and "Cats of the Snow." The book also includes descriptions of each cat, from the clouded leopard to the Siberian tiger, and stories from Combes' many travels from South America forests to Mongolian mountaintops.

Combes with a friend

'I am obsessed with accuracy'

Combes, 58, was born in England and moved with his family at the age of six to Kenya. After a career in various military services, he was accepted into the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst, in 1960.

But he didn't start to paint seriously until his late 20s. In 1969, a near sellout of his art at a gallery show in Nairobi put him in touch with an art expert who gave him some advice: "He said 'you're never going to make money drawing people'."

The natural choice was to paint cats, an animal that had fascinated Combes since his childhood spent exploring the African wilderness.

Soon, his love turned into an obsession -- going on safaris to see the animals in their natural surroundings, to snap pictures and draw sketches of them, and then come home and get to work translating that into a painting.

The result: Many of Combes paintings, which take an average of six weeks to complete, look like photographs.

"I am obsessed with accuracy. and that applies as much to the background as to the cat itself. That's why I insisted on traveling to all crazy parts of the world where these cats exists," Combes says.

Cat tales

With his travels, Combes has his share of stories to tell, and each page offers a different adventure. There's the time he noticed paw prints the size of dinner plates as he found himself within 200 yards of a rare Siberian tiger.

"You wonder 'What am I going to do?' (if the cat finds you)," Combes says. "I was a little apprehensive."

Or the time Combes found himself with a guide who imitated the challenging roar of male jaguar, in hopes that another male jaguar would accept the challenge.

But Combes favorite expedition is the time he and a guide captured and tagged a rare snow leopard in the Altai Mountains in Mongolia. The animal was drugged while Combes and the guide performed their work, allowing Combes to actually handle the leopard.

"If tigers become extinct in my lifetime I'd feel ashamed to be a human being. Somehow or other, these big cats have been such a big part of the fabric of nature... Without them the world be a worse place."
-- Simon Combes

"That was the high point of this whole project for me," he says. "Even though some people might think it was under contrived circumstances, they are so rare and almost mythological. To see one that is truly wild and then handle and sketch and then watch it walk back into the wild is unbelievable."

Combes admits he takes great pleasure in being paid to do something he loves. But he also hopes his efforts will educate people about the world's great cats, and help lead to more conservation efforts.

"The more I traveled on this trip, the more aware I became of how endangered these animals are and anything I can do to save the ones that are left -- I'd bend over backwards to do it."

"If tigers become extinct in my lifetime I'd feel ashamed to be a human being," he says. "Somehow or other, these big cats have been such a big part of the fabric of nature... Without them the world be a worse place."


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