research project information


Katharine Ambrose happily helps art students of all ages with school research assignments and projects on South African artists.

We hope the information on this page is helpful for your research. These are Katharine’s own answers to questions asked by students over the years. If you have any more questions or would like to interview the artist by email, phone, or in person, please contact her to make arrangements.

She has various books she has been featured in for further reference as well.

LESSONS: Katharine does not offer art lessons. It just isn’t her thing. She wishes you everything of the best on your personal journey as an artist, and hopes you find a wonderful teacher!

Q & A with Katharine Ambrose

Katharine Ambrose 2019

I was born in Dover in England as Katharine Spencer, and lived in a small town nearby called Deal, only a short walk from the beach. I went to school there and high school in Dover. After that, at 18 I went to university in Lancaster in North West England. There I met my husband and I came to South Africa as soon as my studies were complete and we were married. 

Giles Ambrose, my husband, worked as an Anglican priest so I went all over with him to townships and farms – everywhere that the people he served could be. This was first in Mafekeng, then in Rustenburg in North West Province. He spoke Setswana and we worked among mostly rural people and the mines. That is how I came to paint township scenes, rural landscapes, and African people. I try to show all sorts of everyday things going on to give the idea that everyday life is important and positive (not just big occasions and famous people but what all the rest of us do…).

After a while I met some artists and took classes. We went out into the countryside to paint in watercolour. I enjoyed it so much I decided that was what I wanted to do as a job. I taught myself to use acrylics and did a lot of figure drawing. I found that I liked to capture the way ordinary people live – African people and women and children best of all.   So I just have to open my eyes and I have inspiration everywhere!

How and why do you choose the subjects of your paintings?

Some of my work is imagination but mostly I like to paint people things and places I have personally encountered.

In my paintings I try to give a feeling of the people rather that render a specific place. In other work I paint people and the place where I saw them, like workers in a cafe or people waiting at a bus stop or walking and cycling in the country or in the street.  In ordinary people I see good things like caring, helping, sharing, respecting, teaching, learning, and having fun –  all things that give us hope in life.  I guess the word that sums it up is the African concept of ‘ubuntu’. I think this is the most important thing and by painting ordinary people I am telling others to look and take notice that this is significant (not just fashion, bling, noise and the other stuff that tries to get our attention). 

I like to paint almost anything ….trees, the sea, mountains, flowers, fish, animals….I even took part in an exhibition about avocados and one on mushrooms! I suppose I like to paint anything that interests me and such a lot of interesting subjects are out there! I travel to find subjects and recently went to the Free State to paint.  My main subjects tend to be people and landscapes.

In terms of some specific places, I started out in Mafekeng, which had had an African town before white people arrived. It means ‘place of stones’ as there are very big boulders scattered about. The buildings were small and plastered brick and the original town was called the ‘stadt’. Then we moved to Rustenburg, another country town of orange farms until platinum was found and it grew into a large, prosperous mining centre surrounded by the Tswana homeland of Bophutatswana after the creation of the apartheid government. The townships of Thlabane and Phokeng had houses with a plot of land around each. There people kept chickens, goats and cows and would have a few fruit trees. It would be dusty in winter and dry with yellow white grass which is why I often use that sunny yellow background.

Later I did a lot of trips to the border of Lesotho where the hilly country means the townships sit on the hillside and you get to see a lot of streets beyond the front ones so I used that hill perspective to put in more activity.

How would you describe your artistic style?

My style is a loose impressionist type of realism.

Which art mediums and materials do you like to work with?

My paintings are mostly acrylic on canvas, though I also use watercolour and pastel sometimes

What is your artistic process?

As an artist I paint most days.

I sketch a lot and that experience of observing the scene wherever I am then feeds into my studio work, giving it a sense or feeling of a place. It is not exactly like the scene, as a photo would be. I am motivated by my own fleeting experiences of sights around me, especially if I take a journey and then I will sketch non stop if someone else drives the car. My sketches are mostly in ballpoint pen, as it doesn’t smudge, but I like pastel and watercolour too, as I can put things down fast as the action is still happening.

I often make people’s faces vague or blank. This is sometimes because I did not catch a good look at the face. Mostly it is  because you can then look at the person without being totally distracted by what the face tells you.   You have to read the whole figure not just the smile or frown.  Sometimes when I paint outside doing a landscape I feel as if the subject has arrived when some people wander into the view.

I like to sketch and have a couple of hundred sketch books full of drawings and paintings. I keep one book at hand so I don’t miss a chance to put something down. Mostly these are like notes and experiments  Sometimes I am trying understand the subject; for example, how does someone hold a violin, or a saw, or a hammer? I like to try to catch a throw-away moment, i.e. when someone without thinking or posing shows how they feel in their face or movement.  I take a lot of photos, but while I like to look at them,  I very rarely use them for a painting. Probably one in a thousand of my paintings comes from a photo. I find that the paintings done from sketches or just on their own are more true to my feeling and livelier than the ones from photos. 

I like to use  vivid colour though some of my work is black white and grey. Colour is like a language apart from the shapes, and sets the mood of a work. So the bright yellow background gives a sunny mood and some colours feel cosy and soft and others harsh or aggressive, like black with red. I also use a lot of contrast of soft and hard,  dark and light, rough and smooth, as well as contrasting the colours. For example orange with blue or bright with dull:  red and grey or black and white. If I have a message in my paintings it is that the small moments and ordinary people are significant and worthy of our attention and understanding. 

Where do you create your art?

I sketch while travelling, and mostly paint in my studio in Somerset West, just outside Cape Town, here in South Africa. If you look on Google Maps for Ambrose Art Studio, you can find me there! I you would like to visit, please contact me to make an arrangement.