Whales, steam engines, and me

I’m Frédérique – though some people know me better by my online nickname “Namu” – a Dutch artist of wildlife and railways. I love all animals but I mostly paint whales. And I love steam engines too, but regrettably that passion came much later, so I haven’t had much time to build up my gallery for them yet. But I have a sneaking suspicion it’ll eventually be filled with mostly British locomotives, and of those a fair share LNER A4 Pacifics.

Whales and steam engines then. It’s a strange combination, I know; nimble, intelligent marine mammals and great lumbering pieces of metal. They fascinate me in different ways, but fascinate they do, and so I can’t help but paint them. Occasionally I write stories too, and from time to time I take photographs and make videos.

Animals have always interested me. I often wonder how they perceive the world, what they see, hear, feel and think, and what on earth they’re doing all day. In my art I try to reveal a (speculative) glimpse of those untold stories. But I am also curious about their looks, especially when it comes to cetaceans. Subtle differences between populations, odd individuals, hybrids; they fascinate me to no end. I want my art to be an ode to the beauty and individuality of the animals out there. Which is why so much detail goes into my paintings, and why I try to include all their unusual or pretty markings. I want to do them justice.

I don’t know what it is about whales and dolphins in particular that motivates me so to draw them. Maybe it’s their curiosity back towards us, the complexity of their lives, their intelligence, or maybe it’s the way they move so effortlessly through water and air. But I do remember seeing dolphins for the first time at the Dolfinarium Harderwijk when I was very little, and what a lasting impression that left on me. There have been times when other animals dominated my art, but it’s the whales that have stuck with me throughout my life.

Classmates, having seen notebook upon notebook get filled with dolphins and whales often asked me “All you draw is dolphins. Doesn’t it ever get boring?” Which to me was such an unimaginable proposal that I didn’t even know what to answer. Though I guess a resolute ‘no’ would have sufficed. If you are truly passionate about something it will always be fascinating. No matter how often you draw it, there’s always something new to discover, to try out. It does not tire.

Steam engines
I was born in 1996, 41 years after the last steam locomotive had been taken away from the Dutch main lines. Suffice to say, I never got to experience the glory days of steam. And that saddens me. But luckily I live in a time where all manner of steam engines are still being run and taken care of by heritage railways, several engines regularly take to the main line, and there’s even new engines (being) built from scratch.

To me, no other machine feels more like it has a soul, like it’s alive, than a steam engine. No other machine can be as temperamental or have as much of a personality. I love how this is reflected in the way people talk about them. Old engines are ‘fine old ladies,’ a hard-working Black Five is ‘panting’ as she makes her way up a hill, and firing can be made difficult by an engine being ‘sulky’. Their whistles can be cheery toots, haunting wails, or impressive warnings to get out of the way. An A4 triumphantly screaming on her chime as she thunders into a station is one of the finest sounds if you ask me.

Also, something about seeing them in motion, be it slowly backing onto a train or tearing down the metal, how the coupling rods and valve gear turn and dance around one another, it’s beautiful.

When painting steam engines I want to capture the atmosphere, the engines’ presence and impressive power, basically everything that has me so fascinated with them. Art gives me a means to bring back to life what has been unduly scrapped and thus lost, as well as celebrate what has been preserved – and in some cases built anew, against the odds. I am lucky to volunteer at a heritage railway which allows me to work alongside these mighty old machines. I’m learning to fire large German steam locomotives and give maintenance to our fleet of trusty Dutch diesels. These experiences inspire my art and give a unique insight into what it might have been like to work with these machines all those years ago.

“She was an impressive beast to behold on the inside. Pipes snaked through
her cab, ending in wheels and levers and displays that altogether culminated in
a sort of visual Chinese. She had no idea how any of this would manage to
make the engine run.

And then there was the heat. Despite it being a chilly winter day,
standing close to the firehole doors made anyone want to shed their thick
coat. Once opened, the entrance revealed a white-hot sea of fuel and fire,
seemingly yearning, ever-hungry for coal. 
Despite being at a standstill, from
everywhere came hissing, clicking, coughing and puffing. A hundred
tonnes of metal had never seemed so well and truly alive.”