GALLERIES: Painter and salesman with the formal skills to envy…

Monday November 09 2020

‘Ntulele’ by Patrick Kinuthia. PHOTO | FRANK WHALLEY


Patrick Kinuthia is a well-trained painter whose eyes from the outset have been set on sales. And therein lies his obvious strength and his greatest weakness.

His eagerness to earn a living from art drove him to accumulate the battery of formal skills that enable him to translate a visceral response to landscape into a stunning celebration of his surroundings.

But the same drive also led him to worry about whether his canvases would fit into some ex-pat’s suitcase, and frequently made him rush his work so supply met demand.

It has also seen him confuse originality with novelty and try out various gimmicks in the hope his work will always offer something new for his clients.

Yet on his day, when he forgets about sales and focusses on exploring the sensations aroused by confronting the landscapes he knows and loves, Kinuthia (as I have noted previously) can paint most of this region’s artists under the table.

Another huge plus is that unlike some painters who change styles with bewildering rapidity, perhaps because they have the skills but little to say, Kinuthia has remained loyal to a robust realism filtered through a desire to record the effects of light.


He received a thorough grounding from one Mohammed Rafiq, who made promotional posters for the cinema.

Drawing, colour, composition, describing volume and capturing weight saw the young Kinuthia on his way, with further training at Kenya Poly where he studied graphic design.

Then a studio artist by day, he painted for himself at night — mostly landscapes and market scenes from photographs he had taken — with even then, as he freely admits, a keen eye on sales.

His success encouraged him to become a painter full time.

The skills picked up as a graphic artist — use of space, economy of line, simplicity of composition, a strong sense of design — continue to enhance his style.

Both the Stunning Kinuthia and the Commercial Kinuthia are on view in the main hall in Village Market, at Gigiri, Nairobi. (The exhibition closes on Monday but most of the work can then be seen at Kinuthia’s own gallery in Rosslyn Mall, a couple of kilometres towards Ruaka.)

There are around 35 paintings, all acrylics on canvas; some 12 landscapes, 20 portraits and three wildlife pictures; two of elephants and one of a lion.

For me, chief among them is one small landscape from 20l8.

Called Home Town Road, it is of Kagwe, in Kiambu District and Kinuthia has walked it often. One of those rare, immersive landscapes, it boasts wristy brushwork and a palette that features a red earth road winding between rich green and dun foliage, ending in a flash of scarlet against a white cloud with an echoing roseate blush, all set within an inviting, butterfly composition.

There too is Ntulele, perhaps the broadest painting on show. A minimum of deft strokes captures farm buildings nestling in a wooded cleft while creamy clouds descend from an azure sky to a shimmering red horizon line.

And two little Malindi beach scenes are so authentic they encourage you to step into them for a stroll by the sea, while the larger Malindi Road, one of his more recent works, radiates the harsh strike of the sun and almost leaves you sweating.

Examples of the artist’s portraits are notable for their strongly drawn outlines and rapid, vigorous strokes.

Kinuthia can certainly catch a likeness but his portraits often seem too big for their boots, dissipating their strength, and appear weak and flabby, with a garish palette.

His habit of splashing bright accents of colour around, to add a sugar rush to the work, has gone the rounds with many of his pupils and admirers copying the technique. But it belongs to a different school and here, instead of the colour helping to describe form, it jumps towards the eye, distracts and flattens any modelling.

Of late the artist has taken to sticking bits of fabric and printed numbers, letters and scraps of newsprint to the surface of both landscapes and portraits; again in an attempt to make his work seem different, modern and exciting; not a change of style exactly, more like trying to gild a lily.

Kinuthia, an open man with a strong religious faith, excels when showing how sunlight reflects on water, the fields, trees and country lanes and his best work is a hymn to the glories of Nature.

There is nothing wrong with experimenting, of course, but if it ain’t broke why fix it?