About the artist

ABOUT THE ARTIST, her bio and artistic history:


Ada Fagan was born in Durban, Natal at the end of December 1943. Ada didn’t draw or paint before going to school! Didn’t even have crayons before going to primary school.

But on the first day of school, she had to watch other children play with Plasticine  because her mother had registered her too late that day. Shame, watching the other pupils having fun with it, was torture. When art periods came around again, she excelled from strength to strength from each passing year.

Art at school:

While still in school she won local awards and competition prizes for art. Her artwork also hung in the school foyer and one painting hung in the Durban Museum when they held an art contest there for school children. And later in high school, she won a couple of Latham Foundation International Wildlife Merits, which were judged in California, USA.

During the last year at high school a career assessment was done on her and her classmates. The acting principal (who previously had been her primary school principal) sent for her to go to the principal’s office exclusively.

She had forgotten all about the previous career assessment test done so many months before and so wondered what awaited her at his office, as she walked along the corridor of the school on her way to the office? What had she done wrong to be called to the office? Was she in trouble?

He offered her a chair in front of his desk and proceeded to tell her she would make a great artist, but since she was female there wasn’t much hope of making it a career.

He said she would most probably land up marrying and spending her life doing housework and looking after her family. The picture he conjured up in her mind was of herself standing in front of the sink washing dishes, down on her knees scrubbing floors, etc. Wow!

The only suggestion he could offer, was for her to take office routine jobs, be a clerk and do typing, until she married. In those days, it was all that was expected of woman! Since her parents were already pensioners and her been the last child of four, the prospect of her future didn’t seem all that rosy!

This chauvinistic attitude of women angered Ada. With wooden face, her silent response was: “That’s not fair. Why should women accept been secondhand citizens? It’s not right that women suffer this treatment. Why can’t  women become artists? Women are human beings. Just like men, they have potential and ambitions too!”

“I’ll show them! Come what may, I’ll find a way to become an artist in my own right! See if I don’t.”

And walking away from the office and back through the corridors of the school that day, and through life, she hasn’t stop her ambition to succeed, where other woman have given up, she has continued to use her talent one way or another.

See Ada’s blog Can women be prolific renowned artists?” and more on the rights of women artists.

So how did things workout for Ada as an artist?

She didn’t intend to get married until she was about 26 or 27, but as it turned out she married when she was 19 going on twenty.

Ada had five children even through the doctors didn’t think she was able to have any.  Because God had blessed her with children, she took her motherhood seriously.

But never losing the sight of her artistic talent, she embroidered icons on her children’s clothes, etc. And after the third child was about two years old, she took time out to put her artistic talent into practice. First doing copper-work and then painting out doors in the Drakensberg. First she sold her watercolours and oil paintings at “The Picture Shop”, Pine Street, Durban and then also on Hillcrest’s village green when she lived in Waterfall, near Kloof, Natal.

While her children were small and growing up, she would prepare snacks and meals, so when she was painting the children could help themselves from the fridge. And when there was a family outing she would paint the surrounding scenes.

Now that she has a camera, she takes photos of the countryside or of wildlife, wherever she is travelling or visiting, scrambling over rocks in her attempt to get the best shots.

Artistic recognition:

Before Ada and her family left to live in the Transvaal in 1980, her art was accepted as internationally quality by an art critic at “Gallery 320” West Street. Since then other galleries have re-endorsed her artwork as international standard.

Ada started out again in the Transvaal by selling her art at the Bruma Fleamarket, Johannesburg, and then selling and doing demos at galleries.

On first meeting with an art gallery owner at East Gate Mall, the owner kept one of Ada’s watercolours for herself as an investment, because she considered Ada’s watercolours were somewhat like Sir William Russell Flint’s watercolours. This decided her to also keep Ada on as the in-house artist.

While Ada was at this gallery, she willingly took on challenges of difficult and different types of commissions. Such as accepting the commission to paint Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s portrait by the Anglican Church, that now hangs in Bishops Court, Cape Town.

About the artist and the portrait of Desmond Tutu

Photograph of Ada next to the painting she did of Archbishop Desmond Tutu.


Ada’s eldest sister attended Durban Technical College (fine art training) for three years. And because Margaret didn’t take up an artistic career afterwards, Ada’s parents decided not to invest in Ada’s talent. Later when she become a successful artist, they were sorry they hadn’t supported her talent while she was young.

While Margaret was doing her final year, Ada as young as she was, noticed her sister’s artwork was stiff and her drawings of facial features were repeated over and over again. Her sister told her the college wouldn’t allow students to express their own style and neither were they allowed to sign their own work! This didn’t seem right to Ada. Surely putting your name to your artwork would give you confidence.

While still a child, Ada showed Margaret her artistic endeavours. Not expecting them to be critiqued, her sister would correct her by drawing right over and through Ada’s drawings, to show how it should be done.

To Ada she feels this is hurtful for novices. Amateur attempts are masterpieces to them! Ada decided if she was ever to teach art, she wouldn’t paint or draw over other peoples’ masterpieces, unless given their permission first.

  • Looking back now, Ada realizes she must give thanks to the chauvinistic vice-principal for stirring her  inner drive  to succeed.
  • Also thanks her sister, because she resolved as a child to do better than Margaret. And thus, working to do better, in spite of so many other wonderful artists out there in the world.
  • Ada has noticed over the years, that work done by art students at schools, collages and varsity generally produced neat stiff detailed art. Perfect detail is admired, but Ada has found overuse of fine detail restricts imagination and emotional impact.

Location fieldwork:

In 1970 when she started painting in oils, she decided she needed to do some location fieldwork. She found it such a learning curve working from Nature. It was a revelation to see how many shades of green there were. She also noted the effect of aerial perspective and how the light changes with the passing of time and weather.

Experiencing these atmospheric conditions were the beginning of her love affair with lighting effects. How colours blend and interact with one another. Especially hazy misty scenes and back lighting auras.

Landscape of Dakensberg, South Africa

Mont-aux-sources, Drakensberg, Natal, clouds create a hazy in late afternoon, oil on canvas and Masenite, size o.590 x  o.960m

Having lived by the sea during her early years, she loves the sea and its many moods. You can see Ada also enjoys painting South African scenes.

The reason why Ada started writing art books:

Long ago when Ada first tried painting in oils, she asked art material shops and other artists how to prepare canvases. It seemed like withholding incredible recipes or top-secret formulas. Ada also noticed art books in those days, didn’t have nice illusions and the authors seemed to be holding back on sharing their expertise.

This prompted Ada to someday produce her own art books, that would help those less fortunate.

And as her work sold and she became known as a credited artist, people come to her ask her to teach them art.Through teaching on and off through the years and providing demo illustrations, it has shown her what difficulties art students experience and what their needs really are.

Through doing research and tying facts together, Ada discovered new theories and techniques. These new discoveries became so exciting, that she enjoys the thrill of the adventure of discovering more and more theories.

It’s not surprising her manuals expanded overtime and with computer technology her manuals revolved into many art books, which she is now turning into ebooks.


To Ada art is a way of life. Always observing your environment and accessing special effects. She says painting is an emotional trip. To have intuitive creative power, one has to live within the moment of creation. Feeling the emotion of whats happening in the painting. Watching how the colours interact, blend and contrast, etc.

Been self-taught isn’t a crime:

Ada admits, it take less time to be an artist, if you attended art collages or varsity to learn the basics. But doing personal research teaches you a lot more than if you are spoon feed info at varsity.

Expertise isn’t learnt overnight or a few lessons at art varsity. Its takes years of practicing your talent after being at  art college or varsity, that makes you an experienced professional artist.

Feel free to add your comment:

  • Please let us know what you think about been self-taught.
  • What do you think about women artists and the part they play in the art world today?

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