Life brings many surprises. The curve ball thrown by post COVID symptoms has resulted in drawing trees being my salvation and sanity.
On the 12th of March I was getting ready for starting new winter paintings and found me drawing a wonderful myrtle at Liffey falls. Famous last words. I said to myself I really should draw more trees. Then COVID struck.
Forty days drawing trees
Two months later a friend in the USA challenged her artists group to draw trees. A forty days of drawing trees challenge was set and I joined in the challenge. There was little else I could do due to constant headaches, brain and fatigue.
So now I am drawing trees. Yesterday was day 40. They say it takes 20-30 days to form a habit. So I’m not stopping now. My son gave me a wonderful drawing journal this Christmas. Too good for note taking, so it has become my drawing trees journal. It has 60 pages so minimally my plan is to fill it up.
By now you should have guessed I have not been out painting. Lack of new posts about these being absent. So I have been trawling through my old tree photos – of which there are many – looking for trees to draw. I don’t normally like to work from photos. But because of this you are seeing trees from all over Australia. I only work from my original photos. To do otherwise is to break copywrite and to lack integrity.
Who wants a drawing?
Drawing these trees has been very healing and certainly has contributed to my brain re-engaging with its creative function. My skills have also been sharpened. It has also been wonderful revisiting the places I have seen. This has led to a different question. Like all artists we need to sell to live. Should I sell the drawings? They are removable – the drawing book has perforated pages. Or should I sell the whole album. Sixty quality original drawings. If you are interested let me know.
People often send me photos of trees they have seen. I need to work out the details, but would you like me to draw your tree.
A4 drawing done on commission. $120 Australian dollars posted to you – postage included international (not including your local taxes and charges). Paid in advance in full. It must be your original image (due to copywrite issues mentioned above. ) – and I have the right to say no if I feel the image would not make a great drawing.
If this is something you would like to do contact me on the form above and we can work out the details together.
Watch this space!
I will develop a more automated system for this if there is enough interest and uptake.
I see beauty but where are the ashes? The ashes are not on the wall – or in the work, but all around us. In our lives, on our TVs and in our memories. As humans we carry images at an emotional level. We interact with everything emotionally. This is true of your response emotionally to this work. Wow, it is beautiful.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But this also is a human paradigm. While many birds and animals visit me at my painting sites, none of them come , stop , wonder and in their unique heads say wow, that is beautiful. For them the thought is: where is the danger and where is the food? It is only humans that climb mountains for the view, and take time out at the river to soak in the view.
So what of death and the ugly?
In the natural world, if you will allow a division between human and natural, there is a constancy of the cycle of life. Even this painting captures decay, death in the trees. Mosses and fungi live on the decay. Zoom in and I’m sure you will also see this at the macro and micro levels. As I write this we are again thrust into the horrors of war – specifically Ukraine this time. As humans we react to our own created horrors. Then wash out hands of it – passing the blame to others.
What is Beautiful?
The idea or understanding of the beautiful is an imbedded human characteristic. It is linked intimately with the other unique human characteristic creativity. It can be more precisely understood by the term aesthetic. Recent studies have shown that the aesthetic is imbedded in our genetics and incidentally has no survival value that can be attributed to in an evolutionary sense.
Aesthetics also allows us to appreciate the ugly, the chaotic and amazing moments in life.
Beauty is culturally shaped, but cultural shaping itself is an expression of this core aesthetic.
Beauty doesn’t need or have to be realistic. Abstraction also feeds this need for the aesthetic. Simplifying and reducing the complex with reductionism.
We collect beautiful things as a counterpoint to the ugly. Its why we have design. Why we appreciate a beautifully designed car, or a simple vase.
The contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton, looked at beauty as portrayed in Western art history. He attributes the purpose and function of the beautiful in art is to bring hope.
We don’t want the ugly on our walls, nor the death. While I personally love Goya’s Third of May I would not have it on lounge room wall. It remains poignant as an art work to this day. But this paintings place is rightly in the museum as a national monument to a troubled past. A memorial and a reminder.
Beauty is the counter point to the terror as it brings hope for tomorrow. A better tomorrow. A tomorrow of peace. Again it is only humans that hope. We think ahead and plan for a better tomorrow. Without hope and a future we can only despair.
There is an ancient Text called Lamentations. It was written, approx. 600 BC, in the midst of a city that had been reduced to ashes, not unlike the city of Mariupol is right now in Ukraine. The author sitting in the ashes and ruins of his home and pours out his heart, anger and grief.
Let me quote from the beginning and end of the text.
Oh, how lonely she sits,
the city once thronged with people,
as if suddenly widowed.
Though once great among the nations,
she, the princess among provinces,
is now reduced to vassalage.
She passes her nights weeping:
the tears run down her cheeks.
Not one of all her lovers
remains to comfort her.
Her friends have all betrayed her
and become her enemies.
Lamentations 1:1-2 Jerusalem Bible Translation
Joy has vanished from out hearts;
our dancing has been turned to mourning.
The garland has vanished from our heads.
because Mount Zion is desolate:
jackals roam to and fro on it.
But you Yahweh, you remain for ever;
your throne endures from age to age.
You cannot mean to forget us for ever?
You cannot mean to abandon us for good?
Lamentations 5:15-20 Jerusalem Bible Translation
In the poem, in 154 stanzas of devastation and despair ends on a few verses of tentative hope – a grieving plea – do I dare to hope.
Why Beauty for Ashes
Like the hungry thinking of a succulent roast – dreaming of the meal I would have once I get to safety. Hope is the essence of survival. So visually we also need images of hope. It’s why we love the sunset splashed with colours, night has come but there will be dawn.
The answer to these lamentations comes in the words of the prophet in next book of the Bible, written in exile after the total defeat of this nation. Yahweh will not forget nor abandon them. He will send his Spirit – his very self –
…to comfort all who mourn,
and provide for those who grieve in Zion –
to bestow on them a crown of beauty
instead of ashes,
the oil of joy
instead of mourning,
and a garment of praise
instead of despair.
Isaiah 61:3 The New International translation.
Hope, promise and fulfilment.
I was finishing this painting as the invasion of Ukraine started.
This painting, and for that matter every painting , photo, or memory of something beautiful, has the function of providing hope. Beauty for ashes.
I have been fortunate to sit in this beauty day in and day out. Tasked with laying it down in paint. It is not a photograph but a distillation of all that passed in those hours, days and months of bringing this place to you. In a real way the obverse situation of the poet who sat in the ashes of his city and life. It is distilled hope. It is real beauty – I can tell you it is not faked, but seen and felt. But then it is only a mere shadow of the beauty I saw unfold before me. It is still a painting.
The name for the painting came as people responded to seeing the painting on social media. The overwhelming response was – It is beautiful. So I give you beauty for ashes – hope for despair.
Before I leave in the morning and when I return at night my screens are also filled with the ashes of the cities of Ukraine. This rainforest has been my hope and sanity. Yes, I do have flesh and blood in the situation. My precious daughter and family live in a city in southern Poland doing the frontline work of receiving and providing for refugees.
There is only one painting – and it is still available for sale, but I want to give you the opportunity of being able to download the image in high quality to go on your computer screens as a desktop image.
When you do please remember the Ukraine, in prayers, donations and help as you are able. And remember to immerse yourself in beauty as it brings hope.
Please follow this link to this painting’s page in my gallery. Scroll to the bottom of the page for the download link and directions for installing.
I have just watched a stimulating YouTube video by Alain de Botton called ‘Art is Therapy in the Rijksmuseum’. (links at the bottom) Wow! He really made me think about my own work- how it is therapy. For me and for others. As I was watching, I glanced up at my recent work ‘Sentinels’ and was struck by the power of this lens of viewing. So this blog is an attempt to frame my recent work through the paradigm shift he describes. I will start off with the work Sentinels.
First – stop and look. I have made the work full width -so you can immerse yourself in the painting.
It is mid 2022. It has been a hard three years for everyone. COVID: isolation, withdrawal, vulnerability, not knowing the future, it looks dark and bleak. What lies beyond? It is winter. This is a winter painting. Yet one of the overriding comments people have made about this work is that one could walk into it to go down the path into this unknown. Somehow it is inviting.
There are pillars – almost pillars of light, guarding this darkness and unknown. These are the sentinels of wisdom. Yes old and moss covered, but guarding and protecting. Separating light from darkness. I could go on about the place of the Silver Wattle and its relationship with the Myrtle forest – but I have done that on the more didactic page about this painting in the gallery menu.
As art as therapy this work functions as a primal architype of the unknown future. It is the Hansel and Gretel story. Goldilocks entering the wood off the beaten path – into the unknown. For my life, that was what last year was. Having moved from the security of employment into developing an arts practise. Not yet knowing what the pillars which will support us will be. Questions of paying for diesel, as a real metaphor of fuel for life .
The struggle with the weather – painting outside for the first time in a Tasmanian winter. Being only able to paint once or twice a week – the light restricting me to one canvas a day. The fears of the unknown – being medically vulnerable to COVID, and been physically vulnerable with a knee injury.
What were the COVID years for you? – Can you put yourself in this picture as I have done? I now realise, thanks to Alain de Botton, I did just this as I was painting it. I was painting more than what was simply before me – the work was also my therapy.
Into the Woods.
There is a whole Sondheim Musical on that title! What lurks inside? Red Riding Hood, wolves and woodcutters. We don’t like to live in deep forests much. Perhaps our cultural heritage is very happy with the woodcutters clearing paradise to put up a parking lot. With easel and assorted comforts and technical equipment I ventured between these sentinels into the woods. This first painting I did in this forest was very much to do with woodcutters.
The old woodcutter got this one. Again, stop and look.
Open your eyes and look. Its not hard to imaging sitting there, light dappling through the trees. Leaves dancing, and ferns floating in the sunlight. Light changing, highlighting this and that. Then immersed in shadow again. Your eyes like butterflies flitting from one part of the canvas to another. Discovering newness. Unless you go into the forest, the dark foreboding forest in the previous painting, you would miss the beauty that awaits the risk takers.
Light needs darkness to see. Without the dark, without the shadows that light brings, the light will have no glory. Neither would the rainforest. It is a place of light and dark. Now imagine also the cold dampness and warming promise of heat from the sun. Imagine sitting here, fingerless gloves keeping the blood flowing to the brush. Imagine the mosquitoes who call this home. Risk bought this beauty. For me, the artist, it was forty hours of immersion, risk and benefit. Forty hours of wonder, beauty and amazement. Hours and hours of feeding my soul.
Stump of renewal
Now see the stump. Cut off at the roots – literally. A life changed, challenged. Yet this old life, the heritage of the forest feeds the new. From this root, this Root of Jesse – to use another metaphor comes new life. Comes restoration, not just renewal of the forest its canopy threatened by the axe, but renewal of life itself. Immerse yourself again.
More than an image of life. Imaging as I experienced the chatter of birds, the special visits I received from the Blue Fairy Wren and the wonderful Pink Robin who tried to land in my painting. Hear the sounds of the distant creek, the sounds of life, the sound of the falling tiny myrtle leaf.
Marvel as I have done that, through change comes new life. It is through hardship and struggle that perseverance is born, and perseverance develops character and character brings hope. And hope does not disappoint, for it it the seed of all life.
Take time to ponder these things.
Art is for pondering.
Also in this remnant Myrtle rainforest is found my next painting.
By now you will perceive a pattern. Yes, expect an immersion. But first let me tell you / remind you of an comment Mr Bean made in Mr Bean the Movie. He turns up at the Chicago Art Gallery – mistaken by the Gallery as an art expert. Bean is asked, what exactly he does? (he is actually one of the faceless security guards. ) His answer was profound. “I sit and look at paintings” The art elite are profoundly stuck by this. Who knew – art is for contemplation. I expect that Alain de Botton – the author of ‘Art as Therapy’ would also loved Beans reading of ‘Whistlers Mother’ at the end of the movie as well.
This was my view, the artists view. Seated on the ground. A small, knarly, aged but stunted sassafras of very little consequence. Perhaps his teacher said he had so many flaws he wouldn’t amount to anything. In the shadow of a giant Myrtle just over my left shoulder this tree lives. Honest, eking out a living. Planted where it is. Living with the hand it has been dealt. Visually the tree forms a hand so literally and metaphorically.
What does the fact I have invested in this painting, say about me?
My aesthetic, my Therapy
I have come to realise that I have dedicated a lot of my life – particularly my professional teaching life to the disadvantaged and struggling student. I have championed the misfits and those who found school was torture. For those who don’t know I founded and pioneered two secondary schools for disadvantaged young people. It is very clear from my body of work that I paint the small and disadvantaged tree as often as I do the iconic giants. My life and artistic work is a whole, and wholesome in its consistency.
At the end of 2020 I stepped out of my educational role in one of these schools straight into this forest. And this was the first painting I chose to paint!
Now I need to stop and think on this.
Close, personal, intimate.
To be understood as to understand. Not so much to be loved but to love another. – The words of Saint Francis
– also the words used by John Michael Talbot in a song I regularly listen to on my way to paint this forest. Immersion is more than being there, it is being there. Bringing the baggage, the thoughts , even the songs, the life lived to the canvas. This is the artist.
Thanks Alain de Botton for your gift of insight and giving to me a new way into my own work. Here is the link – it an hour long talk but wow, worth the investment.
Studio work is not my normal, but I have been unable to get out to paint on location for three weeks due to a knee injury. So frustrated that I have got my creative self on and begun some studio works. It also helps my knee to recover to be standing and using even if for shorter periods of time.
This was from a drawing I did on the linen 10 years ago. I was on a house boat holiday which enabled me to get up close to trees from the water. This is the Lower Hawkesbury River. Two Mangrove trees on a rock ledge. I had always intended to paint it. Now I have the perfect excuse – or lack of excuses.
This is layer one – it probably won’t go to my normal nine/ten. I am not using photos to provide detail – simply responding to the image and my memories.
In the Studio
If you can call it a studio – as my studio is normally on location. This is my small shed. The video is an edit of a longer one. Notice I’m painting to the music. You will hear the end of Rhapsody in Blue by Gershwin, followed by parts of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1.
For those who want more injury detail – I have a long term spur in my knee that occasionally hits a nerve that brings agony until it stops being sensitized. This can take four plus weeks, if you keep off it. So while frustrated after three weeks of absolutely no standing up, it was a relief to be able to stand and paint for one hour.
It’s not the forest so I decided to just play. First go with the opposites of green/blues – and go Red oranges. Originally I was going abstract but the landscapes popped out.
The work below is in progress but also a great opportunity to see my style which is very similar to my plein air style. Except I am just responding to my imagination and the brush marks as I go.
I wanted to base this on Japanese design aesthetics. It quickly took on a waterfall shape. I am now calling it “Golden Vale Falls” A fantasy landscape where the rocks are of gold and plants stuck only in the imagination.
Fantasy Painting Two.
Working in more traditional design structure and what emerged was this dystopian landscape. Burnt trees appeared and it took on a this post apocalyptic feel. Unintentionally at the top right appeared a glowing falls – now in my mind the location for the Golden Vale Falls: Golden hope.
Out of tragedy comes hope.
Now that is a metaphor for how I feel about my knee. Time to hope and look to the future. But in the mean time – I’ll just paint.
Speech given by myself as a part of the formal story telling time during the Terra Populous event held at Poatina on the 27th January 2019. Terra Populous is a collaborative event between the Village of Poatina and local First Nations Elders to reframe traditional Australia Day celebrations that were a part of the village of Poatina’s traditions.
Using the termTerra Populous acknowledges the fact that Australia was populated with many people before colonization by the British. It also acknowledges that many nations had sovereign rights which were ignored and deliberately made null and void but the use of the term Terra Nullus – land of no people. The people who populated this continent where given the descriptor aboriginal – a term used for all indigenous people globally. By lumping the people into one name this also took away the claims of the many nations that occupied this continent now called Australia. It is estimated that over 800 language groups existed on this continent at the time of settlement. Thus we can conclude 800 plus nations. For this reason I both use the term: First Nations and name the individual Nations of peoples I have lived among as mentioned in this story.
I also warn that the names of First Nations peoples who may have died are referred to in this story. I do this for they are real people whose are lives I crossed. For the same reason I have not sought to change names but use them with all respect.
I am Russell McKane of Clan McKean of Ardnamurchan, driven from our land in the Scottish clearances and forced to settle in Northern Ireland. In doing so displaced the local Irish that led to a centuries long conflict still bearing fresh wounds. I was not there but it has shaped who I am.
The kilt my Dad and I made
Tartan is the McKean of Ardnamurchan.
I was married in this kilt.
I am a descendant of a third fleet convict Samuel Craft, who settled in the Hawkesbury, who was deported for an injustice, ripped from his own family and friends. Granted land he took over generations long yam farms to grow English crops. He was no doubt was involved in the ‘dispersion’ (read massacres) of local people groups. Samuel was the first white person to be rescued in a natural disaster on this continent. I was not there but I have shared in his inheritance, and it has shaped me.
I am a descendant of Irish orphan Bridget Hartigan, who was bought to Australia to populate the vast land with like for like. Ireland had enough potatoes to feed its people during the famous potato famine. But its wealth class just exported them and left the locals to starve. Another injustice that has shaped my history and who I am.
Memorial to Irish orphans Sydney Barracks – Photo 2001 with our daughter Kirsty.
Born in Western Australia in the desert Town of Merridin, on the land of the Njaki Njaki Nyoongar nation. The first-born son of a minister in training.
Mum and Dad met and married in Alice Springs. Mum was court stenographer for one of Albert Namatjira’s trials. He signed a slip of paper for mum, we have it still. Mum was passionate about the injustice served in this case. Mum and dad also ran a little shop out of their lounge room for the people of Ernabella part of the Pitjantjatjara nation. It was possibly one of the very first indigenous art stores serving local people. It has shaped me and I am proud.
My first memory was of my first cup of tea. Seated in a circle at the back of a country hall near Esperance WA. Seated in a large circle of indigenous girls. I must have been aged 3. I had never been allowed to drink tea, Mum was inside, I was oﬀered, I said yes, and enjoyed the sweet milky warmness. Sharing in this illicit act I did not know that the girls drinking with me were the stolen generation. They were being given a holiday at a mission run holiday camp. Tea is my blood.
My sister and I at Katter Kitch then known as Wave Rock a.1963, Land of the the Noongar Nation. Near where we lived at Kondinin WA.
Ignorance was grown.
When eight in the town of Narrogin WA, land of the Gnaala Karla Boodja Noongar Nations. There were some aboriginal boys in my class who played together on the oval, ostracized by the other kids. They came from the reserve. I asked mum what was the reserve? Mum with panicked tone simply said I shouldn’t play with them. Puzzled I figured it was something bad. I didn’t know that the reserves were that eras equivalent to our refugee camps, people herded together to be controlled.
I get Educated
Fifteen years later the small town of Dareton, NSW was my next point of contact. Home of the Barkindji, Barindji and Kureindji nations. I had become an artist and an educator. It was my first teaching job. Here slowly over three years I truly came to see and know discrimination and racism in action. This was a fringe dweller town. I did not know how at least 50 of my students lived, until the morning the health inspector ordered in the bulldozers to knock down their shanty dwellings and instantly 50 of my students were homeless. I vowed to be less ignorant. The incident features in the fourth episode of the TV series Women of the Sun.
Over time the indigenous kids felt safe in my art room. One Monday morning I heard the Tailor twins talking in excited and hushed tones about the bones at the Perry Sandhills near Wentworth. I stopped and listened, stunned then asked.
The Massacres have contemporary impacts
They told me they had been taken by their grandmother to see the site of the massacre, over 200 people they said, bones, human bones lying bleached in the sun. Their Grandmother was there at the time, a little girl, who had escaped. I calculated it must have been in the 1930s. It remains unrecorded. These boys were truth tellers of oral history.
Some months later their father was dead. Killed due to racially motivated criminal medical neglect. I could use harsher terms. At this time, I learn what our First Nations people mean by sorry. Not a white man’s sorry, the glib excuse given to mum to avoid a smack. No sorry of the soul, lamentations strong sorry. This is the sorry I mean when I say, in this context I am sorry. This is not an old ancient scar of injustice this is a now pain, and present.
At this time I married Suzanne and am now proud father of three children and 4 wonderful Grandchildren , the youngest just 4 days old. But in the next part of my story I have gained a much bigger family.
I am Jakamarra of the Evelyn mob of the Walpiri Nation, named because of relationship, welcomed into the Yuendumu community, given a place, and included in community.
My skin name was because my sister worked there, my place in the nation because I was a teacher at Mount Evelyn Christian School. MECS was the first non-indigenous school in Australia to teach an indigenous language. MECS students have travelled in a pilgrimage each year and as a result I sat on the veranda and talked with old man Jumpajimpa Darby who was the last known survivor of the last recorded massacre at Colliston NT in 1930. Capstone College would not exist as it is without the vision and training I received at Mount Evelyn. I have not even begun to plumb the depths that being Jakamarra means.
I am proud to have designed and taught indigenous study units to many young people and helped them to understand their heritage. This includes the now indigenous lawyer who was the liberal candidate for Sydney. (Geoﬀrey Winters) He is very thankful for my teaching.
In 2014 we lived in the land of the Yolngu peoples, A group of 17 nations on the northeastern tip of the Northern Territory. There Miriki, a fellow principal, showed me her tree. The one she planted as a young girl with her father in the grounds of the school at Yirrkala where she was then principal, A proud bilingual school where for the students English is a fourth or fifth language. Then I saw her silent and deep pain as I sat with her in a meeting where the then government announced closing the senior secondary part of her school, and to take away its bilingual status. To force English on students all because NAPLAN results did not bear testament to nor test the cultural richness these students had in their own languages.
Miriki’s Tree -Yirrkala School grounds 2014
A Place of Shelter
This was only five years ago. I did not get see it play out. But found myself here, in Poatina, A place of Shelter. It is home now for Suzanne and I. We came as artists in residence, and stayed to start a school. In seeking to know this place and paint its trees I found myself walking among ancient Cider Gums, ancestors of the big river nation. These gums represent a rich cultural history of this place in Tasmania as a place of meeting, of festival exchange and celebrations; A place of the meeting of the First Nations of this land; A place of Terra Populous. I have walked that place with Aunty Patsy here and continue to learn at the feet of the elders.
Even though older myself; I am still so ignorant of the richness that we all have inherited because we call Australia home. Because I have lived in 5 of the seven states and territories, I no longer feel State divides and jealousies. I am where I live. This is my land. Australia is my home. Tasmania is my home. I am Tasmanian, I am Australian.
One thing I have learned. Deeply learned.
We are one people of many nations and one nation of many peoples. We are and always have been Terra Populus, this is my story, my people, my place, and I am proud.
I love a lot of modern contemporary art and I have been influenced by many abstract expressionists. But I am a realist painter. But what makes my style a form of Contemporary realism? This essay attempts to lay out the skeleton of my aesthetic.
My fusion of high levels of realism, plein air method and renaissance glazing techniques have meant I am able to distil the environment onto the canvas is a manner where you feel you can walk into it. This makes my work quite unique in the world of landscape painting. But I also break a lot of rules laid down by establishment artists.
The results speak for themselves. My art provides a realism that is sharp, clean and modern. Something I like to refer to as Contemporary Realism. My painting give a modern feel to a room while still working with the antique furnishings and period pieces.
Let me break this down a bit for you.
It may seem strange to some but one of my greatest influences is the works of Jackson Pollock. Here in Australia we all know of the painting Blue Poles. Abstraction teaches us about surface and looking past the object into the rhythms of life.
Pollack has been one of the biggest influences on my painting. Other than my love for his work, his work taught me how to paint leaf litter and random texture. Texture and surface are critical to realism. Rocks and leaves should not look like they have been arranged like an English country garden. The wild chaos of the Australian bush is hard to replicate. Cheat methods like using fan brushes rarely work. Even great painters like John Glover lined up rocks in the landscape with an attempt to paint order without observation. He did most of his final works in the studio – working from preparatory sketches.
Jacksons use of rhythm and repetition within what at first looks like random splashes has been very instructive.
Fred Williams broke the rules for established landscape painting in Australia. I believe he was one of the first to understand the expanse of the Australian landscape and bush without resorting to Western design rules. Of course with the exception of traditional First Nations painting – represented in rock art , sand paintings and bark paintings of different long term custodians of this land. Dot painting post-dates Williams.
Williams introduces the extended horizon, aerial perspectives and non specific representation- they could be scenes of anywhere. They are bush, mallei, sand-dunes, forests – architypes of the familiar vision but without using the golden rule or other rules established in a foreign European manicured landscape developed by over a millennia art traditions. Bush Road above contains many different aspects of his body of work. The top third – his forest paintings; the bottom third his abstract plains, and the middle third containing his road wildly launches up a hill into space in distinct contradiction of the expected all roads lead to the focal point rule of traditional landscape painting.
I’m a realist but not a hyper realist. There is a big difference. Unfortunately in the art world there is a lot of prejudice against hyper realism. So my work is often misplaced into this category. I have as a result experienced this prejudice first hand.
I chose to illustrate this style with a Chuck Close painting from our National Gallery. If minimally to demonstrate it is a very valid painting style. Hyper/ photo/or super realism use the camera as a photographic source for the painting. The work is normally methodologically reproduced to get a super level of realism of image. Close painted this large work pixel by pixel enlarged onto the canvas as an inkjet printer would do today. Modern printers hadn’t been invented when he did this. It is such a faithful copy you can even tell the original image was created with a Hasselblad Camera as it has all the characteristics of the lenses Hasselblad used. Soft focus by a narrow focal plain and pore by pore detail in the skin.
Unlike the photo based paintings that make up this genre my work is produced only using my eyes on location. While it looks photographic it is not. It is summative seeing over many hours. I write a bit about this on my home page so I won’t reiterate this here. But I will say that my plein air approach combined with the use of renaissance layering where I add together ten very vigorous and none precise layers that together give the appearance of realism. If you get a chance get up close and personal with one of my paintings and your will get lost in the fluid impressions of the surface paint textures. Close up you could be looking at a Pollock or Fred but you won’t be looking at a Close. I will produce another blog on the links of my work to Rembrandt, Rubens and Gainsbourg. Contemporary realism is not hyper realism.
So what are the rules I break? These rules can be broken down into three distinct areas: Design, Placement, and Palette. A form of contemporary realism must break with the rules of the past.
Western art design is dominated by the golden rule, which is a mathematical construct popularised in the renaissance by greats such as Leonardo De Vinci. It has its foundation in the Fibonacci sequence in spirals. You can research it if you want to find out more. Possible the main way I break this is I place my trees, in the figure in landscape series right in the centre.
Perhaps the best place to observe the difference is in the work of Hans Heysen, the greatest tree painter in Australian landscape history. He places his trees up front but to the side. He generally paints the monster specimens, with the exception of his Saplings paintings. ( I consider his sapling paintings to be his finest work) He also includes animals and humans for scale. He successfully integrated the European design aesthetic and its romanticism into the Australian landscape. As a consequence realism in Australian landscape painting and photography has not broken free from these European rules.
Droving into the Light 1914 (AGWA) Mystic Morn 1903 (AGSA)
For too long Australian Landscape painters have been shackled by this view of the landscape through Colonialism and Romantic eyes. There is a real need for a contemporary realism.
That is not to say there are not many great painters in Australia who loosed these shackles but they have generally been the abstractionists: Fred Williams, John Olsen, John Wolsley to name a few. But none of the realists.
There are other different design paradigms that operate. Japanese design is so different to the European model and I am exploring these in my photography at the moment. Then Chinese aesthetic is different again and as is Islamic – mogul and many other culture. We are beginning to see these influences in our significant landscape awards – like the Wynne prize and this is a great thing from our growing multicultural nation.
Yet the Australian landscape is different from any other continent on the planet. Just like our animals are different so are our plants and geography. It does require a different approach to seeing and expressing. This has been a passion and driver of my work for 50 years. I have been seeking to establish a Contemporary realism that is also true to the Australian landscape as we experience it.
My single trees all follow a predetermined structure that makes the series unique. Portraits of trees are treated like a portrait of a human. but even in western art the person is normally placed off centre. They also have a shear rock face of background behind them. Cutting out the panoramic landscape and making the portrait intermate.
My multiple tree paintings – Figures in Landscape take a low view as if sitting close to the trees (in the shade) looking through to the landscape.
The trees become sculptural figurative motives occupying the landscape – as if human, instead of humans. Our landscape is populated by trees, not humans. While the first nations people managed the landscape for over 40 thousand years through fire, the impact was not a European shaping due to the lack of fencing and different land ownership structures.
This close up placement where I focus on the roots to first leaves brings the viewer into the limited world of that tree, it’s environment and micro biome. It is an intimate view. As Bob Mathews notes in his critique –a sacred space. At the same time the structural rules I have established means I achieve a similar look over many different and diverse landscapes in Australia. The result is that many people who know my work will see trees differently. They will notice trees normally passed by and send me photos of ‘McKane trees’.
I am often asked how I choose my trees. I confess that I could paint just about any tree – it does not take me long to fall in love with one. But I look for sculptural presence. I care not if its a giant or a sapling – we are often prejudiced against the poor and insignificant in favour of the hero’s. (I will do a blog on this soon.)
But once I choose a tree and then choose a perspective, I change very little of what I see. (I am often tempted to do a painting of all sides of a tree.) In this sense I become more photographic in that I don’t edit out major features or manipulate the design. It is close to what you see is what you get. So I change position if I am not happy with design but once set the rest remains. My framing and placement then dictate view but the details work on a different basis to that of photorealism.
I learnt sometime ago visiting exhibitions of Rubens and Rembrandt that one does not need to paint all the details in a work. Concentrate on the main figure and allow the human eye to add the rest. So I don’t paint every leaf , fern or bush, there is culling fit for purpose. I doing so I am resolving focusing and bringing the subject into tension with its space. This increases the three dimensionality of my paintings where viewers feel they can step into the work or go behind the tree. Add to this the time lapse experienced by painting over many weeks and many hours this all leads to a very unique painting style and perspective in my painting of trees.
Palette – choice of colours – has been influenced by the Impressionists for much of the last century. In Australian painting there has been two schools when it comes to approach – the Australian Impressionists (typified by glorifying Arthur Streeton) and the Tonal Realists – known as the Meldrumite School. I am pleased to say both are horrified by my palette. While my pallet is more tonal than impressionist. I am more influenced by Rembrandt and Vermeer.
Perhaps glaringly I use black. A major rule breaker in art society terms. More often lately I use a transparent black to make the tones. This will deserve a blog post of its own so keep an eye out.
For me the quality of light experienced in Australia is not impressionist – which centres around the golden hour just before the sun sets or as it rises. There is some research that shows impressionist colours were influenced by the air pollution from the coal fires of the industrial revolution in Europe of the time. The Australian light is very different to the light on other continents. This can be observed in the clarity of light achieved in Australian feature film making. That said neither is it the same from one region of Australian to another. I love the observation that Hans Heysen made on his first trip to Flinders Ranges – paraphrased- he said the air and light is so clear here I have to throw out my old palette (meaning impressionist palette) and start anew.
The same goes with Tasmanian light, it is so different. So my palette has changed recently. I guess the point is one size does not fit all neither does the choice of colours of an artists palette.
Post post modernism
At the end of the twentieth century there was a feeling that post Modernism everything was discovered or done that could be done in the Art world. This led to the rise of Post Modernism, which was an eclectic appropriation of all art in the past, part tongue in cheek, much plagiarism, and a massive dose of rewriting history through biased twentieth century paradigms. Back as it was happening I postulated to artist friends that there was another way to go. A synthesis of modernism, abstractionism and traditional artists like the renaissance painters. Instead of tongue in cheek mocking, a real learning from all Art movements. I also boldly claimed that there would be a resurgence of technical excellence as a part of this. The is a need for a contemporary realism that is not limited to the photographic.
Yes strangely there has been a rediscovery of excellence – although probably driven by social media that has re-popularised the wow factor. Something the dematerialised art objects lacked.
This synthesis has been a driving force behind my art and its development. Perhaps this is why I have labelled my work and this story – Contemporary Realism as a style that describes my painting. Crisp clear tones, not traditional, not abstract by synthesising the past and present.
This is a video blog on how to clean oil paintings. It covers removing surface dust, hairs and minor dirt. It is not intended to cover very old paintings that may have deteriorated surfaces, crazed or cracked, or with old yellowed varnish. These you will need the advice of a conservator. Cleaning oil paintings can be simple but always use care.
This is one of my paintings, which I completed in 1999. It needs a clean and a coat of varnish.
Watch the video and I will give further advice and details below.
Cleaning oil paintings – process
Make sure it is an oil painting. Get advice on other works. While some acrylic paintings are fine for this as they are essentially dried plastics, others may be mixed media, water colour, gouaches etc that can dissolve in water. If in doubt take to your experience picture framer they will be able to confirm the medium – and can also provided advice on cleaning.
Don’t do this if the work is on paper. Canvas, Wood or linen are fine.
My paintings have been painted on fine Belgium linen since 1998 so are fine to be cleaned.
Use a light duster to dust off any surface dust that is loose. Feather or electrostatic are fine. just make sure they are clean.
Check surface for other damage – look for chips, cracking , flaking or crazing. If damage looks significant get advice from someone who has experience or is an Art conservator –
Select your cloth – again clean, see video for type. (don’t use disposables)
Luke warm water with touch of a mild detergent.
DON’T use a detergent that has bleach, oxygen rich(a type of bleach.) brightener’s, any solid particles, abrasives, and while sugar soap is for cleaning your walls – no no no it is strong caustic, never for a painting,
Note in my description as I was dispensing my detergent I said this is strong I only need a bit, – I meant concentrated (strong) it is a really mild detergent.
A clear wool wash laundry or delicates detergent, even a mild dishwashing – but very little. Or simple soap like a yellow ‘Sunlight’ (Australian brand? ) bar with a quick swish in water. try and have is so weak you have limited bubbles.
Dip corner of cloth in solution and wring out well.
Small strokes in multiple directions – don’t scrub.
Watch for cracking or crazing as you start, old paintings can sometimes be very dry and flexing the canvas can cause this. if this is the case stop and take it to a conservator.
Be careful not to soak the painting or let the water pool, you want to clean the surface only not soak the substructure. if in doubt check the back of the canvas to make sure you are not getting water penetration.
The water is to help loosen dirt and get it to stick to your cloth.
Check the cloth for signs of paint or other material, stop if in doubt.
Noticed, as on the video, I had a little bit of blue stain – it was Prussian Blue a Paint I use – (it also is a very staining type pigment) so I double checked and changed what I was doing a bit – slowed down and less pressure. and it stopped. So I was happy to go on. Be vigilant.
systematically work over the entire canvas,
Let dry and check again for any areas that may need a further clean.
If the painting has a lot of matt areas it may need to be varnished. – this is the topic for another post I will post soon.
I am an oil painter with 50 years experience and I am cleaning my own painting so I know what I am working with. Please take the advice given as is but with care – I mean the warnings. Test, get advice, if in doubt don’t proceed. You painting is valuable and if old it will be worth have it cleaned professionally for you if you are in anyway in doubt. Remember you are responsible for your work not me.
About This painting
Painted in 1999 this is one of six paintings I did on location in an unknown rainforest in the Acheron Valley Marysville. Only two remain unsold, it could be yours. – go to the gallery for details.
It is called Oikadespotia – NT Greek for house master. It is number 10 in the figure in landscape series.
Comment below. Contact me if you have any concerns.
Thanks Phoebe stay safe it’s the long COVID that makes it hard.
Awesome work as usual Russel. Yes. I got Covid this month and it threw me a curve ball. God Bless…
[…] the limited world of that tree, it’s environment and micro biome. It is an intimate view. As Bob Mathews…