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.
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.
Russell McKane: how time distilled me into the artist I am.
This blog will bring you into my world. From the pristine wilds of Tasmania to the messy life of an artist who has been passionate about doing art for nearly half a century.
A brief Bio – the rest will come through the stories I have lived and tell in this blog.
I started painting the year Apollo 13 nearly became lost in space. Oil paints with a kitchen knife. My subjects landscapes from calendars and photos in books about the Australian landscape.
I dared to dream – could I possible go to these places and paint on site. I knew nothing about art. At this stage I was totally self taught. We didn’t even have art at school in the small country town, Coolamon Central School.
I was consumed in my learning. Not the formal stuff, I was bored at school – In the next five years we had moved to the City – finally I could do art at school. Every day after school I painted and painted and painted. During this time I started Drama classes and was successful on local stages. I learnt photography and made a darkroom in our family bathroom. I had joined an art society. Experienced my first live model – read nude. While still painting my Photographic art major work was selected for HSC State exhibition.
I enrolled at Art College – Riverina College of Advanced Education. In the first year I made my mark – well many marks in the form of Jelly stains on the new Gallery wall and ceiling. ( a blog will come) My first solo exhibition opened and closed on the one night when 100 edible Jellies became one big jelly fight. Inspired by my legend art teacher Bruce Jarvis I went to College with the goal of becoming an art teacher.
I developed a new passion. It became clear that a Landscape painter was not going to succeed in a thoroughly modern art setting – so I developed my photography and gained a new passion for silversmithing – It became my major. In Wagga Wagga I reconnected with my Drama tutor and he poured his shakespearian soul into me over these 4 years.
There were now 4 strings to the cello of my creative life. Painting, Photography, Silversmithing and Drama / Performance Poetry. Each together play and interweave the music that has been my filled full life as I lived it. Because of my diverse interests and giftings I have often been called the Renaissance Man by my close friends.
The next stage of my life one cannot separate my life as an artist and that as a teacher. ( I promise only one blog on the teacher bit….) But being a teacher put me back into the desert of far western NSW. It was in the desert I found my all consuming Art and painting focus. The ever present and humble tree. Not as a prop in the landscape but the very subject, the personhood of The Australian Landscape. So began the beginnings of my painting on site, plein air.
Some forty years later time has distilled the important things in my life that are the focus of this blog and my website. Join me on this journey and enjoy the richness of the places and environments I am painting in.
This Critique was first published in the book ‘Treforms – Recent Paintings by Russell McKane’ 2007. Bob was a great friend of mine who perhaps more than anyone knew my work intimately. He was also old school, very learned, and disarmingly honest. I’m sure in this review he had a smile on his face as he wrote the section on Fed Williams, the Australian Landscape painter I most admire. Bob sadly passed away in 2014. He is greatly missed.
I believe that any artist who tackles the nature of the Australian landscape, east of The Great Divide, probably cannot avoid using the film “Picnic at Hanging Rock” as a benchmark to inform as to the spiritual ethos of the Australian bush. This is not suggesting that visual artists should try to reproduce “snapshots” from the movie. But rather grasp after the uniqueness of imagery that is instantly recognizable as Australian Bush then plummet the depths of the spirit of the different places to be found. This being the metaphysical reality that struck the early European settlers as quite eerie and disconcerting. An alien world with a ominous presence and a place “easy to get lost in”. Rightly the Australian Aborigines have a deep routed belief in “Place Spirits”. So to successfully capture the Australian landscape an artist must illuminate a vision of the physical and spiritual actuality of the subject. This is not the landscape images that could be called the grand visa but rather the intimate, close and personal, experience of a singular place. A sacred place.
The earliest Australian artists such as Glover or Buvelot missed the mark and only produced warped European landscapes. The land was so new and strange to them it was beyond comprehension even at a banal physical level.
The Australian “Impressionists” also missed the mark. Though at times they travelled in the right direction and had, at the very least, an acceptable degree of observation and technical skill. I find myself in complete agreement with Robert Hughes that Australia has never actually produced an Impressionist painter. Still those that hold the title have produced some wonderful work. Unfortunately it was always overlaid with European sentimentality and mythology. For example:- Charles Conder “Yarding Sheep”, “Springtime” Sydney Long “Mid-day”, “The Spirit of the Plains” Arthur Streeton “Box Hill, Evening” Or was the depiction of white settlers conquering the land perceived as enemy. For example:- Frederick McCubbin “The Lost Child”, “A Bush Burial”, “The Pioneer” Tom Roberts “The Breakaway”, “Bailed Up” Hans Heysen though not born in this country probable went closer to a spiritual perception of Australian landscape than any of the others. He has been described as a portrait painter of the gum tree. Unfortunately the animals in his paintings are sheep and cows thus echoing pastoral European reality. So he to was still locked into a European ideal. An important point is that “Picnic at Hanging Rock” also had this sense of the land as enemy but the archetypical nature of place was at least more faithful to actuality. In either case there was not the deep rapport required to be in harmony with the spirit of the land and the sacred nature of some places.
The artist though that represents the deepest schism between us and our land is Fred Williams. For example:- “Sapling Forest” and “Lysterfield Landscape”. At first thought the abstraction of the environment should lead to a deeper metaphysical understanding. Unfortunately his work is informed by a politically correct, elitist, city based fine art establishment. Thus his imagery serves to separated Australians from their environment. The work of his that appals me the most is “Waterfall Polypytch”. Having listened to an interview where he stated his approach to this set of images I fully understand why the result is so impersonal, cold, calculated and totally lacking in a deep relationship with place. At his best Fred Williams creates sensuous hedonistic displays of exquisite painterliness. E.g. “Sapling Forest”. His images epitomise the precious fine art object rather than a deep spiritual relationship with place. At this point don’t gain the impression that I hold figurative work above abstraction as this is far from the truth. Some of John Olsens work such as “Spring in the You Beaut Country” has an archetypical power that expresses the timeless majesty of this country of ours. At another level Lloyd Rees reaches towards a deeper reality of the sacred place in such works as “The timeless Land”. Finally I feel that the late works of Russell Drysdale such as “Man with a Galah”, by holding up the aboriginal relationship with the land as example, are of great informative spiritual value.
A true understanding and visualisation of the sacredness of place, in part by the visual arts, is needed to heal, or at least keep healthy, the collective national spirit of the Australian population so that we may live in balanced harmony with our environment. Truly as a nation we don’t have a great track record in this regard. As things stand at this point in time we must, as a species, drastically change our relationship with the land or suffer disaster of world wide magnitude. Maybe quite simply we are a mistake that should be removed so that a fresh start can be made? I hope not!
Russell captures the unique nature of the Australian bush both physical and metaphysical. His work demonstrates an intimate and personal relationship with each place that he makes sacred. The very spirit of these hidden places, with peculiar, exotic shapes, colours and powers, comes to life. A Realism whose point of view is so personal that it almost becomes surreal or even abstract in nature. His work has a great painterly or expressionistic quality that resonates with spiritual relatedness.
Russell McKane uses the close intimate portraits of trees that he paints as metaphors of the human condition mitigated by his deep religious conviction. At another level Russell McKane is drawn to the more primitive archetypal spiritual sense of place that has to exist for a harmonious and sacred relationship with the land. I suspect he perceives this as a dichotomy that he is uncomfortable with. The truth is that these perspectives are only two aspects of the same truth. In either case he demonstrates the required sensitivity to spiritual reality to show others the way to harmony and grace, to experience life personally and environmentally. He is also quit consciously aware of the need for correct stewardship of the sacred earth on which our very existence depends.
An examination of how Russell McKane approaches his image making must be made before a critique of an individual piece is attempted. The work is wholly executed on site no matter how inconvenient the position. Standing in a stream to execute a work for example. This requires many visits to his subject over a period of time. His subjects are often in fairly remote locations. Russell McKane is in no way an impressionist painter, one who works quickly and often with pure colour. Instead he uses a technique of carefully building the forms followed by many layers of glazing. Is he crazy to use this technique, more suitable to studio work, out in the bush. No! For this activity forms a very important service in his success as a painter of the intimate landscape involved in the portrait of a single tree. He spends long periods in isolation contemplating his subject visually which should settle his mind into the right hemisphere thus placing him in a meditative state. This should lead to a state of Grace in which the mystic communication between himself and the subject leads to a true portrayal of a sacred place or maybe to truly making a place sacred.
Thus when others observe his work carefully they can reach a deeper awareness of the true nature of our country. I believe that at least some of his paintings have reached close to this ideal but only if one has the eyes to see. So Russell McKane’s trees inform his audience of some truly important realities which they otherwise might have remained ignorant of for their entire lives. This is supported by anecdotal evidence in that people who have viewed his work later comment that they have spotted a McKane tree here or there. This means their vision of the world has changed somewhat. Contemplate on his images deeply and thus learn, in part, the true nature of living with our environment.
Blessed are those that Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness. Figure in Landscape No 20. 2005. Oil on Linen 750x1050mm Currently available for Sale. $4500 Contact the artist.
SPECIFIC COMMENT ON: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”
At first glance this painting is not visually complex. Easily accessible through its obvious figurative treatment. It is also fairly straight forward in its meaning or message. A tree striving for life thus creating a metaphor for “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.” Is this image in fact so simple? My conclusions are, no! In fact the more carefully this image is contemplated the more rich and complex it becomes. Thus exposing the depth of relationship that Russell McKane formed with this place and therefor the healing power of the sacred that was brought forth.
This image is a story of endurance, obedience and survival! Therefore charged with Grace. Like a high energy electrical capacitor waiting to be touched to spark forth. So I am going to make this critique by listing and commenting on each formal element of the work.
LINE: Some of the most striking features of this image involve line. The most important is formed by the line of the tree going from top left to bottom right then continuing onto the cliff face curving down into that corner. The second major line is that of the horizon that basically bisects the image into almost, but not quite, equal parts. The last significant issue of line is the shape of the tree, roots, trunk and branches. These form an amazing dance of life that… visually works.
DIRECTION & MOVEMENT: There is a very strong tendency for the eye to be led diagonally down and out of the image at the bottom right corner. Strangely this is, I feel, in this case a virtue as it defines the unseen nature of the cliff which one could easily slide off. The drop over the edge can not be observed directly so the tendency for the eye to travel metaphorically down and over is of great importance in the reading of the situation. By studying the growth and predicament of this tree which is floating above the stone cup that originally held the soil in which as a seed it settled shows that it has been in danger going over the side more than once. Metaphorically its faith has held disaster at bay. Then there is the dance of life of the tree itself which forms a vigorous “S” shaped movement back and forth across the image. The blue mountain in the far distance is the pivot of the whole image. This element annoyed me greatly at first as it keep grabbing my attention. In the end the realisation hit that it continues to draw the eye in. Pulling it back from the cliff edge and pointing to the infinity in which this small diorama exists. Thus serving as a needed holistic device.
SHAPE & FORM: The bold, stark shapes or forms in this image give it a great strength of drama. There is basically three large areas. The rock face. The tree shrouded gorge. The sky. The large area of the sky almost but not quite divides the image horizontally into half. Then there is the shape/form of the tree overlapping the three main visual masses.
COLOUR, TEXTURE, CONTRAST & TONE : Naturalistic! Subtle and appropriate! Holds the image planted in the earth.
PATTERN & REPETITION: The Pattern & Repetition of “individual leaves” is almost mandatory to describe a gum tree.
RHYTHM: There is a sense of pulsating rhythm in this image that is hard to pin down but has to do with the twisting turning efforts of the tree to survive against all adversity. This tree dance contains the rhythm of joyous life.
HARMONY: The harmony in this image is not of the formal art element variety. Rather it is the harmony of perfect righteous obedience. The tree has a profound secret it is willing to share if one is willing to listen.
COMPOSITION: The composition has now already been defined.
FINAL WORD: This image contains little that is symbolic, even of the archetypal kind. Except the curved rock bowl is symbolic for me of Grace supporting this thirsting striving tree. The intended metaphor is in fact not even that important when the depths of meaning have be searched. Instead this image expresses the raw reality of standing in the Presence like all truly sacred places should.