Art as Therapy

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.

Art as Therapy for me the artist.

Silver wattles Guarding the path into the rainforest beyond
Art as Therapy – Sentinels

Sentinels – Crowds in Landscape No.2

First – stop and look. I have made the work full width -so you can immerse yourself in the painting.

Immersion - into the dark beyond - Art as Therapy.
Immerse yourself.

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.

My struggle

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.

Renew: Stump in rainforest

Renew – Figures in landscape No.4

The old woodcutter got this one. Again, stop and look.

Renew: Stump in rainforest
Immerse yourself


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.

Renew: Stump in rainforest
See life – be renewed.

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.

Immersion art as therapy Image of small sassy sassafras tree
Sassy Sassafras

Sassafras – Figure in Landscape No 39.

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.

Immersion art as therapy Image of small sassy sassafras tree close up
Intimate closeness

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.


Contemporary realism

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.

Stump in the Rainforest Liffey

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.

Blue Poles 1952

Jackson Pollock

Image rights© Pollock-Krasner Foundation. ARS/Copyright Agency

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

Bush Road With Cootamundras 1977

oil on canvas97.0 x 107.0 cm

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.

Hyper realism

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.


Chuck Close

United States of America born 1940



Materials & Technique paintings, synthetic polymer paint on canvas

SubjectArt style: Photo-realism

Image rights© Chuck Close

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.

Hope – Figure in landscape No 15

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.

Figure in Landscape Number three

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 critiquea 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’.

Limited manipulation

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.

Painting Palette
My Palette

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.