Beauty for Ashes

Beauty for ashes – a strange title.

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.

Oil painting of a rainforest with sunlight streaming in lighting the pond in the creek golden.
Beauty for Ashes: Figures in Landscape No.5

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.

Progress painting of Beauty for Ashes

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.

Francisco de Goya – The Third of May 1808 – The Prado Madrid (public domain)

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.

Beauty for Ashes -Oil painting of a rainforest with sunlight streaming in lighting the pond in the creek golden.
Beauty for Ashes: Figures in Landscape No.5

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.

Remember Ukraine

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.

Stuck in the Studio

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.

Two mangroves on the edge of the Hawkesbury river. Layer one - work in progress.
Layer one two mangroves.

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.

Excerpts of my painting the mangroves

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.

Fantasy Paintings

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.

Cleaning Oil Paintings

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 an oil painting

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.

Housemasters treasure
House master

Comment below. Contact me if you have any concerns.

  1. Awesome work as usual Russel. Yes. I got Covid this month and it threw me a curve ball. God Bless…

Artist in the artist through the artist.

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.

Silver Wattles - Liffey Falls Reserve Camping ground. Oil on Linen 2021

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.