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.


Mega Poatina tree drawing
Drawing – 8 sides to the Poatina Tree

‘Tree’ the name rings out across the dust desert playground of Bankstown Boys High. I turn around. Everyone knows me as tree. Sometimes nick names do more than stick. Trees have become my artistic life.

Why would I spend fifty hours passionately drawing this tree. Foolhardy I said to myself many times in the process. At the end I had RSI in the right elbow – restricting me for six months. You could call me an arborphile. I am passionate about trees and want to paint just about any tree given time in it’s company.


The Nick Name – Tree

I had moved to the city – Western Sydney – Bankstown. It was a big shock moving from the small country town of Coolamon. In Coolamon we had a very active Scout troop. It was tough competition with strong boys. I was known as one of the weakest. In fact I had been bullied quite a lot in the town. Thankfully not at scouts. British bulldogs was a popular game. Physical and rough as the idea was to make it from one side of the hall to the other without getting rugby tackled to the hard wooden floor on the way. One bit of advise ‘Skip’ gave was – if the guy was big tackle them low like a spitfire taking down a bomber.

Fast forward. My first night with my new troop. Third Bankstown. I knew no one. Game time and British Bulldogs came up. There was one big bruiser in the group. My heart sank – now they get to find out I’m a wimp.

The new guy

I got to be in the middle. I was the new guy. “British bulldogs come on through!” this was the challenge -The outcome was not as I had imagined. Well I bought them down with ease. One after the other. Early on I got the big guy. And again and again. Finally in frustration he called me Tree. – “Your tree! I’m going to call you tree from now on.”

Puzzled I asked why? The answer was rather comic. “Because you have branches everywhere.” At the time the Commonwealth Bank had a series of ads by comics Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. The banks was compared to a tree because it had branches everywhere. Every one laughed and from that moment I was Tree. The next day at School everyone was calling me tree. Wow it spread fast.

I learnt something else that night. I might have been the weakest in a bunch of strong guys but I had actually learnt to play the game well. In this new bunch I was respected instantly. Reputations are often made in an instance. Respect made it to the playground along with the nickname. And to my relief I was no longer bullied.


Trees in my art

As told in my story It started with a $2 paint set, 18 months earlier I had started painting and my early successes were with drawing and painting trees. But I mainly did general landscapes. Trees were present but often – as I did these from photographs, they were the design element to the left or right of the picture. Not the subject. In fact I particularly enjoyed painting the mountains and gorges of Central Australia.

Co-incidentally I started painting plein air on family holidays. First on our Queensland trip to Lamington National park. Then in South Australia’s alligator Gorge. Then finally on a trips to the Northern Territory – as my parents had moved to Alice. It was on these trips that I started to make observations about trees and they began to feature in my work.

Break through.

My first posting was at the last high school in the far west of NSW, Coomealla High. I was at heart a bush boy. I was Born in the wheat belt of Western Australia, in a heat wave. The bush did not worry me but the change of pace did. I was bored, trying to get my bearings in this small town. Just out of art school, I was wanting to get the lay of the land.

This led me to journeying out into the desert for drawing and painting ideas. One of my favourite locations was only a few kilometers from town. Fletchers Lake was a salt lake, and on it’s shore were myriads of dead things encrusted in the salt. I began a number of photographic documentary journeys on this lake.

Lunch under some trees

One day on a trip to Fletchers I saw patch of Mallee box trees. Thinking that this would be a perfect spot to get out of the sun and have lunch, I walked over to them. They turned out to be very old and gnarly Mallee Box trees with some wonderful forms.

Luncheon on the grass, About the inspiration for Russell's Art direction.
Manet’s Dejeuner sur l’herbe inspired my figures in Landscape No.1 1980

As I had my break, my luncheon in this shade of the desert, these three trees reminded me of the Manets painting. Although flipped the trees take similar posture. I came to understand that in the Australian landscape we see trees from underneath their life giving canopies, not as a ornament to pastoral vista. Thus they populate the landscape with their immovable presence. Trees are sculptural three dimensional created living beings who know and survive and thrive in their environment. So my Figures and Figure in Landscape series began: In 1980 in the desert.

I came back and did drawings and then I did two unusual things. First I didn’t start small. No! 5 x 4 feet in size it was a studio work and I didn’t use a pallet knife. I think I wanted it to last so for the first time I decided to use brushes. The painting was company for me in the lonely evenings. I particularly liked painting late at night with the Ashes series broadcast from England for background noise.

The tree portrait

A trip on a house boat led me to my second big painting. We were moored to the Murray river bank at Boundary bend – out of Mildura. I had my drawing pastels with me. The view of the tree from on the river was spectacular.

It was my second year of teaching at ‘Coomey’ and I decided to provide some extra studio time for my art students in a weekly after school session. I needed something to do artistically. So working from my sketch I went big again.

Single tree in portrait style
Figure in Landscape No. 1 1981 4 x 4.6 feet

It is perhaps here that my photographic series work began to influence my painting. I decided that single trees would be painted in portrait style. But I also determined to establish some rules. Single trees would be placed central on the canvas as one would a portrait. I was already seeing trees as a human metaphor or presence in the landscape from my Dejeuner sur l’herbe painting. A further rule was that I keep the figures paintings front, as though sitting under the shade, but looking through to an open sky. But the singular figure would be with vertical background, as the bank above provided. This gave them a more studio portrait feel.

The Tree patterns were set.

My next painting was 6ft by 3ft. I had learnt something valuable – make sure the picture could be transported in the car. It was with the next one I began painting on site. I even made an easel to lug with it. It was the first brush painting I had taken plein air. Although it was a combination of on location and studio work.

Figures No 2
Figures in Landscape No. 2 1982

Unbeknown to me at the time the die had been caste. From this moment on I would only paint trees, (with two exceptions). Trees became my artistic driver. I had found both my style and my reason to paint. Forty years later I am still passionate about painting trees. I guess the nickname really stuck.