I suppose most paintings have some story or other behind them but mostly the painting is happy to stand alone without any narrative.
But sometimes the raison d’etre and history is an important part of the creative process; and it seems to me that the beholder or owner of the painting may be enriched know how it came to be.
Thus it is with Quandong Time Again.
Every November the quandong trees in Big Bush (where I live) bedeck themselves with bright red fruits. The redness is the edible flesh. Inside is a woody nut. Inside the nut is a kernel (the actual seed) It too is edible.
The outer flesh is meagre, neither sweet nor savoury, and only mildly attractive. Most people can manage to eat at least one; rarely two, though I believe they are very attractive to bush tucker enthusiasts. Like cranberries; they can be made more palatable with sugar.
The kernel is a bit of a surprise. Strongly tastes of oil of wintergreen, and I imagine it is far more nutritious than the outer layer.
We have found several small rocks in Big Bush with a pit on one side the right size to hold a quandong nut while it is cracked with another stone. So it seems our aboriginal previous-tenants did not waste the best bit.
Regarding the quandong tree. It is a root parasite. It grows in the bush harmoniously and innocently but underground it presents us with a moral problem as do all creatures which can be defined as “parasitic”.
But it gets more complex. Its leaves are eaten by caterpillars, and these caterpillars then pupate and emerge a few weeks later as adults: A beautiful butterfly!
This same butterfly may also lay its eggs upon another parasite; mistletoe, and its caterpillars happily gorge themselves on their leaves.
Angels of vengeance in the moral crusade against “parasites”.
(In a further twist in this story of perverted parasites; there is a species of mistletoe that parasitizes the Quandong tree.)
(And incidentally: can all creatures that take their nutrition at the expense of other living things without actually killing them, be called parasites? If not, why not?)
The painting began with an adult butterfly, which is still there on the left. Delias aganippe, Wood White or Spotted Jezebel.
When I was in my early teens I became a butterfly enthusiast and I raised some Wood White butterflies from eggs/ caterpillars.
I remember being a bit concerned/fascinated to see that the red spots on black of the underside of the hindwing looked as if they had gone out of register in the printing process. There is a little crescent of white showing along the top edge of the red. I felt that the red should have covered all the white.
I remembered this, and mused further that the red spots are very much like the quandongs of their larval foodplant.
Indeed if you pick a quandong and hold it up towards but slightly under the sun, you get a gleam along the top edge a bit like the white halo around the red spot on the butterfly’s wing.
So I was playing with this caprice in the painting; waltzing the red spots from the butterflies’ wings with the dangling quandongs amongst the pendulous yellow green leaves of the quandong tree…
Also I was remembering wandering through the bush as a young boy getting fresh quandong leaves to feed my dozen or so Wood White caterpillars; remembering the incredibly dry crackling heat haze of midsummer in the bush, re-living the vivid and intense rapture of discovering and beholding butterflies (and frogs, and geckos too, for that matter) that some children (before television) had, which adults can only try to preserve or revive.
Incidentally; I began the painting before I went to Spain (including Barcelona) for a few weeks; When I returned and finished the painting my head was swimming with Gaudi; who was inspired by forms found in nature. I wonder if it shows in the painting.
Just south of Cooktown; near Mt Finnigan and not far from Cedar Bay. A patch of rich basalt soil with very biodiverse flora/fauna. A mosaic of Tropical Rainforest and wet sclerophyll. A mecca for naturalists, especially birdos.
The soil and climate are so fecund that new leaves on some rainforest trees and shrubs have a glistening ruby-burgundy hue.
We did two trips to Shipton’s Flat, 17 years apart.
First time it was Lyn and me, to make our film about tropical rainforest. (about which there will be more, here, some day)
Second time was a revisit with our small kids.
Both trips yielded lots of paintings.
Herewith a selection from the last trip.
A raucous bird that can always be seen and heard around Parrot Creek, which winds around Shiptons Flat. I love the deep olives and indigos in the water of Parrot Creek. They make me gasp.
A small flycatcher with an erect-able ruff
Another flycatcher. This one with black, white and yellow plumage, and a delicious twittery trill.
Shipton’s Flat Moment
Jubilee Creek Reach
Hey, these are all pretty, um, realistic!
I think I believed back then,(the early’90s) that all I needed to do was paint it as best I could, just as it was, and um, hope it would reach out and perform magic?
Little Forks Birdwing
Finnigan Cloud Forest 2
Mt Finnigan sticks up out of the lowland rainforest and has cloud forest at its peak, complete with its almost permanent cloud, misting and dripping on the moss covered granite boulders, little palms, epiphytes, wind-clipped bonsai-like trees.
One of those “I saw this!” paintings. A flock of topknot pigeons diving from way up on Finnigan and swooping in to perch with an alarming “Whoooosh”
This one painted itself.
When the directions come from the intuitive (not the intellect) I say the painting painted itself.
If I suffered from grandiosity as some artists do, I would say God directed my hand.
It began as a painting of Minyon Falls near Lismore, (see pastel study)
However, the raw rock patches from where large chunks of cliff face have recently fallen enticed me to create chapels.
A tower of something began to insinuate itself in the centre.
I recalled the (apocryphal?) story of the young Bertrand Russell : how he had been giving a talk about the universe, and a little lady stood up and said its all very interesting, but he should realise that the universe is carried on the back of and elephant, which is on the back of a turtle…
“Interesting indeed,” remarked Bertrand, “ and what is under the turtle?”
“Another turtle” she replied.
“Aha! And under that turtle?” quizzed Bertrand,
“Oh you clever young man!” she exclaimed, “Its turtles all the way down!”
and that settled the matter of the central tower.
The issue of the origin and structure of the universe according to various mytho/religio/superstitions became the theme. The chapels became temples to different deities, and the turtles version, which seems more plausible to me than the others, extends downwards to the centre of the universe, if not beyond.
On the left is Mother Natures version, and her deity; the Great Elephant Parrot came and perched on a marble cloud ( supplied by Bernini)
I haven’t got my paintings back yet to check that they got there and were opened and looked at (they usually put a sticker or some mark on the back) but I have to assume that they were seen by the trustees, or someone with the authority to reject.
Until I go and see the exhibition I cannot think of anything to say; (and usually after seeing them I still cannot think of anything to say.)
Here they are anyway:
“Self Portrait with Eric and Olga and their Dream”
Its about “Rosenthal” where I lived my first seventeen years and returned many times until the place was finally sold and became derelict.
Eric and Olga, my parents, were pretty idealistic in their early years of marriage. In this painting they are about the ages that my kids now are. They were beautiful, talented, adventurous people.
“Rosenthal” was an idyllic spot, far from roads and neighbours; surrounded by bush covered hills.
A Willow and Yellow Box lined creek and large dam close by and the exquisite “Pinnacle” just across the creek rises above the plain.
As well as farming and grazing, with methods that today are called “organic” Eric wrote short stories and novels; Olga wrote poetry, sang Leider around the house, made a large garden and loved to entertain.
They made “Rosenthal”into a social hub…there was a tennis court across the creek where they had parties; the gentlemen carrying the ladies across the creek if it was wet. There were also parties on the slopes of the Pinnacle with excursions to the caves and the trig station where the views were breathtaking. They were the envy of all their friends; truly in love and fulfilling their dreams of being creative and making Rosenthal into an Arcadian dream.
It lasted about twenty years but Eric began suffering from bipolar mood disorder and high blood pressure, and Olga was sucked under by alcohol. The property began losing money; Eric was afraid he was losing his mind and suicided in 1960 aged 54. Olga died of cirrhosis of the liver about ten years later aged 59.
So in my painting Eric and Olga are statues on the “Pinnacle”made from the pinnacle conglomerate stone, overlooking Rosenthal as it was back in the thirties and forties. Thats me bottom left, pondering the situation.
Here is another photo of my Wynne entry:
“Aunty Reta’s Sculptures on the Pinnacle” about which there is a previous post herebelow
29th April 2012
Who’s painting this stuff?
With this current painting I’m not sure if its a horse or angel of inspiration that’s doing the painting.
I cannot remember actually thinking up the idea. One minute it was not in my head; the next minute it was there, pretty well developed.
Aunty Reta’s sculptures on the Pinnacle.
I felt there were great prospects for putting a Trogon and a Pangolin amongst the sculptures. I made up a canvas and primed it in a fever of excitement and began from all sides with the canvas lying flat on tables.
Every time I go up to my studio I am not sure what I will do next, but confident that I will know without any doubts once I get started. So it has been up to now.
Aunty Reta was a maiden Aunt, now long dead.
Very intelligent, cheeky, perceptive, self-educated, caring and with unexpressed creativity.
She was the one who looked after the aging and unwell in the family all her life.
The actual idea of her sculptures being on the Pinnacle was in a very early short story by Julian Halls.
In real life she never did any sculptures other than some quite strange unique ceramic forms (that made her giggle) in a pottery class I held long ago.
The Pinnacle is a hill that rises out of the plains very close to where I lived my first 17 years. I could climb to the top in about 40 minutes and I spent a lot of time up there. It was, and still is, a very special magic place for me.
Its cooler up there and when the air is clear the views are of maybe a hundred kilometres. Its hewn and conglomerated out of round riverstones. Bespangled with mosses and lichens; ferns growing in the cracks. There are some caves. There are many species of flora not in other bush around here.
In the warmer months there are several species of butterfly found only there.
Right at the top there are dozens, sometimes hundreds of butterflies hilltopping. (Flying above the treetops in a kind of ritualistic rapture).
Here are five photos of this painting as it developed.
In the first one its only a few days old. Very exciting. It could go anywhere from here; but I still have some idea and control.
In number two I was beginning to try out the Trogon (a South American bird) and the Pangolin. Not sure though, how to orient the pangolin, and was there a baby on her back? But the lumpy conglomerate boulders that the pinnacle is made out of work nicely as the pangolin scales.
A sunrise began to peep over the ridge and send rays clattering down the slopes of the pinnacle (down which I have to confess I loved rolling rocks in my childhood)
And the curious chapel begins to assert itself just left of centre. It had begun from the start as an accident, and I tried feebly to eliminate it, but not to be. Note the Boyd’s rainforest dragon on the pillar to the left of the chapel. I did that deliberately!
By number three the Trogon’s eye seems to have decided it is an empty socket, but further down a real eye opens.. Ah yes, an eye for the Pangolin has arrived.
And by sheer miracle a drop of paint flicked off my lovely Kolinsky liner and landed in the chapel. I quickly wiped it away, but it left a ghost of itself;
And behold! Its Aunty Reta herself, in her chapel.
A Gaudiesque Guell Parc wall begins its construction along the ridge; branching into what could be a chameleon.
In number four a staircase cleaves itself up the Pangolin’s back, to allow Aunty Reta easy access to her chapel. I’m now asserting myself and trying to strengthen here and edit out there to make the painting more readable.
October 2012. Here is the final version.
Its now finished.
This is probably the only time I will publish unfinished works.
Certainly there are aspects of the earlier stages that I like quite a bit; though I am most pleased with the final and glad that I ran with it all the way.
However there are people out there; especially those who have gone to Art School, (Now UNIVERSITY) who would have been brainwashed into believing that art should be rough and unfinished and there should be no evidence of industry or effort or refinement. And these people will point to early stages and declare with solemn authority that it was better in its early stages.
Something like this happens in my studio. Certain people look at unfinished works and exclaim: “Don’t touch it!” and move on insouciantly.
Such people are immune to debate or reason.
Which lures me on to wonder if most people’s idea of what art is (including, nay, especially artists) is no more than brainwashing.
Which lures me further to speculate if the same applies to other fields of learning.
Economics for example?
And then religion?
Simultaneously I was working on this one: Legend: The Shiptons Flat Butterflies.
One of my fabricated legends.
The Archibald Connection
Back in the fifties when Australia rode on the sheep’s back we used to come to Sydney in the Customline every summer for a few weeks holiday at Clovelly.
We always visited the Art Gallery of NSW, and back then it was nearly always Archibald, Wynne and Sulman time after Christmas.
On one occasion at about age 8, I was approached and photographed standing in front of a William Dargie or was it an Ivor Hele Archibald winner. The photo appeared on the front page of the Sun Herald.
I was instantly famous.
From there I went on to be a finalist in the Archibald four times; and Wynne finalist twelve times.
My first Archibald finalist was a Self Portrait back in 1978. Semi naked and hippy.
Next year I had another Self Portrait hung; clothed and refined a la Velasquez and Rembrandt.
That same year my portrait Neil O’Reilly, Journalist was hung too.
And then in 1983 they hung Douglas Stewart
My first Wynne entry:
Mallee was hung when I was 22, in 1964. I have no photo of that painting( nor of many other of my Wynne finalists) and I don’t know where it is but I remember it quite clearly.
Rejuvenation hung in 1967 Its about banksia scrubland on that awesome headland between Avalon and Whale beach, a few weeks after a fire.
The next Wynne finalist of which I have a photo was Meadow Argus in 1977. A Meadow Argus is a butterfly; its there near the middle.
In 1978 they hung my Leaf Litter (Along with my first hippy Self Portrait in the Archibald)
In 1979 they hung Acacia Portrait. Now that was the year they hung my Self Portrait and Neil O’Reilly as well. They were the days.
And in 1980 they hung my Tree Contemplated
There are six photos missing from my files, of my Wynne finalists.
That means scanning old slides and saving them as jpeg files in the hope that they will last “forever”
Remember when “colour photos” were all slides.
I was a Pentax SLR man from Way Back, and I took 35mm slides of most of my paintings.
The slides came back in little boxes of 20 or 36 slides. The processing people did them up in cardboard or plastic mounts (whether they were good photos or not). We needed a projector or “viewer” to see them properly. We had soporific slide evenings.
Then we stored them away somewhere safe.
Twenty five years ago I had thousands of slides including slides of most of my paintings stored in a big masonite box on the concrete floor of my studio at that time.
Termites move quickly. One very wet night when the water table rose, several million of these incredible creatures built a new nest to escape the rising waters, in amongst my slides (after eating the bottom of the masonite box away; after marching through a crack in the concrete below).
They began eating the slides and mounts too. They even got into those clear plastic boxes with yellow lids from Kodak.
Some time later I discovered the problem and began separating the slides from the mixture of earth, faeces and saliva that termites make their incredible nests from. About 60 percent of my slides were gone. So quite a lot of my photos of my early paintings are forever lost, (unless the owners contact me, so I can photograph them again. Back in those days I sold just about everything I painted)
I have finally got myself a reasonably good slide scanner and I am scanning those slides that were spared.
I found 68 in reasonable shape and here is the first instalment of an “online exhibition” of termite escapees.
Just that. A small Acacia hakeoides was growing at the side of our track in. I set up the large canvas and worked on it at a certain time every morning until I felt I could finish it in my studio.
It was a finalist in the Wynne Competition in 1979. That year I had two finalists in the Archibald as well:
Self Portrait and Neil O’Reilly, Journalist.
Acacia Portrait 2
I had another go at it about a year later.
The first one was a bit mystical and austere; this one more urgent and frenetic, and one may wonder why.
Anna was our firstborn and I wanted to put her in a painting.
Here she is about three and holding a dead Yellow Robin, and sitting amongst tree stumps. So its about a three-year-old’s perception of life and death; if you want to look at it that way. More importantly its Anna in the bush, backlit…
Another Storm Passing
Anna again. Back in those days before Gorby we really were very close to nuclear self destruction.
I really believed that my kids would die very young in a Nuclear World War, so we took the kids to Nuclear Disarmament marches in Wagga and Albury on Palm Sundays.
It paid off. Enough people protested world wide and politicians had to act and reduce their Nuclear stockpiles… and the cold war ended…
I like to remember this. If enough people protest they (politicians and bureaucrats) have to do something…???
Anna’s T shirt has a picture of an Inter-continental Ballistic Missile coming to Australia.
A small carnivorous marsupial that can be found in Big Bush (where I live) I did him much larger than life size here.
Some years they are very common. Supposedly nocturnal, actually they can be seen any time scurrying up and down tree trunks looking for spiders etc under the bark. They are fearless predators; even eating house mice, or their brains anyway, after they tear away the front of the skull. They can get into our house, and become tame very quickly. Females carry up to five babies on their bodies when they are too big for the pouch. This painting could be called a “portrait”; though its pretty close to an “illustration”. Is that OK???
Hey, this is an oldie. Early sixties. The Barry Stern days.
After my first trip to North Queensland in my ’52 Ford Prefect.
Emus and Ibises
Another oldie. Back in those days I was a country boy in the city. I felt ambassadorial, introducing country imagery to the city slickers. Not glamorous coastal bush, nor legendary bushrangers, explorers; just the semi arid bush around Temora NSW where I grew up.
These were all done safely back home.
It would have been extremely difficult to do pastels in the Amazon:
Paper would have gone mouldy.
All the way to Brasil.
Sunrise over the River Tambopata from my studio. Knowing that the Amazon forest extended mostly unspoiled for thousands of km in a line to the east from where I was, right to the Eastern edge (indeed the Atlantic coast) of Brasil, was deeply thrilling for me.
Above the Rio Tambopata
Ascending a hundred metres from the same point, in the late afternoon would reveal this view; with the Toucans, Macaws flying about… as they did…
Like I say; I am helplessly enslaved to butterflies. I just tried to do him like he was…
A cheeky butterfly that flies back and forth along pathways in the forest. He will fly ahead of you, settling every few metres and taking off when you get within two metres. When you come to the end of his territory he will double back and fly between your legs to return to familiar territory.
It is said that the Amazon Indigenes carefully take these tiny colourful fearless frogs in a leaf and gently roll their arrow tips over their backs. The frogs indignantly release poison from glands imbuing the arrows with lethality. We hope the frogs are not hurt. The arrows may be for a bow or a blow pipe. Whatever receives the arrow is hurt, and dies quite soon. So it is said.
Near the beautiful Sucusari stream off the great Napo River is an enormous elevated walkway called the Aceer Walkway. Google it. Better still, visit it.
I like to set up a table and do a dozen or so in one session that lasts several weeks. I have about three boards going at once; when I fix one and put it out to dry I resume work on another already-fixed job. Each work has gone through about four or five fixes by the time I deem it “finished”. Quite frenetic and exhausting.
Each pastel takes about three days; then I put it away and forget it. Later I am amazed to see them again. I really do forget doing (some of) them.
They are an opportunity to try out ideas and techniques quickly in a devil-may-care frame of mind. I can easily destroy fizzers and nobody will know; but in practice I mostly keep working on the would-be fizzers and get them looking OK, eventually. You can fix and rework a pastel surface about five times before it goes unreceptive (Even then you can cover the bad bit with pastel primer and start again)
Pastels are good for juxtapositions of seemingly incompatible objects, textures, colours, ideas. They can be about physical or mental juxtapositions. They are never studies for paintings although sometimes they begin as an exercise in drawing which develops a skill that ends up in a painting.
(eg “How can I draw the upwelling motion of cumulus clouds?”)
Sometimes I see something that cries out: “Do me in pastels!”
The action of dragging a stick of colour over paper and leaving a trail pregnant with possibilities; and then embellishing that trail until it accumulates into a readable image is very compelling and intriguing. I can do it for several weeks or months without getting bored.
When I finally go back to painting after a spell at pastels I’m a slightly different person.
This began with the orange cloud. How orange can I get it? I had photographed the katydid intending to do it up in pastel somewhere. As I fitted them together I decided to turn the page on its side and the horizon spilled off the edge somewhere which was amusing…thus began the end-of-the-world idea.
The katydid was waiting for the humans to wipe out themselves and most of the others; then it would repopulate the planet.
Leucoxylon and Storm
Another juxtaposition. I just threw them together and they sorted themselves out pretty well. Which just goes to show…
An exercise in juxtaposing contrasting forms: One filamentous and one blockybark.
Xanthorrhoeas never get boring. Its hard to walk by one without pausing to caress, admire, converse, wonder. Doing them in pastels is an adventure; I end up drawing each filament leaf not once, but many times, caressing in the changes in direction, colour. To get fine lines I turn the pastel sticks over and over to keep a sharp edge. Sometimes I use pastel pencils.
These orchids are exquisite transparent/translucent happenings like periscopes from some subterranean
spirit world, and I wanted to do one up big in pastels. I wanted to construct a kind of pavilion around it to amplify, resonate, celebrate it.
Ptero, Bark and Cumulus
This was a threesome of contrived improbables. I worked on it for a long time and nearly used up all my five chances in many places. As a result it has an impasto look about it normally only achievable with oils or acrylic paints.
Mid day, mid summer.
The light straight overhead. Not flattering for most objects but grey box trunks open up and reveal something. It is as if this is the moment they are in touch with transcendent forces. By two pm they are resuming their chalky inarticulate secrecy.
What can I say? I am quite besotted/besozzled by butterflies. They are messengers from another universe. I did three trips to the Amazon to enjoy them. I filmed many hours of video of Amazon butterflies, about which more another time.
A sweet mysterious little tree frog that is quite common in Big Bush, even away from water; Littoria peronii.
Equally mysterious and tantalysing is this orchid Caladenia alba that some years appears suddenly in great numbers. I use magnification to scrutinize them but all I see is their exquisite detail, not their real secrets.
When I was a little and not so little boy I was fascinated by certain works by Elioth Gruner. He could paint light and atmosphere like magic. Especially when looking towards the light. His Spring Frost at the AGNSW used to (and still does) attract me spellbound. There is fanatical dedication in his work that was a beacon to me. He too, was an alcoholic, who alas, never found AAs.
In this pastel I was thinking of him. Keeping the light source behind the trunk; revealing itself only by extending tentacles around the corners.
An Amazon job. About the loveliest phenomenon to be encountered in the Amazon is vines tumbling down into little streams. Especially when its raining and sunlight breaking through…a bit kitschy? Sometimes with lovely phenomena this has to be lived with.
Sometimes I find myself working with patches of abstract paint that originate with visible textures of bark, twigs against their shadows, leaves against sky, leaf litter, shines going behind dark objects, etc etc.
They decree their own colours.
Lines and volumes begin to extend in all directions. The origin is soon forgotten and the white stallion of reckless adventure sweeps me away.
Theme and variation games ignite.
A matrix spreads; pregnant with possible images.
This stuff gets reworked and I play with the embryonic images.
If they intrigue me enough I delineate them a bit clearer; regardless of relevance or logic or context, yet with reckless confidence.
Even if the white stallion wanders into another paddock.
(Who’s painting this stuff? Me or God?)
In Cerulia my original intention was to take a tiny native terrestrial orchid Caladenia cerulia and magnify it; looking deeply into it.
I was hoping I could make it emit life forces and astound me.
I wanted lots of sky, to try to suggest some sort of kinship or origin for the blue of the orchid. Also I wanted to suggest the season of early spring.
What else is happening in Big Bush at this time?
While I was working we were visited by quite a lot of Swift Parrots, so they were included.
(They migrate every winter from Tasmania feeding on nectar and pollen from the eucalyptus blossoms. Swift Parrots are very rare these days. They breed in Tasmania, and their breeding habitat is being destroyed by Tasmania’s forest industries.)
click here to read how Swift Parrots ruined my life http://www.dpiw.tas.gov.au/inter-nsf/Attachments/LJEM-6MHVGE/$FILE/2005%20Swift%20Parrot%20Newsletter.pdf
The owls and the shinglebacks insinuated themselves. A lot of the painting is that matrix stuff done with thin paint and shabby, streaky, dotty, slitherydithery brushwork. I began organizing the blue sky into rivers and canyons…
Another job where I was hoping to create a moment of awakening by contemplating an object. This was an unhung Wynne Competition entry, about 2000.
(In my early days I was hung in the Wynne Competition every time….about 12 times, even after I left Sydney and my decline accelerated.)
So it began with a large Cecropia leaf I picked up on a track and brought back to my studio in the Amazon. It was nearly a metre across. I had the notion of it falling, about to alight.
Eventually it seemed to have fallen into a stream and was settling on the bottom. Birdlike orchids, lichenlike fishes took up residence and a throatlike sunset happened.
It became a landscape of organlike entities. Very Amazonian. I worked on this one for many frenetic months.
This was something that started well but we became becalmed. The white stallion had become a donkey.
Years later I brought it out and began frigging around with it. I allowed, nay encouraged images to suggest themselves. They seemed to begin as body parts thrown together. A grasstree becomes a waterfall; the rear end of a bull reverses into view; lanterns and cages dangle themselves. And one morning there she was, her little teeth gnashing as she marshaled her invasive tresses.
I was very happy to preside over this apparently uncontrolled/choreographed fiasco of unhingedness.
Quandongs are a feature of Big Bush (where I live).
Dabs of violent red in the dusky dusty greybrowngreen chalkiness.
Another close scrutiny seemed called for.
This job went through several “finishes”, none of them quite happy. It’s really three or four paintings on top of each other; but the big quandong is still there. Eventually it became an astral traveling machine landing near the portal of the great Lutfullah mosque of Isfahan.