Over the weekend I disrupted my comfort zone as 'artist in my own residence' for thirty years, and flew to the Brisbane (yes, thats 4.5 hours over and 5.5 hours back) to do a two day portrait workshop with Daniel Butterworth as a student. It was well worth the squeezy seats on those horrible Qantas 737's both ways (with fumes for air conditioning going over). Seriously that is saying alot!
Dan has been a finalist in the most prestigious portrait awards in Australia for years including the Archibald and the Black Swan Portrait Prizes. He paints powerful portraits (mostly of himself) as well as the occasional commission, using very basic materials - house paint and old cardboard boxes.
His paintings are almost intimidating due to their urgent application, albeit perfectly believable likeness. On one hand you can well understand them being in a museum, and on the other you might expect to find one out the back of a motor cycle shop, and it turns out that was the first source of Dan's huge cardboard 'canvas'. Despite coming from a family of artists, ordinary life circumstances including raising a family found Dan in a variety of 'other' occupations prior to becoming an artist, in order to make ends meet. This included a job sign writing, which he thought at first was kind of creative, only to realise that staying within the lines and always painting what others wanted was not very fulfilling. He even ran errands for the motorcycle shop at one point - fortunately leading to him spotting the endless supply of huge sheets of cardboard. Eventually he allowed himself to do an art degree, and later a teaching degree. All of this life experience is what makes Dan so real, so earthy and approachable as it turned out.
At first glimpse, he still looked a bit scary. He has paintings of himself on his website fully naked, scruffy bearded, with Medusa hair - topped off with a pair of daggy black rimmed spectacles. I was even wondering if it was a disguise, and the whole thing could be pulled off with a quick tug. I was sure he would have tattoos and a pierced something or another, but could not see any evidence in the nude pictures. He was happy to share everything! Obviously so brave, he didn't even pretend it was someone else! I mean he could have taken the safe route and cut off his head and called it 'Man Torso', (if that is not a banned term these days).
As for me, I was looking for a change and a way of being kicked out of a rut, but had no idea what two days in Dan's company would be like. Scary was good. His hair and beard made him look grumpy and intense, and I thought he would make gruff noises and do his mad genius thing while we looked on helplessly, and inept, but he didn't. Dan was an open hearted and generous teacher, a natural artist who has been drawing the human form all of his life. He even teaches primary students a few days a week; a most congenial and approachable chap with a subtle sense of humour with a way of moving people upwards to their goals in their work.
If I had not seen him whip up a perfectly proportioned full length map of himself from an iPad photo in seconds (see photos above) which he took an hour earlier in the car park, I would have thought he had engaged some sort of projector trick. His life drawing skills are hypnotising. He knows what a body does instinctively; where it bends, how it flays, bends and saunters, even from a distorted selfie taken from the oil stained pavement.
We sat in our chairs in awe sipping tea and nibbling Arnotts assorted, as he worked only a nose length away from the cardboard box propped up against the wall. His digital device was in one hand and the brush in the other, as he zoomed in and out of the photo, and stroked and slashed blobs and dashes of paint, diving in and out of the water and the Bunnings sample pots.
After an hour he stepped back, (for the first time) and answered our silly questions without once appearing annoyed. We were all seated on folding chairs a few metres back from his cardboard wall, where an artist might normally stand to survey his work, and it all made sense to us ... a Dan Man was clearly emerging out of the mess of fleshy tones. That was until we moved up closer to the image - standing where he was working from. All that we could see was a mass of marks. Almost like big robust pointillism swamp. I am still in awe of how he was able to perceive what he was doing as if he was three metres away. After two hours, the portrait was spectacular I am sure you would agree.
He explained to us that his method of working on his own image (portrait) over and over is deliberate and allows him to focus more seriously on the use of paint, light and strokes rather than the subjects as a distraction. His sensual attention to being present to the magnificence of the most simple things is a lesson for the most ardent spiritual tosser. He has truly become a master painter and figure draftsman and I was delighted to be able to work under his eye.
Myself and fourteen other students worked for the two days on as many portraits as we could muster, using the method (if we chose) that he had shown us - of working on old cardboard with just 3 primary colours plus black and white. The strategy behind this is to remove the sense of preciousness from the act of painting.
Taking his lead of not painting a 'rosy' subject, I chose to paint my mum when she was struggling with the effects of Alzheimers. She was about halfway through at this stage. I know it's not a happy picture, but this was the place of the most intensity and these were the moments that I felt worried about how disconnected, lost and confused she must have felt.
I also painted a portrait of myself and other family members.
I have not put myself through the enjoyment of being a student in a workshop for a very long time if ever! However, given I am conducting workshops myself now, I have decided to also 'be a student' under other artists to learn from their teaching styles and also to see how it feels to be the student. I hope it will help me not only be a better artist, (we always benefit from learning from other artists), but also to help others as a teacher. It puts me in a far better pose - one of receiving so I can give, rather than just dishing it up.
It was so good to be with other artists sharing the fun, struggles, challenges, the relaxed atmosphere and to really loosen up in the process of painting. Dan's works is magnificent, his passion for his work tireless. That would be enough, but he has a generous and humble orientation towards helping others also, therefore the world is a better place and I could not have asked to work under a better teacher. See below some of the students working away. What always stuns me is that each person in that room had achieved a lifetime of something - and this was a room full of people who were there to learn something new, something difficult, in order to make the world a better place, because art just does.
The workshops are at Brisbane Painting Classes in Albion Brisbane, and I cannot recommend Yasmin and Marcel's business more highly. They have a great building, lots of space, friendly atmosphere, incredible location, and an excellent deal with a hotel just 5 mins away. I would just walk around the corner each day. I am heading back over for a bundle of workshops later in the year, and I can't wait.
Here is Dan's website, and Instagram @ dan_butterworth_artist
Dan's palette below! Four Bunnings sample pots in yellow, red, blue and black, and a bucket of gesso, alongside some crappy $2 shop brushes and a bucket of water.
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