The final painting above - 'REM Creatures' - 76x76cm Oil on Canvas
The TV show Colour in Your Life - with Graeme Stevenson will feature me painting this artwork below in my studio in Perth Hills. It will be aired on 9th August. See their website to check it out. Link above.
I start with the sketch (pre-drawn as it took ages to work out what was going to be in the painting!).
Then I will move through some tips and processes as I work to the end of the painting and with the magic of TV, it will be squished into a 24-minute program.
Graeme does a great job of talking with me about my motivations for my narrative work.
Below the images I discuss what inspired me to do the work, and then there is a nice Q&A with Graeme - where I talk about my childhood influences and other arty things. Its a sort of early biography.
Click on the image of the finished painting for a closer look. It is for sale.
First stage of the painting below - charcoal sketch
INSPIRATION FOR THIS PAINTING
Some of you might find my question session with Graeme quite interesting below.
I was born into an anti-intellectual working-class family of ‘battlers’ in Melbourne city. Since a young girl, I found that the creation of imagery – either through words or images helped me to negotiate my experiences with the external world that seemed contradictory to my inner reality. I discovered early that I could conjure up my own reality using drawings or poetry, in just the way I experienced it, and this gave me a modicum of sanity in what I perceived as a world gone mad. I did not do this work for anyone but myself in hidden diaries.
When I was growing up, the threat of nuclear annihilation was hurled at us on a regular basis over the radio and in the papers. This gave rise to me making an early judgment on who was in charge of running the world, and they were not to be trusted.
The view of my parents was that one should get out of lazy school and get a job once they turned fifteen and that was that. In high school, I excelled in social studies and history and was finding a very strong debating voice. I loved learning about how humans ticked and were motivated. It fascinated me. Unbeknown to me at this time, the school, knowing of our struggle street, offered my parents a full scholarship for me to attend an excellent private college, but my father threw it in the bin, citing ‘No daughter of mine is going to go to some fancy pants snooty college’. My mother told me decades later. I was very bright, had a questioning and enquiring mind, which would have easily moved into an intellectual type future.
I was strong-willed and longed for independence. I had run away several times, and my father threatened me with all sorts of things. I was at war with my father constantly and getting away from him is what mattered most to me. I quit school and moved out at sixteen.
The idea of becoming an artist would have been laughed at in my family culture. However, I would go to the Victorian State Gallery on my own now and again, not because I wanted to be an artist, - but in order to escape my world and sit in front of the huge Fredrick McCubbin paintings – imagining being inside them. ‘The Pioneer’, ‘Down on His Luck’ and ‘Lost’ completely swallowed me. Then I would head down to the museum and become lost in the stuffed birds and snakes, and ancient artefacts. The Museum was like a church for me and had the same aura of religiosity when I was there.
After six months or so working in a factory, I decided to leave the city, which I hated, despite never having gone bush. I got on the train and went to Adelaide. From there an employment agency lied about my age so I could take a job at the Nullarbor roadhouse in the South Australian desert as a general all-rounder, pumping fuel, cleaning rooms and general kitchen hand work. I soon left the comfort and safety of the roadhouse to join the hunters camped further up the track in a remote outstation. I became a trapper, skinner, excellent shooter, and later a jillaroo, fencer and station cook. That was the start of my love affair with the desert, which went on for another ten years where I worked in the deserts of South Australia, Northern Territory, and West Australia.
Ironically, during these ten years, I rarely painted. For most of the time, I was living in very remote and wild country where there were no services or civilisation for hundreds of miles. Daily life was filled with the kind of tasks one might have seen the early settlers and explorers engaged in, from sourcing and retrieving water, hunting food, making fires, cooking and surviving on very simple resources. Life was creative enough in itself. We had work to do, be it the earlier years of hunting which was done in the night, the building of bronco yards using only trees from nearby creeks, or following cattle and camels around the place, in between making camps and fixing gear with rudimentary tools.
In my ‘spare time’, I often wandered across the deserts with my dog for hours alone, picking up the bleached skulls of animals, and strange ancient gibber stones and other artefacts. One forms a sense of belonging, and I was never lost or fearful in that country. I was completely at home – nature could be trusted, she was my friend, despite her dangers. If one applied respect and common sense, you lived. These were the happiest years of my life. I felt no need to draw or write, as I imagine being in this wild country for me brought about a deep peace of mind.
It was not for another five or so years, after I had met my husband to be, and was forced to live in a domestic house in Broome in the North West of Australia, where his trucking business was based that I picked up the brush again. I didn’t like living in the town, even though the population was only 3,000 people. I wonder sometimes that for me, painting is a medicine that I go to when I am frustrated and need to manifest to make myself feel sane and balanced. The creation of worlds which one can do as an artist is a very different motivation to the artist trying very hard to replicate what he see’s in front of him, which is more like perfecting a craft. Hopefully, artists don’t forget their capacity and just become manual clever camera’s on their canvas when they can do so much more for the world's imagination. A landscape painter can do so much more if he or she sets out to not just paint that beauty in front of him, but to interact with it emotionally and try to put this into his work – we are not camera’s, we are dreamers.
Once I started painting in my late twenties out of frustration, things moved very quickly and many more stories evolved to where I am today. Once I started painting with an orientation to showing the work, and not just doing it in diaries for my own need, people liked what I did, they liked my love of the outback and the interesting characters I brought into my work. They wanted to buy that work, and so paid for it, which encouraged me to continue painting. During this time of my life, I was very entrepreneurial as well as being a painter, and opened my own galleries and started publishing/printing my work. These things took up allot of energy. However – my reason for painting was more to do with that I had become ‘an artist’ in the world, and not Helen. The hardest part through my thirty years being a professional artist since has been to remember my intrinsic story.
It is very easy for a long-standing successful artist to start to feel disenchanted about their work when the extrinsic forces demanding their work (a paying audience) take away the sacredness the artist began with. Many artists reach this dangerous passage after decades of success. This passage of finding my way back to my own inner reason for painting has been the hardest of all in my entire career. It has taken much soul searching, walking in the woods, and shutting off of the accolades that have been so good to me in order to continue with honesty and integrity.
I revert to my CV now to show you how good art has been for me and why it’s very hard for an artist to shut all this down to find themselves again in their late fifties amidst all that ‘glory’ without throwing it all away. For me I have had to go back to my time when I was a young woman walking in the desert – feeling intensely creative, a dog or two at my side, without even a brush or pen in my hand. Out of this, as I get off the worn tracks and walk across the wilderness again a new journey and motivation is evolving for me as a painter in my older age. It’s about making it your own journey again instead of your reputation or fame dragging you along by the foot.
As cliche as it sounds, I am completely inspired by the human condition and the idea that we all have access to an ancient memory. Some have worked out how to access it (I spent years with the Jungians and learned all about how to get closer to that. I did a Masters degree later in life in my early 40’s and this gave me a much deeper understanding of the connection of our dreams to ancient memory and story/mythology. It changed my life. I had always been deeply interested in the human struggle, but this showed me how much it matters. I am turned on by the power of nature, animals – because they ground us down to reality, and historic stories, showing how similar we are to each other in our fundamental fears, and needs and hopes. I like showing the irony of our condition and love poignancy that is best captured when observing animals with humans. People are really quite scary, and unpredictable, despite them operating within ancient myths and patterns over and over (without them realising it). I am quite sure this explains why so many people prefer pets who just follow instinct!
I had no formal education. I don’t believe one needs to, other than an artist is limited in expression if he/she does not learn some basics such as colour theory, composition, drawing, and other basics. I taught myself through the study of the artists I loved at the time, where were the great Antipodean Australians from my very own hometown of Melbourne such as Albert Tucker, Arthur Boyd, and Joy Hester. It is important for any artist, as a beginner or later in their career to look up close at the best paintings in the state and national galleries or in your local galleries. To see the glazes, the textures and what makes work memorable is essential education. It seems that most artists I talk with who have done an arts degree have found it has not helped them pragmatically in their art all that much. Often the degree does nothing more than fill them up with limits through intimidation and glorifying of the arts institutions over the actual painting process. These artists still had to learn the craft of painting through much hands-on practice, doing and emulating other artists one admires, in exactly the same way as an artist without training.
I move between mediums often as I find it keeps me fresh and on edge. If you use one thing you get bogged down and lose the edginess of changing often. Don't get too comfortable. Changing mediums has a similar effect to changing where you paint or going on a short trip out of your studio. The change is good. I will use oil for a while, then when I find its too slow or I am getting bored or I just want to get a quick layering in a work, I will switch to acrylic because it dries so fast. I will also work in watercolour. I used to make sculptures in clay and wood, but find I just don’t have desire to do this now.
I have many awards under my belt. They are in my CV. The way I started my career was to enter every competition in my area for years until I won them. I got very bored with competitions and it was very hard to send works from Broome all the way to the big competitions in Sydney. I got an insight into the judging at some point and realised that it is very easy to not win something just because of the taste of the judge. Prizes should only be run where the public votes the winner. That is how a community should operate. I stopped entering because I saw too much of the inside of what was going on. Elites in the art world who have no real connection to the community and its zeitgeist should not be making the calls.
Not yet, but I have been looking at doing so soon. I am trying to work out the best thing for me to teach that would truly make a difference or add to the knowledge pool being offered. There are plenty of artists to teach ‘how to paint an apple’, but I am wondering if it might be best to teach artists how to connect with their intrinsic purpose, their inner mythology, what is really truly theirs, and theirs alone. How to find that through certain processes and approaches of becoming aware. When artists move into later years, they have a new set of spiritual problems to deal with. I am very interested in helping myself and others with this as we grow up into our new grumpy old bastard selves, devoid of all the ego baggage of younger days. We have different needs. We don't care about being famous anymore. But we still have creative work to do. It just gets more lazer focused because we don't have much time left to stuff around being big famous artists. I have a book in progress on this subject and imagine when it is complete, this would be a good time to begin teaching or helping others this area. I have set up my studio to do some workshops and may teach how to paint an apple yet! I think I am more interested in the psychology of how art works than the technique to be honest.
My favourite subject matter is the interface between animals, and their humans in the landscape. I love the ironies that come up in these relationships. I love the ancient reliability of these things. I like puzzles, and how to put something into my work that says what is driving us even if we don’t admit it. So that means I call upon all sorts of material. I spent some time a few years back working on bringing ancient stories and mythology into my work to demonstrate that we are essentially having the same human condition struggles as a five thousand-year-old king, Gilgamesh, experienced. I enjoy taking complex material and stories and linking this up to current time. I am known as a narrative painter, so I paint stories mostly.
I don’t get hung up on any techniques. I will use whatever is at hand. To me mediums and techniques are just tools. The real work is in the seeing and translating. In my eyes, whatever does the job is my favourite. I follow the proper practice rules for fat over lean in oil etc. Acrylic paint has meant that very few of these rules apply as the paint actually dries/cures quickly, unlike oil paint which takes months or years to cure. I will often put a wash in with thin acrylic to get a good quick tonal start. If I am painting a ‘serious painting’, I use oil. It allows me to use it – not it use me which I feel acrylic does. Acrylic is always saying – hurry up, snap decision. It is great if you want that of course. If I had to choose between oil and acrylic, I would choose oil hands down because of its colour and lusciousness. I love being able to manipulate it too... gives so much more scope for blending.
I have recently changed my entire strategy about galleries after many decades of working in top Australian galleries. With much painful procrastination – and that I have a good established direct client base, I have withdrawn from all but one very good integral gallery – Jahroc Gallery in Margaret River. I really needed to work with galleries in my early career, but now it does not make much sense. I have over the years set up my own blockbuster shows in great public spaces and hired a publicity person quite a few times, which works quite well. Of course this is what galleries are supposed to cover in their commissions, but I was finding they had stopped promoting other than the very rudimentary steps.
I will probably be using a very quick acrylic under painting (so it dries fast), a bit of charcoal, and then move to oils. I want to demonstrate a painting (this is quite typical for me) where I summon up unplanned imagery (forms) from the raw chaos of the underpainting. No major plan to start. I will probably pre-draw the charcoal sketch due to time restraints. A composition might take me many days as I think it through, draw a bit, rub it out, change it, and on and on it goes! I will then quickly need to switch back, to engage my understanding of composition and colour and other organising rules of painting which are more ‘left brain’ functions, to make sense of it all. I will go on to then be a relatively normal painter and paint the thing using various techniques with oil, blending, palette knife etc!
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