Embracing Realism

Embracing Realism

Tuesday, October 15, 2013 - 16:07

I came to painting relatively recently. I bought my first cheap canvas, crappy brushes and acrylic paint set a tad over three years ago, and dove head-first into a portrait.  However, despite my strong foundation in drawing, as a painter, I was clueless. I had very little idea about colour, brush technique or composition. I could make things look more or less realistic, but that was about it.

My artistic worldview three years ago was also very different to what it is now. My favourite artists were Brett Whiteley, John Olsen, Fred Williams; painters working at the edges of figurative art, who had a knack for twisting and turning their subject matter, reshaping it into an expressive, modern and original image. The way they dealt with landscapes particularly inspired me. At the same time, I was dismissive of anything realist. I didn't see the point in contemporary impressionist paintings (why bother rehashing what had been mastered by far better painters over one hundred years ago?), nor photo-realism (just take a photo!).

I think that my inability to appreciate these styles was largely due to my lack of knowledge about painting. I was ignorant of focal points, of leading the eye over the picture, of building up colour in such a way that the viewer is tricked for a moment into thinking they can reach out into the canvas and pluck an apple off the table. The art of painting was lost on me.

For my first forays into landscape paintings, I was determined to create a unique vision of Australia in the way that Whiteley, Olsen and Williams had. I worked quickly, on board, applying paint thinly, and combining different media. A holiday to the Flinders Ranges about six hours north of Adelaide greatly inspired me, and I enthusiastically set out on a series of semi-abstract paintings of billabongs and deserts.

I was rather happy with the results of these paintings. I had a number of sales, and even managed to secure my first solo show at a reputable Adelaide gallery. (This was not to be, however, as the gallery went belly-up a few months later).

In April 2012 I set off for France to spend time with my wife, Colline. Colline comes from a lovely little town in Provence called L'Isle Sur La Sorgue, famous for its antiques and water-wheels. Motivated by the small amount of success I had achieved with my billabongs and deserts, I was eager to expand my landscape vocabulary and delve into painting scenes from this beautiful part of France. Unfortunately, however, I failed. Again and again. I painted, repainted and rerepainted different landscapes but nothing worked. I was exasperated. I spoke about my problems to my Dad, a retired art teacher, and he suggested that I try going back to basics; that I abandon, for the time being, the idea of trying to create a unique vision of Provence, and that I simply try to paint realistically, as I see it.

I did not take my Dad's advice. Well, not straight away, anyway. I muddled on, until late 2012, when I attempted my first rather clumsy paintings of Provence in a more realistic style. I persisted, painting both French and Australian landscapes, all the time developing my craft and growing as a painter. Each painting was its own invaluable lesson. I had to learn how to paint clouds, trees, creeks - fundamental parts of the landscape I had previously glossed over or tried to stylise. I was embracing realism.

Finally, early this year, I began painting French landscapes I was proud of. I was not changing the face of landscape painting, but I felt that I was at least creating strong, honest pictures which in some way captured rural France. I could not have guessed that today I would be painting in a style which I neither particularly liked nor understood when I started painting three years ago. 

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