Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Late Nights and Lost Weekends

After enrolling in a science degree mid-year, I've spent the past three months at university on an emotional roller-coaster ride, hanging on for grim death! To stick with the roller-coaster analogy, I've experienced sheer terror, blind panic and adrenalin-fuelled excitement - sometimes within the space of a single day - and have wondered at times whether my tired old brain and my tired old body are up to the task.

If nothing else, enforced abstinence from my woodwork and art hobbies has certainly boosted my motivation levels, and I'm really looking forward to making some sawdust and finally completing some paintings that have languished behind the art room door for months, if not years (take note Colette Therialt!). 

I have a lengthy summer break from university ahead of me and, with the benefit of one semester's study behind me, I'm in a much better position to assess my priorities and think about my future. Studying towards a three-year degree on a part-time basis means I have another five or six years of study ahead of me; after factoring in my heightened stress levels, lost income and the frightening fees I'll incur, my immediate inclination is to accept that I've left it a little late in life to be embarking on such a journey. On the other hand, I've enjoyed the learning process, the opportunity to make new friends, and the satisfaction I've derived from the results all those late nights and lost weekends have earned me. 

Partner Sandi deserves lashings of credit for her unwavering support and patience with this often withdrawn, sometimes grumpy student over the past few months!

Cheers Pete

Sunday, May 6, 2012

On the Home Stretch

All that remains is to sift through my photographs of Black-Footed Rock Wallabies to find one that suits this scene. The photo that prompted this painting includes a wallaby, but I think there are better poses to choose from among my other photos.

As well as adding a wallaby, I'm sure I'll fiddle with the foreground just a little before I call it done. Whichever wallaby I choose, I know where it will be positioned and I've left the back wall of the cave a little lighter there to provide some latitude for fine tuning as a final step.


Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A Last Look at the Sun - Progress

After a recent mid-week public holiday I decided that as I'd enjoyed the time off so much, an additional day off was a good idea - another advantage of self-employment! I spent a good portion of the day working on the painting pictured here.

Black-Footed Rock Wallabies are certainly appealing creatures - they're worthy painting subjects in their own right and will feature prominently in this painting - but,  above all else, it's the dramatic late afternoon light in the reference photo that attracted me to this scene. The abrupt transition from the brightly sunlit rock face surrounding the cave entrance to the foreground area in shadow caught my eye and I hope I'm able to convey this aspect of the subject convincingly. What concerns me a little is that the viewer may not "get it"; I'm tempted therefore to hint at the time of day when I assign a title to this piece - "A Last Look at the Sun" is currently at the top of my short-list.


Sunday, April 15, 2012

Memories of a Special Place

These words and photographs are several years old, but with thoughts of Western Australia's Yardie Creek drifting into my consciousness with increasing frequency of late, it seems perfectly reasonable to revisit them. I hope you'll forgive this little indulgence!

A favourite activity when Sandi and I visit Cape Range National Park is paddling our kayaks up Yardie Creek. The creek is tidal, and although the navigable portion extends inland barely one kilometre, the abundance of birdlife - particularly towards the end of the day - makes it an enjoyable experience and a fantastic way to add to my collection of reference photographs. Add to that the likelihood of seeing black-footed rock wallabies along the rock walls bordering the creek and it's no wonder we return year after year. Invariably, it's memories of the creek which seduce us into packing the vehicle, hitching up our camper van and facing the 1200 kilometre drive north yet again.

When the last tourist coaches have departed for the day, we like to think of the creek as our very own sanctuary; there's something immediately calming about entering the creek after the short paddle to the creek mouth from our beachside camp. After negotiating the shallow sandbars at the entrance, we paddle into deeper water and find ourselves surrounded by schools of large mullet which seem to delight in launching themselves out of the water just metres from us.

As we continue upstream, the rock walls on either side grow in height and in the early evening take on an other-worldly ruddy glow, almost as if they have their own internal light source. After numerous visits here, we know in advance where to keep an eye out for rock wallabies but we often hear the squabbling family groups before we actually spot them above us.

As we pass the mangrove-covered island and reach the bend in the creek, we check whether the huge nest perched precariously under a rock overhang is occupied. The resident osprey is often home by this time, but may still be at the creek mouth, perched on top of one of the navigation markers there or bathing in the shallows following a fishy evening meal.

As we paddle onwards, stopping frequently to soak up the atmosphere, the acoustics continually enchant us. If we're lucky, butcher birds are calling to one another, their haunting flute-like songs echoing between the rock walls. In such a setting, Sandi and I find ourselves whispering to one another involuntarily and dipping our paddles as silently as we can manage, as if any unnecessary noise would break the spell. In stark contrast, when the little corellas arrive in pairs to roost for the night, there's a deafening cacophony of raucous squawking which seems almost sacrilegious given our magical surroundings.

By the time we're forced to leave by the encroaching darkness, most of the creek's inhabitants have taken up station for the night. Noisy mangrove herons are often present among the mangrove roots, searching in earnest for one last fish, and reef egrets and cormorants have usually claimed their favourite rock ledge or crevice. Overhead, swallows and rainbow bee-eaters swoop and dive as they take advantage of the frenzied evening insect activity.

With such a flurry of activity, there's little wonder so many of my recent wildlife paintings have been inspired by our visits to Yardie Creek. I'm sure we'll be unable to resist the urge to visit again in the years to come.


Friday, March 23, 2012

An Afternoon's Work

I slipped away from work at noon today and spent a pleasant afternoon working on this painting. I darkened and refined the cave walls on the left-hand side of the cave entrance and made a start on the sunlit rock face after experimenting on some paper off-cuts to establish the colour mixes I'll use.     

The colours are pretty intense, but I think they're close to what I want to achieve; I can always knock them back with some darker glazes as a final step if I feel it's necessary.

I tend to flit from one area of the painting to another, but my lack of discipline doesn't seem to be having any adverse effects - so far, so good!


Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Inside the Cave

As the image below shows, I've started applying layers of colour to define the interior of the cave as authentically as I can.

Cameras being the liars they are, the cave walls in my reference photographs appear very dark and almost featureless, but I know that reflected light from the harshly lit exterior is finding its way into the cave revealing various crevices and folds of rock. As the painting progresses, I'll be in a better position to assess how much the cave walls should be darkened and where it might be appropriate to apply warmer coloured glazes over the illuminated areas within the cave. I know I'm tip-toeing a little, but until I develop the painting more fully, I'm happy to take a cautious approach.  


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Rock Art

I'm embarrassed to note that it was some 14 months ago that I wrote of my intention to resurrect an old painting subject featuring a black-footed rock wallaby surveying his neighbourhood from the mouth of a cave. As I very belatedly turn those good intentions into actions, I'm conscious of the fact that my enthusiasm for a painting can often fade as work progresses. However, as the original reference photo and the concept it gave rise to date back to 2008 in this case, I can take heart from the fact that I'm still enthusiastic about the subject matter despite the passage of so much time.

An earlier attempt at this painting failed to meet my expectations and I abandoned it at the half-way point - a not uncommon occurrence! Although the canvas ended up behind the art room door with my other rejects, the inspiration for it survived intact; I always knew I'd revisit the idea, which is as much about the play of late afternoon light on the rock face as it is about a wallaby in a cave. With that in mind, when Sandi and I visited the area twelve months after I took the original photo, I made sure I took several more photographs at the same time of day, paying particular attention to the right-hand side of the cave entrance which the earlier photos had failed to capture completely.

It could simply be indecision on my part, or perhaps particular subjects and the way I envisage them as paintings drives the choice to use particular mediums, supports and techniques. Whatever my motivation in this instance, it's hard to dismiss the advantages of developing a range of approaches I can call on as I contemplate each painting subject.

In the case of this painting, I'm on the verge of completing a fairly detailed preparatory drawing on rough 640gsm Arches paper, after which I'll erase the grid lines and lighten the pencil drawing as much as I dare before coating the paper's surface with acrylic sealer. That done, I'll begin to apply heavily diluted, scumbled washes of acrylic paint, "sneaking up" on the final colours and tonal values as I do so. With this approach I have something in common with the watercolourists: when mixing colours, I avoid the use of white paint which would render the paint opaque. As a result, I need to be constantly on guard against overshooting the mark with my tonal values - there's no easy way back if they become too dark in a particular area. Problems in that regard have been the main reason I've explored other more forgiving techniques in recent times.

I certainly haven't discarded the oil painting of the reef egret I began a short time ago, but acrylic paint and the techniques I've described are the closest thing I have to a "comfort zone" and will hopefully provide the confidence boost I feel I need if I'm to continue exploring less familiar mediums and methods from time to time.


Friday, March 9, 2012

The Call of the Easel

As I've mentioned recently, it's necessary that Sandi and I remain in the city for the time being. The location of the house we purchased late last year was a significant factor in our choice and points to our shared love of wildlife and the bush. The flats and riverine reserve indicated above are within easy walking distance of our home and act as a haven not just for us, but for the local bird-life too.

Through these past summer months I've made the half-hour trip into the city and have managed to be at my desk by 7am. I'm not a natural early-riser and this arrangement isn't quite ideal, but the opportunity to leave work at 3pm allows me to put the remaining daylight hours to good use and is a compelling reason to continue this routine. Whether I'm able to drag myself out of bed at 6am as winter approaches and the days shorten remains to be seen!

Many of the recent photographs I've been able to collect would not have been possible without the use of our kayaks. We can strap a pair of wheels to each of them and walk them to our launch spot at the nearby weir in the space of 15 minutes. With the wheels stowed behind us under the bungee-cord on the kayak decks, we're no sooner in the water than photo opportunities begin to appear.

The hum of traffic in the background is a constant reminder that the city is close by, but there are occasional lulls and we can sometimes forget briefly that the suburban sprawl lies just beyond the riverside vegetation. The illusion of solitude is enhanced somewhat when we choose to paddle downstream towards the bridges where the river is at its greatest distance from the surrounding roads and houses. 

Although the process of collecting these images is a worthwhile activity in its own right, the photographs are not an end in themselves; as I sort through them after the kayaks are safely stowed away, I discard the majority of them and mentally short-list those I feel would make worthy painting subjects. I've owned my new camera for a short time, but have already gathered a wealth of useful reference material and received a much-needed boost to my enthusiasm levels where turning some of them into paintings is concerned.



Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Egret Emerges

After labouring over the rock wall in the early stages of this piece then having few opportunities to make progress over recent weeks, it was a welcome indulgence today as I took time out from rejuvenating our newly-acquired house and garden to turn my attention - prematurely perhaps - to the primary subject of the painting.

So far, I've managed to restrict my colours to combinations of ultramarine and burnt sienna, with titanium white making an appearance as I begin to establish the modelling of the egret's body and wings. Not only does a restricted palette such as this help bind the painting together, but with unavoidably long breaks between painting sessions, there's no chance I'll be unable to remember how I created a particular hue!

Ultimately, the success of this painting will hinge on my ability to convincingly portray the strongly backlit wing of the egret. Of course, even if I achieve that aim, I accept that the unusual composition is likely to meet with a mixed reception!


Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Keeping Down the Noise

Red Wattlebird
If there's one aspect of my artistic endeavours that's frustrated me more than any other over recent years, it's the difficulty I've had acquiring acceptable photographic reference material.

Photographs usually provide the initial inspiration for my painting ideas and, although I'm too often a slave to them in the sense that I stick very closely to what it is they depict, there's no denying their importance as a creative tool.

Perhaps if I painted landscapes or my painting style was looser, the ideas my photographs spark would be reward enough for time spent with camera in hand. The fact is, however, that for better or worse I'm inclined to include a significant level of detail in my paintings, and with a focus (no pun intended!) on wildlife subjects, I'm heavily reliant on my photographs to reveal anatomical details or the lay of fur and feather.

Until now, I've often been disappointed with the quality of my photographs, particularly those taken in low light that lack necessary detail in shadow areas and are invariably afflicted with those extravagantly coloured flecks and specks referred to in the photography world as "image noise". To be fair to my camera, the lack of a really long focal length lens has contributed too; instead of providing a close-up view of the detail I'm seeking, enlarging my photographs using software on my laptop serves only to exaggerate these flaws - and heighten my frustration levels!  

I'm confident that a recent purchase in the form of a semi-pro Canon digital camera and a couple of high-end L-series Canon lenses will increase my success rate. I accept that I'll continue to take my fair share of blurred and otherwise useless shots, but it's much more likely now that they'll be attributable to "operator error" or uncooperative wildlife rather than inadequate equipment.

New Holland Honeyeater
The shots I took this evening in low light as I put this camera through its paces are incredibly clear and crisp, and the noise that plagued many of my photographs in the past is virtually absent, even with camera settings that have typically guaranteed poor clarity and the aforementioned noise. Both of the lenses I've purchased feature Canon's "Image Stabilisation" technology which further improves the chances that even shots taken in fading light without a tripod will yield useful results.

Brown Honeyeater
I plan on posting more samples from time to time as familiarity and confidence with this new camera grow. As the photos displayed here were taken in my back garden this afternoon within an hour or two of receiving the second and longest of my lenses, I'm excited by the prospect of gathering some high-quality shots; I've already short-listed some potential wildlife habitats I'd like to explore over the weeks ahead. It goes without saying that the longer term plan is to feature some new paintings based on the ideas they provoke.