© Samantha Groenestyn

(Preparatory thumbnail drawing for current painting) © Samantha Groenestyn

While people readily brand drawings and paintings that look like something (representational, rather than purely abstract, art) as ‘realistic’ or ‘classical’, or, god forbid, ‘photographic,’ a word I seldom hear is ‘naturalistic.’ Where ‘realistic’ makes an appeal to the convincing appearance of things, ‘classical’ seems more a turning away from progressive and modern ideas. ‘Photographic,’ the least inspiring, removes this art another step from reality and our physical experience of things and likens the art to a mechanical process of mortifying a slice of time. None of these sound appealing—to be literal, anachronistic, or technologically redundant.

Naturalism is historically associated with variations on realism, often in reaction against more lofty subject matter or aggrandised themes, and sometimes attempting to align itself with the objectivity of the natural sciences. To baldly generalise, naturalist art historically set out to represent the physical world accurately and convincingly, but the word seems to carry some useful nuances not regularly referred to anymore. There is no weight of reality, of an appeal to existential absolutes, of universal correctness. Reality is a philosophically contested concept, and to describe one’s painting by appealing to reality is a frighteningly bold claim, and most likely metaphysically extravagant. A much more sensible and intellectually guarded claim would be to simply say, ‘I paint as accurately as I can the external world as it appears to me through my senses.’ Whatever may or may not exist or turn out to be real or true or foundational, it seems perfectly reasonable to represent one’s experience of the world within the limits of one’s ability to perceive it. A word like ‘naturalistic’ seems to capture this idea, describing the natural process of photons hitting retinas as well as the image this process imprints on the brain.

Further, this seems an eternal project, as photons continue endlessly to pummel retinas, and people continue to experience the world through their senses and to depict that experience accurately. This isn’t something reserved for a particular time in history, when all the important a priori truths were hammered out and proved by means of classical logic by muscular toga-clad types, but it seems like an ongoing project in which people of all times validly express the experience of their intersection with the physical world at a particular place and time. ‘Looking, seeing and constructing are specific to each generation,’ argues Nelson (p. 25); ‘they are conditioned by factors proper to the times, by inventions in optics and mechanical reproduction, but especially by aesthetic and social expectations about what people want to see.’

© Samantha Groenestyn

© Samantha Groenestyn

Perhaps instead of describing our work with words that are rather ill thought out antonyms of whatever is currently the mainstay of art, we should begin with our own intentions. When I look at modern drawings that fall closer on the spectrum to what I do—drawings of people that look like people, of objects that look like objects—there is something undeniably of their time about them. These people look like they belong to our time. Rubens’ people do not look like people that walk the earth today. They take on a magical sort of quality, a dreamlike appearance quite disconnected from my natural experience of the world. Was Rubens not as good as, say, contemporary American draughtspeople? Did he not know as much anatomy, or capture the personality of his subjects?

It stands out quite starkly to me that Rubens had a wildly different intent to people currently exploring naturalistic image-making. In fact, ‘naturalistic’ is not nearly the right word to describe Rubens’ representation of the world. His work, while representational, is highly imaginative, as Delacroix (p. 207) ruminates in his journals:

‘Rubens is a remarkable illustration of the abuse of details. His painting, which is dominated by the imagination, is everywhere superabundant, the accessories are too much worked out. His pictures are like public meetings where everybody talks at once. And yet, if you compare this exuberant manner, not with the dryness and poverty of modern painting, but with really fine pictures where nature has been imitated with restraint and great accuracy, you feel at once that the true painter is one whose imagination speaks before everything else.’

The natural world is not irrelevant to Rubens, but it is not king. It does not bound his work, or dictate what it may be, or determine his success by how accurately he creates an illusion of it. The natural world is a point of departure, a point of reference, an inspiration and in many ways a language or a framework—his painted worlds aren’t so far removed that our minds cannot compute them, and for the most part laws of gravity are obeyed (except by flying babies) and light acts predictably and bodies do not contort more than we would expect they are able.

Delacroix (p. 209) argues that ‘the imitation of nature … is the starting point of every school.’ He likewise considers it a matter of intent: does one intend to ‘please the imagination’ or to ‘obey the demands of a strange kind of conscience’? Rubens is faithful to nature to a point, but he doesn’t simply diverge from nature. He begins, rather, with an ideal, and wraps nature around this ideal as he sees fit, fleshing it out with great flourishes and enthusiasm. This act of imagination can never be out-dated or a boring relic of the past. It is reinvented by every living artist who grapples with the human form and its relation to the physical world, and it is this imaginative vision that contributes something new and meaningful to the tide of work that came before her. I am convinced that even naturalism will not get us out of this dirty little bind we’ve found ourselves in, but that idealism is a far stronger starting point.

© Samantha Groenestyn

© Samantha Groenestyn

In many ways, what I paint is certainly not natural, for I adapt the feel of the light to my idea of the mood of the piece, I morph the colours into a harmony that suits my purposes. I arrange the objects in improbable and thoroughly contrived ways to achieve pleasing compositional effects. I am not concerned with ‘capturing reality’ or presenting a truth to you. In fact, I openly present lies to you, carefully woven lies to manipulate your thoughts and emotions. Even in an interior, I am striving for an ideal, I am recreating my world through my imagination, and trying to show you the most fascinating bits of it.

And more—thinking this way changes the way that I draw, for my drawing ceases to be a task in accuracy, with nature as my assessor. Drawing becomes a powerful medium for new thoughts and new expressions; rather than functioning as a rather utilitarian exploratory tool it moves into the realm of visual poetry.

© Samantha Groenestyn

© Samantha Groenestyn

The ever-eloquent Delacroix (p. 208-9) says it so clearly:

‘The only painters who really benefit by consulting a model are those who can produce their effect without one. …

It is therefore far more important for an artist to come near to the ideal which he carries in his mind, and which is characteristic of him, than to be content with recording, however strongly, any transitory ideal that nature may offer—and she does offer such aspects; but once again, it is only certain men who see them and not the average man, which is proof that the beautiful is created by the artist’s imagination precisely because he follows the bent of his own genius. …

If therefore you can introduce into a composition of this kind a passage that has been carefully painted from the model, and can do this without creating utter discord, you will have accomplished the greatest feat of all, that of harmonising what seems irreconcilable. You will have introduced reality into a dream, and united two different arts.’

Let’s not lazily and belligerently appeal to reality, but let’s call on nature for a purpose, after we have determined our intent.



Delacroix, Eugene. 2010 [1822-1863] The journal of Eugene Delacroix. Trans. Lucy Norton. Phaidon: London.

Nelson, Robert. 2010. The visual language of painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.



La source

After Ingres, La Source

After Ingres, La Source

I have been thinking about how important it is to uncover one’s source. My dear friend Jacques has been in town, and his simultaneous lightness and solidity has been energizing. But it is not enough to rely on the buoyancy of others. I think of Ingres’ La Source, and of how she sustains herself: an endless spring, an infinite well needing no support.

Delacroix journal

Delacroix (p. 32) struggles, early in his journals, with a restlessness—‘This restlessness that comes over me almost every evening! Oh sweet contentment of the philosophers, why can I not capture you?’ He concludes, ‘I must never put off for a better day something that I could enjoy doing now. What I have done cannot be taken from me.’ Knowing that you have invested your energies and your time into something meaningful allows you to sustain yourself—independent of others, independent of circumstances—able to carry yourself, and pick yourself up, and nourish yourself. Delacroix (p. 29) muses, ‘Even one task fulfilled at regular intervals in a man’s life can bring order into his life as a whole; everything else hinges upon it.’


And so, I begin to look for the things that cut through everything else, the things I can return to, the things that I can build on day after day and thus build myself up. While Jacques is employed in a field of theoretical physics that keeps him wholly engaged and focused, thus finding a source in his work, I must fill the crevices left in my days with the things that energize me. Drawing stands out like a beacon. When I’m not drawing, it seems hard and important and worthy of time, too big and significant for snatches of moments. But once it slips into those snatches, it penetrates everything—bad moods, sadness, fatigue. I must depend upon my drawing. Philosophy, too—I remember the consolation it has given me, far deeper than any escapism offered by fiction. My quiet time over coffee, studying German, and practicing grammar, and gaining a mastery over something new and challenging. These things are solitary and unshakeable, and with them I can prop myself up, and build myself up. I must draw, and study, and think deeply, and I will be refreshed and strong enough to face the world.


Delacroix (p. 20) happened upon the same realisation: ‘Poor fellow!’ he chided himself. ‘How can you do great work when you are always having to rub shoulders with everything that is vulgar. Think of the great Michelangelo. Nourish yourself with grand and austere ideas of beauty that feed the soul. You are always being lured away by foolish distractions. Seek solitude. If your life is well ordered your health will not suffer.’


I am amazed that my sketchbook languishes when I know what it gives me! So few tools, and yet they give me the power to invert everything. It is like holding up a pitcher that never runs dry—what sorcery!


Later in life, Delacroix (p. 133) reflects on the source of his strength and peace, probing himself thus: ‘Why was it that I lived so fully on that particular day? Because I had a great many ideas that are miles away from me now. The secret of having no worries—at least where I am concerned—is to have plenty of ideas. Therefore I cannot afford to let slip any means of encouraging them. Good books have this effect, and especially certain books. Health is the first consideration, but even when one is feeling dull and tired these particular books can renew the source from which my imagination flows.’ Endlessly refreshed by Dante, and perpetually inspired by Rubens, Delacroix persevered with his work in spite of feeling ill, or tired, or distracted by companions. He struggled, but he knew himself well enough to bring himself through those struggles and focus on what was most meaningful to him—and, as we all hope to, to produce something enduring, the true offspring of that drive.


My friend and philosopher Mark muses, ‘I begin to suppose that life will never feel more real or more lively than it does right now, and if we ever want to do something great, we must do it feeling like this.’ I think he is correct in concluding that it won’t strike us like a bolt from the heavens, this energy that will propel us to greatness. He is right to feel we must push on through apathy. But if we can nurture that part of ourselves in secret, and find that quiet spring inside us, perhaps we can pull ourselves out of that foggy place by our own bootstraps.


James Dickey, to conclude:

You?    I?    What difference is there?    We can all be saved
By a secret blooming. Now as I walk
The night    and you walk with me    we know simplicity
Is close to the source that sleeping men
Search for in their home-deep beds.
We know that the sun is away    we know that the sun can be conquered
By moths, in blue home-town air.

(James L Dickey, The strength of fields)

Delacroix, Eugene. 2010 [1822-1863] The journal of Eugene Delacroix. Trans. Lucy Norton. Phaidon: London.


Painting: the lost virtue

After Caravaggio, Madonna of the rosary

After Caravaggio, Madonna of the rosary

The role of the artist is perhaps less clear than ever, and hence the motives of the artist are also something hazy and questioned. In centuries past, the artist performed practical and useful functions—depicting all manner of things from scholarly medical diagrams to religious narratives for the illiterate to portraits to be passed to posterity. It’s easy to imagine the artist’s role as comfortably integrated into society, a practical trade like any other.

Now that everyone reads, and photography quickly and cheaply records near anything we can imagine, there is no obvious need for someone to labour over manually producing our visual records. And since there is no need, the artist is expected to defend her chosen position, which appears to the modern mind superfluous and something of a luxury. In our pragmatic world, the deep conviction that you simply are a painter, and that above all you are compelled to paint, is unacceptable and as irrelevant as the painstaking work you produce, which, by the way, can I photograph it and tweet it to all my friends? #artistingallery #noway

Sunset painting 1

I think there are (to simplify) two breeds of artist: the kind that sees what has been done before and is inspired by it, and the kind that rejects it. This division seems to rest on how one perceives one’s role as an artist. The contemporary position seems uncannily aligned with—my inner Marxist rears her head—capitalism: and this should hardly be surprising, since capitalism flavours our most prevalent conceptions of value and most other aspects of our lives. The unshaking belief in progress is wed to capitalism, and drives our economies, our businesses, the funding of our scientific programs. A contribution is only made to the world in so far as one has ‘value added,’ which is specifically understood as having improved on what was already there. This mindset views history (art history included, it would seem) as a long, straight line trending ever upwards. I find this concept of historical improvement to be very troubling.

And I am not alone. It seems that, armed with this idea of improvement, many painters see the old masters and abandon this task completely. Why learn to draw if one cannot better Rubens? Why learn how to model form if one can’t hope to surpass Michelangelo? (Which in itself raises the interesting question, did Rubens surpass Michelangelo?) In despair at such a project, it seems sensible to sidestep it and simply do something else. To think of something clever and new, and succeed in novelty rather than skill. The artists who pursue such work must really have internalised this mindset of improvement, and hence see their role as an artist to contribute something value-added to the world. Producing more of the same at a standard of excellence does not fit with this progress-oriented view of value.

Sunset painting 2

Now I don’t study Rubens with the aim of becoming Rubens. I admire him endlessly, and hope to learn all I can from him. And he is not the only artist I mine for wisdom. No, when I dig deeper to understand how and why, and when I invest time in learning proportions of the figure and anatomy, it is not to imitate but ultimately to refine my own particular skills which will be expressed in my own way. I have other concerns than Rubens did, and I experience the world in a fundamentally different way than he did. These things are going to be apparent in my own work, and it will belong to its own time and place. Bryson (in Nelson, p. 177) argues that with the technical knowledge gained by the apprentice in the atelier, ‘as the painter takes up position before the canvas and begins to work, there is an encounter between this complex of practical knowledge and the new situation; under the pressure of the novel demands of the encounter the complex itself is modified and the tradition extended.’

Ah, now there is a word we can latch onto! Extended. This is the view that the first kind of artist I mentioned must take. This artist doesn’t go to look at the Van Dycks and think to herself, ‘I can improve on these!’ But she—wholly reasonably—sees them, admires them, and reflects that Van Dyck, that Rubens, that Michelangelo were mere mortals like herself who simply dedicated their whole lives to their perfectly respectable trade, worked hard and hence got very good at it, as can she. The focus is not on what went before and how to differentiate oneself or prove oneself measurably better, but rather on excellence itself. Excellence, rather than being tied to value, is associated with that old concept of virtue. It would be absurd to say, ‘I won’t aspire to honesty or integrity or courage, because they have already been done.’ Rather, the virtuous person cultivates these characteristics in himself in order to be as excellent as possible. The pursuit of excellence in his field echoes this. He refines his craft in order to be the best he can be, irrespective of what others are doing or have done.

Sunset painting 3

On this view, it doesn’t matter how much amazing art is already in the world. It didn’t matter to Veronese that he came to the party years after Titian, just as the chronology doesn’t matter to the art gallery visitor, who is dazzled by them side by side. They both contribute their own visions and in so doing contribute meaningfully to a long tradition of representational painting. This tradition is not exhausted so long as there are artists born in new times, experiencing new things and finding new positions to express with their own capacities and skills.

Is this appeal to excellence and thus virtue a moral imperative to extend the artistic tradition? Perhaps so. Perhaps to focus on value is to risk getting muddied in market-oriented ideas; perhaps thinking too hard about how one compares to others is a distraction from the real question of what you can do with what you have. Focusing on how you can improve yourself matters first; your contribution will be measured by this. If your motive as a painter is to pursue excellence in your field rather than to be better than everyone you ever heard of, you will probably also be more comfortable with your role as a painter, partaking in a long and esteemed tradition, not a fading craft.


Nelson, Robert. 2010. The visual language of painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.


The devil

Copy after Bartholomäus Spranger, Der Sündenfall

Copy after Bartholomäus Spranger, Der Sündenfall

It’s undeniable that the Dutch and Flemish painters particularly relished detail. When I look at their paintings I see the glee that sparkled in their eyes, thinking of the heavy texture of a rug and the crystal gleam of glass, the rumpled satin and copious strings of pearls—almost without a thought for their sitter. Every corner of the painting is precious space to be maxed out in all its textural glory. One squints in wonder at the precision with which paint is applied, with, one presumes, unimaginably tiny brushes. I’m a sucker for this. I don’t care if it’s showing off. I want to discover more and more.

Detail of Peter Paul Rubens

Holy fuck, detail of Peter Paul Rubens

There is a point, though, when detail becomes garish and visually distressing. It’s one thing to satisfyingly distinguish between course woven carpets and soft skin and silky garments, but another to be forced to train one’s eyes on pores and individual hairs and knuckle wrinkles. Hyperrealism is a visual torrent of truthful information that our eyes, when grappling with the real world, graciously blend into one viewpoint. We can’t concentrate on everything at once, and such paintings ask the impossible of us, forcing our eyes to train, hawklike, on every aspect at once. I’ve seen ceiling-high paintings that are like frightening projections of microscope slides of old people’s noses, and I have to say that I don’t think they are very clever. Has the artist a scientific interest in dermatology? Are they a failed biologist?

A broad simplification of this matter is summed up in the dichotomy of detail versus structure, which Nelson probes with some scepticism. Whence this dichotomy, he asks? Does it have its roots in ‘romantic versus classic? Instinct versus discipline? Liberal versus anal-retentive? Modernism versus tradition?’ (p. 145). I’m reminded of this Western inclination to equally partition things, divide them into ‘us and them,’ as Alice Jardine (in Walker 2009 p. 46) notes: ‘The question of “the couple” has become the object of contemporary philosophical fascination, where all metaphysical couples are in the process of being discoupled, recoupled differently and urgently: active/passive, form/matter, speech/writing, conscious/unconscious.’ Whether or not this coupling project is useful, it seems to hold our fascination, and has certainly been in my mind as I flit between the Dutch-German-Flemish and Italian-Spanish-French wings of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, unable to help engaging in comparative study.

Wöllflin (Nelson 2010 p. 145; 148) put forward this particular artistic and culturally ‘normatively informed’ coupling. According to his proposed division, Renaissance artists of the northern and more liberal regions are swamped in a glittering frenzy of detail, while their southern counterparts soberly attend to the structure of the entire image. Or perhaps the stiff and accurate detail is sober, and the giddy motion grows out of a compositional frenzy. In Nelson’s (p. 145-6) summarisation, ‘Whereas artists like Van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden, Robert Campin and Dürer fill their busy rectangles with copious detail in an even and democratic spread, artists like Giotto, Masaccio, Piero, Michaelangelo and Titian are interested in a single spatial proposition, with a key volumetric argument, usually centralised and tending to command a perspective of an ideal and single viewpoint.’

My own investigations have led me to believe it is not so simple as this. Certainly, I was amazed at the stiff simplicity of Titian’s (non-fur) drapery—the simple and ungraduated laying down of three tones in awkward triangular shapes. Where his faces were careful and smooth, his compositions focussed and kind to the viewer, his textures seemed sometimes a mere afterthought, an irrelevant feature that would only distract from his main pictorial assertion. And there is no denying the narrative motion inherent in a stunning painting by Strozzi, of the widow and her son with Elias, in which the textures are dampened and softened to great effect, letting the eyes marvel over the weight and presence of the subjects. And the Dutch brazenly flaunt the golden weave of baskets and the pink sheen of satin, and carefully delineate every leaf of a tree. Nevertheless, it seems more a question of degree and emphasis.

Detail of Bernardo Strozzi, The prophet Elias and the widow of Sarepta

Detail of Bernardo Strozzi, The prophet Elias and the widow of Sarepta

Where Van Dyck paints incredibly subtle yet expressive faces and positively floating angel garments, the detail in which he revels is supported by a strong and intentional composition. I am in awe of his Vision of the blessed Hermann Joseph with Mary, the centre of which forms a diagonal rectangle between the faces, with a three-dimensional convergence of the arms of Mary, Joseph and the helpful angel. The fourth head to the left completes a satisfying arc through the four, closing off the design in a tight fashion. Detail does not interfere with or stand in isolation from the structure; the two function far more dependently.

Copy after Peter Paul Rubens, Maria Himmelfahrt

Copy after Peter Paul Rubens, Maria Himmelfahrt

And when one considers the phenomenal Rubens, and his overwhelming visual cacophony of flying babies and intense if idealised character types, with their cascading hands, lavishly surrounded by exotic fruits, it seems that composition is equally in his mind, only with grander, more complex visions, interlocking countless tiny narratives. The voluminous flesh of his figures demonstrates more of a virtuosity with respect to the human form than a strict adherence to the truth of perception. His detail seems largely driven by questions of motion, unlike the more believable individuality of Van Dyck’s figures. A Rubens hand is above all engaged in some action, and mightily idealised; a Van Dyck hand belongs to its owner alone. As Nelson (p. 147) argues, the northern artists isolated by Wöllflin ‘nevertheless organised their fields fastidiously.’

Copy after Veronese, Lucretia

Copy after Veronese, Lucretia

Veronese expertly directs the viewer through the narrative of the painting, but not at the expense of lavish decoration—heavy brocade, gleaming jewels, deftly-woven golden hair—his Judith and Lucretia are in fine murderess getup (homicide or suicide), and this brings a certain theatricality to the tight but expressive compositions. One’s eyes feast on the jewels at their shoulders, drawn to the most brightly-lit part, and unquestioningly follow their arms—symbols of action, I speculate—to the bloody acts at their fingertips, cloaked in darkness.

Detail of Veronese, Judith

Detail of Veronese, Judith

Nelson wisely draws our attention back to the fact that the decisions we make as painters are based on perception, but ought not be enslaved by it. Every painter makes those decisions not only based on preference, cultural affiliations or schooled traditions, but in response to the stimulus itself. Perceptual art, he argues (p. 150), ‘is a poetic process of interpreting perception in order to make paintings and drawings. … The interest will always be in the strength of the image, the consistency of vision, the poetic agreements between the technique and the perception.’ Whichever camp sways you, your debt is to the subject alone.

Nelson, Robert. 2010. The visual language of painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.

Walker, Michelle Boulous. 2009. ‘Writing couples: Reading Deutscher on Sartre and Beauvoir.’ In Crossroads IV(1): pp. 45-52.


Glass House Mountains

© Samantha Groenestyn

© Samantha Groenestyn

I was fortunate enough to accompany one Tim Miller to the Glasshouse Mountains just north of Brisbane this past week for a spot of landscaping. Tim is an artist well-versed in the particulars of light and colour, and has a formidable body of pastel landscape work behind him. He drove up from his Rockley Studio just outside Bathurst in New South Wales to guest teach at the Atelier for several weeks.

Glass House

Unfazed by the intermittent rain, he set up his box easel in the covered lookout and gleefully set about capturing the ever-changing scene before us—clouds sometimes obscuring the volcanic plug mountains, perched like corks in wine bottles in the red earth, rain sometimes washing the whole view into a pale smear except for the bright green of the scraggly trees directly in front of us. I’m none too familiar with landscaping, so I was happy to watch and to draw, thinking about shapes and layers and tones.

Glass House 1

I took a class with Tim later in the week and learned a thing or two about neutralising colours as they recede while reducing tonal contrast, as well as watching him demonstrate painting a still life. Tim thinks in a relative way about colour, considering how ‘red’ a blue is and how this will shift a hue in a particular way, allowing him to minimise the number of paints in a mix.

You can still take a class with him, next Tuesday evening or Thursday!

c Tim Miller

© Tim Miller


Naples and Madrid


I picked up a book of vintage knitting patterns from the Woolloongabba Antique Centre a little while ago, and made this light cardigan called Naples from some cotton I got in Paris a few years ago. It was well worth unravelling the ill-thought-through cable polo shirt I originally made out of it in exchange for this 1940s lace affair.

Napoli back

It was my first effort at a lace pattern, and there were only a few minor angry words at the beginning, and only a couple of minor beer-and-knitting altercations at the pub–but nothing that couldn’t be fixed in the morning.

Beer and drawing

Another excellent combination: beer and drawing on the veranda. Here I am making a copy of one of Antonio Lopez’s beautiful drawings.


The unsayable

Lambert sketches

Copies after George W Lambert, at the Art Gallery of NSW and at the Julian Ashton Art School

An especially excellent thing about spending all my time at the Atelier is that I get to rub shoulders with a host of talented artists who have approached their careers in a variety of ways. The Salisbury Studios are aligned with and located at the school, and on any given day I can wander into someone’s studio and learn something about their work, and their approach to their work. Since I’ve become a part of the furniture there, no one seems to mind my evident curiosity and occasional (invited) snooping.

I recently spent a little time pottering around Kay Kane’s studio, admiring a portrait of an academic she had recently completed, as well as some lush, misty landscapes at various stages of layering. Kay’s work is usually on a large scale, very grounded in drawing from life, and the often multi-panelled works are carefully composed arrangements of enclosing shapes echoing real Queensland landscapes, painted in oils in airy hues. The vastness of the paintings envelope the viewer, drawing you into Kay’s peaceful haven.


Three panels from The Restoration of Venus © Kay Kane

Kay works at the Queensland College of Art (QCA), where her representational approach to art is, as I understand it, not especially respected. It’s alarming to learn of the battles a representational artist faces in the modern art world, but reassuring to see skilful and established artists like Kay standing their ground and being true to their convictions regardless. Her career, then, has been an academic one as well, which sees her jetting off to California to present papers on misogyny in art, as well as teaching at a university and submitting exegeses of her own. She gave me a copy of her Doctor of Visual Arts exegesis to read, which made for some pleasant breakfast reading in Sydney, and gave me plenty to think about.

Kay's thesis

Titled The restoration of Venus: The nude, beauty and modernist misogyny, her paper largely deals with the place of beauty in art, and whether the modern artist can include the undeniable beauty of the female nude in her visual repertoire to any meaningful end. The project grew out of her ‘persistent interest, not only in pursuing traditional modes of art practice, but in creating works intended to be beautiful. … If I seek beauty in my own work,’ she explains, ‘it is because it is there in the world to be found’ (p. 29)—and, perhaps, to be found for a reason. I would add to her sentiment that of Elaine Scarry (p. 81) in her treatise On beauty and being just: ‘It is as though beautiful things have been placed here and there throughout the world to serve as small wake-up calls to perception, spurring lapsed alertness back to its most acute level. Through its beauty, the world continually recommits us to a rigorous standard of perceptual care: if we do not search it out, it comes and finds us.’

Surrounded by artists who feel similarly about beauty, it’s easy for me to forget that the broader art world is concerned with things it might consider ‘higher’ than beauty, wrapped up as I am in my philosophical ideas on truth, beauty and good. Scarry (p. 58) writes of the fear that beauty distracts from real issues, from political injustices that art could help rectify if we weren’t so busy admiring the world and others, an argument she seeks to knock down. While her reasoning is less than rigorous, her intentions are noble, and align with my view that there is a place for creators of beauty in a world polluted with injustice: ‘It seems almost inconceivable that anyone with affection for human beings could wish on them so harsh an edict, permitting only perceptions that bring discomfort’ (p. 60). We must live towards some end, some beautiful end, not be forever evading an unpleasant present.

Kane recognises that art need not be beautiful to constitute art, but argues that shunning beauty in preference for these harder issues ‘did not succeed in expunging the human desire for and responsiveness to beauty.’ Further, as beauty was pushed aside in fine art, it resurfaced elsewhere, and the female form was carried along with it: becoming ‘more blatantly deployed, often in debased form, in popular culture. … It has never ceased to exert its power and fascination at the level of popular consciousness’ (abstract; p. 24). She seems to imply that were artists not ashamed to embrace the genuine beauty of the world and of people, to present something powerful and moving in a positive sense, to appeal to the visual hunger of the broader public for something delightful to the eyes, though not shallow and not a flashy veneer, that such artists would be responding to something very real and relevant in the human condition. Taking up this mantle might even prevent this desire from falling to cheaper, more vulgar incarnations. In denying something so fundamental to human nature, art has itself contributed to the devaluation of beauty. Art, then, is in a position to restore meaning and worth to beauty, and to bring it again before our eyes in a more intellectual and enduring way than popular culture might.

Drawing after Isabel Bishop

Copy after Isabel Bishop

Aside from considering the role of beauty in art, Kane describes at great length her actual method of creating her works, an enlightening insight. Much attention is given to composition, with ‘links in chains of bodies’ sweeping through and connecting the landscape and figures. These links ‘may be obvious continuities like linked hands, successions of arms, clusters or groups of forms. They may also be articulated by tonal pathways or continuities or echos of colour from one shape to the next’ (p. 40). Other compositional links are ‘purely notional’ or ‘invisible connectives’: ‘the vector of a pointing finger, or a glance bridging a wide interval, or a particular patterning of feet’ (p. 40). Kane’s deliberations on these connectives recalls to my mind Robert Nelson’s (p. 12) claim that ‘composition is an expressive resource, not a formalist absolute, … it relates not just to the subject matter but to the construction of space and hence drawing.’

Drawing is, for Kane, fundamental to art. ‘It is in drawing above all that one learns to see,’ she asserts, citing Robert Henri: ‘It is harder to see than to express’ (p. 30). There is an intentionality to drawing, in that it forces one to internalise what is seen and to reconstitute it on paper by a series of decisions. Nelson (p. 54) argues that ‘drawing is all about decisions,’ and, further, that it ‘involves authority.’ One draws to elucidate, to describe, to understand, and in so doing one must make decisions about what the crucial elements are that lay before one’s eyes. ‘Your decisions about what is important and your choices to manifest this or that designate your power to stipulate what must be seen’ (p. 54). Kane’s project is grounded in perception of, observation of and representation of the external world and the beauty it continually sets before us, rather than some inward ideas or unbridled expression.

This brings us to the least tangible, but perhaps most profound element of her work: the notion of the unsayable. This idea strikes a chord with me, as well it might with anyone with a deep love of music. Any musician can testify that music is compelling in its capacity to say things without words. It doesn’t say clear or mundane things, like, ‘can you please wash the dishes,’ unless you set such lyrics to it. But notes and timbre and chord progressions speak to a languageless part of us and say those things which we struggle to put into words. Art can have this quality. While some art is intended to represent words or concepts, or to narrate a story (and I am thinking of illustration), some art speaks to us in purely visual ways. Something about a painting can just sing. This is not to say that words are irrelevant or less important, but simply that there are other ways to connect with people. Kane (pp. 29-30) cites Walter Sickert who aptly remarks: ‘If the subject of the picture could be stated in words there would be no need to paint it.’

Kane suggests that an artwork’s meaning, far from resting in a lengthy artist’s statement, might lie solely in this wordless, purely visual resonance. She urges us to accept that some things are simply unsayable and we ought to let art step up and do what only it can do. ‘By trying to reduce what is essentially unsayable to handy formulas of trite categorisations,’ she argues, ‘one risks being untrue to work whose meaning, if it has any, lies wholly within itself and nowhere else’ (p. 1). I think she really wants to say that art is eighty percent science, twenty percent magic—and this captures something very profound and too often disregarded.

Kane, Kay. 2010. The restoration of Venus: The nude, beauty and modernist misogyny. Queensland College of Art, Griffith University (Doctor of Visual Arts exegesis).

Nelson, Robert. 2010. The visual language of painting: An aesthetic analysis of representational technique. Australian Scholarly Publishing: Melbourne.

Scarry, Elaine. 1999. On beauty and being just. Princeton University Press: Princeton.


Mad drawing-demon


I’ve just returned from the sparkling shores of Sydney Town, where I spent an action-packed week, a week bursting at the seams, getting my fill of all things art at the Julian Ashton Art School. I signed up for an intensive week and went every morning, afternoon and evening and drew like a woman possessed by a mad drawing-demon. I’ll fill you in, as I gather my thoughts.


The nicest thing was feeling so at home at Ashton’s—the teachers are, after all, my artistic grandparents, and it felt right that I should waltz in and claim my place in this revered institution. I had the feeling that the Atelier and Ashton’s are sister schools, striving toward the same end, students and teachers interchangeable; we simply carry on our combined project in the north and in the south respectively. I was welcomed as a country cousin, proving my heritage by my skills and processes.

Figure painting sketch

The teaching has the benefit of being extremely varied—the sheer number of teachers means that there are many methods and preferences and views to absorb. While we speak the same language—talking of tone, form, shadow shapes, space, weight, alignment, measurement—there is no predicting in what manner each teacher will draw these elements together, and what insights will be gained from uniting them in this way. The challenge with each new class was to identify which element is key for each teacher, and to work to extract from them why this element, and why this way. Some think in terms of the distribution of weight through a figure, beginning from the foot and working up in a loose sort of way; others think in terms of points aligned on a grid, connecting a constellation of accurate dots into a precise outline. Others sculpt a face thinking of up-planes and down-planes, front and side, independent of light; others show depth by offsetting tones—some of which adhere to shadows, others to planes. Emphasise planes too much and be accused of being academic; use straight lines too rigidly and be accused of drawing robotically—the only way to proceed is to ask pointed questions and be willing to adapt.

Figure painting

After being stuffed full of new ideas, techniques, anatomical knowledge and ways of considering a drawing, I came to the realisation that a school like Ashton’s is an enabling environment, but that one ought not be too pliant. The vast range of styles and approaches in the students—all extremely talented—is evidence that people come to grow their own abilities, not to have a way imposed upon them. Failing to emulate is no failure at Ashton’s; what is learned goes deeper than a visual mimicry. My own style remained evident in my drawings, but my thinking has changed. I have a few new tools in my belt.


Action and preparation

Princess © Samantha Groenestyn

How does one go about pursuing a career in art? My educational background puts me at something of a disadvantage in terms of knowing anything at all really about the accepted career progression of professional artists, and this has forced me to be somewhat resourceful and unorthodox in my approach. I dream up things, try them, and see if they work. My rather brash method is to act—quickly—and then to stop and evaluate the response to my efforts before taking another brazen step. I’m learning by doing—arranging shows, talking to strangers, and most of all, sharing. I can’t afford to keep anything under wraps; I have to be open about my work, have it ready to show anyone who is interested, and ready to react to their response. I’m learning on the job: learning both how to establish myself as an illustrator and how to go about my craft. I’m trying to grow both at once.

Sketches from the Prado exhibition at the Queensland Art Gallery

I’ve been fortunate enough to learn more about the big, bad art world through my artist friends, big-deal gallery openings and talking to the types of people who buy (or don’t buy, as the case may be) art. I’m discovering that one might approach a career in art in a deliberate and measured way. One might take a lengthy period of time to think and to ready oneself, to prepare. Being sure of your work and intentions can enable you to present something solid when the time is right.

I’ve always been in a hurry to do all the things I want to do, and far more inclined to dive right in without adequate forethought, be it moving to Edinburgh to study having done zero research on Edinburgh, or buying lovely musical instruments on a whim, or signing up for a graphic design course three days before the beginning of term. I think of it as engineering luck by pushing myself into situations that might become opportunities. I suppose it’s a bit like playing those old computer games, like Street Fighter, and just pushing that one button really fast so you get the most kicks in and you more or less have to win because something has to connect. But now that I think about it, look at all the energy I have to expend in so many directions! What if I had the focus to work at the one thing I knew mattered to me most of all?

But while I may be over-stimulated, I certainly don’t have a limited attention span. I work most satisfyingly when I work intently on one thing for hours at a time. I like not having to rush; I like labouring over my task and doing it well. Perhaps I’ve reached a point where I’ve tried enough things and need to consider which things are really worth my attention.

Coffee date with Bammes

In fact, I am culling a few things from my hectic schedule just now and am quietly thrilled to be adjusting to probably the best phase of my life so far. As of this coming week, I will no longer be working part time at a café to pay my bills, and I will no longer be spending several evenings a week wrestling with Photoshop and InDesign. It’s hopes and dreams from here on in, baby, and I won’t be pouring away a minute of my time on anything that isn’t art. I’m starting with a three-month intensive at the atelier, peppered with a week at Julian Ashton’s in Sydney, and making a lot of hot dates with Bammes.

Wish me luck!

If you make it down to Vulture Street, West End in Brisbane, you can see some more of my paintings in The Happy Cabin and SOL Breads, as well as some brand new works and my blog banner at The Box.


Inventing things

Preview of a new painting to be exhibited at my show!

There is a point at which you cross from fear to facility. I’ve just completed my first of two years of a graphic design diploma, which I take part time to complement my work as an illustrator. It means I’m more adept at all manner of file preparation and prepress, and have a better understanding of the broader design industry.

Our assessments began as simple copycat lessons, tracing logos and rearranging imagery, but somewhere along the line they demanded more of us: we had to invent something. I remember freezing in horror at the thought of having to invent something on that white screen, something that conveyed all the things I wanted to convey, and cleverly, and prettily.

I went to my sketchbook, I scribbled pages of roughs in black ink, and a tiny idea was born. I did it again and again. Ideas emerged from the chaos steadily and without headaches—some better than others. But the worse ones didn’t have to make me a bad designer. They just had to be accepted as part of the learning process. I put them aside and moved on, and dreamed up better ideas, and my technical abilities grew alongside them.

When confronted with a new problem, I no longer seize up with panic, but excitedly start bubbling with ideas, and this is a nice place to be. Getting here was a steady road of simply trying, finding out how things look and how they are received. It’s possible to invent things with confidence and glee!



News: Some of my note cards are available for sale at a spiffy little shop in West End, The Happy Cabin. The Happy Cabin stocks all manner of adventure boot, adventure satchel, adventure socks and adventure pants for both adventurous gentlemen and adventurous ladies.

If you can’t make it Brisbane, don’t panic. Clicking the picture below will give you free shipping on note cards and other goodies in my Society6 shop, until Sunday. Hooray!