The underrated art form

Modern Woman is a small window into the changing position of women in the last hundred or so years—a truly lovely exhibition showing at the Queensland Art Gallery until 24 June. I saw it at the height of my frustration with my own progress at my atelier art classes and came away feeling at peace with my lot of continued study in drawing. If a stump of burnt stick is good enough for an old dead French dude (or lady dude), it’s good enough for me. And what a delicate, serene world they created with their soft scribbles and curved hatched lines with white highlights. I floated out of the gallery and blinked at the Brisbane River in confusion, because I had been transported momentarily to Paris.

By Louise Breslau — source









Drawing is undeniably underrated. Anxious to move on to painting at the Studio, I’ve struggled with the idea that drawing is an important art form in its own right, worth dedicating considerable time and effort to. The skill that forms a sturdy scaffold on which to construct a painting, drawing itself can capture the subtle shifts from light to shadow on the skin. Drawing isn’t just for learning about tone and proportion. Once such concepts have been mastered, deploying them through drawing is every bit as striking and powerful as painting.

Most recent charcoal tonal study

It continues to amaze me that our eyes lie to us unrelentingly. If you’ve ever applied a shadow to a light object, you’ll probably have done so with reservation, carefully greying part of your picture, perhaps what you consider to be by quite a lot. But unless you’ve been trained to really concentrate on tone, you’re probably not making it dark enough. Darker, darker—it’s always darker than it looks! And when you’ve painted the shadowed side of a white jar in a shade or two lighter than black, your eye will tell you it’s a travesty, but in all likelihood the shade is completely correct.

The reverse is true when you are painting up a tonal chart. I’ve been instructed to create one of these before, but only recently have I been instructed how. This one is constructed from raw umber and white, with ivory black tacked on the end. Ignore the black, and squirt some raw umber next to it. Mix the midtone first. Get a palette knife and mash them together, testing the mixed colour against both the raw umber and the white, until it appears equally distant from both. Keep making mid-midtones until you have the full suite. Here is the trick: make it much lighter than you think. As soon as you muddy the white, it darkens significantly, but you are aiming for a subtle gradation in tone.

Mix lighter; paint (and draw) darker. Your eyes are big fat liars.

Some light-hearted life drawing to relax in the evening.

News: My super friends at Strutten have done a lovely little write-up on my work. I’m somewhat infatuated with Brisbane at the moment, and I’m pleased to hear that this shines through in my paintings.


Artists, illustrators, graphic designers

Infernal dishes © Samantha Groenestyn

Saturday I had the great fortune to partake in the birth of a brand new movement, a collective of artists, photographers, musicians, body-painters and street artists who gathered in a warehouse to ‘vibe off each other.’ Lost Movements is creating a space for Brisbane creatives to meet, collaborate and get crazy. I like to think this is Brisbane beginning to grow into itself—Brisbane, grittier than Melbourne, funkier than Sydney, hotter, sub-tropical, a place where anything goes as long as you mean it. Posers are decried, haters are ignored.

I painted walls, imbibed beer, mingled, danced and warmed myself by the fire, and began to learn a thing or two about the social aspect of art. I am something of an artistic floater. I paint seriously under the guidance of representational artists, carefully studying tone, learning how to achieve the perfect mixed black, paying strict attention to form and generally filling my head with dreams of growing into a Dutch master. I also paint in what I consider a freer, bolder style, mixing bright gouache with thick linework and unrealistic patterns. I also dabble in graphic design, applying lettering and otherwise putting my illustrations to designerly uses.

The Go Between Bridge–a pleasant Sunday arvo bike ride.

These types of art all intersect with one another, but, most interestingly, they each bring their own crowd and their own way of gathering—their own artist archetype. Designers unabashedly meet for networking drinks and exchange business cards; artists throw out-of-control parties of which nudity is an integral part. Illustrators—when they make it out of their studios—love to show off their shiny published children’s books.

Crossing these boundaries can be bewildering, no less because modern artists are a different breed to representational artists, and while illustration is largely figurative like representational art, it is so bound up in creating a world based around children that it feels like the kindergarten version of art, certainly not to be taken seriously by traditional artists. Illustrators are then lumped with graphic designers, though, as Heller and Arisman* (p. 30) argue, ‘the majority of graphic designers have more in common with the producer in film or television than with painters.’ While my oil painting teacher would likely be underwhelmed by my illustrations, unable to comprehend a conscious choice to bend the rules of tone and perspective, spray-can-wielding warehouse-painters are miffed at my stuffy stylisation of angry Dutch children because it adheres to technique, and technique is so passé. My graphic design cohort is astounded I even use a paintbrush—or a pen, for that matter—though they understand that illustration, unlike fine art, has long played a role in advertising, subordinate to the designer (Heller and Arisman, p. 38).

The trouble is, I appreciate each group, whether or not they appreciate my position and my work. I make accessible art—like Howard Pyle’s ‘pictures:’ ‘art for the people, art about the people’ (p. 33). Does that make it ‘commercial, lively entertainment’ (p. 49)? That people are purchasing it to hang on their walls suggests not—though it easily could be. Having people approach my work as one would fine art has been surprising, since I was set to license it out for well-defined commercial uses. But this is a thing to be embraced. While Arisman (p. 49) argues that the distinction between art and illustration lies in the intent of the artist, I’ve found that even the artist’s intentions can be subverted. The distinction is, at best, flimsy, and at worst, meaningless and unnecessary. Taking on the title of ‘illustrator’ has forced me to attempt to break away from my natural stylistic tendencies to try to create something for the people—something designers will sit up and take notice of, because it’s not stuffy and old-fashioned, but something that can convey visual meaning in a way that modern art attempts to subvert. I get to hang with designers, the cool kids, and party with artists, the crazy kids. I am both, by the nature of what I do.

Janice Wu, a talented Canadian illustrator, sees it both ways as well: ‘When an artwork is just all about a concept, it is not as appealing to me. Yet when it’s just all craftsmanship and there’s no idea, then it lacks substance, and it is not as thought provoking.’

View from the bridge

With my own exhibition on the horizon, a private commission under my belt and a children’s book in the works, I feel very much like I am all the things, and that they sustain each other just as the different types of artists sustain me, whether or not they support me. Janice sums up her career intentions thus:

With me, I want to pursue both commercial illustration and visual art, and they’re two different practices. They overlap in some ways, but they are different. I want to be an exhibiting artist and have shows in galleries and work on my own, self-initiated projects. But I also really like doing commission work for different publications and having projects assigned to me and working with people. So I hope that in the future I can do both and that I can succeed in both. I like to think that my work can exist within both realms.

As do I.

*Heller, Steven and Arisman, Marshall. 2004. Inside the Business of Illustration. Allworth Press: New York.

↬ Read a very thorough and sparkling interview with Janice Wu by Stacy Thomas at Trim Magazine, from which these quotes originate.

Our beardy dishes-hating friend is soon to appear on lovely cotton tea-towels which will be for sale at my show.


Art show

I’m very pleased to announce my first solo show. Join us on the wintery Sunday evening of June 24th for a glass of Veuve or two and some scrummy canapés. We’ll watch the sun go down, listen to some acoustic music and swoon over some art.

Kichi-Ba Tea House is run by the very gracious Michelle, and it’s the adorable little shop you can see from Taringa Station. Hop on the train, or park in the nearby commuter parking on the evening.

I will have loads of original works for sale, as well as a few other illustrated goodies.

In the meantime, treat yourself to tea and homemade cake or scones and a pleasant chat at Kichi-Ba. I can heartily recommend a blend of Melbourne Breakfast and Chocolate tea.


Reclaiming ‘work’

Analogue stack © Samantha Groenestyn

I like to work—I love to be thoroughly occupied, engaged in a task, thinking it through and acting it out, seeing it to completion. But the word ‘work’ has been taken from us. ‘Work’ no longer defines a task laboured at, that draws on our carefully developed skills. ‘Work’ is inherently a repulsive word, a heady amalgam of ‘obligatory’ and ‘distasteful’ and ‘repetitive.’ It’s that adult commitment that we must attend to day after day, on someone else’s terms, that esteems us as worthy members of society. Though we are at it all the time, we separate it from our ‘real selves,’ the ones that go home and live honestly in private.

The Ancient Greeks lauded the public life as the pinnacle of existence. Domestic life provided comfort and refreshed one for public duties. Our modern democracies reverse this: the private life is prized above all else. We work to support our private lives. We hope that our job might contribute some good to the world, but above all, we hope to fund our houses, our renovations, our growing families and their electronics fetishes. We don’t pride ourselves in our work. We pride ourselves in our homes.

Joanne Faulkner* (p. 62) words it thus:

Against Locke and Rousseau, Arendt laments the ascendancy of intimacy and the modern notion that the true self can be expressed only in the private. In the capitalist age, the development of the sphere of intimacy, along with an emphasis on wealth and accumulation, has given rise to styles of life that isolate people from one another. In search of freedom, enjoyment and self-expression, what we find is consumption. Hobbies and leisure replace work, a more subversive (Bakhtian) mode of play, and dialogue as a means of self-discovery.

Perhaps it is because we have lost control of our work. We lack the autonomy to perfect our craft; our boss defines the limits of our work and thus our ability to perform at a level that engages us or gives us something to be proud of. Ashamed of our fruitless efforts, we turn inward, to the home, and fill it with goods that demonstrate our skills and taste. Locked up in bland plastic-clad offices, we dress our houses up in fittings from Italy; serving microwaved lasagne in a café, we cook elaborate meals in our own homes. Home becomes the only place we can express ourselves.

But, you object, work is not about expressing yourself. Of course, when I microwave the lasagne, I feel not a bit like myself. My ‘real’ self doesn’t own a microwave, and doesn’t miss it. But microwaving lasagne is not my work. It’s what I do for money, but it’s not my craft that I am pouring my skills into. The master craftsman does express himself in every product he carefully produces. Every Stradivari violin is purported to sound like a Stradivari, because a man devoted his life to crafting musical instruments of incredible quality. His work is an expression of himself, not an imitation of someone else or a strict adherence to procedure. Greatness does not come from adhering to guidelines.

To reclaim ‘work’ and reattach it to our expressive labours, we need to uncouple it from financial reward and associate it instead with personal improvement and the products thereby produced—be they scientific ideas, violins, or works of art. I work every day. I work at my technique, I work on my concepts, I produce finished paintings. Some of the days, I have to set my work aside and follow strict directions in exchange for money, but I know the difference.


This order reads: ‘One-quarter strength skinny latte, half strength decaf long black.’

If you drink this coffee, you might not really be a grown-up. Stick to chocolate milk?


* Faulkner, Joanne. 2011. The Importance of Being Innocent: Why we worry about children. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


The way we live

Hornsea stack © Samantha Groenestyn

We live simply, but well. We optimise our time, and pack our days to the brim, and eat like kings. We treat ourselves to coffee and books, we drive a nice car—we don’t deny ourselves, but we earn very little.

It is a strange notion that I am considered to live in poverty, but I have everything I need. Because I save up for nice things that will last and I care for them, you’d never know that I live on so little. Because I live in an inner-city suburb, in a house, you would assume I need more than four hundred dollars a week.

In fact, I live on less than this, and I want to share this fact for two reasons: the first is that, when I decided to become an illustrator, I was very curious to find out how illustrators kept themselves alive between starting out and gaining a steady income. The second is that I feel strongly about the lifestyle choices I make, and want to convince you that they are viable and comfortable.

Chris Riley* writes of the ‘progeny of the Consumer Age:’ we have ‘learned through experience that promises are shallow and that there must be an ulterior motive for everything’ (p. 69). Rather than calling us cynical, or ‘Gen-Y,’ or generally vilifying our refusal to submit to the expectations of our elders, Riley believes we are aware. And, further, we ‘are translating that experience into their life as consumers. In fact, they are rethinking the way they consume’ (p. 70).

Riley calls it ‘sustainable consumerism,’ and I think it fits. We all need to use things to live; it helps to look presentable, to have internet access and to buy fresh food. But there are ways to have all these things without perpetuating the legacy of ‘consumption for consumption’s sake’ (p. 70). Most of our furniture is second-hand—from friends and family, from second-hand shops, from the side of the road. Some of it we’ve repainted. Some were reupholstered by my mum. Some were salvaged and repaired by my dad. Some were imported by J’s Opa and uncle when they relocated from South Africa. (Our fridge is South African. It has a lock and key).

But it’s not just how you came by it, it’s how you use it. I was recently amazed to learn that our energy bill is a fifth of that of an apartment-dwelling couple. It seems that heating and cooling are the main culprits. Our house is very open, with doors for windows, and no sun reaches inside, meaning we survive without even fans in summer. In winter we wear homemade jumpers to bed, and pile sleeping bags on top of doonas.

The car is a luxury, but a near-necessity in Australia, where things are ridiculously spread out and public transport schedules make you doubt the very existence of buses. My recent enthusiasm for bike-riding means I am cutting down significantly on both fuel and public transport costs, and incidentally getting fitter. It’s important to me not to know that I’m exercising—I must be having fun, and not worrying about my body.

I work at a café, three days a week. This was recently reduced to five days a fortnight. I’m torn by this work, because it physically takes up so much time, involves waking up at 5am, and generally tires me out at the start of the week, but it provides security. It means I have social interactions, and meet new people who might be interested in my services. It also means free coffee.

I don’t work at night. I put my illustration away at dinnertime, or maybe a bit earlier to go for an evening walk. I go out in the evening, or read, or knit, or write blog posts, or have discussions with J. I need to know it’s the end of the workday, or I’ll work continuously. Tonight I’m at a café, drinking chai and eating Turkish delight.

Riley writes that the ‘new consumer’ is not fooled by new toys, but is looking for meaningful relationships. Without denying desire—a fundamental human drive—Riley argues that the new consumer says, ‘I want to want, but I want to want what will actually satisfy me’ (p. 72). This can mean so many things. For me, it means I want a fabulous bike, because I can gain enjoyment and regular old utility from it over and over again. It means I want to support independent designers and artisans, because I value their creativity and craftsmanship, and can own beautiful items that transcend fleeting fashion seasons. It means I want to knit things for myself and for my friends because I enjoy the process of creation and of giving something special.

I don’t feel impoverished. Life is good. And illustration? I’ve got a few things coming up that I can’t wait to share, and as the guy behind me in the café just said to the girl he is having coffee with: ‘I think you’ve achieved a great deal. Nothing happens in five minutes, man.’

*Riley, Chris. 2002 [2001]. ‘Sustainable consumerism,’ in Looking Closer Four: Critical Writings on Graphic Design. Eds. Michael Bierut, William Drenttel and Steven Heller. Allworth Press: New York.