Common ground

Takt Keller

It’s amazing to think that despite Vienna’s rich artistic history, our young sketch group is somewhat on the periphery. Life drawing doesn’t hold the privileged position it once did in artistic circles, and our group exists only out of the sheer determination to grasp after a manner of learning that has been all but lost. And so, in the city of Klimt and Schiele, whose life drawings and impressively knowledgeable figure paintings attract visitors by the busload, we found ourselves holding a ‘first ever’ group show for our motley collective.

Takt Keller2

We welcomed a cellar-full of visitors and found ourselves needing to explain why such a group might exist, and what we hoped to gain from this endeavour. It wasn’t obvious to our guests that an artist might draw regularly as a musician might practice scales, or that the life model provides a testing ground for consolidating new learning. A solitary worker has much to gain from some like-minded company, and saves a little money on a costly resource by sharing in a group. The regularity of such sessions keeps the brain active and responsive and focused. And the private, fundamental work that goes on in such groups supports and strengthens our personal work that we more usually present to the world.


And so, the exhibition was a furtive backstage pass to see the inner workings of the minds of a diverse group of painters, illustrators, animators and designers. Despite our different intentions and varied efforts, a common strategy unites us, and it was wonderful to display this commonality to others. Our visitors may observe our shared origin—a respect for the fundamentals of drawing—and see for themselves how we diverge from here and go on to make original creative works.


I usually work in pencil at our sketch group, thinking about the construction of the figure, how to represent the three-dimensional volumes, and always trying to improve the energy and fluency of my lines. I think good draughtsmanship is fundamental to good painting, and wanted to emphasise this by exhibiting clear, strong drawings. I chose to show works that demonstrated such stripped-back thinking: three-dimensional blocks arranged in perspective, an emphasis on weight through the body, the search for connections between the parts to form a pleasing whole.


Despite being underground and on the periphery, important things are happening here. I hope that our determined efforts inspire others in our broader intellectual community. The time is ripe for action!


If you’d like to draw with us, find our groups on Facebook: Sketch Group Vienna (Thursday evenings) and Life Drawing Vienna (Sunday evenings). A heartfelt thank you to Alexandra Kornienko for her untiring efforts to make the sketch sessions and the exhibition possible. You are a star. x


A Viennese soirée


Very soon I will be reunited with my Viennese contingent, and together we will be celebrating our twice-weekly sketch groups with a delightful little group show. I am pleased to be exhibiting several drawings which I hope demonstrate my studious motivation for attending the groups: working drawings that seek out form, weight, and the elegant rhythms that run through the human form, and that try to express these things with economical but energetic lines.

Our two groups, which meet at Mikes Werkstatt and Kaffeebar Quentin, are young and motivated, and through them I have made many significant friendships. We work independently, untutored, and simply pool our resources to be able to work from the model as often as possible.

Cakes, wine, art, music and general debauchery will be taking place at Takt Keller, Ingen-Housz-Gasse 2, 1090 Wien, from 19.00 on Saturday 3 October. The perfect way to kick off Lange Nacht der Museen! Bis dann! x


Since paintings are to be looked at


Paintings are to be looked at, and their reality in paint is an inextricable part of their being looked at—far different from their representation on screen—and so, last month Ryan Daffurn, Adolphe Piche and I banded together to exhibit some recent paintings. Since coming back to Brisbane in April, I’ve shared an artist’s residency with Ryan at the Sculptors Queensland shed at the back of the Old Museum in Bowen Hills, where Adolphe had likewise spent some time. Our show, held in the Museum itself—a grand red-brick, art deco construction set amongst lush, flowering gardens and palm trees—commemorated our time with Sculptors Queensland and displayed the fruits of our labours.


The arched foyer of the Old Museum quickly filled with a flood of people, and showing in Brisbane proved a surprising experience. I was reacquainted with people I hadn’t seen in five, seven years, people from many parts of my life, from café jobs and university, even my philosophy honours supervisor. It was a great big soup of my past and present lives, and it was really thrilling to stand behind my work and have something to present for the intervening years. Yes, I’ve been busy.


It’s always surprising to hear people’s response to your work. I rather apprehensively showed a self-portrait whose slow and painful birth produced an intense and dark painting, with crudely designed shapes for arms, with thickly-built-up hands that betrayed a long battle with planes and forms, and with a face perhaps among the most painterly-mature I’ve painted, certainly not effortless, but with a firmer control of paint, bearing a harsh expression (my very involved painting-face). And despite my reservations, it was well received, and people were even disappointed not to be able to take home prints of it.


Since paintings are to be looked at, and since we would prefer them not to be seen as luxury commodities, we freely offered hundreds of postcard prints of our best works. It’s nice to offer a memento, to permit a little piece to be taken home, to implant a memory of the night and of the work in someone’s mind.


I was surprised to learn that many people—even those familiar with my work—consider me more of a writer than a painter. This is a dire new predicament in which I find myself. Though writing is undeniably important to me, and something I intend to pursue in a very serious manner, I think of myself first of all as a painter. I don’t consider my writing journalistic, but more philosophical and more about exposing the contents of a painter’s mind. Perhaps I’ve steered off course somehow, or let my writing—a skill I’ve had greater opportunity to flex—do more of the work than my drawing and painting. I feel that I might need to rest the writing a little more in deference to more painting and drawing, and that I might need to push a more visual presence on the internet. Certainly, it is important to write, and as Joshua Reynolds (1997: 167), himself a very adept painter, wrote: ‘The knowledge which an Artist has of his subject will more than compensate for any want of elegance in the manner of treating it, or even of perspicuity, which is still more essential; and I am convinced that one short essay written by a Painter, will contribute more to advance the theory of our art, than a thousand volumes such as we sometimes see.’ But it is good to have an opportunity to reflect on how you are publicly perceived, and to seize the opportunity to modify that perception.


It was incredible to show with two painters I very much look up to, and to be raised up next to them. My work isn’t as strong or as complex as theirs, but I am, after all, a few years behind in terms of experience. And yet, they consider my work respectable company, and I relished the challenge of standing proudly in the shadow of people greater than me.


The artist, so long hidden in her painter-cave, mixing pigments and scrutinising the fall of light across still and silent objects, must also be a very public creature, and must thrust the efforts of her labours on the outside world as regularly as she can. Our quiet diligence is rewarded with bursts of stardom, and the act of putting on a show is both a celebration and a very important feedback loop. Seeds of new ideas have lodged themselves in my brain, and I feel more certain of my course.


Reynolds, Sir Joshua. 1997. Discourses on art. Ed. Robert R Wark. Yale: New Haven.



North (Bill Thomas) © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

North (Bill Thomas) © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

I’ve been fortunate to be having some serious brain time with Ryan Daffurn and Scott Breton of late. We’ve been discussing, from our own viewpoints and languages, our common understanding of the role of the painter, which is to pull the visible world apart, inspect it, learn it, attempt to understand it, and then to reassemble our visual knowledge into constructed, tightly orchestrated images. Scott is perhaps most clear and persistent in his language, and I will adopt his term here: painting is about integration.

Life drawing

Ryan’s recent work is an ambitious amalgam of observation, collection, reinvention and imagination, in a manner I’ve found difficult to explain to others because they are not ready to hear such ideas. When people have seen his representational work, they have asked such questions as, ‘where is that?’ And I’ve realised that people are approaching realistic painting with a very limited perspective, thinking it can only be a rehashing of something once seen. In fact, the painting in question began with a fascination for a bizarre playground in Berlin, which lodged its oddity somewhere deep in the recesses of Ryan’s brain. It developed as he redrew it from memory, drawing little thumbnails and growing new exploratory configurations out of his brain, organically and freely. On transitioning to the canvas he referred to photos collected in Berlin, but these photos were always subordinated to his own design, and subjected to new physical constraints: the effect of an unnatural green light, like that accompanying a hail storm, completely imagined; the removal of black from his palette, to set hues off against each other more thoughtfully, to create a more meaningful colour contrast rather than an overbearing tonal one. In the end, ‘where’ is not really an inquiry relevant to this painting, which is ripe with fascinating things to talk about. But people are not primed to talk about these things, and it is to these things I hope we can redirect their attention.


We are drawing from the model regularly, and returning to my sketchbooks I see with satisfaction how much of a workspace they are. While people have dogged me to make more finished drawings, and to reconsider my ‘style,’ and to think about what my preferred audience might respond to, I am pleased to see that I have wholeheartedly claimed these drawings as a working zone. Each life drawing session presents a new opportunity to investigate something new, and it’s not always a piece of anatomy. Recently I’ve been attentive to the way I make a mark, and how to train myself to make such marks. There are the soft lines that tentatively feel out the forms, and then the brazen, dark sweeps that claim them. I love to use a tiny butt of a pencil that fits inside the palm of my hand so I can ruthlessly stab the page with decisive marks, and every single week I practice this decision-making to varying degrees of success. And having uncovered some older drawings, I’m pleased to note that there is a greater elegance to my lines, but also that this elegance is laid down with such confidence and certainty. It is not only the weight of curves set off against each other that I am practicing week after week, but the very manner in which I lay them on the page. Nothing but sheer repetition and practice cements such things. As Sir Joshua Reynolds (1997: 281) writes of Michelangelo:

‘The great Artist … was distinguished even from his infancy for his indefatigable diligence; and this was continued through his whole life, till prevented by extreme old age. The poorest of men, as he observed himself, did not labour from necessity, more than he did from choice. Indeed, from all the circumstances related of his life, he appears not to have had the least conception that his art was to be acquired by any other means than by great labour.’


Ryan and I talk about the student’s perpetual search for surprise and freshness in their own work, the constant chopping and changing of media in an effort to chance upon something that they simply have a knack for, or that reveals something new—the apparently overriding fear of staleness. While this exploration is not without merit, it seems to prevent giving any one problem due attention. We have both remained faithful to the humble pencil, and reverent of its unlimited potential. While other media open up new thoughts, our ultimate goal is a deep and intimate understanding of and facility with our chosen medium. What we’ve learned via pencil can be transferred to many other media, but other media won’t substitute for the ability to set new tasks and doggedly pursue them. Actually, in stripping every problem back, in setting stiff parameters, we give ourselves a chance to isolate each task, to puzzle over it with clarity, to observe every minute shift in our approach and thinking. We have complete control over our learning and exploration, because we are so finely tuned into our chosen tool. We trust that accidents will never approach the rewards of systematic understanding.


The pencil lets us isolate, struggle with, and hopefully resolve distinct problems. But those problems are never really discrete, and are actually far more intricately bound with problems of colour, texture, light and atmosphere. But the life drawing studies demonstrate an important part of being an artist—the determination to pull apart and investigate—the indispensable precursor to being able to reconstruct, to compose an image, to integrate our knowledge into a wholly new and meaningful design.


Reynolds, Sir Joshua. 1997. Discourses on art. Ed. Robert R Wark. Yale: New Haven.

For a more regular drawing fix, have a look at my Tumblr! x


The Old Museum














Exciting things are afoot! In just three weeks I will be exhibiting alongside two painters I respect very much, Ryan Daffurn and Adolphe Piche. We have been fortunate enough to be able to work together in a crumbly old shed in the Old Museum grounds in Brisbane these past few months, where we are currently artists in residence of Sculptors Queensland.

The Sculptors shed has given us a much-needed inner-city sanctuary to escape other demands and get down to some serious work. As the freight trains rattle by and the police bagpipe band put in dedicated hours of practice, we paint and sculpt from complaisant models. A one-night showing of our most recent efforts–much of it heat-swollen, bulging with tropical fruit, skin scalded pink–seems a fitting tribute to the generosity of the Sculptors Queensland society members, and we do hope you can drop by and join us for a little celebration.



Eine ästhetische Erziehung

Eine ästhetische Erziehung © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

Eine ästhetische Erziehung © Samantha Groenestyn (oil on linen)

I have been reflecting on the endless hours I’ve spent acquainting myself with the contents of the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Belvedere in Vienna, and feeling grateful for the riches I carry around in my memory as I drive Brisbane’s visually polluted highways. I revisited those galleries like the lines of a familiar poem. I adopted those visits as a daily ritual, as habitual as drinking coffee. I seized those delicacies as daily necessities. Reading Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Discourses that he presented to the Royal Academy in the 1770s and 1780s, I grasp all at once how valuable those seemingly idle hours were, how integral to my learning (Reynolds, 1997: 98):

‘Whoever has so far formed his taste, as to be able to relish and feel the beauties of the great masters, has gone a great way in his study; for, merely from a consciousness of this relish of the right, the mind swells with an inward pride, and is almost as powerfully affected, as if it had itself produced what it admires. Our hearts frequently warmed in this manner by the contact of those whom we wish to resemble, will undoubtedly catch something of their way of thinking; and we shall receive in our own bosoms some radiation at least of their fire and splendour.’

Reynolds’s discourse on imitation (VI) strongly defends the relevance of ‘the antients’ (sic) and the mastery of ‘the old masters.’ Rather than stifling our inventiveness, he considers an ongoing communion with the time-honoured masters the only path to inspired invention—‘however it may mortify our vanity’ (1997: 106). ‘Invention is one of the great marks of genius;’ he (1997: 98) writes, ‘but if we consult experience, we shall find, that it is by being conversant with the inventions of others, that we learn to invent; as by reading the thoughts of others we learn to think.’ The artistic poverty of our time and locality may have less to do with dedicated arts funding and more to do with a disdain for ‘the antients,’ a malaise that even Reynolds lamented in his own time and situation. He ‘venture[d] to prophesy, that when [the ancients] shall cease to be studied, arts will no longer flourish, and we shall again relapse into barbarism’ (1997: 106).

After Hans Leinberger, Maria mit Kind (c. 1515/20)

After Hans Leinberger, Maria mit Kind (c. 1515/20)

It cannot be denied: Brisbane lacks the cultural riches of Vienna, and a native Australian painter is debilitated in her artistic education unless she transplants herself to Europe for the daily nourishment her chosen career demands. Sheer optimism and hard work are not enough: the mind needs substance in order to grow, and it grows toward that which it focuses on. Joshua Reynolds (1997: 98) cautions us, ‘The mind is but a barren soil; a soil which is soon exhausted, and will produce no crop, or only one, unless it be continually fertilized and enriched with foreign matter.’

After Rodin, Entwurf für ein Denkmal für Victor Hugo (1890)

After Rodin, Entwurf für ein Denkmal für Victor Hugo (1890)

It is of utmost importance, then, to give our minds every opportunity to be enriched. If we permit ourselves mediocre habits, our efforts will soon follow. Reynolds (1997: 98) is very firm on this: ‘It appears, of what great consequence it is that our minds should be habituated to the contemplation of excellence.’ I’m reminded of Delacroix’s (2010: 20) chiding himself on lapsing into trivial distractions, writing in his journals, ‘Poor fellow! 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.’

After Czech sculpture, Maria mit Kind

After Czech sculpture, Maria mit Kind (c. 1390/1400)

Australia’s focus on employment, activity, early rising, physical exertion, and contempt for any who dare to think they are ‘above all that and better than us’ sucks one into a cycle of inconsequentialities and mental tiredness that offers very little nourishment and even less opportunity for tending to one’s thoughts. I realise with greater certainty that being in Europe is no luxury, but an indispensible part of my education. Without this first-hand contact with Titian, with Rubens, with Van Dyck, with Raffael, I would not know what painting could be. I would turn to inferior teachers, and unknowingly trust them with my education. I would observe the work of my peers and take notice of their race to absurdity in their pursuit of novelty. I would bring my questions to walls of badly-applied paint, poor drawing, and punch-line titles instead of to excellence, and my work could only suffer. A familiarity with real excellence is indispensible in one’s aesthetic education.

After Titian, The three ages of man (1512-14)

After Titian, The three ages of man (1512-14)

For as original as we strive to be, we are always influenced by our surroundings and by those we associate with—we constantly imitate. Reynolds (1997: 99) suggests it would be better to absorb the thoughts of old masters than what is currently fashionable, or attempting to turn inwards. ‘The greatest natural genius cannot subsist on his own stock: he who resolves never to ransack any mind but his own, will be soon reduced, from mere barrenness, to the poorest of all imitations; he will be obliged to imitate himself, and to repeat what he has before often repeated.’ We need a deeper source than ourselves, a more reliable one than our peers.

After Jakob Auer, Apollo und Daphne (vor 1688)

After Jakob Auer, Apollo und Daphne (vor 1688)

Our individuality comes not from ourselves alone, but is formulated by our own perspective on the work of others as well as what we see in the physical world. Instead of a narcissistic cycle of imitating our own work, we might gain from the successful labours of others. We might accelerate our learning by discovering the physical world through the eyes of the masters. And we might truly challenge ourselves by taking them not as gods but as rivals. Raffael was but a human being, and we have the advantage of being able to learn from him and to push further than him. Reynolds encourages more than unthinking plagiarism, but a ruthless competition, an outstripping, a struggle to steal from the past and improve on it. Having thought their thoughts, we bring our own hand and conceal our theft in our own inventions. Our brush borrows shamelessly, but our thoughts are combined in a way that is entirely our own, and it is from here that our originality stems. Reynolds (1997: 96) leaps to our defense: ‘I am on the contrary persuaded, that by imitation only, variety, and even originality of invention, is produced.’

After Rubens, Die Heilige Familie unter dem Apfelbaum

After Rubens, Die Heilige Familie unter dem Apfelbaum

‘We behold all about us with the eyes of those penetrating observers whose works we contemplate; and our minds accustomed to think the thoughts of the noblest and brightest intellects, are prepared for the discovery and selection of all that is great and noble in nature,’ (Reynolds, 1997: 99). So let us not take our situation lightly, for nothing of consequence comes out of isolation and mental starvation.

After Theodor Friedl, Amor und Psyche (1890)

After Theodor Friedl, Amor und Psyche (1890)

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

Reynolds, Sir Joshua. 1997. Discourses on art. Ed. Robert R Wark. Yale: New Haven.

I began the above self-portrait on my arrival in Vienna two years ago. It has suffered many iterations, growing and transforming with my own ideas and observations and abilities. My constant struggle with this painting became somewhat representative of my own aesthetic education, and its thickening layers of paint akin to my deepening understanding. The yellow Reclam book is, natürlich, from Schiller. x




This little guy has travelled a long way in search of fame and glory. He is the result of a month-long sojourn in Berlin, and made a well-received debut in Vienna. I’ve just collected him from the framers, dressed up in lush Tasmanian oak in anticipation for his forthcoming appearance as a finalist in the Moreton Bay Region Art Awards in Brisbane.

Come along to the Strathpine Community Centre on Friday, May 15, and wish him well. Free wine! Eye candy! Eternal glory!

The show runs from May 16 to 24,  2015. I’m thrilled to be exhibiting alongside some painters from my Brisbane circle, and would like to extend warm congratulations to Hadieh Afshani, Brian Deagon, Mark Feiler and Kay Kane. Time for some Southern Hemisphere adventures! x