Taste, beauty and Australia

Westminster © Samantha Groenestyn

I have been heartily enjoying an Australian literary classic penned in 1960: Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness*. Though I have no architectural ambitions, buildings hold some lingering fascination for me, and Boyd’s speculations on and criticisms of Australian architecture half a century ago are razor-sharp when applied to the Australian aesthetic (or lack thereof) in whichever field it raises its beastly head. Our ‘youth’ as a nation is not responsible for our dire aesthetic sensibilities—rather, we have willfully cultivated a population proud of its poor taste, and seized on this revulsion to beauty as a defining national characteristic. Boyd calls it, rather cleverly, Featurism.

Featurism, according to Boyd, is a sort of decorative approach to design, and in turn a sort of enshrining approach to decoration. It is about appearances rather than function or utility, and as such it allows no room for subtlety, or the beauty to be found in elegant simplicity. It is one hundred percent veneer: false surfaces applied to questionable (and most likely poorly imitated) structures. The Australian rarely designs, argues Boyd. He defines design as fundamentally a problem-solving exercise involving ‘find[ing] order in a confusion of functional requirements and conflicting economic demands,’ requiring the designer ‘to blend separate parts into a whole, single, unified concept’ (p. 22). The Featurist fails to step up to such a challenge: ‘The Featurist, on the contrary, deliberately and proudly destroys any unified entity which comes into his hands by isolating parts, breaking up simple planes, interrupting straight lines, and applying gratuitous extra items wherever he fears the eye may be tempted to rest’ (p. 23). The architect, artist or designer faces an uphill battle trying to get through to a public that can only appreciate the surface. Glazed eyes slide over the visual landscape until they lock momentarily onto a flashy surface trick, and this is the extent of the audience’s engagement.

Featurism is exactly what it sounds like: One builds a house that stands out on one’s street, with a nice peaked gable with little wooden scrolls on it, and a lattice gate with a bell next to it. The veranda is covered in all manner of wind chimes, exotic plants and antique chairs. The living room has a feature wall, perhaps plum purple, painted in the granulated paint that must be swished on in multiple directions so that its rough surface picks up the light in different ways, mimicking some ancient Italian stucco. The feature wall has an antique telephone table in front of it, accompanied by a statue and a large, colourful painting in a flashy gilt frame. Fake flowers (these are Boyd’s pet hate) are a downright necessity. The car is of American make, but painted in suitably Australian primary colours, with leather seats, or sheepskin seat covers, with a smaller wooden steering wheel, billiard ball gear stick knob, checkerplate floor mats, custom pedals, neon-lit dash, chrome trimmings and stickers of your family on the rear window.

‘This is the nature of the prosperity,’ argues Boyd. ‘There is no attraction to the idea of upsetting the comfortable status quo by fundamental re-thinking on appearances, while loose coins in every pocket jingle eagerly to be spent on novel, exciting surface effects’ (p. 116). Australia has reached a level of prosperity on par with Scandinavia—our standard of living is incredibly high, we work hard, we’re well-educated. None of this is enough. The respect that Sweden or Denmark affords its creatives is entrenched in a culture that values design as ingenious solutions. Australia offers its creatives no such respect; Autralians only want to be wowed. ‘In this busy age ordinary taste has become so dulled and calloused that anything which can startle a response on jaded retinas is deemed successful: it draws attention to the fact that paint has been used and progress is afoot’ (p. 109).

As an artist, then, I face a choice. Australia may be receptive to my art, but at what cost? If perhaps the most shallow of my paintings are the most appealing to people, will I give up on trying to give meaning to my work? If producing decorative pieces is enough, I won’t be able to explore and grow as an artist. If my intellect is removed from my work, forcefully or out of sheer apathy, my growth as a human being is stunted. This is no way to live one’s life when the world is rich with experiences and knowledge and ideas to work through. Such a choice has dogged Australians with a spark of life in them for generations: ‘Most Australians … do not wish to be reminded of the facts that their country is still known abroad as an artistic and intellectual desert, and that they themselves would never be taken seriously without their denying to some extent their Australian upbringing and background, and that highly talented Australians in any of the non-useful fields of art or science have to face a dramatic decision early in their careers. They can stay here in easy-going comfort with their talent and their frustrations both working at half-pressure, or they may wrench themselves from their own country in order to develop themselves’ (p. 76).

I, of course, am a true blue Featurist. Raised on a gluttonous diet of ornament, colour and pattern, my house is a veritable goldmine of Persian rugs, tapestry-upholstered couches, tacky French prints, Dutch crockery, fake flowers, moustache cushions and ugly lamps. (Boyd considers lamps to have always ‘brought out the worst in designers’ (p. 117) ). ‘Voluntarily or involuntarily,’ he laments, ‘Featurism dogs Australia even when she sets out with good intentions of avoiding it’ (p. 22). My lavish poor taste infects everything I touch, because I can’t communicate through subtlety, and my eyes delight in being assaulted. I’m determined to grow out of this and to learn to appreciate quality beneath the surface. As for my country—our lack of respect for beauty and real engagement with design is most likely far too entrenched.


* Boyd, Robin. 2010 [1960]. The Australian Ugliness. Text: Melbourne.


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.


Art as philosophy, or, I am going to marry Bammes

I am rapidly descending into an all-consuming art obsession. Not content to pass my time in simple painting frenzies, I’m taking more drawing classes and beginning to investigate anatomy. Ryan has introduced me to my new love: Gottfried Bammes. Ryan loaned me his German copy of Bammes’ Gestalt des Menschen for a while, and I declared I would never give it back unless he demanded it back, then was overcome by an all-consuming desire to have a Bammes of my own. Yesterday, my shiny new (English) copy of Bammes arrived by post, after a day of struggling with a painting study of an arm and hand that left me exhausted.

The main difference between my artistic method now and my self-taught method of the past is that I don’t simply copy shapes as I used to. This is difficult to explain, and it was initially difficult for me to grasp that it was possible to draw or paint in any other way. I have painted many a painting convincing enough to the untrained eye which skims unsearchingly over an image, taking in only the overall effect. It’s easy enough to do: one merely looks at the subject or the photo to be painted, carefully imitates the flat shapes in the correct colours, and pieces them together like a patchwork quilt. Some shapes are inexplicable—it’s not at all clear from the photo what they are, but if you are true to their two-dimensional outlines and get the colours and tones near enough, the eye fades out this lack of visual information and the picture simply works.

The day it dawned on me that I was copying flat shapes, ignorant of their meaning, was a big day. My first realisation was that I drew and painted shapes more intuitively than lines, and that I merely used lines to divide up shapes, and was not in fact making linear constructions. This knowledge slowly opened up to the realisation that I was still blind to the object (or subject!) in front of me: Ryan encouraged me to draw contour lines wrapping around the body I was drawing, and I found myself stumped until I picked up a useful tin can lying about the studio. ‘I’ll explain it to you,’ my newly enlightened self announced to Ryan, tilting the tin slowly in the air to mimic the torso, arms and legs of the sculpture in front of us. The sculpture’s limbs tilted away from or towards me, and my eyes either looked down on or up at the tilted forms, changing the direction of the contours accordingly. The scales fell from my eyes—I was looking at a form and no longer at a shape. The body has a depth I could never see in any meaningful way before. ‘The job of artistic anatomy is to clarify the nature of details, which has nothing to do with mindless copying,’ argues Bammes (p. 11), as he deftly injects meaning into those forms.

Bammes has some beautiful ways of describing the powerful experience that is drawing the human form: ‘When we draw people,’ he opens his book Complete guide to life drawing*, ‘we are growing towards others and ourselves and we reveal things that were lost before to our fleeting glances and inaccessible to our experience’ (p. 10). I think to my reflections the other day on Hannah Arendt and her idea of performative action, the kind of tasks that exist in process rather than output, that are ends in themselves. I am so careless with my drawings at the atelier that I have laboured over many an hour—I crumple my pages and smudge them and feel no real pain at this. These drawings, for me, exist in the experience. Their true value is in the doing of them, the intersection of pencil and paper and mind at a point in time. The finished drawing is a sort of record of that experience, but it cannot be recaptured by someone simply viewing it as a nice picture. I have accessed something through the experience of drawing that one cannot access by viewing alone. I am satisfying that practical side of me that wants to devour the world by doing. One can study academically with vigour, but to study with one’s eyes and hands is an entirely different way to come to terms with the world.

Bammes has a beautiful way of wording this, too: he writes of ‘thinking visually’ (p. 11). Graphic design places a lot of emphasis on ‘visual communication,’ and the profound power of imagery as a communication tool. But thinking visually is a deeper, more personal thing. It is like philosophy that transcends words. And (to me at least) philosophy is not about impressing people with outlandish concepts, but about making sense of the world and one’s place in it. In art I have found a purer philosophy.

Bammes, Gottfried. 2010. Complete guide to life drawing [Menschen zeichnen Grundlagen zum Aktzeichnen]. Trans. Cicero Translations. Search: Kent.


Letter lovin’

It turns out I am not very good at holidays. Rather, I am very good at them, and do all the things that I want to do—but I don’t rest and recuperate, or stop working! I’ve temporarily shifted my action-packed life to Sydney, where I have taken up several other classes instead of the ones I regularly take in Brisbane, and where I am still painting, inventing a knitted item, attending life drawing and going out with excellent people.

Saturday I attended a light-hearted and thoroughly enjoyable workshop called Type by Hand, run by Wayne Thompson of the Australian Type Foundry, and his accomplished accomplice Gemma O’Brien. Gemma gave an excellent talk at last year’s Semi-Permanent, and I’ve been a fan of her elaborate scripts and general enthusiasm for letters ever since—it was a real treat to meet her and watch her in action.

The workshop walked a nice line between theory and practice, and the emphasis was firmly on practice. Our tables were lined in paper, stacked with paper, and extra wide-nibbed Copic markers were placed in our hungry vicinities to complement our Artlines and other pens and pencils. So much paper! So many pens!

Wayne led with some ‘letter life drawing,’ where we warmed up by copying some old favourites. He then asked us to draw specific letters and, after giving it a shot, gave us simple explanations of very specific type ‘rules’—or perhaps more accurately ‘precedents.’ These established letter constructions are reliable ways to ensure legibility and to compensate for optical illusions. Most notably, the X is not a simple overlay of two lines—if one line is thicker, it must be broken, meeting the other bar at different points, or it will appear refracted. After drawing a sans serif P and R, we looked at ‘real’ Ps and Rs and saw with our own eyes that typographers have historically shifted the middle bar of the P slightly lower, to account for that unwieldy empty space.

Yuck! Terrible phone photos! My apologies.


The rest of the day was really about experiment—trying new media, copying fancy text, getting a feel for where letterforms came from by giving calligraphic lettering a go. A little prompting to try adding embellishments, or ligatures, or to think about how words might intersect, and we were transforming our simple lettering into Things of Beauty.

I didn’t feel stretched or overwhelmed at any point, but I felt like I’d received a shiny new box of tools—a bunch of exercises to loosen up and imagine lettering in new ways. I grasped the letters, shaped their forms with my hands, carved them from the inside out and watched them emerge from negative space. I’m discovering that I think spatially far more intuitively, and that my drawing—of letters or otherwise—need not be constrained to lines.


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!



Brisvegas © Samantha Groenestyn

This week I spent a day basking in the creative talents of some of Australia’s finest graphic designers, illustrators and photographers at Semi-Permanent Brisbane. The Australian creative conference is a curious beast: it starts out as an auditorium pounding with music that feels like the blood pounding through your excited veins, and quickly slopes off into a mumbled, embarrassed thrown-together job right from the opening video’s slip-up—Semi-Permanent Sydney, ‘Oh, sorry folks, my man didn’t have time to change that, but it doesn’t matter really.’

I had many specifics to ponder—the benefits of having an agent, the evolution of style, the pleasing dissonance of red and blue. The speakers were from a variety of disciplines, and for the most part had forged their own careers, whether out of disillusionment with their previous careers or employers, or by vaguely chipping away at things they loved. Andrew Quilty, having spent some time working for the Financial Review as a photographer took his year without pay to simply shoot rolls and rolls of film exactly as he pleased, refining his style and his skills in the most authentic manner. An interesting critique of the relevance of the law when it impedes public duty was raised and discussed with feeling and with genuine soul-searching. Beci Orpin intimated that there is no secret to her success, only hard work.

Despite the wealth of knowledge, insight, experience and talent, the day felt deflated. A stammering MC talked down to a crowd mostly consisting of students, imploring us to ‘twitter’ and ‘like us on facebook.’ Speakers who ought to have been proud of what they’ve done presented themselves in a self-deprecating manner. It seems that Australians require a crushing humility in their presenters. Brutally honest admissions to squandered time and lack of confidence and fear of public speaking were welcomed by the crowd as admirable, whose nervous laughter punctuated nervous drug-taking anecdotes. Beci Orpin’s assertion that knowledge should be shared, no matter how scary it is to give a talk, was undeniably admirable.

The audience responded to these admissions, because they were authentic and resonated with our own uncertainties, shortcomings and aspirations. But is a little self-esteem so bad? Can one not stand up and say, ‘I’m nervous, but I’ve done a good job’? In Australia, if someone does not exhibit humility, we are suspicious. A good speaker is dubious. We demand honesty over polish. Truth over showmanship. Crudeness over eloquence. I include myself—I was instantly suspicious of the advertising man from Sydney with his wavy hair and deep, self-assured voice and his video networking to New York through which eloquent speakers smoothly presented fully-formed ideas with confidence and gusto, laced in aspirational language. What does it mean when a successful person must publicly lash themselves to be taken seriously?

What it meant for Semi-Permanent Brisbane 2012 was that the predominantly student crowd was reassured not to worry, that you’ll make it, even if you don’t try, or if you screw up—you’ll probably just fall into it. I felt comforted rather than inspired.

Most speakers came from Sydney, leaving the attendee with the feeling that either a) nothing much comes out of Brisbane, or b) the organisers weren’t interested in whatever it is that comes out of Brisbane and just rehashed the southern shows for our inconsequential side-show. In one way it was nice to learn of exciting developments in other parts of the country, to escape the Brisbane bubble momentarily. In another way, I felt overlooked and left behind. I felt perhaps I do need to head south to become anything. Of course, as The Monkeys put it, they thought they were headed for Hollywood but they only ended up in advertising in Sydney. One does not dream big in Australia.

Brisbane is ironically referred to as ‘Brisvegas’—Sydneysiders and Melbournites like to mock our somewhat lacking nightlife, and country Queenslanders like myself who packed up our beat-up old Fords and made off to the Big Smoke really feel like we’ve hit the big time, because there’s higher education and bands here, and the supermarkets are open a little after dark. Its shortcomings notwithstanding, I ardently love Brisbane and have made my true home here over the past six years, because it was the place I was finally afforded full freedom and where I explored my real self and grew into the woman I am today. I love the laid-back, no-bullshit people and the sunshine and the fact that people just do what they do. I love the streets and the houses, and I never tire of our rippling patchwork peppered with little patches of jungle and tropical trees and rusting tin roofs. A sense of place is important to me, and my identity is firmly grounded in this city, though I will move on and find other homes and grow through them.

Similarly proud Briswegians might be interested to know I’ve had some gaudy Brisvegas posters printed, now available in my shop!



Fresh-faced and freelancing

© Steve Smith (source)

I met Steve Smith on a damp Brisbane morning that felt fresh and bright—the sun was struggling out after some gloomy days of rain and the city felt optimistic and somewhat relieved. We waved like old friends and sat down at a wet, white wrought-iron table on Winn Lane in Brisbane’s Fortitude Valley, and colourful people bustled about us while garbage trucks smashed glass in the gutter beside us. Steve revealed his curious nature immediately, ordering a peanut butter and banana smoothie, while I, a slave to addiction, ordered a coffee.

Steve has worked in the design industry for the better part of a decade, having graduated with an animation degree in 2006. He now freelances from the creative hotpot that is the Thought Fort, an amalgam of designers, animators, modelling agents and web developers, also based in the Valley. Steve himself is a complex blend: animation, illustration, web and print design, film, video editing, motion graphics, post production and app development are all part of his formidable repertoire. Having attained a postproduction internship at Movie World on the Gold Coast straight from university, he moved into his first job at QMG and put his hand up for whatever work was on offer. Being open to learning new skills propelled him into graphic design.

‘I wanted to work in the design industry because I don’t like working for other people!’ Steve laughed. But why would any driven, dedicated creative person fritter away their time on the demands of others? Far from being work-shy, Steve intimated that he’s something of a workaholic, loving to be camped out at the studio, deprived of sleep, working towards highly improbable deadlines. Besides avoiding tyrant bosses, Steve realised early on that he wasn’t interested in working for the sake of working: ‘I decided I’d rather spend time honing the skills I wanted to develop.’

It was with some difficulty that Steve broke into freelancing, which he has only been doing for the past two or three years. He is now making a reputable living, though perhaps not by the standards of graduates of other fields. Nevertheless, he remembers starting out with some fondness, despite its difficulties, and is full of optimism about being on the threshold of a career in the design industry—‘at the beginning you have so much time to work on your own projects, which is amazing.’ The emerging designer should relish those first hesitant steps, that period of uncertainty but of unrestrained freedom, when she is not yet subject to the demands of clients or pressured by living costs on an unsteady income.

‘A part time job when you’re starting out is great,’ Steve enthused, ‘there’s no shame in that. All artists need to live, and you need to fund your art.’ His fearless advice for the beginner is that ‘your work speaks for itself in the design industry. Not having experience, or being at the bottom doesn’t matter.’

Steve agreed that the design student should build up a brand for him- or herself. Maintaining a specific look throughout your portfolio and online presence can help you get the kind of work you want to get. He cites designers who cultivate this ‘brand’ even further through blogs, which showcase their personalities as well as their work. For Steve, it is crucial that the novice designer have an online presence, since at that stage of your career, no one knows who you are.

Steve is a fan of a trade economy between creative friends. ‘Your friends will become really talented with time,’ he told me solemnly. If your web developer friend needs a logo, he advises that you do it on the basis that you can call in a favour down the track. Steve isn’t a fan of doing work for free, or for a ‘cut of the profits,’ but believes that helping out people you admire is a good way for people with little money to start out. And every piece is valuable in a portfolio. ‘I always try to learn something new when I do something free or cheap for a friend. Then it’s definitely worth something for me.’

Being open to unexpected jobs and collaborations, Steve has certainly picked up a few skills on his way. He’s had the opportunity to collaborate on a music video, doing all manner of work from background design to compositing to animation. His whole person emanates an air of curiosity and genuine openness. His attitude is one of grasping the things that really interest you rather than desperately latching yourself onto whatever is available. And the key, he says amicably, is friendliness. Networking is effortless when you approach others in an unaffected personable way.

The hardest parts of freelancing in Steve’s mind are all interconnected. Quitting your job is a difficult first step, as is the ensuing pressure to make a living. On the tail of this is taking on jobs you don’t want to be doing. But Steve isn’t one to let it get him down—‘that kind of easy work pays the bills, and it’s still fun.’ And little animation projects for the Commonwealth Bank don’t look too shabby on one’s portfolio, and perhaps even give one a little room to learn something new.

Swoon over some of Steve’s crisp, hushed designs in his portfolio, or have a peek at his photography.