Artists revive outdoor painting traditions to capture the Australian romance of the bush

Originating from the French Impressionist movement of the 1860s and popularized by Paris artists such as Claude Monet, the plein air (outdoor) painting technique developed when paints became available in tubes.

In the 1870s, a group of Australian Impressionists known as the Heidelberg School famously gathered in the area of ​​Box Hill and Eaglemont to translate fresco painting techniques to the Australian bush.

Two men are sitting on a tree trunk and talking in the bushes
Robert McLaurin and Kenan Sutherland run an air painting camp at Lake Glenmagee in Victoria.(ABC Gippsland: Rachel Lucas)

A trio of Heidelberg artists Tom Roberts, Arthur Stretton and Frederick McCubbin venture out into the wilds of eastern Gippsland for a makeshift summer retreat on the sand dunes of the New Works settlement, opposite Cunningham in the Lakes Entrance.

But as plein air romance was eclipsed by photography in the 20th century, the en plein air tradition and its accompanying artist retreats began to fade.

Revival of the artist’s retreat

Having once hosted camps in the 1980s, Gippsland Art Gallery in Sale has set out to revive the artist’s retreat tradition by facilitating summer camps for local practitioners.

Participants are sitting in a dining hall in a group workshop
Artists venture out to paint and gather for daily meals and briefings.(ABC Gippsland: Rachel Lucas)

The first week-long retreat drew 14 artists to the shores of the Mongarra Outdoor Center at Lake Glenmaggie to learn painting techniques on air.

Facilitated by accomplished artists Kenan Sutherland and Robert McLaurin, who are exhibiting at Gippsland Art Gallery in March, participants spent pleasant days on their bushland property with an easel, capturing their environment before gathering for briefings, discussions and comments on their work.

Don Stubbs poses with her painting in the lake
Dawn Stubbs reflects on what it was like to carry gear in the heat while wearing a corset and petticoats.(ABC Gippsland: Rachel Lucas)

“We try to show them that you’re seizing the moment,” Mr. McLaurin said of the challenge of trying to quickly and accurately capture a scene before the weather changes.

“If you liked the sky,” he said, “what it looks like now, with great gray rolling clouds, you would immediately pick it up and put it on the canvas.”

Working among the ever-changing elements and hot, sticky January conditions is part of the immersive appeal in an age when most painters typically work from single-frame still images.

It’s a digital detox of sorts from modern life dominated by smartphones and tablets and looking at the world through a screen.

Young woman with umbrella and sketchbook sitting in camping chair
Lucy Hersey painting in the rain at Glenmaggie Lake. (ABC Gippsland: Rachel Lucas)

“If you work outdoors, you just stand there for hours and don’t just look at the visual,” said artist Kenan Sutherland.

“You feel the temperature of the day, you feel the wind, you watch the light change, you chase away the flies, you chase the piece of cloth that has been blown away in the wind—it’s this three-hour moment.”

Sutherland said it was common for artists to get lost in “the flow”, losing track of time as they tried to exploit the elusive details and fleeting charm of a particular scene.

“It’s very special to have three different paintings every day looking at the same place, but that’s the beauty of plein air,” McLaurin said.

A man drawing a bush at an easel
Mal White deals with a “spectrum of green” in painting the Australian bush. (ABC Gippsland: Rachel Lucas)

Find beauty in the jungle

One of the challenges of Australian landscape painting is to depict the irregular and unexpected aesthetics of the bush, which contrasts with the clean, defined, manicured lines and shapes of Europe.

“That underdevelopment or untidiness or that scratching, ‘branch’ of the bush, that is one of the things that Australian painters will never run out of,” said Sutherland.

“To try to express the special, wild quality of this scene—there’s no one way to do it.”

Lake covered table.
On average, it takes two to three hours to work on each painting.(ABC Gipplsand: Rachel Lucas)

He points out that no two types of camphor trees are the same, they all have completely unique individual traits, so it is important to highlight the specificity of each tree.

“Instead of trying to make them all obedient individuals, it is important that they be the kind of rat bags they are.”

Another point of difference with European painting is the Australian color palette, which is inspired by the intense, sharp light and spectrum of shades of mauve, grey, brown and white dotted with green in the landscape.

A woman talking to a man in the back of her car
From her trunk studio, Alain Howard discusses her color palette with Mr. Maclaurin.(ABC Gippsland: Rachel Lucas)

“We have these wonderful colors of grey, green, blue, pink and violet,” said Mr. Sutherland. “Wherever you look, there is a wonderful range of very subtle colours.”

“One of the joys of planting yourself in a place where you really look at those subtleties is that you can ask yourself the question, ‘What is color and how do I create that on a color palette?'” “

Mr Sutherland said most of the participants struggled with figuring out what equipment, paints and brushes to take into the field.

Brooding sky, dead trees protruding from a shallow lake with mountains in the background.
The majesty of Glenmaggie Lake presents artists with thousands of possible horizons to paint.(ABC Gippsland: Rachel Lucas)

Stormy skies, burnt stumps, whippings of bark, fallen leaves and dead trees jutting out from Glenmaggie Lake – committing to witnessing a scene amidst a thousand possibilities is a challenge.

And that’s while also dealing with sun, heat, flies, and the occasional raindrop.

“Great paintings depict drama in its stillness,” said Sutherland.

The challenge then becomes, “How do I create a picture that truly honors what he called me to, but also gives the viewer an experience of what I experienced?” “

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