UA1-WA:P5-p2-Exercise – Visit a landscape

“Visit a landscape” is the instruction from the OCA notes, and I have very recently visited an amazing landscape, travelling from Broome to Perth in Western Australia (see 26-Aug-2014). Rather a large landscape, so my first thought was to limit myself to one section – say just the Pilbara. 01_DetailMapIn total the Pilbara is 507,896 square kilometres, which is still on the large side (the entire UK is around 243,610 square kilometres). We basically travelled down the west coast, so visited only part. The orange box on the map shows the part of the Pilbara included in the journey.

Apart from the size / scope issue, I’ve struggled to see how landscapes in the canon of Western Art make sense for landscapes of Western Australia. I’m not writing about the art of the indigenous people – that’s another story entirely and I don’t know enough there to even start. It’s that for someone from the western tradition the light is wrong – it’s brighter, whiter, harsher. The atmosphere is wrong – it’s so much drier, not a trace of soft haziness, only occasionally an isolated cloud. The vegetation, what there is of it, is wrong, and the colours are wrong, and the space is very, very wrong.

Of course they aren’t wrong. They’re different – wonderful and different. Beautiful and different. Mysterious and different. The relationship of the land to man, western man, is different. Claude Lorrain (see 14-Sept-2014) would be wrong here. Turner (see 4-May-2013) would be wrong here – even his understanding of the vast sublime.

I spent a little time searching books and the internet for American or Canadian works that might make an interesting comparison, but realised I was comparing everything to what was in my head about Australia – so of course nothing looked quite right. So below I’ve stayed within Australia, although a little loose on area. Basically I’ve been looking at ways to approach a landscape when it isn’t like the landscapes in the course.

I’ll start with some photos I took while in the Pilbara. This is to give a general sense of the land for those who haven’t been there. Many of the photos themselves are pretty poor, especially those taken through the window of a moving coach.

Next, some paintings of the area. Most of these I’ve found on the internet and not seen in person, so my comments are provisional.

Sidney Nolan Storm over Pilbara V (1982) spray enamel and mixed media on canvas. I really like the sense of depth in the landscape. There’s little specific detail, but the swirl at the front gives movement and interest. The line of the hills resonates – it feels right. I like the way the storm clouds seem almost like another mountain range behind.

Fred Williams – works in his Pilbara series. Mount Nameless (morning) (1981) oil on canvas. The folding in the hills (this is a geologically very old and complex area) and the sparse vegetation create a wonderful pattern. The colours don’t seem literal, although I see on the National Gallery of Victoria site that he has painted the same view at other times of day. I was very mindful of the changes in the landscape at different times of day – not just colours, but with the gullies and outcrops of rocks the shadows could entirely change the apparent shape of the slopes.

John Olsen Burning Trees, Pilbara, (1983) oil on canvas. This work uses an aerial view of the country, based on journeys in a helicopter. It’s a great way to show the vastness of the land, setting up rhythms of curves and the energetic sort of calligraphy that I associate with Olsen’s work. It also solves the problem of sparse vegetation that appears continuous in the distance. While sketching I struggled with clumps of spinifex which merged into something like fields of corn after just a few metres.

I can’t quite tell from the photograph of Olsen’s work, but I think there are signs of man to be seen amongst the nature, unlike the works linked above. This is one area where Pilbara landscapes must be different from many European views – either the hand of (western) man is absent, or it is very heavy on the land. There are no rustic villages or reaching church spires here.

Mark Schaller’s work such as Open Cut Mine Pilbara I (2011 acrylic on canvas) presents views of mining in decorative patterning, using energetic and simplified shapes, lines and colours which still clearly reflect the physical landscape.


Above are some images of a charming painting by Doug Gordon, then aged 12, in 1932. It shows Millstream homestead and environs, where Doug lived with his family at the time. The homestead is now a visitor centre in the Millstream-Chichester National Park. Doug’s painting hangs in the homestead and has been the inspiration for a Trail which presents station life in the 1930s from the perspective of a twelve year old boy.

Finally a work by Peter McQueeney. To be honest, I don’t know where this work depicts – probably not the Pilbara, but somewhere in that general part of the world. This is one of a number of works by McQueeney that hang in various meeting rooms at my workplace, and I enjoy viewing them in the few spare moments before we get into discussions on software functional specifications.

The final requirement for this exercise is to sketch or paint the landscape. After the journal making class with Adele Outteridge (25-July-2014) I made a journal especially for the trip, and also took along a range of graphite pencils, plus some watercolours and brushes.

I did a few sketches in a different book before leaving home, just to get used to my toolkit and to start thinking about how a landscape could work.


One of the above is based on a work in Fred Williams Pilbara series, I’ve (temporarily?) misplaced my notes on others. I wasn’t particularly fussy about where the landscape was – some attempts I haven’t shown here were based on European works – I just wanted to get my hand moving.

One immediate lesson was that I would have to be very careful of the amount of detail that could be included on my small pages.

sketch_10The next lesson was in sketching on a moving tour coach. I have a couple of those brushes with water reservoir and synthetic bristles. I found it actually is possible to mix water colours from half pans in those little plastic cases with integrated palette, and manage the paints, brush and sketchbook on your lap in a moving vehicle – to an extent. Extremely ordinary first results, but given the long driving days I persevered.

sketch_11The next attempt was on one of the wider, fold-out pages. The concept was to attempt decorative patterning based on the landscape in an invented colour combination that pleased me. I was also struggling with “spinifex difficulties”. If I paint what I see, the middle ground would look like a smooth field. I know it isn’t and I really wanted to keep the feeling of sparse vegetation even if that wasn’t a literal view of the scene.

sketch_12Next was pencils – graphite and a white pastel – with the brown paper providing a mid-tone. This looks pretty traditional – tree front left, non-connected planes of fore-, middle- and back-ground. I was happier with the flecks of white to indicate the spinifex without forming an apparently dense ground cover.

sketch_14I tried to go a bit further with focusing on tones and using the white for highlights. This doesn’t work as a composition, but I feel my technique is slowly improving. Of course an extra challenge was the coach moving along at 90 – 100 km per hour. It was generally a very smooth ride and not many corners, but I ended up mish-mashing scenery when the initial inspiration was somewhere far behind.

sketch_15With the general views I continued to have trouble finding a way to get from foreground to background when the land between was largely without features. This drawing was focusing in – and for once, I was stationary. This was sitting on a rock by one of the gorges in Karijini national park. The rock has weathered in amazing geometric forms.

sketch_16Back in the coach! This “solved” the middle ground problem by having an extreme foreground, a clear break, and straight to background.

sketch_19This one looks a bit odd with that row of sunken treetops, but that’s actually what is there. Sparse, low vegetation over most of the ground, then in the distance there would be a dry creek bed with trees and only the tops visible. When not sketching I would amuse myself by sitting with camera poised, watching for the line of tree tops to veer towards the road, hoping to get a good shot of the creek bed if the road passed over. I have lots of blurry shots!

sketch_20Back to searching for ways to deal with huge, sparse spaces. This is based on a map view of the landscape as we drove west from Karijini alongside a private railway used by the mining companies. I suppose it’s a poor man’s version of the helicopter view. I like the patterning achieved.

sketch_21There was a theory here – it wasn’t a fauvist attempt. I felt a bit stuck in my sketching, being a bit too literal. Here I tried to use complements of colours. The really vibrant colours just emphasize the bland, static forms. Actually some of my fellow travelers seemed quite positive about this one (they were all very pleasant, polite, supportive people!).

sketch_25We’d moved past the Pilbara by this point, but I wanted to show a couple more attempts at finding a way to present this land. So often the broad view was a series of horizontal bands leading up to the sky. This time I tried to mix colours I was seeing and paint in bands. I would like to weave this. Actually I think it would be interesting to weave the colours of a landscape, then stitch over with some shapes based on the view – not too literal, but introducing some energy and movement.

sketch_26Most of the time I was trying to deal with all that space by reducing detail. This time I reduced the space, or at least focus on a narrower view. The wildflower season was beginning as we got further south – not enough to be the real “carpet” that would be there a few weeks later, but enough to fill most of this view with colour. I think this is my most successful attempt at moving from foreground to background.

sketch_24This is Turquoise Bay near Exmouth, and the “beach” is actual sand from the beach where I was sitting (I had a glue stick). I like the movement I got in the water, although the headland is a bit wrong.

I did quite a few more sketches while away, but none that add to this exercise. I haven’t figured out how to paint a satisfying Australian desert landscape, but I had a lot of fun trying. It was really good having this course requirement as a focus. I had the sketchbook out every day, often multiple times. I got over any nervousness about sketching in public – if people want to look over my shoulder that’s their choice, I’m not making any claims of it being worth their while. Even when not sketching I was looking around me, trying to think of ways to approach drawing or painting what I was seeing. I feel my observations skills took a huge leap forward. All in all, very satisfying.

UA1-WA:P5-p2-Exercise – Visit a landscape
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art
Part 5: Inside, outside
Project two: Landscape
Exercise – Visit a landscape

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