Many people don’t realise this, but I am an accidental bird painter….a nature lover who sold bird paintings quite well - while underneath that mild mannered exterior I am a far more interesting beast.
As a kid I was totally fascinated by Photorealism – that art movement born in America where artists attempted to convince people that their paintings were in fact photos. I remember the love affair I had in my early teens with “Telephone Booths”(Richard Estes 1967). But no one in Australia was as interested in that type of art as they were in my bird paintings. So that was the fork in the road for me, and off I went producing what the market demanded - I became a bird painter. Meanwhile the interest in the minute details of photorealism bubbled away subversively and never really left me. My love of high detail has always been there – it is an innate part of me as an artist….I love the colours and patterns of nature when viewed up-close and personal. I am endlessly fascinated with the hairs on spider’s legs, or the texture on flower petals. Nature is full of sublime pattern and colour.
About 2 years ago I started to get more overtly interested in that genre of super realistic art, known as Hyperrealism. I remember the moment it happened. I saw a painting of blood oranges by Luigi Benedicenti ("Tarocco", 2011). There are few paintings that I find totally arresting, but this was one of them - I couldn’t get it out of my head. I found it amazing when I thought it was life size - but it hit me like a sledge hammer when I realised the huge size of this painting! So, much to the bemusement of a few colleagues, I chucked in my usual style of traditional realism and drew ‘Quill’ – an oversized Wedge-tailed Eagle at a size that required its eyes to be the size of dinner plates. This was followed by a Red-tailed Black-Cockatoo also of huge proportions. I was treading carefully, not wanting to rock the boat too much, but needing to prove to myself that I could master the minutely detailed painting that convincing Hyperrealism requires. I promptly won the Holmes Art Prize with ‘Quill’ and then sold the cockatoo as well. So far so good! I revelled in the detail that HR demands. Whereas for years I had had to restrain the amount of detail I could put into my traditional bird paintings, with this genre I could dive straight in and get lost in the detail....here it’s applauded rather than seen as a problem. Indeed my ex-father-in-law, himself a painter, had always told me that spending more than 2 hours on a painting was a waste of time. Well, have I got news for him!
The next foray into this type of painting saw me painting a ruby grapefruit on a board almost 1.5m wide. This was followed by a tiny red rosebud (in life only 2 cm high) – transforming it into a metre high monolith – it is this large scale that Hyperrealism requires and that transfixes the viewer. If a photo was blown up to the size that I can paint, it would pixelate and lose colour intensity – but not so with a painting.
In my opinion the Old Dutch Masters were the hyperrealists of their day. What has always fostered my keen interest in their paintings are the sumptuous colours, moody darks and lost edges seen in much of their work. I see a direct connection between that and what I would like to portray on the canvas. And spending 40 years as a bird painter has been my apprenticeship – a long process I acknowledge - but necessary for me to gain the skills needed for first class HR. I know that learning to paint feathers as texture matured me as an artist, and has given me the extra dimension needed to be a convincing hyperrealist.
So what triggered this epiphany? I finally saw through other artist’s eyes what I had been told before about my hyperrealist paintings – they are good, they are unique and it’s about time I started exploring what more I can do as an artist. It was definitely a case of sliding doors. If Nicky hadn’t suggested I drag these paintings out from under the bed to show them to some visiting artists, I would still be fixating on painting yet another bird picture. Now I can control the subject matter, angle of light, and background in a way that I never could when chasing wild birds in the bush. My sliding door moment has directed me back onto the path I stepped off as a teenager. I can’t wait to see what my art future brings!