WHAT PROJECT ARE YOU WORKING ON AT PRESENT
At the moment I am working on big scale paintings and I am trying to reflect on what I have been doing for the last year.
But I am also somewhat moving back to what I used to do around 2009 when I had a completed body of work (at the time I finished Tafe). I find that at the moment I am kind of sitting in the middle… I am still exploring and being rhythmic and not thinking too much about where it is coming from, still working from memory, and still in the landscape.
AP: What was your work like in 2009 compared to what it is you do now?
At the time, because I was painting a lot and being constant, I had a sort of rhythm, I wasn’t thinking about it [the act of painting].
These days, because I work full time, I find that it is there are a lot of fragments, until I can practice for a few weeks.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR ART PRACTICE IN RELATION TO THE LANDSCAPE?
AP: Do you use photographic material?
I don’t work from photographic reference, but I do small sketches while in bush land, to get that connection. Well, it doesn’t have to be in bush land, I love Carss Park, it is nice and close.
It is not just about looking, it is about smelling and feeling. I feel at home in nature, I suppose. It is not about the form of what I see; it is about what I am feeling. There might be something spectacular that catches my eye and I’ll get the proportions down, maybe, but it is still more about the experience. I find that again when I come back to the studio, that connection to the earth.
AP:What is you medium of choice (if any) and how does it influence your work?
For sure, it does. My preferred medium is oil but not so much when I am in plein air. I go down to the park and I take charcoal and do more experimental things more of the drawing.
Having said that I do like to take my oils and use them spontaneously, quickly, then take it home and work on it again in the studio. I often use charcoal to block the large shapes when outdoor.
Recently I love the idea of combining the charcoal with the paint. I draw with charcoal and then paint, and combine both, with areas where the charcoal, or pencil or Conte stays in sections and appear in the finished work. I can also go on top with paint. But I don’t do the typical “under drawing” before painting. I do it all at once. I draw with paint.
This [drawing appearing in painting] has been recent. I really love that. It has not been planned. It just happened.
I also use oil sticks but not just sticks. I always take up a brush and move it and push it. Sometimes I like the rawness of that oil stick and that one line. Or even if it is ¾ of the painting in oil sticks, but it usually happens together.
….. recently I have also started doing small free sketches on post-it notes. That really helps me and I think it looks good when put up together. And just as references.
I really the freedom of these sketches as well.
AP: There are certain shapes like “bridge shapes” or U-shapes that are recurrent. Do you think they have a particular meaning for you? or symbolize a particular idea?
Well I do think that some parts that are busier are like the congested…. you know, like congested rocks or bushes, and then you have spaces.
So even if though you see light sometimes in my works, it is not that light. It is basically about shapes and the tangled-ness of those lines. It’s bold, not really lyrical. Sometimes my work is lyrical but there is a lot of blocks of shapes in-between. So I think the negative space of the blocs comes out when I paint. Somehow I concentrate on the negative space, not just positive.
In the drawings [Sharon points to the sketches] in opposition, it is linear. It is all lines; I don’t ever block it in in colour. Sometimes I put in a little of shading, but it is mostly line.
AP: what I find really interesting in your paintings is that it is not just about shape, or not just about colour… it is that intricate relationship between one and the other.
And then the shapes change, the positive/negative change also with the light.
AP: how long does it take you to draw a small post-it drawing?
About one minute, or two minutes.
AP: so it’s not rationalised…
No, it is almost like a doodle. But I am always thinking landscape so it is not really a doodle. It is really part of what I do.
AP: and then after, do you actually use them?
Mmm, sometimes I do. Sometimes I reflect on them and go…. “I like that part of the shape on the right there….I don’t usually have that…” so I might start a new work with that shape. but I don’t copy a sketch into a full painting. I use it more as a tool. Just to reflect on it.
I may put some of my favourite colours on them. That’s why it is up [on the wall]… like small swatches.
AP: Figure or no figure in the landscape? Figure does not appear in your paintings, there is no representation of the human form, but do you think humanity appears in your work?
I must say….. I am actually bordering on the urban landscape vs bush. I might show a pathway…. Or… in one I have done called “beyond the green”, the green is the grass, man-made, it is urban, like my bush land, sitting in suburbia.
AP: … you had that “indoor/outdoor” separation in an earlier series of paintings.
Yes, I also do that with my “indoor/outdoor”. You don’t see the indoor, you don’t see any figure or anyone there but with that divide, that line, you know it is not organic. It is so straight. You know it’s been made. It reflects the human, somehow.
There is no figure but when I draw from memory I almost see myself, sometimes whether it is now, or when I was a child. I can see that lightness from when I was a child.
WERE YOU ALWAYS A LANDSCAPE PAINTER OR HAS YOUR PRACTICE EVOLVED TO COME TO IT AS A CENTRAL ELEMENT?
I suppose initially being in graphic (design) I would draw at work and create logos and then come home play around, draw and it was all shapes. I would change things into shapes.
I used to do a little bit of interiors, or still life but very simple. Again, just shapes, plain and very simple. It wasn’t like a whole interior. It was more like the shapes of the space and spaces in-between, and shadows. I did a bit of that…but really, always gravitated around the landscape.
COULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR BACK GROUND AND EARLY YEARS (childhood, development to being an artist)?
I was born in Sydney.
My connection to Carss Park, now where I live, is also where my grand-parents used to live when I was a child.
My uncle used to be a ranger in Carss Park. He used to live in that stone cottage, and I was very young when he was there. There wasn’t many houses around, but it was build up. That was fantastic being down there, having that connection. My grand-father used to go fishing and take me. I used to view it [the park] all the time, whether for picnics, or with my uncle the ranger, or down with my grandfather.
But always from a young age I was taught to love and respect nature. So…it is not just the beauty of the landscape, it is the integrity of the landscape as well. You know, if you fish, you have to get the worms, like with my grand-father, we only took what we needed, and do the right thing.
I have always been taught that.
AP: so when did you start taking the brush?
Very young. I have always been doing it.
I remember my mother saying that, as a very young child, before I could really draw, I used to draw musical notes (although I am not musical!!!). My uncle was a musician; my father was playing the trumpet…
I was about 11, my mother took me to the lookout and I did a painting of Carss Park. My mum said it was fascinating because I was drawing with a lot of light and tones, rather than lines.
Then I always loved it [painting]. I did it all through my studies, did it through HSC (I did ceramic, and painting). Then when I went into graphic design….to make a living (laughs). I was never happy with that line though… until I went back to fine arts.
OBVIOUSLY THERE ARE SOME CHILDHOOD ROOTS TO YOUR LOVE OF LANDSCAPE…
AP: When you say you work from memory, it seems more the memory of the feeling, rather than the memory of a particular typography.
I think so. Some of my colours are from those years, like the sand down at Carss Park, virgin soil, very white and grey. And I find all of that, with the pink brown leaves, the old leaves that have fallen, and the bark. I am more interested in that than in the bright green, or the brightness of the sky. It is more the earthy. Early in the morning, when the sun is coming up, or at dusk….I don’t know why…. That is the type of light I am interested in.
AP: the connection with working with ceramics, that earth?
Yes, and I did seedpods…the ceramics I made were seedpods…I was walking and collecting twigs and seedpods and decided I could do ceramics, organic forms of seedpods.
HAVE YOU TRAVELED & USED OVERSEAS LANDSCAPE AS A SOURCE OF INSPIRATION? how did this influence the work?
Yes, I have travelled a bit. But where I went, like in America, I wasn’t inspired at all.
When I did go to England and Europe, I loved the light, because it is so stark here. I don’t know if I captured any of that and I don’t even consciously think I did. I can’t say “I liked the landscape there” but I must say that it is that softness [of the light] that I loved.
So, when I reflect back on my work, the down or dusk light, it is that softness, that breeziness of the bush, the natural colours. It is really rare that I do intense colours. Or then it is shadows and the colours come through that.
It is the light and it is standing alone, it has its own message. And I suppose I feed of that, really.
So, even if consciously I think I might change or do something different, in fact I think I always go back to the same feeling, all the time.
AP: Do you think you need to know the place, and the landscape to come to use it in your work?
Yes. I can see the beauty in it. I need to feel comfortable in my world to do that and I think it is true, I need the connection.
See I went to America, I saw beautiful big parks, incredible places. I saw these sorts of things and I just remember thinking “whoa, this is amazing”, but I couldn’t transform that amazingness into that connection of me growing up.
So it is what I did and what I know, It is that “Australian-ness”. It is our light and our bush.
Although it vary and can change a lot, I can go down the coast or in-land, there is always something that I’ve seen before or I know from before, like the smell of the gums, or the crackle of your feet on these dry gums leaves…..your know there is always something there that reminds me, evokes me to feel comfortable and then produce work.
And get elated and excited about it.
AP: you light up when you talk about it! So I can well imagine that you go into that place in your mind and your memories, just as you did now, before you push it out in paint. Just the way you talked about it…I wish you had a brush in our hands right now!… (both laugh)
Yes, I do get elated and quite emotional, you know, whether people see that in my work or not, it is definitely……it just comes out, it is like magic.
I suppose any painter has something that works for them, but that definitely drives me. So if I feel I have had that experience, I’ll bring it to the studio straight away and paint.
AP: what is your motivation for the act of painting? Do you think it is the pleasure of being in the moment of making it or are you looking forward to discovering the end result? In any way do you think you are understanding things about yourself as a person rather than yourself as an artist?
Both. I think. Because I have got skills, I suppose, I enjoy the act of painting, or drawing. It is the feel of the paint. It is like….
I remember I did a class at NA, his name was Roger Crawford, and he kept saying “keep sword fighting…keep painting! keep painting!” and I said to him: “yes, you have to keep painting”. If you love it, you want to keep painting.
So it is the action of painting that I love. Whether or not it works at the end of the day I am not frustrated by it. And if it is a challenge, I do want to finish it, I want to go back.
That is why I love the oil stick and the paint now, because it is buttery an fluid. And I don’t paint from lean to thick. I go thick straight on. And sometimes I leave a patch, I add some medium in it to make it lighter. So it is not sitting from lean to thick…. It is sitting everywhere. [smile]
WHAT ARE YOUR INFLUENCES (other artists) and why?
Straight away I think Australian artists like Elizabeth Cummings.
But I love varied artists, like Bonnard, and the magic of complementary colours, the purples and yellows, …. Morandi: that space in-between that Morandi does, and that flatness…I don’t know…. I suppose that have learnt all of that,…I don’t think I am drawing on it, but it is all in my head, it is part of my skills….
Like that Sydney Moderns exhibition I have just been to, I thought it was spectacular because I am seeing the Australian landscape as well, through different artists of different times. And it fascinates me, I can see their connection.
So I haven’t got a favorite in particular to tell you the truth. I feed from all. All fascinates me, photography, sculpture, digital media. It sort of blows my mind…
WHAT WILL BE YOUR NEXT PROJECT?
I haven’t got a set project, but I keep thinking I would like to develop a whole series on paper. Maybe using these sketches. And the oils. I may even use collages in them.
I started a series on bones a few years ago and I was actually looking at some of these works recently. And I was thinking “some of my shapes are so much like those shapes. I would like to do some experimental work with those bones and colours. And I was looking at some of these…it sounds terrible… these insipid creamy yellows, in with it…. So yes, I want to do some mixed media.
IN CONCLUSION, WHY THE LANDSCAPE?
Why the landscape………..[silence] …. Because it just seems so easy. It just seems so natural. I don’t even have to think about it.
Mmmm………..[silence] …. I don’t know…. ‘why the landscape’….
I feel at peace with the landscape. I feel at one actually, with it. Even though it changes and it can be ferocious, you know, the devastation of drought, but there is still beauty. The natural fires that happen for the good of seeds popping open and regeneration. It ought to be celebrated.
AP: you were talking about yourself being young, as a child and experiencing that freedom, carelessness…and whether you have associated that state with these happy moments spent in the landscape…
Yes… it is almost like a time stop in a sense. Finding again that naivety of a child, not seeing the world like we do [as an adult], with all those years of experience, but with freshness.
AP:it is interesting what you just said about the “naivety” and the way you are talking about the bush…because when I am in the [Australian] bush, I feel threatened (which is a feeling I draw from). But when you are talking about it, you see the life, you see the beauty of it, you feel “the juice” and you have that naivety.
I feel like I have the acceptance of it too. Because I know it is not all nice and I know it is very powerful. But I always see that in its gentlest form. I can see the good in it. It doesn’t threaten me or scare me. I feel at peace with it. It almost like I know it.
And I respect it.
Sharon Leslie Watkins is working in Sydney and kindly opened her home studio for our conversation, in August 2013. She has been a finalist in several art prizes including Paddington art prize, Mosman art prize and Kogarah art prize for which she won the Place of Reeds award in 2013