WHAT PROJECT ARE YOU WORKING ON AT PRESENT, ARE YOU WORKING TOWARDS AN EXHIBITION?
Yes, I have works going to Arts Equity in a couple of weeks’ time. But I paint constantly; I paint and draw eight to ten hours every day.
One of these paintings [pointing to a work on the wall, about 1m x 1.5m] takes me eight to ten days to do, eight hours days, so I need to
paint constantly to put an exhibition together.
There is an exhibition coming up later in the year with them and in the meantime they want some works to introduce me to the
clientele and also for their website.
…But what I have actually looked at is tone, colour as tone and subtle variations of tone. I went through a really bright phase around
2010. The work was very bright and vivid and deliberately looking at heightened un-natural colours.
Then I decided that I wanted to look at this very pale landscape. And I think the biggest influence on the pale landscape was around about the same time as I was questioning the bright colours:
I went to Jordan in the Middle East and so, instead of having these bright stark Australian colours of reds and blues and blacks and greens, suddenly everything was covered in dust. And everything was tonally washed out and tonally very simplistic and I thought it was so beautiful and evocative….that it also made me then question the whole “light” thing in Australia…the Australian light.
So, previously I was working on primed canvas that had been under-painted with colour, and then I started working on white canvas, so the tonal dominance would be the white. That is what makes these paintings here very, very pale.
Then I decided I liked the darker base, so I started priming with burnt sienna…and the works have gone on from there.
The ones that are very close in tone like this one, is very close to my heart [showing a large painting from the “pale” series], they are the ones that I really love.
These [showing the darker paintings] are the ones that other people seem to like most, .
It is interesting playing with colour again, and I suppose they’re games! I work from the horizon up and I paint the skies (so I turn them upside down, painting upside down the sky). Then I paint from the horizon down.
And people say “how did you decide on this colour?” and I don’t …. know. It’s just that the next colour in the sequences, or in the next line is what is intuitive, you know, it is what comes about.
So this one I tried to deliberately to look at waterways and lakes and ponds, while this one here is about looking at the rhythm in the landscape.
AP: this one seems more connecting to your drawings, using fractals…you find the water indeed.
May I ask you…you were saying that this one is close to your heart, and these are the ones people like more. Do you have any insight about that? Why is it that you particularly like this one for instance? What do you see in it?
I really love late Rothko’s, one or two colours but different tones of the same colour. And I adore their simplicity. Also they are not as easy, they are more difficult, you have to search harder for what they are, you have to spend more time with them. They are not instantly gratifying….
I am not saying that these paintings aren’t all those things, it’s just that being brighter in colour is only one aspect of my personality, as opposed to this one which is so much more inward.
And I think that….
…I have always been quite open about my depression and one of the things that I’ve noticed is that these paintings [the pale series] are very meditative: from the whole way they are painted with the palette knife, in this continuous, slightly chopping against the surface, chattering, is just so slow and methodical that is like a meditation. And so one of these is actually much gentler. Whereas something like these [the brighter paintings] you have to jump in and out of that zone to decide on your tone and your colours. So it is a very different way of working.
In saying that, they are exactly the same proportions, exactly the same technique. It is just a different palette creating a different response.
AP: but there is a palette that requires more….”consciousness”, compared to one that is more “intuitive”
…as if you recognised yourself more in them, they feel closer [the pales].
And the other thing about these two darker ones that I have just done: they are deliberately looking at nocturnes. I am deliberately trying to push certain times of day.
Coming from Jordan, having these ones with these very bleached out landscape, they are still very much about the Australian landscape, I wanted to have that height of summer, and they are absolutely about midday sun. So that kind of no shadows, nothing moves, everything is static. But with these latest works I wanted to be a little bit more evocative, a bit more pushing times of day.
And pushing times of day actually pushed emotions more. So in the middle of the day everything is more relaxed, it is hotter….but twilight, or early morning, there is a possibility of a fabulous day… and at twilight there is, well…
AP:…the possibility of tomorrow…
….yeah… you are so much more positive! [laughs] I was going to say “the realisation that the day was not quite as fantastic as you though it was going to be”!
…so there is that element in it.
AP: that’s probably because I have that anxiety about time, the time that I don’t have to do all the things I would like to do. So, in the morning I am usually paralysed, not knowing where to start. Whereas at the end of the day when it is almost gone, I am much more relaxed, at peace.
It’s interesting, I have a friend around the corner who is a Buddhist nun and I talked to her about this, and about the way she can just turn on meditation, and I think that now, with the way that I am working, I can turn that on. I can have just 10 minutes and come in the studio to do 10 min work and I can leave it and come back to it and I can be in the same mind frame as I was when I left. But it is also a necessity because of the way that I work: because I am living 2 ½ days a week in Newcastle and the rest in the Mountains, I need to have that time out, or have a technique that allows me to stop and start.
[since the beginning of the conversation, the canary that inhabits the studio has been singing its lungs out, just behind me, trying to catch my attention, I suppose….]
This canary is always happy! And very vocal! He is very cute. We bought it off this quite delicious man from St Marys, in western Sydney, who was quite a character, probably in his sixties, and he kept saying “my name is Saddam, just like Hussein, only not like Hussein”, he kept repeating this.. I have had three canaries in 25 years, they live quite a long time. I have had three dogs but we always get rescue dogs. This one we got as a puppy. They are good company.
CAN YOU DESCRIBE YOUR ART PRACTICE IN RELATION TO THE LANDSCAPE?
AP: What is your exposure to the landscape, plein-air?
I think painting outdoor is a sport… it’s a nightmare!
I do it…(rarely)….I did a couple of weeks ago, and I actually really enjoyed it, but it is the ‘setting up everything’ and ‘going out’ and just being brutal in the landscape, you know, flies, and ants, and people and…”oh, my mother could do that” and “have you been doing it very long” and “what is it meant to be” …..
…. I draw in the landscape.
AP: To me ‘being outdoor’ is about finding the ‘raw feeling’, so I get that from plein-air, and once I got it (I don’t plan to use the painting I did outdoor as an exhibition piece) I go back inside, in the studio and hopefully, do things with it. Your process seems similar?
I suppose it is the same. I go out and I do these fairly tight drawings in the landscape, and I always say the reason I do tight drawings in the landscape is to keep me honest.
I am quite passionate about teaching drawing and being able to draw [note: David is currently
teaching at Newcastle University], it is something you’ve got to do every day, otherwise you might wake up one morning and …find that you can’t do it! So you need to constantly draw.
The sepia ink drawing were always what I did but I am now trying to work out a way to draw the landscape that I’m painting, in a similar kind of way.
Because always, in the past, there has been almost a disconnection between my drawings and my paintings.
Now they are coming together. They are much much closer now than they have ever been. The paintings are getting tighter, the drawings are getting tighter but they’re getting, hopefully, not any more realistic.
AP: What is you medium of choice (if any) and how does it influence your work?
In the studio I work on pre-primed linen painted with a colour base of acrylic and then oil painted with palette knife. There is no medium, I just mix pure paint and put it on.
Sometimes I try to impose on myself little mind games to a certain degree: only two or three colours, plus white, in each painting, then I allow myself to see how many variations of tone and colour I can make with them. In others I just let myself have the full palette and then run with it. But usually there is some kind of logic to the palette…. there is no pre-determined outcome to the painting:
As I said before I have the horizon and then the sky. Because once you have the sky you know what kind of landscape you are doing. Each line, each tone, is a direct response to the previous line.
AP: So it is only one layer of paint?
Yes, one line, all the way across, then the next line, all the way across, and then you keep going. But also you have a good idea of tone so you know what is going to come forward, what is going to recede, what is going to make the impression of cloud or a rock in the landscape…
AP: but you are not going back on it, once it’s on, it’s on (the canvas)
No… but in saying that, occasionally I have got the tone wrong in two lines or something somewhere in the painting and I have sat down with a triple 0 brush and I have repainted that line over the palette knife mark, which takes even longer! But hopefully I have done it in such a way that you can never tell which ones they are, and I think it has only happened two or three times…
One of the nice things about working this way is kind of what I also love about drawing (I draw in ink): you are committed to it.
….Once you have started you are committed.
Mmmm, watercolour… sudden death!
I am mean, because I won’t allow my students to use pencil or charcoal in their drawings, I make them all use ink, either pen or dip pen or whatever can make a mark, because it’s being committed to the mark.
Instead of drawing something and hoping for the best you have to think about what is going down and how it’s going down and why it’s going down, what kind of mark you are going to make. I do believe in the happy accident but I don’t think it is something you can rely on.
In the landscape I normally work on watercolour paper and I have been using sharpies for a lot of recent drawings, like these here.
I’ve left some drawings out in the sun for a couple of weeks and nothing’s happened. The paper has gone yellow but the colour didn’t fade so they’re fairly lightfast.
In the meantime a friend in Sydney who is a very good landscape painter gave me a Faber Castel Ink pen. It is kind of like a texta but it has a brush nib on it and it is quite fat, and it is pure ink. That makes really beautiful drawings.
AP: (browsing a large pile of small scale, expressive drawings) did you draw these in the purpose of having finished works or did you just aim to record the landscape?
The drawings I do are to keep me honest. I do show drawings but these would be the large ink on paper. These are just about me looking at what is in front of me and interpreting that.
Some I have great fun with, others, I have these enormous struggles with, I don’t do any amendments in the studio, what is done in the landscape is done.
And because I am obsessive I keep a journal every day, I write a couple of pages of notes about life, thoughts, art practice and I think these [drawings] are like a visual journal in the same way.
AP: How much would you spend doing one [ the size of each plein air drawing is about A4]?
Some take 3 hours, some 30 minutes, some are just horizontals and verticals, some I am actually trying to develop my own language for trees, rocks, shrubberies, in a way that is not obvious.
AP: Do you also start with your horizon?
Always…….one of the things about the horizon is that I see it as a metaphor for the perfect painting. It’s unobtainable. You get to the horizon and there is always another horizon… so you never get there. But it is also about that philosophy that I hold about artists as explorers: The explorer heads off towards the horizon, as an artist, I am also heading off towards that horizon.
It’s a fairly strong recurring theme in my work, this horizon narrative. This is also present in some of my influences: people like Leichhardt and Burke and Wills and Sturt and Voss…that goes into the literature, why they went to the landscape.
This wrong idea that Australians go to the landscape to find themselves and find that spiritual awakening… most Australians don’t go there: If we do, we go there in literature, we go there in movies, we don’t actually physically get in the car and drive!
This is the irony about the Australian’s heart [the bush], a place we have this great passion about but not many people actually go there…
AP: and less and less even….
AP: Based on my own experience coming from a “civilised landscape” be it the landscape around cities or the European landscape, I find that the Australian landscape is actually threatening. It generates in me a mixed feeling of awe and fear. It is only after a number of days in the bush that it starts becoming somewhat familiar and the deeper connection develops.
I wonder if the current disconnect or disinterest for the natural world is not somehow a consequence of people not going out in the landscape enough and merely experiencing it via their TV or tablet. Would the connection to the environment be stronger if the physical experience was more frequent?
Well, a lot of my research, when I went back to university to do a higher degree, started looking at images of isolation and alienation, the whole idea of we are just talking about, about the person going out and being alienated, feeling isolated from people.
It is by going to Central Australia that I came across aboriginal communities. I was doing day trips from Alice Springs out drawing. There was a car on the side of the road and it had obviously broken down so I stopped and that’s how I happened to meet Ada Bird and Kathleen Petyarre and Gloria Petyarre and Violet and….you know, all these amazing people!
AP: what kind of luck is that!
That was some kind of an epiphany for me: I had always been looking at the landscape, as European artists do, whereas Aboriginal artists arethe landscape: they are drawing or painting themselves as landscape. So it is a significant shift ….although I think I am still somewhat looking at the landscape.
That is one of the reasons why I am so strong about this horizon line: having that as a definite divide, all this definite connection to European art history: the idea of being a white person in the Australian landscape.
The other huge influence in my work is, of course, Chinese brush painting. And you can probably see that in my sepia drawings.
AP: the European vision of controlling the landscape, organising it or taming it, for agricultural reasons for instance whereas the aborigines live in, only as custodians, without control, that would inform the artistic vision: looking at vs. being part of?
…..mmmm… I suppose the landscape that I am really obsessed with, is un-grazeable or un-cropable. It is very raw, natural, the landscape without intervention.
AP: I agree but I am more talking about your mindset? Your cultural landscape?
The way that I am painting is also about control….I am controlling what is going down, as it is so methodical, so process driven. So yes, it is kind of like controlling the environment that I am painting.
FIGURE OR NO FIGURE IN THE LANDSCAPE?
I go out painting with these friends and they are always drawing man-made objects or drawing each other, and I always say that I hate trees and I hate people because they clutter the landscape. And they are almost annoyed that somebody so passionate about painting the landscape doesn’t like trees…. I love trees…. Just not in my paintings!
AP: when you say you don’t like trees in your landscape… trees are living things, impermanent when your paintings feel permanent to me, almost mineral.
….I am not sure….Barnett Newman always pushed the fact that verticals represented man, God and horizontals represented the landscape….I have always gone with that idea that horizontal IS the landscape. And because I am working with strong horizontals, I don’t feel the need to have verticals. But in some of these works, verticals are happening. In this particular work here, verticals are happening because I was looking at Diebenkorn, looking at the way that he was fracturing the landscape.
AP: did the fractures happen or did you have them structurally?
Yes, the canvas had two vertical lines drawn into it when I started painting.
… I kind of like it but part of me also thinks that it’s a little bit too….how dare I say… ‘clever’…? It is something I will probably come back to but at the moment I am just more interested in playing with singular fields.
AP: have you done one only?
Yes. Because they take so long…
I can’t do more than 40 paintings a year.
AP: so do you only paint one at a time?
Yes, one at a time. Then I have a day off. And then I start the next one.
AP: do you need that day off to come out of the work?
Well, I need that day off because I live with somebody else and they start becoming crabby if I am stuck in here [the studio] too much.
One of the great things about living up here though, is that I have students who come and stay and we go from here out drawing. So it is actually a day out of the studio. It is still working, but with more ‘human friendly hours’.
….like I said: …people, like trees, clutter up the landscape…that’s also the landscape of your mind.
…and you can become terribly isolated….that was one of the reasons behind that whole philosophy of isolation and alienation: the artist working in the studio heading off towards the horizon, is the same as the explorer out in the environment going out towards the horizon. You are both going to unknown territories: every mark, every footstep that you make leads you into another direction….which is something you are probably not conscious of until you get to your destination, the completed canvas.
….and then you start again.
AP: You don’t use any photographic material at all?
No, I only draw…. One thing I tell my students is that photography is only good for documentation and pornography, and if you think about it, it is the same thing.
I don’t work from photograph. I think photography is a beautiful art form but it is not the art form that speaks to me. I have a contempt for nostalgia.
HAVE YOU ALWAYS BEEN A LANDSCAPE PAINTER OR HAS YOUR ART EVOLVED TO COME TO IT.
Landscape painting happened to me from around the time of school…I was living in Sydney and then went to live in the country with my grandmother in 1984-
86. Moving from the city to the country was a huge leap. And I started drawing the landscape that was around me.
Prior to that I was going to the Orban art school. At this stage he was 99 or 100 and still working as an Art teacher. This crusty old man sitting in the corner and me, a 14yr old boy, taking my paintings to him and he’d sigh. He would stab it with a paint brush and more sighing. And I wasn’t very good at understanding what that meant. Luckily there were these Hungarian ladies that would explain to me what the sighing meant…
That was really the start of the fracturing of the surface of the painting for me, because Orban’s work was very much about one painting, one surface.
Maybe the reminisce of Orban’s philosophy is still stuck in my head. I fought that for a long time and I tried lots of different things like flat skies and flat water but I have realised that I came full circle back to what I was learning back then.
An amazing artist…one of the things he taught me was the great love of Cezanne, still one of my great gods, I think Cezanne is a glorious artist. And I think that is where I actually started, with him, pushing Cezanne, looking at the fracture in the landscape and playing with that.
AP: starting to paint what was around, in the country at your grandmother…would that bring a certain form of satisfaction, or struggle?
[Smiling] The reason I’m laughing is because the idea of painting and satisfaction does not go well together…
AP: I know!.. let me rephrase that: what I am questioning and that is what I am trying to find out with these interviews is: what it is that brings certain artists to certain subjects…and when I say “satisfaction” I don’t mean ‘happiness’, but rather obsession, filling a need?
Mmmm, I am not sure… but I think one of the reasons I am doing these open, flat landscapes that are very vast is that I am extremely claustrophobic. That has been an issue at times in my life to the point where it actually stopped me doing a lot of things. But it is funny how claustrophobia is one of those things that once you learn the space that you are frightened of, you are not so bad with it.
We have a cool room here and I couldn’t go into that room. Then, slowly, I started going in…finally, last week (this is after 4 ½ years living in this house!), I finally went inside and closed the door!… it wasn’t comfortable, I didn’t enjoy it at all, but I did it.
I think that, that confinement…or that enormous expanse in the landscape is to help fight the confinement: I don’t want to be trapped.
AP: Have you always felt claustrophobic?
I had a fairly turbulent childhood: My parents were at each other’s throats constantly and it was horrific, and quite violent, and I think it was a way of escaping. And I still think it is a way of escaping: the landscape is allowing you out.
I am also hoping that for people standing in front of them it can be like a form of meditation.
….I never feel part of anything, ever. That is something I used to fight….I never feel part of a group of people, I never feel included or inclusive, so even when I am out in the landscape and I’m looking at it and I’m IN the landscape, I am not part of it, I am still an observer, I am still separate to the entity. I never feel isolated out there, but I don’t feel connected either.
But I think it is kind of nice to actually accept the fact that you are not part of a landscape and you are just a visitor into that field.
…that makes me think: one of the reasons that I call my paintings “field” is because it’s connecting to the ‘colour field painters’ and that kind of meditative state and so forth. ..I do try and play with very specific colours and they are normally called “grey-blue field” or “blue-grey field”….
One of the things that I look at in some works is having that complete abstraction and broken perspective, so it’s almost a flat canvas with no perspective. And in others, deliberately pushing perspective and pushing the suggestion of waterways and pushing suggestions of clouds.
Being out there and seeing a body of water, or a row of trees in the distance, will give you a tonal break. At the time you might be drawing them, you don’t think anything of them, and then back in the studio you’ll think “mmm, that needs something to make that area move and then you’ll think of that dark or that white, you know, some connection to the reality is something that snaps you back, and that’s the beauty of going out in the landscape.
I think that if I didn’t go out in the landscape my paintings would be far more esoteric than what they are…
I am very passionate about the fact that I am a landscape painter, and I am especially passionate about the fact that I am an Australian landscape painter.
COULD YOU DESCRIBE YOUR BACKGROUND AND EARLY YEARS (childhood, development to being an artist)?
I don’t remember much about my childhood, that is one of the consequences of having had such a turbulent childhood when you’ve had parents screaming at each other, that you don’t actually remember too much, but my memories are that I was always making art.
Art was an escape…. now it’s life, it’s every aspect of my life.
HAVE YOU TRAVELED & USED OVERSEAS LANDSCAPE AS A SOURCE OF INSPIRATION? how did this influence the work?
AP: you mentioned that your Jordan trip influenced your work….
I always travel for culture and that can be the full spectrum of learning about other cultures as well as to broaden my own art practice.
The first time I went overseas I went to Greece and that was because I had studied ancient Greek art, then many other trips like Jordan, then to Italy and I completely immersed myself in art there.
When I went to Jordan I did a lot of drawings, hundreds of drawings in the two and a half weeks I was there. When I went to Italy it was very hard because everything is cluttered up. We have man-made objects everywhere. I kept a written journal for the whole time and made notes about colours and connections and shadows, but I didn’t do any drawings as such and that was actually very nice.
When I went to Antarctica that was actually quite spectacular. When I was on board the boat I did, again, hundreds of small drawings, which is very hard because you have to keep putting the ink in your pocket so it doesn’t freeze….
So Jordan changed my work, Greece did, but not Antarctica: it was such a cold palette…I found it very hard. The idea of the person who had sponsored the trip was that Antarctica was the largest desert on earth, and I am obsessed with desert. I went and absolutely adored it. I really wish I could go again because I didn’t make
the mind jump that it would be a white and black landscape.
In the end I really did only black and white pen drawings. And they worked very well, but I kept thinking of them as a base for paintings, which I shouldn’t have. I should have thought about it as a ‘drawn landscape’, rather than a painted landscape.
The other thing that is really difficult about Antarctica is the perception of space. There is nothing, no tree to compare things to, so you look at the landscape and think it’s about a couple of hundred meters to the shoreline, when you are talking about kilometres. And it was that completely “fractured” landscape which was hard to connect to.
The experience itself was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life, as an art practice at the time, I found it incredibly difficult. But looking back, maybe the challenges of that made its resonance, still.
In the end, the paintings that I did of Antarctica, which I’m the most happy with, are the ones that are just enormous expanses of ocean: is it floating ice, or is it actually ocean?
But I had to work it through until I got my own language of how to interpret it.
MY NEXT QUESTION IS “DO YOU HAVE A SPECIAL CONNECTION TO THE AUSTRALIAN LANDSCAPE”? you have mentioned earlier that you do. Why is that?
Maybe just because I was born here…. But it is also a metaphor. It is the way I can use form, colour, shape, the connectedness, the isolation, I can use it as an abstracted base for my paintings.
It is some kind of an ‘emotional elastic’ with the Australian desert landscape: when it gets within 18, 12, even 6 months of me being there, it [my work] starts getting very tight and I get a little ‘stir crazy’ and need to go out and stop!.
My life is so complex in so many ways that when I’m out in the landscape, that’s it, I’m there. I can’t answer email, or talk to people.
I also mostly travel by myself, deliberately, so that I’m not distracted. I can get up at three O’clock, drive out to somewhere and stop and watch the sunrise and look at that colour, that shadow, that tone that you can only get from actually being there.
AP: May I challenge what you said: you felt “not connected to the landscape”? Because when I see you talk about the Australian landscape with such enthusiasm, it seems to me that you have roots here…you belong?
…I still think that one of the reasons why I am still painting the landscape is because I don’t belong to it, I am still looking at it, I’m still seeing this thing I need to work with……
mmm…, no, I still feel that disconnectedness and I think that’s one of the reasons why there is still that horizon line, I am still looking at the landscape, I’m still not IN the landscape.
One of the things that I’m playing with is having dark foregrounds in some of these paintings, that brings the landscape right up to your feet, and the sky of course is something that you’re going into. But this is my invented landscape.
That’s the stimulus [pointing out the window], this is the reality [pointing to the canvas].
DO YOU THIK THAT WHERE YOU LIVE TODAY [note: David lives in the Blue Mountains, near Sydney] HAS CHANGED YOUR ART IN ANY WAY?
Before I came here, I was always working in isolation. Since we got up here I have met a group of artists ….we might only see each other once a month or we might only talk once every couple of weeks or so, but it’s there. So if you are having any challenge with your painting, or unsure of things that you have done, you have this support from these people who give positive advice. Not always the most flattering advice but advice that you need.
AP: so it is helping you in your routine rather than having an impact on your actual artwork?
Well, here, I draw the cliffs, I do ink sepia studies about mountains and so forth, basically to keep me honest.
My very last question…
IN CONCLUSION, WHY THE LANDSCAPE?
It gives me that ‘here and there’, the heaven and the earth (even though I don’t believe in Heaven). You only need two elements: one horizontal line on a page and you’ve got a landscape…
To some degree you could say that my paintings are extensions of drawings because each line is a colour. ……Landscape nurtures the soul, speaks to me….
But I don’t want to question too much, I just want to do more of it…
David Middlebrook lives and paints in the Blue Mountains and received me in his studio on the 5th of February.
David has held over 30 solo exhibitions along the east coast of Australia (Sydney, Canberra, Melbourne, Brisbane and Newcastle) and has received numerous awards. He has also completed a PhD (University of Newcastle) for his studies and work in Australian landscape painting and art history.
For more images, his website can be found at http://www.davidmiddlebrook.com.au/