Painting the Antarctic

Jenni Mitchell




How do you paint the sea and ice-bergs from the rock and roll of a large ice-strengthened cargo ship? This is a question I have been asked many times since returning from the Antarctic. Answer, wedged between the strapped-down stool and bench.


During the summer of 2002/3 I was fortunate enough to travel to Casey Station in the Antarctic on a fellowship awarded by the Australian Antarctic Division. As an artist-and writer-in-residence, I had the time of my life. This was the best studio an artist could ever wish for. I didn’t have to go anywhere, the subject changed every moment of the day and night and it was a long day - up to 24 hours of daylight the deeper south we sailed.


‘You won’t need to take many colours – only white and blue - a comment I heard repeatedly before I left home. Wrong. With the endless daylight and crisp clarity of the atmosphere, the landscape and sea was a kaleidoscope of brilliant colour. Imagine the purest sky of clean cadmium yellow, vermillion, rose dior, carmine, lilac, turquoise, cobalt, viridian, silver, paynes grey, yellow ochre, orange, naples red and yellow, ultramarine and indigo. Imagine oil paint, watercolour, gouache, pastels, oil and dry, unlimited sketch books and never enough film. Imagine the clearest atmosphere and sharpest horizon, a sublime mist obscuring the same horizon, the spread of silver light across a moody pewter sea, ice sculptures towering like high rise buildings, or looming moodily from afar. Notice the changing rhythms and tones of the water and the iridescent ice-blink of reflected beneath the grey cloud. This, a taste of artist heaven experienced in the southern ocean.




Good planning, for any painting trip is essential. There was no opportunity to have a forgotten tube of cobalt or another sketch book flown down. For months before the voyage time was spent thinking and visualizing what I wanted to achieve and what materials I would use. Carefully I thought through the smallest detail and every item needed. I wrote lists for each discipline.  Oil paints. Would I need multiple tubes? White? Better to take more than was necessary, have a back-up supply. And what if the ship was beset in ice for week?  If only!  Think of all that extra painting time I would have had! The lists ran into pages as I listed the variety of brushes I would need for oil, acrylic, water-based paints, containers for solvents and mediums. I listed canvas, rag paper, tapes for holding down paper to sketching board, paint rags, bags for collecting the waste material (all of which had to be returned to Australia). I compiled lists itemising pastels and the boxes I would contain them in, the fixatives, rags and pastel papers. I did the same for gouache and watercolour paints. In keeping with my usual advice for students embarking on a plein air painting trip, I packed more - not less. Generally, it is a good practice to take as many tools and materials you can physically carry. Early in my field trips I was caught out many times by taking the pared back easy option with just the basics. I was only to regret not packing a particular medium because the subject seemed to cry out to be executed with a particular medium. It is also good practise to  approach a subject from different mediums – it can be amazing how the same subject painted in gouache and then painted with dry pastel can appear – each material may bring out a different ‘emotional’ response. 


I also made a series of sketch books using traditional bookbinding methods. I wanted to limit the number of sketch books I would carry and vary the sizes. By making my own books I was able to bind several types of paper into one book. By making the papers into sketch books I was able keep the papers together as I had envisaged the strong Antarctic winds carrying loose sheets of paper and artworks across the ice and sea. A sheet of glassine paper was placed between each sheet of art paper to protect the work.  I didn’t want the pastel dust to contaminate a soft watercolour image or a strong gouache sketch. The books were made using the beautiful Australian Blue Lake watercolour papers – Lana and Fabriano watercolour papers and Canson pastel papers and Art Stretchers Colour fix pastel paper which I use for its textured tooth and excellent ability to hold soft pastel. I used a mix of paper colours to allow flexibility in the unpredictability of unknown subjects that lay ahead. For the three-week sojourn the hand made books ranged in size from half sheet to one eighth sheet pages. By carefully hand tearing the pages I was able to create an organic deckle edge that later could be exhibited in box frames as sketch book works. I packed a range of palettes suitable for the various paints.


As it was a field trip, where I had planned mostly smaller sketches with the large exhibition paintings to be later produced later in the studio, I was not concerned about my usual need for carrying a number of medium size canvases. In fact, I did not make any oil on canvas paintings. The only oil work I did was on rag paper from the ship. If I had wanted to, a number of small canvases were also packed, but remained unused.


All materials packed into one large suitcase and the French box easel.  Several days were spent packing and repacking. I would pack the oil paints, rethink, take them out and finally decide to pack them again. This meant I also had to carry inflammable solvents - a problem getting from Victoria to Tasmania only. Once aboard the ship they were stored on the deck along with other flammables.


The camera was a useful tool.  I used to shun the idea of the artist working from photographs. But, in extreme situations such as travelling by ship and wanting to record the image of the blue glow from within a fast-moving iceberg as the ship passed by,  the way the sun momentarily peeked through a cloud space and lit the rippling water or to capture the image of a rainbow falling on the horizon in a pink evening sky, the camera was the best way.


There is a place for the camera alongside the artists’ work. Some sea and landscapes are interpreted through the lens in a finer and more beautiful and complete way than paint can produce. I don’t believe this is due to the lack the artist’s skill but more to the sensitivity of film or digital imagery. There is a complementary sensitivity particular to individual mediums. This is one of the reasons I like to pack a range of tools to capture my story and to relay what it is I am trying to convey.


The challenge of the camera, paint brush or pastel is to understand the image that has stirred the creative fire. The appropriate medium that best interprets the vision should be used.


Working from the bridge of the ship I was often able to juggle the camera and the sketch book simultaneously. I seemed to work at a heightened energy level, continually stirred by the evocative sea and wanting to capture everything all at once.  




These photographs show a number of the hand made sketch books I worked from in the Antarctic. Notice some sheets of pastel and other books of watercolour images showing. In the background is one of the stages of the ‘Turning Berg’ painting.    


Water colour sketch painted quickly as the ship pushed its way through the pack-ice. The sky was pink – for hours.






This small sketch is made using gouache and pencil.


This is a colour pencil sketch. I am looking at the rhythm of the sea and the gentle play of light from the sky reflected on the water.





From the largest of the sketch books, this image is painted again quickly as the ship edges through pack-ice, avoiding sailing too close to the looming bergs.


To achieve the drawing, I used a quick hand and large brushes. Like meditation, you need to go outside yourself, become not conscious and let the hand follow the eye. This is a form of intuitive painting.



I wanted to portray the myriad colours in this midnight sea-ice painting. I used gouache.



This small sketch was painted quickly using watercolour. I tended to treat the watercolour and gouache in a similar manner, taking the colours I needed from the two mediums. I had no concerns about using the two mediums in the one painting.




This watercolour was painted from the top of a rocky outcrop overlooking Casey Station. I used the smallest paintbox I could pack one good mop brush to form both washes and fine lines.


These works were routinely painted from the bridge during the ice part of the journey. I made many sketches in my books of this subject.



Two pencil studies – I found I was so attracted to the ocean colours I rarely used black and white. Later, in the studio, I made a series of etchings using only black ink.


Another small gouache study.



These two images from the sketch books were made on a day the sea was so rough the captain was sure I would not be able to paint. It was difficult but I did not want a day to go by without painting. So I made a series of whimsical images of the rock, roll and pitch of the ship. The movement is achieved by keeping the horizon line at the same pint in each image.

   This is the view I saw from my bridge studio. I am looking across the bow of the ship to the thickening sea ice. If we  were to become stuck, this would have been the day.



  A simple sketch using only white and two blue pastels on a blue paper. I wanted to draw the bubbly ice.


 Some of the ice-bergs were like glass sculptures. This is one of them. To pass by them was like sailing through a crystal bath. And the sky was so beautiful with its iridescent mauve evening glow.



     The Sooty Albatross seemed to bring the shadow of the night across the sea. This is a large painting, 122 x 153 cm oil on canvas and painted from my studio using photographic and sketch material for guidance.


Detail from ‘the Sooty Albatross’ painting above.


‘The Midnight Sun’. One of the largest of my studio paintings – 5’ x 7’. A special new years eve gift. At exactly midnight, the sun appeared to fall behind the large, blue ice-berg.


   Another studio painting, ‘Turning Berg’, it was astounding to witness large ice-bergs ‘turning’ as they dissolve into the sea. The ice in this disintegrating berg formed many years earlier. The painting is 122 x 153 cm, oil on canvas. The blue glow appears to emanate from within the bergs.



  This is the small oil sketch for a much larger painting of a ‘Jade’ berg. These clear bergs of old compacted ice appear like surreal jewels. The dark image on the left-hand panel portrays a seal. We would often witness wildlife that didn’t seem to care or even bother to lift their head as we chugged by.




‘The Messenger of the Ice’ was the first painting I made when I returned to the studio. It is a diptych, each canvas being 122 x 153cm. The bird in the left panel represents is the Snow Petrel which appears only near the ice. It was a sign we were close to Antarctica. This painting encapsulates my romantic feelings for the southern ocean. The first ice-berg can be seen in the right panel. This painting is made by using many layers of thin glazes.












This image was typical of many days sailing towards the ice. The sublime mood of the sea mist obscuring the cloud created a mood where I felt I sailed off the edge of the earth. It was hypnotic. This is an image that can only be achieved with photography. I have painted this image with some success,  but it is then a different entity, a different artwork. This movement and light in this photograph, for me is poetic.


For my photography I used a canon EOS 300 SLR camera with a 28 – 200 lens and a Ricoh digital camera with a 3.2meg file.


The photographs have been enlarged to exhibition standard and are shown alongside the paintings.





   Another example of an image that I think has its own life. The clarity, if attempted on the canvas, would create I think a ‘tight’ or ‘stiff’ painting. When I have painted this type of subject, I paint it and have the freedom of interpretation and the nuances of the hand. I would not want to try to force paint to do what the camera, in this instance, does so beautifully.




 The reflected light falling at the bottom of the photograph on to the thick grease ice gives a sense of the depth and coldness of the water, even through a golden sun.



 Among some of the most memorable and exquisite images from the Antarctic I brought home were the moments of peering into the fairy land entrances to crevasses and ice caves. I am still processing these images in my mind before painting them. The small paintings I have made using these subjects are, in my mind, abstract paintings. But they don’t give that otherness or sense of unreal reality I experience through photography.



   Stillness. Ice frost rising from a berg trapped in a silent, mercury sea.


   This photograph was taken around 2.00am Christmas eve, we sailed into a pink dawn. The sea appeared calm and silent.





A collection of sketch books filled during the voyage.










Paintings generously photographed by Malcolm CrossMelbourne.



About Jenni Mitchell


Jenni Mitchell has been travelling to remote and wild places for many years focusing on the Australian Deserts and in particular Lake Eyre. In 2002/3 she travelled to Antarctica as a recipient of the Australian Antarctic Division’s Humanities fellowship. She has completed a Masters of Visual Art at Monash University with a paper parallelling the similarities of these two extreme deserts, the ice and salt.


Her first publication ‘To the Ice: Images from the Antarctic’ is published by Line Publications and is available from bookshops or direct from the artist, visit the web site below.


Jenni conducts painting retreats and workshops around Melbourne and the Little Desert in Western Victoria and forthcoming, Mt. Buller.


Her work is represented in many public and private collections in Australian and overseas. Forthcoming exhibitions include the Antarctic paintings to be shown at the Hamilton Regional Gallery throughout February and March 2005 and the Dickerson Gallery in Melbourne, June – July 2005.  More information is available from:



published Australian Artist, February edition 2005