Spirit Of The Landscape

published International Artist no: 2 - 1998


I always like to walk into the landscape I am about to paint. I will walk into the Sunset, or to the water edge. The Australian Landscape is full of extremes. The harsh, dusty deserts of the inland, the moist secret rainforests and valleys, wild turbulent seas and gentle rolling hills that flow into the sea from coastal rises. The artist who seeks the true inspiration from the natural landscape can never tire of painting this continent. 

As an artist who loves the natural environment and seeks out the unusual and remote landscape, I will never fully experience in my lifetime those places that I have painted. My still-to-visit list is endless.

On my many travels, I like to discover a place and get to know it, become familiar with that landscape. I will not be satisfied with just one visit. None of this get out of the car take a photo and rush back to the studio to paint it. I believe that the best paintings are those which the artist has spent time living a particular environment, breathing the air, experiencing night, day - its very spirit. How can you paint from a snap shot and expect to produce a true sense of place? The land must be felt and lived. 

There are many similarities between landscape painting and portrait painting. Both are observations of the natural spirit. The portrait artist aims to bring out the inner person, the soul, personality - call it what you will. The landscape artist does the same. A landscape painting is more than just a picture of hills and trees. A good landscape painting should give the viewer a sense similar to that of the portrait, a sense of inner spirit, soul or personality of that land. 

I have spent a lot of time in various terrains around the country; including the vast Canola & wheat-fields of the Wimmera; the rugged granite outcrop of Mt. Arapiles and its dry white salt lakes; The Little Desert, and its wide diversity of vegetation - low salt-bush, grass trees, banksia forests, abundant wildflowers; the Mallee with its forests of Mallee gums, wonderful salt lakes, including the Pink Lakes National Park where soils containing carotene have turned the salt waters pink, and salt crystals cling to twigs that fall into the waters. All of these places cannot be understood or seen in a day. Many trips back and forth must be made.

Camping is an excellent way of experiencing the country, and allows the artist to observe the land in all lights, and the night sky. There is nothing more exhilarating that to sit around a camp fire on a warm evening watching the shiny blackness of the night sky with the glitter of the milky way strewn across the canvas. It is magic to sit on the land and see a meteor shower. It makes you feel good. Close to the earth. It makes you feel inspired and want to paint not only a daytime earthscape, but the night sky as well. It is worth the roughness. After a few days the city can be shaken off, and the dust of the land invades your pores. 

Whilst camping you are able to experience the full beauty and intensity of the Australian sunset. If staying in a house or hotel or other, you are usually travelling back home while the best show is on! Camping will enable you to continue painting into the twilight. The evening landscape, the setting sun, the first glow and then the second afterglow, when the sun has fallen behind the horizon -these need to be observed for a period of time. Then when you feel it in your bones you can paint it. After beholding the brilliance of the flaming red, gold and orange that streaks the west, it is worth looking away from all the fire, looking instead towards the east at the soft, gentle blues, pinks and mauves of the opposite light. This is sometimes even more beautiful. These gentle colours wash out altogether as the night sky descends into deep maroons and indigos. The first stars appear, and the night revolves into mysterious blues, and then the blackness of the finality of day.

The landscape artist must know these hues, the way the various lights fall onto the land, the tones and shapes of the land as the day turns.. A camera snap shot cannot capture all this. I will use the camera as a memory prompter later on - particularly transparencies, which gives a much truer sense of the light's intensity.

Sometimes the journey is itself an important part of the process. I live in Eltham, near Melbourne and travel regularly to the Flinders Ranges in South Australia. This is a two-day journey. Firstly, there is the planning, 
preparation and packing, which require a certain discipline. I must prepare for all possible subjects, and thus take the materials to cover this. My rule of thumb is to just take everything - better to have more than less. So I always pack my oils, gouaches, pastels and camera. Nothing more frustrating than a subject that demands to be painted in gouache, or having an urge to paint it in oils, when I haven't brought them. Best to bring materials home unused and know that they are there!

Once packed, in the car and on the road, there is a sense of excitement for the journey ahead. No matter how often you have visited a place before, there will be something new to discover. I have been to the Flinders Ranges in SA on numerous occasions, and experience them differently each time. It is as if a different facet of the land is constantly revealing itself to us. Initially, I was struck by the grandeur of the open spaces, and painted the long vistas, huge skies, day and night and the open plains. On my next visit, I looked more at the gullies, the vegetation, and the soils. Later trips, the rocks, and then later the earth underfoot. Next time I will find another focus. Perhaps a single flower of the desert, an insect or a leaf.

I have always felt that it is helpful to walk into my subject. If a particular subject inspires me, I will often set up my easel, prepare the canvas and set out into the landscape to absorb the colours and textures. 

I have found endless subject matter in the Flinders Ranges. Millions of years of volcanic activity and shifting layers have left the most unusual shapes - worn-down hills, harsh cliffs that tower over dry riverbeds or turbulent waters when flowing. Sometimes a riverbed looks extremely inviting to camp in; this is not good practice, however dry it may seen. Rain could fall one hundred miles away, setting the rivers running, and without warning you're in a terrible predicament! Rivers can rise and fall within hours. There is a wide variety of wildlife throughout the ranges. For instance, in the land in the Chambers Gorge area you may be lucky enough to come across the Yellow footed rock wallaby; a terribly shy but beautiful wallaby with yellow markings. There is usually some water in the creeks around Chambers Gorge. Permanent water holes foster an abundance of bird life, water birds and parrots. They are beautiful place to camp and paint. A wonderful subject here is the contrast of a dark waterhole against a rocky outcrop, or water edged by the variety of coloured slate that makes up the riverbed. The riverbeds themselves are most colourful subjects to paint. A walking trip with the gouaches on your back will take in the Aboriginal art gallery. Some of the oldest rock carvings in the country are found in this area. 

Another sources of great inspiration in the Flinders Ranges are the numerous Station properties. Beltana station is one of my favourites. Steeped in early pioneering history., it has many stone buildings, shearing quarters, sheds and homestead, which all serve as interesting subject matter. Views of the surrounding country are magnificent from the homestead hill, and you may glimpse the mystical Sturt's Desert Pea. Beltana Station played an important part in the development of the Flying Doctor Service, and was the point from which several explorers set out on their wild treks. Nearby is historic Beltana township, with a number of heritage buildings still standing; one of them the pub, restored over a number of years and now a residence. 
There are many station properties throughout the Ranges. Some have splendid sand dunes; others waterholes, creeks, gullies and grass plains. Wedge-tail Eagles are a common sight, along with mobs of kangaroo, emus, sheep and cattle. The ancient River Red-gums are themselves worthy of a portrait. These trees stand as sentries along the dry creek beds. They tell us that water is still available, and offer a home to the wildlife, birds & goannas, and shade for the artist at midday beneath their expansive limbs.
One can experience the quiet stillness in the land, silent shimmer of a midday heat mirage on the horizon, or feel the biting howling wind from the west, a quiet night by the camp fire, or a country band at the local watering hole, the outback pub.

During my three-month stay at Parachilna in the Flinders Ranges, I was lucky enough to have access to the then empty Parachilna School House. I was artist-in-residence in the township, and this became my temporary studio and base. I was able to stretch the canvas and hang my work around the walls, basically enjoy the full benefits of my Eltham studio right there in the desert that I was painting. This was a great advantage: large paintings could be executed on site and I didn't need to wait until returning home to produce major works. During the day, and early evening I would paint smaller works on location, or make pastel drawings that would form the basis for the major works completed in the Parachilna studio. 

Interestingly, despite a three-month stay there, I still do not feel that I know and understand that landscape. I have been back and forth many times, usually for stints of only a few weeks, it remains mysterious, new. The Flinders Ranges in South Australia is a unique place and one that will offer an enlightening experience to any artist that takes their first journey to this country heart.






To Top

Back to Essays

Jenni Mitchell - phone: +613 9439 3458    2003
email to: jenni mitchell