A Call to the Curious

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06 April 2010

Painting war from the frontlines

Why do we need oil painters in a war zone?

I saw this article in BBC News, thought it might be of interest to travel painters.  Cheers! K

05 April 2010

A Question and Answer with Michael Kluckner

The following interview with Michael Kluckner focuses on a 10 week trip he and his wife made in late 2009 through Australia.

How did you decide the rou
te of your trip? And how did you settle on your mode of transportation, the camper van?

Most people who have the choice – especially the "grey nomads" – travel to the tropics and desert in the winter when it's coolest. We weren't able to leave Sydney until early September, the Australian Spring, and so went north into tropical Queensland as directly as we could, then to the desert, and spent the end of the trip moving through the south of the country which would supposedly be cooler but turned out to be the hottest of all.

The camper van, or travel trailer aka caravan, is probably the best way to do a road trip as motels and cafes are so scattered, the distances so huge. Arguably you could do okay with a car, a tent, a portable stove and an Esky (a cooler), reducing your fuel bill and from time to time sleeping in a proper bed in a rented cabin in a caravan park. There's not much of the pull-off-the-road type of camping in Australia – I don't know whether it's because it's dangerous or because the police will move you on. But the caravan parks are cheap and cheerful and give you a window into an aspect of Aussie life – the nomads on the one hand, the relatively poor long-term residents on the other.

In deciding what medium to use, how much was dictated by the environment, and how much was personal choice?

Part of the problem with a long road trip is that you can get so far behind on the pictures you're doing unless your pace of travel is solely dictated by artwork. That was the case here – we were on the road for ten weeks, and saw uncountable numbers of towns, landscapes, beaches and people.

Watercolour has always been to a me an illustration or documentary medium: i.e. I paint a picture that looks like a particular place, not copying every detail of course but putting in the elements that record it for me. On this trip I thought I would try a medium into which I could arrange elements that would give me more "generic" images – such as caravan park, beach, old buildings by the side of a road – ones that represent the spirit of the trip rather than the specifics of individual places.

The other matter was colour. The intensity of the tropical greens and blues in Queensland and the extraordinary desert colours in the Outback are very difficult to obtain in watercolour – my technique of layered washes has always worked best in paler landscapes further from the Equator. I hate an overworked watercolour – the kind where the paper begins to close up because too much pigment is pushed into it, because of working too dry.

So I took an Isabey brush and Chinese ink and painted on a natural-coloured smooth paper to capture the intensity of light and the way that shadowy forms merge into a single solid black,
like a woodcut with no modelling at all. All the harshness of the Australian landscape is in that tonal split from blazing sun to deep shade, from chiaro to scuoro. I would draw the core of the image in pencil and then when I began to paint it in ink I would alter or re-imagine the background and make it fit to the subject, with shadows highlighting sunlit (blank) shapes, creating a pattern of black and white. Those drawings are at www.michaelkluckner.com/troz.html.

A fellow artist in Australia, Roland Hemmert, www.rolandhemmert.com.au, travels with pastels
and gets very strong results. And of course there are the brave souls who take along oils and snazzy travel easels and paint outdoors – I tip my hat to them. I resolved to paint a few canvases in oils as soon as we ended the trip, while the colour memory was still fresh – these of course are not "travel art," but they complement the on-the-road work. www.michaelkluckner.com/artoz.html

What particular technical difficulties did you encounter (I'm particularly thinking here about your attempt at watercolors at Alice Springs)?

Heat was a problem everywhere. On the tropical coast humidity made it very difficult to find the energy to work. In the desert it was the dry air, of course, which has a particular impact on watercolours for me. I try to work on a slightly dampened surface but the hot dry air simply sucked the moisture out of the paper, making it very difficult to paint any washes at all without them drying with a "tide-line" at the edge. And I couldn't get back into any of the washes to model them as the paper was instantly dry as a bone.

People who know their Australian art know about Albert Namatjira, the aboriginal watercolourist active in the middle part of the last century. His desert landscapes are superb, quite strongly coloured, the paints almost tending to go opaque like gouache, and I totally admire them. There is a gallery of his and his followers' work in Alice Springs. I haven't been able to figure out how he painted as well as he did there, except he probably worked in the winter when the temperature is usually in the 20s – when it's easier to control the moisture on a piece of paper. It was rarely below about 39 Celsius (100+ Fahrenheit) in our time there.

Other than the heat (if that can be ig
nored), what difficulties did the Outback present?

You could tolerate the heat if you could find shade, but Australian trees typically cast a very open shade that only lowers the temperature a little. I didn't have the sort of portable umbrella gear that some really serious painters have. And the flies are brutal. I know that some people work with nets over their hats and faces, which is a little like painting hens through a chicken wire fence.

How many distinct environments
did you work in? Was there one you enjoyed more than the others?

The tropical coast and the desert were the two new ones for me. We also passed through a lot of classic Australian pastoral landscape – eucalypts dotted about on rolling paddocks, long views to blue hills – that I was very familiar with from having lived there for a few years. I had made a number of short painting trips during those years into the plains west of the Blue Mountains in New South Wales, which worked very well for sketchbook watercolours like the ones I've usually done on trips elsewhere in the world.

In terms of work and what you produced, how do you compare this trip to previous ones? Do you, in fact, compare trips in this regard?

Some trips, such as the ones in Europe, are made for sketchbook watercolours and drawings, partly because it's so easy to wander off for an hour and find a place to sit and draw. Also, people in Europe are used to people sitting around and drawing, and are used to being looked at by strangers, whereas Australians (and many people elsewhere in the world) are very aware when they're being observed and may become either annoyingly curious or hostile.

Another difference between this trip and others was that I painted a few oils after I came back, not of "scenes" but rather of made-up, stylized landscapes, as mentioned above.

How did people receive your artwork as you were working and then afterward?

I did everything I could to be anonymous and invisible while on this trip and had little feedback while travelling. But the response after was very positive. For once, the artwork was on separate pieces of paper rather than in a sketchbook and I sold several of them almost immediately.

Do you have any plans for a show in the near future? Is there much difference in terms of exposure of your paintings and/or sketches between Australia and Canada?

I think the "show" of these works, as with the other trips, is on the web. If I get it together to have a proper gallery show in a couple of years I might put some of these images into it. To be honest, I've made so many changes in my life in recent years that it will take a while just to digest everything I did and saw in Australia.

The main difference in exhibiting paintings between the two countries is that I show at a commercial gallery in Vancouver, whereas in Australia I was putting pictures into salon shows and entering juried shows of a couple of the art societies in towns near where we lived.

An interesting "exhibition" of my travel paintings from the United Arab Emirates came out of the blue. The magazine RAK Today in Ras-al-Khaimah published an interview and several of my sketchbook images in its January 2010 issue. The editor had found my web page; the interview was by email and I sent high-res images of the watercolours and pencil drawings to the magazine by email. That article is on my site at www.michaelkluckner.com/trem.html.

Do you have any suggestions for those looking for more exposure for their artwork? And what advice can you give for a young travel painter starting out?

I may be mistaken about this, but it's probably easier to get work shown in Australia than in North America because there are so many open competitions there – which is not to say that showing in a salon is satisfactory, but it is difficult to get a reputable gallery to represent you, either in Australia or North America. There are too many artists, not enough buyers!!

Advice for travel painters: learn to write. If you can create an illustrated narrative you're on the way to storytelling, which I think is the essence of travel art. And the web is an ideal place to exhibit that kind of story, so get yourself a website and learn how to manage it or sign up on one of the free blogging sites and use it to post your work.

Do you have plans for future travel (understanding you've just moved halfway around the world, again!)?

As I write this at the end of March, 2010, we've been living out of suitcases for seven months. We have a household to re-establish, a studio to create and a lot of catch-up to do before I will even contemplate further travel! I guess it will be two years or more before I develop an itch that needs scratching. Maybe.

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