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posted 15/10/2012

Article by Jenetta Russell from the Australian Society of Marine Artists

Sketch from Goat Island| Leonora Howlett| Watercolour

Last week on the Friday Drive show we had the pleasure of interviewing Leonora Howlett and Jenetta Russell who are two member artists from the Australian Society of Marine Artists.

They gave us some very enlightening information about the work that the Society does in the community which includes preserving Australia’s rich maritime heritage.

They also told us what it is like to be involved in the society’s Artist in Residence Program as well as providing us with details about some of the artworks and pieces of writing they have produced.

We had a great time talking to them and I personally loved the fact that we got the chance to let people know about this diverse group of artists who have come together to produce such valuable pieces of work.

On that note, I wanted to share with you an article that Jenetta Russell wrote which was featured in the Marine Art in Australia Magazine:

Report to ASMA and

the Sydney Heritage Fleet

From Writer in Residence, Jenetta Russell November, 2011

It is my pleasure and delight to be ‘Writer in Residence’ for the Australian Society of Marine Artists and Sydney Heritage Fleet joint project – I consider it a huge honour to work with both organizations. My challenge has been that my full time job, as part owner of a group of companies in the Agricultural Industry, currently limits the time I can devote to this writing “passion”.

So far the articles I have written included inspiration from an interview with Bill Shepherd, a great character in the machinery shop down at the Heritage Shipyard in Rozelle Bay, Sydney. He regaled me with wonderful stories of his time at sea on the aircraft carriers, HMAS Melbourne and Sydney, on boom defense vessel HMAS Koala and at the Naval Base on Manus Island as well as his war service at the Korean conflict in 1951. It was fun to write Bill Shepherd’s story!

Artist and previous Artist in Residence Martin Campbell and I collaborated on one of his painting projects. My aim was to attempt to ‘get inside the head of an artist whilst he painted’. This was a fascinating experience, where I could almost feel the paint being applied and the creative emotion flowing onto his canvas. Martin is a brilliant artist – in this work he painted a section of the hull of the partially restored SS John Oxley, calling it Peeling Away Time. His inspiration came from his growing relationship with this beautiful old pilot steamer, watching it being so lovingly restored at the Sydney Heritage Fleet shipyard. We explored Martin’s use of light, colour and intricate brushwork combined with a ‘splashing’ technique he used to give the feel of rust, grime and bilge drippage accumulated in the John Oxley’s long life of service. It was fascinating to watch Martin’s ability to capture a microcosm in time of the old pilot cutter before she is restored to her original glory.

Current projects include interviews with Hugh Lander, Bob Carter and Ross Melrose as well as an obituary of the much respected historian Margaret Reid, who passed away this year. Hugh Lander and I delved into the ups and downs of his role as Public Affairs Manager at the Fleet; the challenges involved with keeping SV James Craig maintained and funded; and rich little cameos such as the story of the scattering of Bruce Hitchman’s ashes at sea (from “the Craig”).

Bob Carter, President of the Australian Society of Marine Artists, walked me through the Rozelle shipyards with the help of Tim Drinkwater and some of the many loyal volunteers. Bob talked, again from the eyes of an artist, about what he could see and how he would transfer that to canvas – a delicious mix of history and artistic whim. Having interviewed at length a number of artists over the years, I long ago came to the conclusion that an artist’s perception of colour, shape, space, proportion and depth makes me feel like I am viewing the world in monochrome compared to the ‘3D technicolour’ seen through their eyes. I find this concept fascinating – it is just one of many reasons I am so delighted to be Writer in Residence for both the Australian Society of Marine Artists (getting insights into the artist’s mind) and the Sydney Heritage Fleet (sourcing material and human stories about those who go to sea, went to sea or are preserving our maritime history).

Peeling Away Time

Peeling Away Time| Martin Campbell

a painting by by Martin Campbell

Martin Campbell has painted Peeling Away Time for the Sydney Heritage Fleet 2011 Annual Fundraising Dinner. To write this article was a not-to-be-missed opportunity to drill into the mind of a marine artist at work.

When Martin started on this detail of the bulwark (on the quarter stern, starboard broadside view, 2nd port hole from the left) on the partially restored hull of SS John Oxley’ he talked of his growing relationship with this beautiful old pilot steamer, watching it being so lovingly restored by an army of people, each and every one of them helping to assure that a small but priceless flotilla of antique boats and ships will continue to ply Sydney Harbour, maintaining the ‘working harbour’ atmosphere which has a history spanning more than 200 years.

“I painted this picture long rather than wide because I wanted to elongate the rust runs as well as emphasise the contrasting light and shade” Martin said. “I divided the work into thirds both down and across and placed the ‘centre of interest’, a sealant strip, off centre, wanting the viewer to immediately go to that point and ask themselves “what is that?” I then put a wash on the rest of the painting as quickly as possible so I could assess the tone (light and dark). I painted from the top so that drippage could be painted over as I worked my way down. “

Martin likes to be able to see the painting’s form coming through very early on in the process, “If you don’t, you may suddenly find you are going in the wrong direction”. Much of the thought process in the 8 hours it took to complete occurred in the early stages, the latter part reserved for the minute and delicate detail. Martin did not start out to paint an emotional subject but, because he felt so strongly about recording this tiny piece of history, in the end it did turn into ‘an emotional subject’ despite everything.

Light played a very important role in the work. Even though the paint on the ship itself is black, it has lightened considerably over time with salt, rust and grime. Added to which, the reflection of the sky onto the black metal bulwark, gave the impression of a light blue colour.

Martin starts with very thin dark paint which dries quickly allowing top coating with the lighter hues. Once the ‘wash’ has been applied, predominantly with black and a bit of blue, the canvas is tilted at an angle allowing the rust and salt drip marks on the sheer strake to run at an angle following the convex shape of the hull. An old brush is used to ‘disturb’ the surface and create downward runs. “It is ‘good’ if it is messy because it is an old ship which lends itself to being messy!” Although the painting starts as a copy of a photograph taken by Martin, this quickly diverges into an original creation when the wet mix is flicked with a a finger across the top of the brush to splatter, first in

grey, then blue-grey, then blue and finally a yellow-green “seabird poo” colour. It was vital to put some of the blue tones into both the lower and upper parts of the painting to ‘unify’ it, similarly some of the colours of rust in the lower section are repeated in the upper. For greater harmony, he limited the number of colours used in the work, using only lamp black, ultramarine blue, meridian, burnt sienna, permanent crimson, yellow ochre, orange, white and cadmium yellow.

In the lower right, there is an old porthole to the pilot’s accommodation, the glass is out of view as it is folded back inside on a hinge. Beside it is a drain hole from the main deck. In the upper section, one can see the sunlight through some of the rivet holes, whilst a plate behind blocks others.

For Martin, John Oxley is ‘shedding her skin’ – a pictorial history of a piece of the ship in the morning light – a modern take on an old vessel! The sealing strips of canvas and tar on the sheer strake knuckle at main deck level have deteriorated over time and will eventually be replaced, but Martin has a heartfelt desire to record ‘the way it was before restoration’. The light is paramount, showing the strips curling away revealing the old fabric.

Martin feels a sadness that in time John Oxley will be relaunched. “For years much of Sydney’s population have driven over Anzac Bridge and, looking to their left, seen this lovely old ship up on the floating dock. It has become ‘part of the furniture’ and symbolises the fading working harbour of Sydney. She is a beautiful rusty piece of sculpture sitting proudly above the dock..“

© Jenetta Russell, 2011