Throsby Bridge: Oil on Masonite

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I started this painting 5 years ago, I have never really painted a landscape in oils before this was my first.

The idea was to create something like a Jeffery Smart, Edward hopper or a Tony Peters…I wanted to see if I could paint like a landscape like those artists do.  I wasn’t interested in painting somewhere ‘nice’ or ‘beautiful’ I wanted an abandoned place a place nobody cares about…a place that is silent but dominated by man.

It is a iron built bridge spanning over a railway line that leads to a coal terminal near the old BHP works in Newcastle, it handles car traffic going over and underneath is usually coal trains going in and out every day and night 24 hours 7 days a week.

The bridge itself is very old, it looks like it was built in the 1940’s or even earlier. There is scattered garbage and weeds everywhere…nobody really goes on the road that goes underneath, not very often. When I took the photos the cars that came by looked at me like I was selling drugs or up to no good. It is that kind of place.

The painting wasn’t technically hard, it could realistically be completed in one or two weeks by a good painter, yet I struggled and was at pains with it. I left it untouched for so long just because I got caught on certain aspects and had no idea how to solve it. Painting never feels like a ‘hobby’ for me.

I started by painting a piece of Masonite with a couple of layers of white backing paint let it dry then rubbed in red oil to bring out red highlights while painting (that’s why the first panel is red) It was a trick that I found in an oil painting guide.

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I traced out my image from a photo, in charcoal then started to paint it in very lightly using lots of turps and just black, that first bit is always the fastest. I was constantly thinking what it could ‘mean’ I totally overthought the whole process.I painted and repainted whole sections, scrubbed out and redid parts over and over. Yesterday my wife asked me if I would ever finish it, it occurred to me then something that was supposed to be fun was turning out to be a symbolic burden of my life. Countless friends and relatives had asked when I would finish it over the years.

The truth is I really struggled,  maybe next painting will be easier. I am sort of happy with it..I am not sure what it means or what it is exactly to anyone.

But I completed it..that’s what is important.

Philip Wolfhagen – ILLUMINATION The art of Philip Wolfhagen

View to the past

Today I visited Newcastle Art Gallery where there was a Philip Wolfhagen exhibition.

Wolfhagen is from Longford Tasmania, at his touring exhibition he had mini documentary about himself, which me and a few other artsy baby boomer types took the time to watch on a comfy modern couch.

Wolfhagen’s work is mostly landscapes his images of the sky are very similar to that of William Turner. They are quite dark and heavy and he paints mainly using the palette knife using very dull colours that he mixes with bees wax. His paintings have a touch of Early Australian colonial paintings like Joseph Lycett and John Glover.

Joseph Lycett :  Inner view of Newcastle (circa 1818)
Joseph Lycett : Inner view of Newcastle (circa 1818)

For those of you who have never used oil paint, the subject of the sky in this medium lends itself to abstraction. It becomes much more about how we ‘think’ they should look. Clouds move and change and take on all sorts of colours, often in Turners pictures we see his own emotions erupt and bubble onto the canvas while he navigates the geometry of a cloud.

It is at first easy to be fooled into thinking that Wolfhagen is a realist, some images tend to give you the impression he is making a statement about society. His night time images of the landscape with small clusters of lights indicating the human presence seem to be bristling with a kind of depressing yearning.

Philip Wolfhagen : Drawing The Light In IV 2008
Philip Wolfhagen :
Drawing The Light In IV 2008

In the caption for his paintings  Litany of vapours he writes “I was thinking of climate change when I painted this”  does this gives away Wolfhagen’s state of mind?  His dream of the natural and wish to rise above society altogether and transcend the banality of everyday life?  Or is this a dire warning a forboding image of the grey dark turbulent world we are creating.

Wolfhagen is at heart an abstract expressionist and under each painting is dark under painting that he purposefully leaves spaces around the edge of  to give a look of wearing or like a Jasper Johns painting giving the feeling that just underneath is something; and I want you all to see that I am doing my best to contain it all.

Some of his paintings are unshakably John Rothko in flavour, where the dream of the city and the country merge. The spaces shapes and colours of the modern world are just there to see.

Landscape Semaphore No.2 2004
Landscape Semaphore No.2 2004

Many pictures are dull and depressing, some are strikingly clear and blue / grey in a way that reminds me of looking the at the world after half a dozen Valiums. There is an idealism here but a yearning for civilization as well.

Wolfhagen gives me the impression he is one of those artists who has done well from doctors and Lawyers and now from national galleries. He is being adopted by Australian Galleries in their canon because he is doing what they want of him : being a modern artist painting the Australian landscape.

I felt distant from Wolfhagen at first but after a while I warmed to his paintings if you look hard enough his style is a bit of a blend, Wolfhagen is a simmering artist someone that could potentially surprise people.