Category: h. MY ART

‘Air’ … the second Element Door

Yesterday’s post featured my painted door, Fire, from The Element Doors installation at The Gap State High School Library, Brisbane. Today’s art is the second door, Air. Monday’s blog – Water. Tuesday’s blog – Earth.

“Air” –  Sheryl Gwyther 2003

Each of the four doors has its own name – Air is also called That Eye the Sky. You recognise that name maybe? Yes, it’s a Tim Winton novel – a great story by an award-winning Aussie author.

Why call it after a piece of fiction? Because like most of my paintings, this one is about our Australian landscape. And in particular, the massive wheat-fields of Western Australia. It’s about the wide, open outback skies – their blueness with a light unlike any from Northern Hemispheres. I’ve never been to South America or Africa – maybe their sky is the same blue? 🙂 Or maybe it’s a trick of the light caused by reflection from the bare earth of Central Australia.

When I painted it, I imagined being able to see from horizon to horizon in one go – like you’re lying on your back in the air (if you know the artwork of William Robinson, you’ve know what I’m talking about).

William Robinson – ‘Summer Landscape’

So my wheat fields are both at the top of the picture and the bottom. The blues range from the yellow-y, pale blue closest to the horizon to the deepest blues in the middle. It’s the deep blues that draw the eye into the centre. I go through many tubes of blue paint – all types, but mainly Phthalo Blue. I can’t help it. I mix it with Burnt Sienna to make shadows, or pure, luscious colour in other parts. Phthalo Blue with a cool red, makes the most delicious Purple. 🙂

The colour blue has an amazing history – especially ULTRAMARINE Blue. Given its name by the medieval Italians (Oltramarino – ‘from beyond the seas’), most of the true colour pigment of Ultramarine comes from the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli. All of the real Ultramarine in both Western and European art came from one set of mines in a valley in north-east Afghanistan, Sar-e-sang, the Place of the Stone. (if you want to know more about the fascinating history of colour, read Victoria Finlay’s book, Colour.

Did you know that BLUE is the world’s most favourite colour? It’s a multi-cultural experience. I’ve often thought about that – could it be harking back to our prehistoric days when blue skies meant good weather=survival?

I did a quick survey of the teenagers in the Library at The Gap High School. They walked through the Element Doors every day, most didn’t even notice them, but some stopped to read the mixed media words on several of the doors and many of them watched as I painted the doors in situ – rather than work on their assignments etc at desks nearby.

My question – ‘What’s your favourite door and why?’
90% said Air. And why? A shrug of the shoulders and, ‘Dunno. Just do, that’s all.’ Interesting. 🙂

Note: Over 7 years, the students did not make a scratch or a mark on those four doors. The only cleaning I’ve done is a little grubbiness around the door handle, and a few scuff marks from the cleaner’s vacuum.

The Element Doors symbols – Sheryl Gwyther 2003

All images are copyrighted. If you would like to use them for educational purposes, please acknowledge them and contact me first for permission.
(c) Sheryl Gwyther 2011


How do they do it?… author/illustrators – dual lives. ‘Fire’ – the first Element Door

I admire those talented author/illustrators, those high-achievers of children’s books with dual creative minds – like Shaun Tan, Gabrielle Wang, Sally Rippin, Narelle Oliver, Kerry Argent and Pamela Allen (and heaps more). I’m so jealous!

How do they split their time between both activities, especially if they’re writing novels as well as picture books? What comes first, the story idea or the first little mental image that pops into their heads? And the biggest question of all – how do they find time to do both activities, and the housework as well?!

I’m endeavouring to interview a well-known author/illustrator in a future blog so might have some questions answered soon.

I have a special interest in the way illustrator-writers/artists work, as I struggle to find a way to paint while writing full-time. I don’t illustrate my stories, except for the chapter headings, the motifs in Secrets of Eromanga. But I am an artist and printmaker – and have been for the last 18 years and 3 months to be precise.

‘Layers of Time’ – my final illustration from ‘Secrets of Eromanga’ – pen and ink

Eleven years ago, WORDS took over my head and my life, usurping the painterly life and gradually relegating my easel, paints, brushes and print rollers to the downstairs cupboard. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE WRITING more than eating, sometimes. But!

When I was new at this ‘game’ of writing children’s books, it was easy – one day writing, one day painting, one day in the Evil Day Job (that’s all I could handle). But then, with stealth and muscle, writing crept into my psyche like the first flow in a dry creek bed. Hardly noticeable at first, then the flood.

Making art became more difficult – not the skill side, it was the thinking side. Because like writing, painting requires many hours of thought as well as craft skill.

So, here we are in 2011, I have some books, articles and short stories under my publishing belt; many more on the ‘drawing board’, and the easel is still under its sheet so I can’t see the large half-finished canvas I started 6 months ago.

If anyone has any suggestions to get my writing/painting life into order, I’d love to hear from you!

Have to admit even when painting, dastardly WORDS crept into my work. Maybe they’ve always been there and I didn’t recognise the love of my life (sorry, Ross!) 🙂

Here is an example where words figure in my artwork: Fireone of The Element Doors (an installation at The Gap High School Library, Brisbane) – painted in acrylic, oils, mixed media on real doors. Metal door handles are engraved with contour lines – an important motive in my work. All of the Element Doors have words of some sort ’embedded’ into the paint. Fire has newspaper headlines about bushfires in Australia.  See the story of Fire below.

These 4 doors were real doors, used every day by hundreds of students. But a re-modelling of the library last year meant that 3 of the doors are now up on the wall and one, Fire is screwed to another wall all by itself – it was deemed too heavy to put at a higher level because it is an actual fire protection door. I had no idea it was the library’s fire door when I chose it for the Fire painting.

Painting ‘Fire’ in The Gap High School Library before it was put back in place

FIRE – A nation hostage to the gum

Laden with volatile eucalyptus oils and as recognizably Australian as the koala, the gum tree evolved to fit this land like a glove. Its many varieties have adapted to the seasonal flare-ups of bushfires – surviving and sprouting with new growth when the rains arrive. Bushfires are a natural part of the renewal across this land.

 We want to live close to the natural beauty of the Australian bush, but even after many decades of bushfire tragedies, it’s ironic we ignore the gum’s ability to increase the destructive path of fire.

 If we want to live in harmony with, rather than hostage to the gum we need to understand its place in our Australian landscape.

© Sheryl Gwyther 2003

For the next three days, I will post the other three Element Doors with their particular story attached.

All images are copyrighted. If you would like to use them for educational purposes, please acknowledge them and contact me first for permission.
(c) Sheryl Gwyther 2011


On following one’s passion … whatever it is

A little over ten years ago I was a painter – not the house-painting kind, but on canvas.

I used to draw when I was a kid – without worrying what it looked like. But as an adult I never felt my drawings were good enough. So one day, in an attempt to do something about it, I cut back on my ‘real’ job and enrolled at the Brisbane Institute of Art as a part-time student. It was like finding something I hadn’t even realised had been lost.


From then on, art filled my waking life and even my dreams … which might have been the reason my husband caught me, fast asleep and swishing my hand through the air in wide, painterly strokes.

For nine years, I learned to draw and paint and understand the alchemy of mixing colour – under the tutelage of brilliant artists like Hollie, Glen Henderson, Sally L’Estrange and David Paulson. I lived, breathed and talked art, and probably bored my non-artist friends to death.

I do have one pang of regret though, remembering the day I told my young son to stop complaining and go make himself lunch because I didn’t want to stop painting. He made himself a rough banana sandwich and one for me. He was four at the time. It was 2pm and I had forgotten to eat lunch – alright for an adult, but not a child. And it wasn’t the first time I had done that. Bad mother!

I thought I would be painting until the day I dropped with brush in hand and the smell of gum turpentine up my nose. But no, an interloper crept up on the paintings … insidious, gentle TEXT.

‘land is memory memory is land land is memory memory is land’

I have never been happy with painting objects as they seem (although I loved to paint still-lifes every now and then), and going to BIA pushed me out of comfort zones. I loved when the abstraction of ideas appear in the images too.

When I studied painters who use text as part of their art – like the wonderful Australian artists Bea Maddock and John Wolseley,  words began to appear into my paintings more and more – paintings became narratives, demanding to tell more than what the images did.

I did a text-sprinkled painting about my grandmother growing up in the shadow of Walsh’s Pyramid and it wasn’t enough – the narrative filled my head until I wrote it down.

I was hooked. The path to writing for children followed soon after.

In the beginning it was easy to slip between the two forms of creating – they are so similar. A painting goes through many drafts like writing. Sometimes a mistake ends up a ‘happy accident’, offering a better solution to a problem in design or media, just like in writing. But writing demands much more than painting. Something had to give way…

What I once was with art, now I am with writing –  not answering the phone if I’m in fictional land; thinking, dreaming about characters, plots, dialogues and all. I try not to bore my non-writing friends, especially those who keep asking me when I’m going to paint more pictures or have another exhibition, but my head is never not filled with words.  I also relish any opportunity to spend time with my author friends talking writing and books.

But have to admit, I do feel pangs of regret I don’t make the time to paint anymore  – especially when I see my artist friends at their work-in-progress or talk to other artists about what they are doing. Or when I smell gum turpentine. Tubes of oils still sit in my studio, with blank canvases, my easel and brushes. I will paint again. One day.

Two of my paintings feature in the February 2010 issue of the Housten Literary Review online magazine.

(c) Images on this post are under the protection of international copyright laws and must not be copied without the permission of the author.


Perseverance is the WORD

Writers who succeed are those who persevere through first drafts that feels like pushing jelly uphill; refuse to take second-best for the multiple re-writes; do the spit and polish at the end; then cope with rejection letters, and re-write and edit again.

I’m polishing off a junior fiction novel I started writing in 2003 – wrote the first draft in a leather journal with gilt-edged pages and smooth, smooth blue-lined paper, and dated it, that’s why I know it was so long ago. (It was such a pleasure writing in a beautiful journal the first-draft stopped being a chore.)

Other stories have been written in those six years and accepted for publication since then, but this one is dear to my heart.

It’s a story that required research, imagination and a love of the English language – particularly the works of Shakespeare. It also needed a huge dose of PATIENCE and PERSEVERANCE.

Not that it’s an easy thing, this perseverance game!

I wrote a blog last year about coping with writing doldrums – thought it might be worth rehashing as a boost for anyone with a story that is getting nowhere fast.

One of my survival tactics when writing novels is to read an extract from the biography of  Katsushika Hokusai, brilliant artist and Japanese master of the ukiyo-e, the woodcut print. You would’ve seen copies of his famous works from Thirty-six views of Mt Fuji – they’ve featured in advertisements and fabric designs. Hokusai was born in Edo (Tokyo) in 1760 and died at the age of 88, in 1849. His most famous work is considered to be The Great Wave off Kanagawa.

The Great Wave off Kanagawa

Japanese woodcut printmaking is a labourious, time-consuming procedure of carving in stages into a cherry wood board before printing and reprinting on the same piece of paper – yes, you do require patience.

Hokusai was a man obsessed with printmaking. He even took the art name of Gakyo-rojin at one stage which translates old man mad with painting. Which makes his attitude to perseverance all that more remarkable.

This is what he wrote in his autobiography, probably with tongue planted in cheek as he had a little dig at himself:

From the age of five I have had a mania for sketching the forms of things. From about the age of fifty I produced a number of designs, yet of all I drew prior to the age of seventy there is truly nothing of great note.

At the age of seventy-two I finally apprehended something of the true quality of birds, animals, insects, fish and of the vital nature of grasses and trees.

Therefore, at eighty I shall have made some progress, at ninety I shall have penetrated even further the deeper meaning of things, at one hundred I shall have become truly marvelous, and at one hundred and ten, each dot, each line shall surely possess a life of its own.

I only beg that gentlemen of sufficiently long life take care to note the truth of my words.

You can see how this puts frustrating writing moments into a much clearer perspective. Attitude is all important.

Like everyone else I go through the frustrations of rejections. But it is true, persevere with re-writing and submitting and eventually they stop being one-line or one paragraph dismissals. Instead, they return with letters suggesting possible problems or an editor’s positive encouragement.

Not that I’d ever give up doing what I love most anyway!