An interview with Brian Carmody


I’ve never really enjoyed painting much in other media,” says Brian. “I like watercolour and I’m not good enough at it yet. It’s one of those sorts of media that you never master. It keeps on opening up new fields, so you keep going.”

Brian Carmody is one of New Zealand’s finest watercolourists. A long-serving president of both the New Zealand Academy of Fine Arts and the Wellington Society of Watercolour Painters, he won the National Bank Watercolour Award in 1980 and was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 1984. In the Queen’s Birthday Honours list of 2007, Brian was awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit for services to the arts. In 2012, the NZAFA recognised his achievements with an exhibition entitled Brian Carmody: a Tribute.

Brian believes it is essential for children to grow up expressing their ideas in paint. He spent his working life as a teacher, first as an Art & Craft Advisor to the Department of Education and later as Senior Lecturer in Art at Wellington Teachers’ College. “In my own time I painted,” he recalls.

In the 1950s, Brian began exhibiting at the Academy and later with the Watercolour Society. He found he needed an incentive like an exhibition to get him started on a painting. As president of both organisations, he tried to encourage the same things he stressed in his teaching: “I wanted to emphasise that it was their ideas I wanted, that I wanted them to develop in their own way. You can help them with what I call the craft of using the paint. In watercolour you need to know what you can do with the medium and open up possibilities for yourself.”

Brian is critical of teachers who try to get everybody to paint like them: “That’s what you’re all about if you’re a tutor, helping people develop their own style and to think about what they’re doing.” His aim with students is “To help them see the marvellous possibilities of the paint itself, what it will do, and to watch what happens when you’re making a picture and capitalise on what the paint does sometimes and move ahead in an adventurous way.”

The hardest things in watercolour, he says, are to leave it alone and to simplify. “I’ve seen such good work going on in the class suddenly being ruined because they want to get on with it.”

Of his own style of painting, Brian says “I suppose that my work has been moving slowly towards an abstract approach. I’ve never been very interested in producing a factual representation of something. I like to express in the painting my feelings towards a landscape.” Brian has his favourite subjects: “Certain landscapes, certain things appeal to me more than others. They have mostly been land and sea, reflections of light in water. Some of the most successful things I’ve done have been to do with that.”

For Brian, plein air painting holds little appeal. “It either blows or it rains. It’s just not comfortable enough to achieve the results that you want. I was never very happy with what I did on location. I was always happier with what I did subsequent to that.” On location, Brian does drawings, takes photos and gains experience of the place, but the ability to do what you want to do is not the same, he says, as being in your own room, thinking back to what you’ve seen and about what you’re going to do.

When he starts a painting, Brian works on slightly dampened paper “Beginning a painting that way leads your painting into being what you never thought it was going to be. I know what I want to do beforehand but you let it evolve as you’re painting it. With watercolour you start off with what you think you’re going to do, but all sorts of things happen with the paint as it dries so you leave that and you can see where to go next, still sticking to the same subject and the same interpretation, but letting it evolve on the paper.” Brian stresses the importance of observation and drawing. “What your work turns into time will tell. The basis is form and good drawing. It will always be obvious with less successful people that they don’t draw very well. They don’t look. I’s looking.”

The great French novelist Emile Zola, Cezanne’s childhood friend, defined a work of art as “a corner of creation seen through a temperament.” Of his own paintings, Brian says “I’ve had a lot of people say, people who have bought my work or people who have looked at it anyway, ‘Oh, you’ve helped me look at things in such a different way. You’ve just helped me look.’ And maybe that’s justification enough for doing what you do.”

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