Painting the Big Red Centre
By ANTHEA CROZIER
The Big Red Centre of Australia is a colourist’s delight and I was fortunate to visit it with a group of watercolourists and a great tutor - John Lovett - for a 2 week tour of Alice Springs and Uluru.
Starting in Alice Springs we were loaded onto a Bush Bus with its delightful, knowledgeable and all round capable driver, Natalie, who entertained and informed us throughout our trip. We drove away from Alice, through low scrubby, grey green trees along the base of the West MacDonnell Ranges which looked like the spiny tail of a huge blue lizard. I began to realise that I was going to have to paint textures as well as colour. Our base was at Glen Helen, an old station typically with a big rambling house surrounded by pepper trees, red soil and a random assortment of water tanks, fuel pumps, generators, sheds, lean-tos and the old station hands accommodation - very basic but comfortable. The house is on a high bank overlooking the Finke River and faced by towering red and gold rock walls of the gorge. The house has several gorgeous paintings by Albert Namatjira depicting the area.
Over four days we visited the many gaps cut through the MacDonnell Range by rivers. As it was not yet the wet season, each was approachable by a dry river bed full of pale sand and whitebarked
river red gums. The gaps each contained a green pool in the permanent shade of huge, cracked red and orange rock walls.
Contrasting with this was the cobalt sky and fresh greens of small trees clinging to crevices in rock faces. Loaded with a folding chair, painting gear, many bottles of water, insect repellent and a hat we walked into each gorge. After a breathtaking demonstration by the tutor we each retreated to our spot under a eucalyptus tree and made our own efforts to do justice to the scene. We painted on small A4 sheets as the paint dried very fast. Luckily, the infamous Aussie flies were not a nuisance while we were still but arrived in clouds when we walked. Neither did we see any snakes or spiders. The gorges were not unpleasantly hot but even so we drank a lot of water. In spite of visiting a gorge a day they each had their own compelling character: sometimes it was hard to concentrate on painting as the rocks were so eye-catching and glorious it was difficult to look away.
Our next base in Alice was a sumptuous hotel, for a complete contrast. We painted at the old Telegraph Station - it was a change to paint a horizontal view instead of the vertical gorge walls, and the colours were the more bleached-looking pinks and greys of soil, gums and stone buildings. At the Araluen Arts Centre we were privileged to have a talk on the collection of Aboriginal Paintings. I also visited the Desert Park - a reconstruction of several different desert habitats where you can see many animals and birds that seem invisible when one is out in the wild.
The last adventure was to Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park. For a day we travelled along 460 flat, straight kilometres of scrubby grasses and red sandy soil, stopping for coffee and snacks at quirky, rustic road stations. In Yulara we checked into comfortable cabins surrounded by pretty flowering shrubs. Next day we went to Uluru, 19kms away. Like many famous sites around the world it is far more magnificent than it appears in photos. As you get closer it looms high, the foot concealed by shrubs and the folded walls dotted with holes.
There is a very moving spirit of place there which is not at all diluted by visitors. We went initially to the cultural centre and were given a fascinating talk by and about the Anangu people who belong to Uluru and their spiritual attachment to the rock. Finding shade to paint was not easy and meant we had to stay close to the base and try to convey the swooping curves, colours and texture of one tiny bit of wall. At mid-afternoon we were driven a few kilometres away to stake a claim on a view of the whole rock and where, after painting the distant, familiar view we sipped wine as we were treated to the rapid, breathtaking and superb changes of colours that the rock takes on as the sun sets. Next day we visited Kata Tjuta and again finding shade was a prickly business as we had to back ourselves right into sparse bushes as the sun got high. The huge shaded sides of Kata Tjuta were delicious, rich purples and cobalt. On our last day we went from the sublime - Uluru , to the ridiculous - a camel farm where we passed a morning watching and painting the extraordinarily placid and improbable looking camels.
If you ever have a chance to visit there, grab your paints and go!