SKETCHING IN THE AUSTRALIAN OUTBACK
BY JAN THOMSON
The problem with outback Australia is that it’s addictive, so recently we once again found ourselves on a 6,200km adventure into the red centre.
Painting supplies? I knew that I’d be sketching rather than doing large works so chose a square Hahnemühle sketchbook plus a lovely HP Zito A4 sketchbook and threw in some watercolour sheets just in case. I took my trusty old cat’s tongue brush and for some reason a no. 10 round, which I didn’t need.
We collected Son Number 1 and his Hilux in Brisbane and headed west, the road turning from tarseal to gravel to red dirt, passing three wedgetailed eagles (wingspan 2m) eating roadkill, flocks of emu and dozens
of roos. I was wedged in the back between fridge and sleeping bags, so copying my friend Lucy McCann - she is a wonderful back seat painter - put a pillow on my lap, sketchbook on the top, water in the cup holder and
painted like mad as we drove. Impressionist? Truthfully, so abstract it was hard to tell what I’d painted!
Two days later we pulled into the Birdsville Pub, literally an oasis in the desert. It’s usually very dry here, but occasionally it rains heavily for days and everything is under water. When this happened in the 70s the pub ran out of beer and the locals were forced to drink ‘Green Lizards’- crème de menthe and lemonade, until the water retreated and fresh supplies arrived. After a comfy night we turned south and headed down the main track through the Simpson Desert.
This is a sobering place, where plenty of people have died or disappeared. At times we were 500kms from anywhere (think Wellington – Hamilton). It’s incredibly easy to become disorientated, and you can quickly lose sight of the track when you wander off it. But it’s beautiful, especially at night, with millions of stars overhead and dingos howling close by. I found the emptiness hard to capture on paper, with immense skies and sand. Zooming in, there were beautiful unexpected wildflowers and small desert herbs (next time I’ll take my plant book).
Watercolour dries very fast in the heat and I soon found that pen and wash worked best. I took Elegant Markers (Fishpond), which split into component colours when you wet them, great for getting down a quick impression, then splashing on some watercolour.
I took too many paints, could have left all of my cool pigments at home! I struggled to capture the silvery green of the mulga scrub, till I realised that neither ultramarine nor phthalo could make that green. Luckily a tiny gallery we passed somewhere had a small supply of paint and I got a tube of cobalt, which was perfect.
We were held up by some vehicle repairs (fortunately our son is a mechanic), so had to drive a long day to get him to Adelaide in time for his flight home. We then headed back north up the Barossa and on to
Back into the desert again - sunsets from the top of sand dunes, the desert so vast that you can see the earth curving gently away in all directions. Local artists – lots of sunset paintings, old abandoned buildings and vehicles, huge mining sites, a visit to the Royal Flying Doctor Centre.
We drove down to Menindee Lakes, where the Murray and the Darling meet, then turned north again to begin the second leg of our trek up the Darling River Run. The track begins at Wilcannia, which was once the largest inland port in Australia. Steamboats plied the river as far north as Bourke, carrying freight and passengers up and wool back down.
Local station owners have set up a great accommodation network which allows you to stay on huge sheep and cattle stations, with options from beautiful riverside campsites through to B and B. We opted for the campsites and spent peaceful days by the river beneath huge old red gums. Needless to say, gum trees were often my painting subjects. I struggled with the confusion of branches and had to try and concentrate on a segment of trunk in most cases. The river colour had me beat - cobalt and raw umber was finally the solution. Eventually we arrived at Bourke and left the Darling to drive southeast to the Warrumbungle National Park where we went to an outdoor observatory evening - freezing but fascinating.
Then we wandered back by various National Parks to the New England Highway, with Herman Pekel views at every turn. We made our way back down to the coast via Guy Fawkes National Park, then back up to Brisbane.
I’ve come home with sketches, photos, many memories and a desire to return.
Next time I’ll refine my materials - a palette of cobalt, ultramarine, quinacridone red, rose madder, gold ochre, quinacridone gold, raw umber and Australian green gold.
A few pencils (my trusty Staedler mechanical pencil was rendered useless when the refill leads jumped out of their container on the rough roads and broke into a zillion small bits.)
If you have a taste for adventure and are well prepared the Outback is an amazing place to visit.