The Australia Van Trip, 2009
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In late 2009, after we sold our house in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, we were given the opportunity by our generous friends John and Susan to use their 1985 Chevy campervan for a roadtrip. Over ten weeks in the Australian spring we covered 12,500 km, travelling from Sydney north along the Pacific coast to tropical Queensland, west into the Outback as far as Tennant Creek, south through the central desert to Alice Springs and Uluru, east from Adelaide along the Great Ocean Road to Melbourne, then north through Victoria and western NSW to our starting point.

Christine wrote and photographed the trip extensively, putting the results up on her blog, while I did a few photomontages like the two here and a lot of brush and ink paintings similar to the chiaroscuro drawings I had started to do before we went on the road. Unlike the dozens of previous trips that are chronicled on my travel page, I left the watercolours in their sack, only getting them out briefly and attempting to use them in the desert east of Alice Springs.

A few reasons why: first, the scale of the trip and the number of places were so overwhelming there wasn't enough time to chronicle the landscape in watercolours; second, the light and colours are so intense, the shadows so deep and black, that I decided to use Chinese ink as a sketching medium and save more elaborate and colourful works for later, maybe (in oils); third, it's so bloody hot and the flies are so plentiful in most areas that I can only marvel at the stoicism of Australian plein-air painters. And although it might seem odd to travel in such a colourful place with only black ink, I believe these chiaroscuro drawings capture a lot of the essential harshness of the Australian climate and landscape (and of course, if I were a photographer and used only black and white film people would say 'ooh, how sophisticated').

So my artwork from this trip followed quite a different path, concentrating on the experience of the campervan and caravan parks, the people along the way, plus some buildings and landscapes which "work" in the medium, more or less. The challenge with brush and ink is to create images where the shadows and forms define other shapes – in other words, where you're not drawing with outlines – and where the pattern of black and white on the paper is pleasing in its own rather abstract way. Like all pictures, representational or not, they ought to look as good upside down as right side up. In the main they are created images rather than pictures of specific places, if you catch my drift: the subjects of the artwork end up being defined by invention and arrangement of the background.

These pictures are for sale, by the way.



Crocodile farm in Innisfail, Queensland


On the Road

Travelling in a campervan; caravan parks a jumble of tents, overloaded cars, ratty old trailers, colourful towels strung from clotheslines, children riding bikes, lawn chairs strewn about and meaty barbecue smoke drifting by. Some of the older parks, like the one at Mission Beach in tropical Queensland, have many long-term residents whose modest caravans have been added to with sheds, canopies, plants and outdoor furniture. There's a kind of ramshackle village atmosphere to these places, which hangs by a thread as nearby properties get cleared and redeveloped with luxurious villas and hotels. Mission Beach and Black's Beach near Mackay were two caravan parks sitting right on the beach on the edge of the Coral Sea; we were told by the manager at Mission Beach to keep an eye out for "salties" (salt-water crocodiles) which swim from the estuaries along the beaches in springtime looking for mates and food. 

Many caravan parks have wifis, so you see people sitting outside with their laptops and notebooks doing their email. Even people with tents rent powered sites because they have to recharge all their cameras, phones and computers. And when you walk through the parks in the evening you see campers sitting in the glow of their screens as, in an earlier era, they clustered around campfires.

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People

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Buildings

At the risk of oversimplifying, houses on the east coast are made of timber; in New South Wales they tend to be built on posts and have relatively shallow verandas; in Queensland they have very distinctive spreading roofs, deep shaded verandas and, uniquely, are built up very high on stumps with enough room underneath often to park a car or hang laundry. These 'Queenslanders' evolved partly because of the tropical climate, partly because of the white ants and termites that can demolish a building 'quicker than you can say Jack Robinson,' as the silly old saying put it; I drew two, the middle ones in the first row below. In the south of the country, houses are usually made of stone or brick and are less flamboyant architecturally than their northern cousins.

Brush and ink paintings of buildings tend to be more successful than natural landscapes because buildings (like people) have hard edges and cast definable shadows.



Landscapes

Pictures create their sense of depth using linear perspective (a car in the distance is smaller than one up close, train tracks converge to a vanishing point) and atmospheric perspective (colours shift from intense to pale, from warmer to cooler, from redder to bluer as you go further into the distance). In a brush and ink painting you only have linear perspective to work with, so some of them work better than others, usually the ones that are la Japonaise with few overlapping layers. These pictures range from the New South Wales coast through the central desert and into the southern part of the country.


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