Like many children in the prime of their innocence, I thought I was an artistic sensation. An entire wall of the kitchen was devoted to my A4 masterpieces, plastered with my creations like wallpaper. So it was with great disappointment and confusion when my marks at high school were less than reflective of this enthusiasm; I vividly recall my overall C mark with dismay, and vowed to direct my energies elsewhere.
As a result though, it’s always exciting to be able to speak with artists who actually do know what they’re doing, who understand shading and perspective, and who can actually translate that mental image into something on canvas. Mel Andrewartha is one of those people.
Like with all good Tasmanian stories, my knowing Mel is through a personal connection – she is the younger sister of one of my husband’s best friends, and we happened to all have attended the same girls high school.
Mel is proudly a third generation artist, self taught, but whose love of art was cultivated through her grandmother and mother, who make up the other two artistic generations in her immediate family. Her days (and some nights) are spent giving tours at the Port Arthur Historic Site.
Where does your artistic interest stem from and how has that help guide you to where you are now?
My grandmother paints, so my interest in art stemmed from when I was little. Going to her house as a child, the biggest memory I have is seeing her paint, and the smell of the paints. She taught me a little bit as a kid. At the time she was an oil painter but she actually started me off on watercolours and we did basic things. She more taught me the love of painting than any specific technique, how to look a scene and translate that onto a page.
I did a little bit throughout school, although I actually failed art in college (I didn’t get along with the art teacher!) and I gave up for a couple of years. Then in about 2012 for some reason, I started painting again; it was a creative outlet. I sat down, all I had were some cheap acrylic paints and cardboard that I had taken off some packaging, and I just painted something and suddenly remembered how much I loved it.
I’ve done a couple of Adult Ed courses since then but for the most part my style and technique is through experimentation and through making a lot of mistakes.
How do you correct yourself, considering you’re self taught?
Because I use knife instead of paintbrushes for a lot of the work that I do, I’m looking to correct my technique using the knife. You can actually achieve quite a lot of effects using this tool, and looking at the early stuff I did with the knife (example above) compared to the stuff that I am doing now, you can see I have refined my technique over that time period. I think that every painting I do gets a little bit better.
Why the knife over a brush?
With paintbrushes you’re tending to work with lots of little layers building up over the top of each other over a long period, and I don’t have that sort of patience. Using a knife, I tend to do one of my paintings in one sitting The knife is more instant gratification and I love the impasto style of painting; it’s thick and bold, has impact and an almost impressionistic feel. It’s not as refined as a paintbrush and feels a bit freer.
Your mother and your grandmother are also artists. How does their artistic style differ from yours?
They both have quite different styles from me. They both use paintbrushes for a start. My mum actually began with acrylic and pastels. She does a lot of pictures inspired from her travels on the mainland. Mum and dad went up into the Kimberly region, and she has all these gorgeous photos from which she works from.
With my grandmother she gets her inspiration from all the bush walking she did when she was younger – all Tasmanian mountain ranges and gum trees, compared to my tendency to do coastal landscapes.
When you paint, do you paint from memory or do you take it from photographs/postcards?
I paint when I’ve been to a place. I generally go somewhere, take a heap of photos and then from those photos I’ll sketch a really rough line drawing. Then I’ll get rid of the photo and from the line drawing, translate that into a painting. As a result, the colours are usually completely different and the layout of the scene can be completely different to what was in the photo. A final painting is partially from memory from having been there, and partially from the photograph.
Paintings can take on a life of their own, and the mood and tone of a painting then dictates what the colours will be like. I might start a scene that was meant to be really bright and sunny, but it may end up being quite moody instead. I’ll continue with that new tone and keep adding to it, rather than starting again. Half the time I’ll begin wanting to paint one thing and it will completely change and I’ll end up painting a completely different scene.
Does that frustrate you, when set out to paint one thing but it turns into another?
No it doesn’t affect me. It actually tells me a lot about the mood I’m in at the time. You might want to paint something that’s bright and colourful and shiny, but if you’re not in the mood for it then it’s not going to turn out that way.
Is there anything you struggle with artistically at the moment?
Because I use the knife to paint with, I haven’t taught myself much about trees yet! To be able to capture the image of a tree and its foliage without using a paintbrush is difficult. It’s a practice makes perfect situation. I started off with rocks and water, which I’ve started to nail now, and then as I start to diversify I now need to have a go at some trees and start bringing in mountains.
When I first started painting with a knife I could only ever do rough seas because I didn’t have the control to do calm, flat surfaces. Now I’ve learnt that control and I can get perfectly glassy surfaces, and that makes a huge difference. It’s all in the technique of how I’m using the knife.
When you paint a scene, is there anything you are trying to capture? A moment, the weather, a snapshot in time of the place?
What I try to capture is the feeling the place gives you. I feel really satisfied if I look at a piece of my work and I can experience the same feeling as when I was actually on location. For example we recently went to Bruny Island and travelled all the way down to the lighthouse. The feeling down there was really peaceful, really beautiful, and mind clearing. I then did a knife painting of the waves breaking up on the rocks, and when I achieved that feeling of ‘mind clearing’ then I knew the painting had achieved what it was supposed to. That particular one ended up being called ‘Clarity’, and I name my works after the feelings they evoke in me.
Do you have any favourite scenes that you specifically like, or scenes that you specifically avoid?
The place that I currently keep going back to is just south of Dunalley. There’s an area looking across to the mountain. At low tide you have the ripples of sand, and when it’s really calm you have the sun setting, it’s just stunning. I’ve painted that vista about 3 or 4 times now, and I keep coming back to it. I think it also helps that I drive past the spot in Dunalley everyday on the way to work and back, so I see it in lots of different moods.
How would you encourage locals to engage with local artists?
Two ways – the first would be online. Everything tends to be online nowadays and Tasmanian artists are starting to embrace it. A lot of people are starting to have blogs and web pages too, so that’s a good way to start to get a feel for an artist’s work.
The other way is art collectives. Normal, big art galleries can be a bit intimidating for the average person, whereas the art collectives are run by the artists themselves. If you go in, you’re guaranteed to meet an artist for a start. You might love or hate their specific work, but there will be a dozen other artists represented there whose work you might like instead.
How did you get involved with the Inka Gallery?
The Inka Gallery is not-for-profit artist run initiative promoting affordable, contemporary Tasmanian art. It’s a proper sharing cooperative. I was wandering through one day and got chatting to the artist behind the desk who mentioned that the gallery was in need of new works. I ended up walking away with an application form, filled it in, and sent through some work.
We have over a dozen members who all take turns to man the gallery. To have your work displayed on the shelves you pay a membership fee and rent, and you have access to what we call the black wall, which is where your work is exhibited on a dedicated wall of the gallery, 3 times a year.
In terms of exhibiting outside of INKA, I try to find opportunities in my local area by chatting with business owners. At the moment I have paintings being shown at the Dunalley Waterfront Cafe for example.
What would you advice be to novices looking to get the most out of their art?
I would suggest learning the technique with a paintbrush first, because it makes it much easier to switch to other tools because you’ve got the control over your movements. You would probably get some beautiful abstract work of course, but in order to achieve that defined detail and control, learning with a paintbrush is the best way to start.
Also make sure you’re in the right mood for painting. Often I’ll sit down to paint because I’ve got time, but then I’ll sit there and procrastinate for hours and hours and I won’t actually achieve anything. Other times I’ll sit down and maybe only have an hour to spare, yet be in the perfect mood and manage to turn out an entire painting in that time. You’ve got to be in the right frame of mind before undertaking anything that relies on your creativity.
Finally, how would you like to see your artwork evolve in the future?
I’d really like to be able to refine my skill and techniques so my paintings still have that same impasto, thick style, but with much more detail. At the moment my work tends to be really sweeping strokes with the knife, inferring what the idea is broadly. I’d love to be able to make it so that you’ve got that impact from a distance but when you’re up close, the painting has so many more tiny details to discover.
Mel’s artwork can be viewed at the Inka Gallery in the Salamanca Arts Centre. She can be found online here, where you can also keep track of her exhibitions outside of the Inka Gallery too. Her artwork is also available as printed greetings cards, which you can purchase from her Etsy shop (along with further original works) or from the Inka Gallery as well.