Evan Salmon

In the lead up to his exhibition 'Outer Harbour' Evan Salmon explains his artistic attachment to ships and industrial buildings, and the colour arrangements that emerge from this.

I moved from Sydney to the industrial town of Port Kembla, south of Wollongong, four years ago. While settling into my new home I started to draw the view of the industrial landscape of the steelworks and busy port from my verandah. Although this was initially just a means of keeping some sort of art practice going, it soon became a daily ritual and it wasn’t long before I started venturing out into the surrounding area to get a closer look at the steelworks and the enormous ships.

I had been somewhat familiar with Port Kembla as I had been visiting printmaker Tom Goulder regularly since 2003 to make etchings. It wasn’t until I moved to the area, however, that I really started to see the potential of this landscape as a subject for painting. Up until this point I had always been a studio-based artist.

Artists are often attracted to a particular subject matter because of an early visual experience they had as a child. For me the interest in industrial architecture probably stems back to my memories of the industrial suburbs of Sydney surrounding the harbour, such as Balmain, Glebe and Pyrmont with their dockyards filled with ships, old factories and derelict power stations. Port Kembla seems to retain some of the same rust-belt charm which these areas have long since lost due to gentrification.

Of course many artists have come to paint and photograph the steelworks over the years, David Moore, George Gittoes, Mandy Martin, Jan Senbergs and Colin Lanceley, to name a few. When taking on such a subject it is hard to forget all the other artists’ interpretations that have come before you. There is something very romantic and old-fashioned about the sight of the steelworks, as it appears to belong to a past era, that of the industrial age. It somehow seems to be at odds with the high-tech digital age that we now inhabit.

When I see the ships or industrial buildings I am attracted by the colour arrangements and the possibilities of making a painting or drawing from them. Something strikes a chord in me when I see the huge blocks of geometric colour of a ship against the rather drab and hazy landscape behind. So too with the industrial buildings of the steelworks which resemble a Giorgio Morandi still-life arrangement placed within the landscape.

One of the things that I noticed when I first started to paint this environment was that my choice of materials began to change. I reduced my palette, using mostly earth colours and lead white. I simplified my means of drawing and paint application and began painting on plywood rather than linen. I started to carry a field easel, small boards, tubes of oil paint and a palette in my car so as to be ready when a painting opportunity presented itself.

My paintings are more like portraits of a subject within a landscape rather than a response to a sense of place or an emotional response to a particular environment. Once I find my subject I have only a short period of time to record the light before it inevitably changes. If I’m lucky I’ll start to feel that I’m finding my way, and trust my instincts towards its conclusion.

Although drawing is quite a natural activity for me, painting on the other hand seems to be a very mysterious process. It’s hard enough painting at the best of times and when a painting does work out it is often hard to explain why. The approach to painting en plein air throws up even more challenges. Being out in the elements, you have to deal with sudden changes in the weather like wind or rain, and the ever-changing light conditions. Then there is the constant distraction of everyday passers-by wanting to tell you their opinions about your painting. You hear a lot of, “oh well, at least you’re having a go”. It seems everyone professes to have an opinion, even if they clearly know very little about painting. But, for the most part, people are genuinely interested and seem to respect the fact that you are painting directly from the landscape.

The discipline of plein air painting reminds me of rock fishing, in that you have to choose your equipment to suit the location and conditions. You have to be decisive and only take the equipment that you need to capture your subject.

The other similarity to fishing is that you often arrive back home unsuccessful. Despite these challenges, the ritual of plein air painting appeals to me greatly and the challenge of trying to capture something of the essence of the light and atmosphere in a short space of time makes for an addictive and thrilling experience.

I have become very fond of the landscape of Port Kembla and its surrounds, in particular the steelworks with its multitude of pipes and stacks which emit steam and flames. Together they create a dramatic haze against the backdrop of the Illawarra escarpment. Everything seems to be painted iron red or olive green and has an industrial grey patina, with the occasional patch of BlueScope blue. The outer harbour also fascinates me with its enormous brightly coloured ships, which, when viewed close up, resemble a 1960s hard-edge painting.

Evan Salmon – Outer Harbour
Watters Gallery, Sydney
2-19 November

Evan Salmon is represented by Watters Gallery, Sydney.

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