Interview - The Condition Report

Jude Rae in conversation with Shellie Cleaver

SC: How did you come to be an artist?

JR: My father worked in the art department at the Australian Museum but he was also always a painter and sculptor and he sometimes did illustration work at home.  My mother tells me I would watch him as a toddler so I guess I absorbed drawing and painting from that very early age. I can remember him bring home a sugar glider from the museum – I still have a couple of the studies – and the beautiful watercolour illustrations he made of fish for the official identification charts. He studied at the Julian Ashton Art School and met my mother there after the war. They knew the Ashton family and I was allowed to attend the art school on Saturdays although I was under-age. I was very fortunate to be taught formal drawing and painting skills in the manner of the old European art schools from the age of 12. I continued on there, sometimes on Friday nights as well, eventually doing a year full time after my HSC. It was the mid 1970s, around the time of the first Sydney Biennale and I felt very much outside the art world. I think I suffered a small version of the crisis of relevance that dogged my father as a realist painter in the 50s, and I ended up studying art history at Sydney University rather than doing a formal studio based undergraduate degree. By the mid 1980s however, I had found a studio at First Draft (when it was in Chippendale) and had met some of my contemporaries there. Because I had an art history degree and a studio grounding I joined a small group of artists working for Faye Brauer as tutors in the Art History and Theory department at COFA (UNSW). It got me seriously thinking and trying to write about the ideas that inform art making - painting in particular - something that I still pursue these days. Later, being involved in setting up studios and small arts organisations like The Ultimo Project (Sydney) and South Island Art Projects (New Zealand) also taught me a great deal about the art world. 

SC: Which core ideas inform your work?

JR: There are so many other options for an artist these days that I think a fundamental question is “why paint”, and more specifically, why paint in this or that manner? I am interested in what painting has to tell us about the the experience of vision. We see hundreds of images every day and our visual experience is increasingly mediated by image and screen based technologies. In this environment paintings often register primarily as images but a painting is much more than an image, it is a material object - as I'm sure materials conservators will readily agree!

Still life interests me because it is the ideal genre with which to explore the margin between the traditions of realism and abstraction in painting - hence its importance for the early Modernists. It seems to me that the distinction between abstraction and figuration in painting is losing the force it had in the 20thC. I think all painting is pretty abstract - it seems a particularly abstract thing to do. It still astonishes me that something perceived in three dimensions can be rendered in paint on a two dimensional surface and convey very specific information about visual perception. 

Still life is the “lab rat” of painting – the quiet environment of the studio presents stable light conditions where the painter's attention can be equally divided between the object(s) being painting and the painting as (material) object. 

The subject of painting can become not so much about recording what things look like but what it feels like to see things (what Cézanne was referred to as his “sensations”). 

Paintings can interrupt and throw into doubt the assumptions that accompany what might be considered normal vision. It reconstitutes the complexities and strangeness we edit out of daily life, the flesh and bones of the visual world we ignore of necessity. In both the making and contemplating of paintings the conventions or habits of normal vision are slowed, questioned, revised. In this sense I think of painting as sight “undone”.

SC: How important are the materials you work with and how particular are you about them?

JR: I try to keep the materials I work with fairly simple and straight forward - and I am most particular about them. 

SC: What materials do you use?

JR: I use commercially produced oil colours, artist quality pigments which are made from higher grade materials than student ranges. They usually have an indication of light fastness and chemical composition (though not always). In fact they are usually much better value than student ranges because they have less “filler” in them so the colours are generally stronger. I use an odourless solvent in as small quantities as I can manage and if I need to add medium to the paint I use a 50/50 solution of solvent and stand oil, varying the proporton for a more or less oily mix. The stretchers I use are the commercially available cedar which is light weight, does not warp and pest resistant. I paint on linen because I like the slight variations in the weave and I usually use one of the Belgian brands. I have used pre-primed but lately I have been preparing and priming my own canvasses. In the past rabbit skin glue was used to seal the canvas before an oil based primer or gesso was applied. I use an acrylic gesso (Grumbacher when I can get it, but lately Golden) so it is not strictly necessary to use a sealer but I do because it stops the gesso soaking through the weave. Rabbit skin glue is great because it tightens the canvas but I understand it's not great under acrylic gesso so I use Golden GAC 100 and re-stretch to maintain tautness.

SC: When choosing materials to use do price, brand, quality and range affect your selection?

JR: I suppose I tend to favour certain brands because I trust them, but I try to be guided by my specific requirements for this or that item. For instance Windsor and Newton make a range of siennas (burnt and raw) that are particularly hot and transparent, which I like. I do not compromise on quality for price. If I was sure the quality was the same I would buy the cheaper item but often it is hard to tell and this is where brand loyalty tends to influence choices.

SC: Do you consider the longevity of your artworks when making choices about materials and techniques?

JR: Yes, within the limits of my knowledge and what one can know about commercially produced materials, my decisions are guided by what I understand as best practice in terms of stability over time. For me this means choosing good quality materials and using them in a fairly straight forward manner. I do not use complex prepared mediums, for example I avoid the fast drying and glazing mediums available these days and I tend to stick to old rules that make sense such as the principle of fat over lean (where early paint layers are thinner and have less oil in them), or avoiding using fast drying colours over others that dry more slowly (of course I should say oil paint “cures” rather than dries).

SC: Do you work on one piece at a time or several?

JR: Several. Sometimes paintings need to be left alone so that one can see them properly.

SC: Do you revisit old works and make changes?

JR: Not really. If I let it out of the studio I feel I should accept that it is what it is. If I have second thoughts about an aspect of a painting I take note of it and try to address the issue in future work. 

SC: How do you document your work?

JR: I try to have high quality digital files of all work that leaves the studio. I keep a series of frightful old photo albums in which I keep prints of each work. One day I will have to get someone to organise my digital files!

SC: If one of your artworks was damaged, would you prefer yourself or a trained conservator to make the needed repairs?

JR: If I am able to repair the damage, for instance a scratch or scuff mark, I would prefer to do so because I know exactly what pigments and medium would have been used and what was there in the first place. In the case of major damage like a rip or hole I would not have the necessary skills however, and would be glad to defer to a more qualified person.

SC: What do you know about conservators and the work they do?

JR: I have a general idea of the field of materials conservation because I worked in the Conservation Lab at the Australian Museum as a high school student during vacations. That was a long time ago so what I remember is probably very out of date! In fact I was very interested by the work and considered it as a career but in the end my chemistry result were not strong enough and I opted for Art History instead.

SC: Do you think the knowledge conservators have about materials and techniques could be useful for artists?

JR: Some time after I had given up the idea of a career in Materials Conservation I attended some papers at a conference because I was still interested. The discussion that sticks in my mind was one concerning a Ken Unsworth piece that involves a grand piano and a bucket of potatoes – the question being what to do from a conservation perspective when the potatoes went off. I think we have probably moved on since then, although Damien Hirst's shark comes to mind. If they are working in traditional mediums I think artists should know as much about their materials as possible, and if conservators can assist in such matters, all the better.

SC: How could the relationship between artists and conservators could be improved?

JR: As an artist I would very much appreciate an improved relationship with the Materials Conservation community. There are issues that unite us and each has something to offer. For instance I imagine both have a problem with art supplies manufacturers compromising the quality of their products in the interests of economy. I'm not referring to the shifts that can occur in a colour in a particular brand over time, or the variations that exist between different ranges of pigments. Anyone who has compared a tube of paint more than five or ten years old with a new one of the same colour will understand what I mean. Sometimes it's shocking how much weaker the colour is - do they think we don't notice? This (and the colour shifts I suppose) must be a headache for conservators – perhaps more so than for painters.