July 8, 2020

Painting ‘plein air’ with Ken Knight

1. Tell us about your recent trip to Antarctica and what was your most memorable moment?
I have travelled and painted extensively around the world in the last 40 years. I have seen images of the Antarctic landscape and it always fascinated and struck me as an incredible location. One of the aspects that particularly drew me to the area was the fact that it has been totally untouched by man due to its inaccessible nature and the elemental and hostile aspect of the climate.
And inaccessible it was… From the time we left home it took seven days before we travelled beyond the Antarctic Circle traversing the roughest ocean in the world. When we arrived, it was like visiting another planet. It was amazing and breathtaking, pristine and beautiful, serene and elemental. The whole experience captivated my imagination and left me in awe of nature. The sheer magnitude and beauty of this expansive continent was incredibly inspiring and emotional.

The location was an Alpine landscape in a maritime environment. I painted for five continuous days, often starting at 6:30 am and finishing late into the day. I completed more than 70 paintings on location. These were placed in my carrying cases that I took with me and were stored in our cabin. In total I took nearly 90 kg of painting gear which proved to be a real headache every time we went through customs and border security through South America!
Since I arrived home, I have continued working on large Antarctica paintings in the studio… Most of these are 122 x 120 cm. These paintings are more refined than the smaller works painted plein air, and the size offers many more possibilities in the creative pursuit.

2. What is it about the Australian Landscape that you feel most propelled to document?
As an artist, it is a privilege to travel this continent and view the amazing variety in the Australian landscape. One concern of a landscape artist is to portray or document the topography. Another major concern, especially if they are a plein air artist is to portray the light.
The very early artists that painted Australia saw the landscape through English eyes. The Heidelberg artists delighted in painting quick impressions of the landscape through a blue and gold aura. Later artists like Drysdale, Boyd, Nolan and Williams interpret the landscape very differently.
The Australian psyche is wrapped up in the bush, which is an interesting paradox given that it is 85% urbanised. I like accessing parts of Australia where human interference is minimal. I love painting waterholes which is the equivalent to an oasis. It is rich and bountiful and provides the means for abundant life. I love painting the beach and the freedom and exhilaration that one gets from the sound of pounding swell and the smell of salt air. I feel exhilarated painting and experiencing a storm approach, and the accompanying change in wind and the smell of approaching rain. It is a very sensory experience painting outside.
By reacting and experiencing the subject directly, I am able to respond more freely and intuitively. The paintings tend to have a greater energy and integrity than something “more contrived” had it been conceived in the studio.

3. What is your process from painting plein air to refining your work back in the studio?
I have always placed a priority on painting on site. I had my first exhibition in 1979 and my early mentors always encouraged me to set up and paint directly from nature. The French impressionist started this wonderful tradition and they achieved outstanding results. There is something very tangible about this direct contact with nature that cannot be achieved when painting purely in the studio. The emotional experience of painting on site allows one to be braver and more dynamic, and the sense of truth and integrity that you get from these works is immediately apparent.
One could describe the technique of painting outside as painting “off the shoulder”. In other words, you are painting very quickly as the light and kinetics of standing outside is always in a state of flux. Get it down and get it down quickly.

The refining work back in the studio is very different. It is all about problem-solving and one could describe this technique as “working from the wrist”.
Typically time spent on a painting outside can vary anywhere from forty minutes to two hours. When the work is brought back to the studio it is put aside to dry and will almost always require fine tuning and it may be many years before I decide to exhibit the works, if at all.
In saying this, most of the paintings I’ve painted are still in the studio as my selection process is so rigorous. Recently I burnt 200 of my paintings … such is my screening process.

View Ken Knight’s current body of work in our ‘Artists At Home’ Exhibition, 13th June – 8th August, Friday & Saturday Only.

‘Blue and Gold Scribbly Gums’, by Ken Knight, Oil on Board, 132 x 127 cm
‘Dancing Gums, Primal Forest’, by Ken Knight, Oil on Board, 134 x 131cm

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