Driving from my studio at Deepwater to Tenterfield in Ngarabal Country in the New England region of NSW, the glimpses of scrub and pasture emerging from the morning mist hit me like colour seeping down a canvas… so I captured it! Oil on stretched canvas, 30cm x 30cm (H) x 3cm (D). Ready to hang. List price includes postage and handling.
“It was the myriad of colours of semi-rural landscapes that captured my imagination.”
THIS writer and artist has been neglecting his blog. I’ve got a decent excuse, however: I’ve moved.
After five years living on Coochiemudlo Island in South East Queensland, my husband and I have returned to live in the NSW Northern Tablelands.
This place is border country, a series of high-altitude tablelands just south of the notional line on the map that separates Queensland from NSW.
While living on an island in Queensland’s Moreton Bay, we met many of the Quandamooka people, particularly artists. Here, in Ngarabal country, we’re aware of living close to one of the largest Koori language groups in this state: the Kamilaroi, and it’s been great meeting Kamilaroi people and their neighbours in nearby Ngarabal traditional lands.
That trip back to the place I was born inspired, in part, our recent move. The taste of the high country inspired several other trips, which became property and house-hunting expeditions from the Granite Belt to the New England region.
We saw some incredible landscapes, often bursting with wildlife. We encountered places where some big dreams had been broken over the years, and where people have found opportunities to make homes in all kinds of situations, many of them quite unconventional.
We considered buying a five-acre block of forest so close to the border you could throw a stone interstate. We got very serious about an 80-acre lot of land in the western slopes, where emu walked on the horizon and people had come looking for gold, but found nothing.
The day we extended our search into the upland valley of Deepwater in NSW was crisp. It was July and there was frost on the car when we left the motel at Tenterfield to head into the old tin mining country of Stannum. A property we were shown there had character, but with all its living spaces on the shady south side, it was not a wise choice for life at a thousand metres above sea level.
Before lunch we found our way into the open land south of the Deepwater River, where an old railway property had been on the market for a couple of years. A former gatekeeper’s cottage, this 1885 double-brick dwelling had been lovingly restored and extended in the decades since the railway service north of Armidale had ceased.
The nearby New England Highway had long since been rerouted, leaving this place and all its secrets in a world of its own, nestled between state habitat reserve and grazing property.
We loved it before we even stepped through the door, where the passive solar nature of brick houses meant the place was warm without even having the fire on.
Within weeks of arrival I was inspired to paint. The broad vistas of Moreton Bay were left far behind, and it was the myriad of colours of semi-rural landscapes that captured my imagination.
I’d spent a significant proportion of my childhood absorbing these lands, and after spending time driving between Tablelands’ towns, the work flowed as quickly as paint blended with water on canvas.
It’s sometimes confronting being back. My family left this place on the back of several broken dreams of our own, but the landscape of this place is an incredible consolation.
I DON’T know about other artists, but I find foliage extremely challenging to paint.
In art classes at school, our teacher explained the effect of aerial perspective, which requires the fine detail of a canopy of leaves to be rendered as a solid wash, not a mass of lines capturing individual leaves.
Although in reality, capturing foliage is a combination of both techniques, and the fine line between them holds the key to successful treescapes.
In the sclerophyll forests of the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, I grew up observing the dry, reddish-green hues of the eucalypt trees that eventually saw the region World Heritage listed.
When people in the northern hemisphere asked me what the place was like, I’d often say: “Think the Grand Canyon, with foliage”. It’s quite true: remove the dense green blanket that covers the Blue Mountains and we’d be left with a stony, gold and pink landscape akin to Arizona, traversed by the creeks and rivers that shaped the canyons.
Here in my new subtropical home, the riparian landscape relates more to the ebb and flow of water.
It’s taken me a few years to tackle this new landscape’s foliage, with its wetlands, woodlands and mangroves that give onto Moreton Bay views, stretching to peaks and mountains from which the rivers carve their way to the sea.
Fooled by the lack of four definite seasons in my first year here, I thought a nut tree at the end of our street was dying when it lost its leaves in winter.
The trees seem to stand differently than they do on the ridges of the Blue Mountains. It’s common to see them growing in stands where the trunks do not superimpose, like well-behaved children holding themselves to attention. Perhaps they are old planted rows, or maybe the effect is entirely natural?
Coochiemudlo Island’s Melaleuca Wetlands receive much of the focus of the island’s conservation measures, but there are significant pockets of vegetation beyond their 19 hectares.
Throughout the foreshore, native Cypress Pines (Callitris) claim their place with far more right than the dominant exotic Monterey Pines that dot the upper Blue Mountains, the result of attempts to recreate English gardens over a century ago.
But both have the same cooling impact, with their deep emerald shade. Under various local names – including Bribie Island Pine and Gold Coast Pine – they rise to extraordinary heights before seeming to rest against one another. Take even the shortest walk around the island and you’ll see them, just inside the island’s perimeter.
Paperbarks (Melaleuca) abound in the island’s wetlands, where their soft forms are composed so differently to gum trees, with stocky, short trunks and heavy arms, shrouded in layers like puff pastry.
Old growth gum trees (Eucalypts) and bloodwoods (Corymbia) stand at incredible heights in some places, providing important habitat for birds, particularly the island’s parrots. Standing at many island street junctions, these soaring columns are unmissable during a walk through the island’s interior.
And the most alien of them all, the mangroves, like trees with two canopies – one skyward, the other pushing its way into the earth in a skeletal framework of roots, sometimes underwater, sometimes high and dry.
The best way to see the mangroves is to take a kayak around the western edge of the island on a rising tide. Here, you’ll be able to safely ‘fly’ between mangrove branches and over their underwater ramparts. In winter, when the water is clearest, it makes for an unmissable experience.
Walking through the island woodlands at the end of the day, with the sun split by hundreds of trees, light falls in a myriad of colours on trunks and branches, tinting them with a glow that shines so brightly it almost seems unreal.
Tree trunks appear as though they’re striped with an impossible apricot and pink glow, while the deep blue-green of the bay and distant islands are unaffected by the play of sunlight.
And foliage is transformed into clouds of iridescent green. I daren’t render a single line to capture it.