“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.
“I find myself less concerned with extreme ornithological accuracy, and more intent on capturing their character.”
WHEN I was a teenager, long before I realised day jobs were essential for most artists, while my school mates were off working at perfectly good weekend jobs, I was earning a decent income painting and drawing wildlife.
I fell into it, when at the school art show in 1984 I sold my very first painting – a watercolour of a small green frog nestled in an orchid – for sixty dollars.
From then on I regularly entered wildlife paintings and drawings into art shows across the Blue Mountains. I learned to read the mood and spread the risk in order to be in receipt of a sales cheque at the end of each show, which were invariably fundraisers for school committees and charities.
I was encouraged to enter my work in the annual and long-running Gould League art award, and took home a couple of gongs in 1985. At the end of that year, a range of my wildlife drawings was printed as stationary to raise funds for a school trip to New Zealand.
Wildlife art was enjoying a major resurgence and people couldn’t get enough of it.
In the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, bird watchers were commonplace because living within what would eventually become a World Heritage wilderness area, bird-life abounded. Some of my schoolteachers were keen amateur ornithologists, and at school camping trips we got to experience the processes of bird banding – the temporary capture of birds in mist nets in order to weigh, tag and record life-cycle details of different species.
The one bird we were warned against ever attempting to capture was a parrot.
With their pincer-like beaks and claws most raptors would be proud of, parrots in all their shapes, sizes and colours (from cockatoos and rosellas to budgerigars) have always been an artist’s delight.
Tagging one even for the most noble of reasons would need to be done with a sturdy heart and welder’s gloves. Even capturing parrots on film remains a challenge.
Depending on which birds and which region, Aboriginal words for parrot include “bilin”, “akala”, “goonang”, “koorungan”, “moolangora” and “poolunka”. Parrots, cockatoos, rosellas and parakeets all make appearances in Aboriginal Dreaming and are totemic across the country.
Three centuries before Matthew Flinders, Portuguese explorers mooted ‘Psitacorum Regio’ (‘The Land of Parrots’) as a suitable name for the southern land they’d seen was replete with parrot life, and that name appears on the 1564 New World Map by Antwerp cartographer Abraham Ortelius.
Everyone has their favourite parrot. After more than three decades living in the Mountains, I fell early for the gentle, bell-like call of the beautiful Crimson Rosella (Platycercus elegans)not least due to its bright defiance of mountain mist and rain. It was also easy to spot whilst walking to and from school and wasn’t particularly shy about being watched.
By the 1990s, wildlife art fell out of fashion, while I went off to design school, followed by a stint chasing dreams in Europe.
One of the saddest sights I encountered was a solo Crimson Rosella in an ornate cage not much larger than its body, hanging above the counter at a pasta restaurant in central Venice in the summer of 1994. It had torn most of its wing and tail feathers out, and when I asked the manager if he knew where his bird came from, he shook his head and shrugged.
I could speak only rudimentary Italian, but I could read I couldn’t care less by the body language. Only someone who’d spent every school day observing these beauties cavorting through the bush could have picked the species of that sad captive.
Well over a decade later, when I moved from the mountains to the subtropics, I knew I’d have to leave the Crimson Rosella behind. It is found in Queensland in a disparate region to the north, but here in the southeast it rarely shows itself at the coast.
But I started to hear talk of another rosella that frequents this part of the world, one that has become more and more elusive – the Pale-headed Rosella (Platycercus adscitus) somewhat related to its crimson cousin.
After years away from painting birds, it was parrots that drew me back in, when I sat down and captured a row of them in the work I called ‘The Committee’ and quickly sold on new Australian online gallery Bluethumb.
I couldn’t resist including a Crimson Rosella at the centre of that line-up of Australian icons. A Rainbow Lorikeet, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo and a Galah complete the scene, all quite familiar to me even after years away from the easel; although these days I find myself less concerned with extreme ornithological accuracy, and more intent on capturing their character.
But the Pale-headed Rosella still eludes me. Some of my neighbours recall seeing them here on Coochiemudlo Island, but not for a few years, so I decided to closely observe various photographs of this exquisite bird in preparation for encountering one.
Sporting a full spectrum of colours, including a flash of red under its tail, a magnificent pale gold crown, and the finest ultramarine blues across its cheeks, wings and tail, the Pale-headed Rosella managed to avoid definitive taxonomy for close to a century.
This was undoubtedly because early ornithologists either hadn’t seen more than preserved samples shipped to England, or mistakenly thought they were the first to encounter the bird in the wild. It was surely also because the Pale-headed Rosella had gotten busy interbreeding with very similar species such as the Eastern Rosella and the Yellow Rosella, producing an array of hybrids.
The first European to visit Coochiemudlo Island – explorer Matthew Flinders – saw white and black cockatoos, and a bird he called “the beautiful lay lock [lilac] headed parroquet” here in 1799, but no Pale-headed Rosellas in his short journey through the island’s interior.
As one of the commonest parrots seen by early European settlers in the Brisbane region, the Pale-headed Rosella was known simply as the ‘Moreton Bay Rosella’ or ‘Parakeet’. Prussian explorer and naturalist Ludwig Leichhardt referred to it as such while traversing the region in 1844, and noted in his journal that it was “very numerous”, appearing with the same frequency as the Cockatiel and the White Cockatoo.
‘Pale-headed Parrakeet (sic)’ was the common name applied from 1848 by English ornithologist John Gould, although he was apparently unaware that the Pale-headed Rosella had already been named in 1790 by his predecessor John Latham.
The ornithological establishment seems to have hedged its bets and let both men’s identification stand as two subspecies, with Latham’s Platycercus adscitus, a generally bluer-cheeked variety found in the northern zone of Queensland; and Gould’s lesser blue-cheeked Platycercus palliceps found in southeast Queensland.
There’s a problem, however. Gould identified (or thought he had) another ‘Blue-cheeked Parrakeet’ he named Platycercus cyanogenys, but his Platycercus palliceps also bears the common name ‘Blue-cheeked Rosella’.
And having observed the colouring of the bird in order to paint it, for my money there’s simply not enough blue on the cheek of Platycercus palliceps to justify that name.
Looking at another artist’s earlier work might clear matters up. When Elizabeth Gould painted Platycercus pallicepsin husband John’s Birds of Australia in the 1840’s, it appears below two truly blue-cheeked birds – the Yellow Rosella and the Yellow-bellied Parakeet (see image above).
Now emerging from her husband’s shadow thanks to a new novel – The Birdman’s Wife (Affirm Press), Elizabeth Gould’s skills of observation suggest elements of John Gould’s taxonomy may not have passed muster.
Her Platycercus palliceps carries the merest hint of blue on what could only be defined as the very, very lowest margins of the bird’s cheek.
It takes a fellow painter to recognise the palest blue brushstroke that I imagine Elizabeth added a little begrudgingly at John’s insistence, to avoid a blue-cheeked argument.
So I hedged my bets too, and added more blue than I thought necessary, but less than the name required, although I’d love to see a local Pale-headed Rosella to check for sure.
Despite our plethora of walking birds like curlews and plovers, much of the bird life on Coochiemudlo Island, especially where parrots are concerned, lives high above our heads in the old-growth trees.
I’m thinking of investing in a pair of binoculars, and I’ve noticed several well-known Australian artists have added Gould League art award prizes to their online resumes.
I’ll probably do the same. I’ve already earned my plumes, after all.