'En plein air' painting outback Australia
Josie is an artist, painter, quilter, excellent cook, and a light traveller. Recently she combined painting in the open air - en plein air - with travelling light. Listen to what she says about small group tours to the Australian interior. Note the bonus - Josie's trip essentials for specialised travel - at the end of the transcript.
Transcript of the interview
Bobby Graham: Hello Planepackers. Welcome to another episode. I am sitting here in the very charming Armadillos Café with Josie. Welcome Josie.
Josie: Thank you Bobby.
Bobby Graham: You recently went on an en plein air painting group tour. What exactly is en plein air painting?
Josie: Well en plain air painting is painting in the outdoors and traveling around to various landscapes, to capture the different light of the day depending on how long you are staying in one place, any one time. It’s a very good way to capture the colours and the mood of a particular landscape, more so than painting in the studio from photographs or drawings.
Bobby Graham: Painting outdoors - it sounds like a real challenge, I mean some of the things that I think of immediately: What about insects? Or what about rain? What happens to the paint? What are the challenges?
Josie: The challenges are really for oil painters because of the fact that canvasses take a long time to dry, so if you are thinking of doing en plein air painting you are best off to concentrate on drawing and water colour medium because it’s very transportable, easy to set up, quick drying time and the paper is less bulky to transport than canvasses.
Bobby Graham: So what is your medium? What did you use?
Josie: Well I do paint in oils, but for the purposes of this recent trip I did take water colours and that’s good for capturing the colours and the immediacy of the landscape before you, and I have found it was easy to pack them flat in the bottom of your bag or with certain papers that aren’t too stiff, you can roll them and carry them in a tube if you need to.
Bobby Graham: Fascinating. So tell us a little about this group tour: what was it and where did you go? How many people went?
Josie: Well if you are a painter you will be aware of just the plethora of trips that are available to you. In the art magazines that are on the shelf - Australian artist and Artist palette - there are so many painting trips advertised and they are not only within and throughout Australia, there are also many overseas in Italy, Croatia, France you name it, you can do a painting trip pretty much anywhere you choose to go these days.
Bobby Graham: So your particular one, where did you go?
Josie: Now, my trip I didn’t find through one of these magazines, I found it through a fellow artist that I had known through having an exhibition at the Belconnen Art Centre where I sometimes spend a bit of time and she organises very small group tours of about 14 artists - not necessarily restricted just to artists - we have photographers that come along and we had on the last trip we had one travel writer for instance that came along. But the thing about going on a small group of likeminded people is that you are all cross-fertilising ideas about techniques and colours and have a bit of a critique at the end of the day which is all very rewarding in terms of getting as much out of the exercise you can.
Bobby Graham: So how did you travel, was it . . . did you fly or did you go in a bus? Was it a tour? How did that work?
Josie: So this particular trip set out from Alice Springs in the centre of Australia and we travelled there by air and joined the tour which was run by Oztours Australia and they operate with four wheel drive specially modified trucks. They are not buses, they are trucks and they are like the Tardis; they have got everything imaginable on board and cater to all sorts of situations including all of your camping gear, your chairs, your tables to eat your meals from. They are just an amazing thing to see unfold and unpack.
Bobby Graham: Amazing, so it sounds like it is a combination of touring and camping. Where did you sleep?
Josie: Well it was called the art tour and primarily this tour focused on following the Hans Heysen Trail down through the Flinders Ranges ending up at his residence and studio in Hahndorf and so we did a bit of touring of sites as well as stopping and painting at sites.
Bobby Graham: Are you a light traveller Josie, how did you manage with the luggage, because you mentioned rolling up your artwork or putting it at the bottom of the suitcase, so was there a choice to be made between taking clothes or taking artworks, did you have a separate bag for the artworks?
Josie: Yes there were lots of choices to be made on this trip for me and I have to say that I would have spent four weeks considering all the items that I was going to take on this trip because the Oztour people like you only to carry a bag that weighs 12 kilograms. Now I myself failed because I couldn’t get down to 12, I could only get down to 19.
Bobby Graham: Why 12, why was that the magic number?
Josie: Because it had to be in a soft sided bag, 12 kilos that would stack in the back of the truck above the fridges in the . . . if you can imagine the clothes in ute, there was only a little bit of shelving above the fridges . . . there might have been a couple of luggage racks but the bags had to be stacked on top of each other (the reason for soft -sided) so not protruding wheels to damage other bags or the handler who had it down to a fine art.
Bobby Graham: So was the 12 peoples bags in one truck, or was there a range of trucks?
Josie: No one truck.
Bobby Graham: One truck and 12 people.
Josie: Well it was actually 16 bags by the time you included the hosts and the driver.
Bobby Graham: So it was quite a big group?
Bobby Graham: And what did you take with you because I remember having a previous conversation when you said it got very cold, because this was a winter tour?
Josie: It was colder than expected because we had been watching the temperatures and they had been mid-20s for the two weeks before we left and being Alice Springs in the central part of Australia you are thinking that you are heading up to a little bit of warm weather in winter but it wasn’t to be, it was the coldest start to winter that South Australia had had for some time and by the time we got to the camping part of the trip it was -4 overnight in the tent. So because we hadn’t packed for any cold weather it was basically down to putting every layer of clothing that you had brought with you on for the night.
Bobby Graham: Sounds like a military boot camp to me . . .
Josie: Some people had the forethought to bring woollen socks, wearing their hiking boots. So that saved them.
Bobby Graham: You couldn’t buy anything because you were in the bush?
Josie: That’s right, we were several, hundreds of miles away from any shops but the Oztour people did have hot water bottles on their truck.
Bobby Graham: So a little bit of comfort at night?
Bobby Graham: And were you in a sleeping bag?
Josie: Yes in a sleeping bag.
Bobby Graham: Did you have to take your sleeping bag?
Josie: No they were on the trucks, the tents, the sleeping bags, the stretchers, you did have to put t your own tent up and your own stretcher and sort out your tent yourself.
Bobby Graham: How long did you spend at a place, did you have to get up every day or were you in a certain places for a few days at a time?
Josie: Well it was quite difficult getting the balance right in that regard for only 12 days and to cover the 3,000 odd kilometres that we did it was very hard to spend more than two nights in one place because we had a deadline to make and that was a little bit of pressure on the trip but mostly we were one night and then paint during the day and travel on to the next destination but on the days that we did stay two nights in one place it was luxury really because we got undivided painting time without having to worry about getting home and packing your bag and moving on.
Bobby Graham: So what are the benefits of traveling light for this kind of a trip?
Josie: Well the benefits are that you get on the trip in the first place because I think if you turned up with a 23 kilo suitcase it would be frowned upon.
Bobby Graham: It won’t be thrown off the bus?
Josie: And certainly the four wheel drive variety that you get these days doesn’t work in the bulldust let me tell you. So there is a benefit of traveling light with the bag that would be suitable to be used as a backpack for instance so that you can actually carry your bag on your back over the gravel or stone.
Bobby Graham: What sort of a bag did you carry?
Josie: I carried a Samsonite Sierra it’s called and it’s a backpack but it does have two thick wheels at the bottom and it does have a pull out handle so it operates as a backpack, it’s soft sided, has lots of different compartments which I found extremely useful and where I could in civilization I could wheel it and in airports.
Bobby Graham: So it fulfilled both objectives, and you carry on your back even it was 19 kilos?
Bobby Graham: Yes.
Josie: Yes, well I didn’t ever carry it on my back because I had another backpack which I took with my painting gear in and that was the one that I carried on the back.
Bobby Graham: Oh I see. So you did land up taking two bags.
Bobby Graham: One was for the painting materials and the other one was for clothes and some toiletries.
Josie: Yes. One bag, the one I took on my back was specifically because I was doing a couple of little light tours before I started the main tour and so what I did and found very handy to know and avail myself of was to able to use the hotel storage. So I just when I arrived in Alice Springs I repacked into my small backpack and did the two or three night trips that I had to do before and then I stored my big bag at the hotel and came back and repacked for the tour.
Bobby Graham: Very practical approach then. So what was the whole experience like for you? What did you think?
Josie: Well I was just completely blown away by how the outback landscape affected me and I just thought that I could have at the end of the tour I could have just straightaway turned around and gone straight back.
Bobby Graham: You loved it, clearly.
Josie: I spent a lot more time out there and I just felt that some of the things were a bit rushed in that timeframe and there were some places like for instance Hermannsburg which I didn’t actually make it out to that was a bit of an omission on that trip especially as it’s the home of Albert Namatjira and we currently have a fabulous Namatjira exhibition on the NGA right now.
Bobby Graham: Oh I have to go and see.
Josie: Yes, it’s beautiful.
Bobby Graham: So what are your tips for somebody considering a trip like this, or what are the things that they should look out for? What are the obstacles? What are the challenges for them? How do you think somebody should approach a trip like this?
Josie: Well I think a very valuable thing is to look at some of the lists or information that’s available out there both online and in magazines from other people and other artists that have done the trip that would have the packing down to a very fine art and I found those sorts of lists to be quite useful. There are only one or two things that were extra to what I would normally take on a large trip for which I always have a checklist to make sure that I have got everything included that I need on trips. So importantly I think lists and drawing on other peoples’ experience is …
Bobby Graham: And maybe timing of the year as well, consider the climate variances if you are going in winter?
Josie: Yes, yes, yes, that’s right. Although they can be unpredictable as they were on this last trip that I did and you know, we got rain at Ayers Rock.
Bobby Graham: Most unusual.
Josie: Most unusual and I mean the 5% category of people that strike it when it’s raining at Ayers.
Bobby Graham: Congratulations.
Josie: When you think of all the people that visit Ayers Rock, that’s…
Bobby Graham: An amazing experience.
Bobby Graham: So what about you personally can we expect some of your artwork? What did you get out of the actual painting part of this trip?
Josie: Well I got the main thing for me was gathering reference material. I did some quick studies during the day when we had the time. I did a few drawings and importantly I took over 2,000 digital photos. So the reference material is invaluable for when you get back into your studio situation and you can still draw on that as well as the mood and the feeling that you still have fresh from the trip
Bobby Graham: Fabulous and those digital photos don’t take up any space in your luggage, do they?
Josie: No, no, but to be fair one of the heaviest items that I had to travel with was a camera.
Bobby Graham: So you used a digital SLR?
Josie: I did.
Bobby Graham: You didn't rely on an iPhone?
Josie: No because I took a telephoto lens which was most essential for if you are bringing back good reference material.
Bobby Graham: Capturing the qualities on that.
Josie: That sort of a landscape.
Bobby Graham: Oh that’s a good tip.
Josie: But that was heavy and we made the decision two trips ago that when we took it away on our first overseas trip that it was way too heavy and that we would downsize to a smaller camera which we did but for this trip I thought I couldn’t get away with the limitations on the smaller camera for what I needed. So that was one of the heaviest things and taking the charger and the batteries, spare battery and so there is a little bit of paraphernalia tied up with that. So if you can work around that somehow and still manage to get the sort of quality of photographs that you need, other people probably don’t bother so much with that. They are just happy to make do with the paintings that they did on the trip and not work them any further.
Bobby Graham: For major research?
Josie: No, but my dilemma was that because I work in oils the paintings that I did out there were mainly just studies to be worked up later in the studio with oil paints.
Bobby Graham: Well it sounds like it was an amazing experience altogether. I want to thank you for sharing it with us because there are not many people who have an opportunity to go on an en plein air group tour to the heart of Australia and it sounds like your experiences were really valuable and personally enriching. So I want to thank you and I am sure that the Planepack listeners will benefit from hearing about your tips if any of them are interested in doing something similar. So thank you Josie. Do you have anything on closing that you would like to add?
Josie: Oh I am sure I could add lots of things but maybe we could do that afterwards.
Bobby Graham: Over another cup of coffee?
Josie: Ha, ha, ha, ha.
Bobby Graham: Thank you very much.
Josie's trip essentials for specialised travel
- a small shoe horn for hiking boots
- battery operated torch, clock and alarm (there is no electricity in remote areas)
- head lamps, which can double as tent lighting
- power pack for charging phone, etc, where there are no powerpoints
- three sizes backpack - two that are ultralight
- down jacket that folds into its own hood
- thermal underwear
- woollen socks
- zip lightweight packs for undies, t-shirts, socks, chargers and other cords
- cabin pack for toothbrush, comb and underpants
- a sturdy 2-litre rather bottle - you must carry water with you at all times when travelling in outback Australia
I'm Slobodanka Graham - sadly not an en plein air artist, but I did once upon a time visit rugged parts of South Africa, which also has splendid vistas for landscape artists.