Working Methods

Cathy teachingMuch of my work is produced from recollections – recollections of experiences, emotional responses and visual memory. This particularly applies to my portrait and landscape works. I often put together small sketches using pencil, charcoal or pen and ink, initially worked from life, by sitting and drawing faces around Melbourne or scenes from my travels. At the same time, I make a record of the colours I see and write a lot of notes about the subjects in front of me. I use a camera sometimes but usually only after I have caught the person in that moment of time, unaware of my presence. Once you use a camera, the subject starts to pose and that moment is lost (although taking a photo can often present an opportunity to talk with a subject to find out about their story). Any photographs I take therefore become a means of jogging my memory rather than an image to copy from.

My work can often be spontaneous. I work on each painting from start to finish, working quickly, keeping the paint pliable and workable to create the shifting nuances of hues and tone. I create the marks using broad brushes, a palette knife and create spontaneous marks by dipping the fine ends of sticks to apply the paint. Scumbling and splattering create the fragmented marks of paint.

I work in acrylic or oils and sometimes apply the paint in various layers of glazes and transitions of colour. I always select a limited palette, usually of three tubes of paint plus white. Colour and colour mixing come naturally and almost all of my paintings are worked in this limited palette but often use a transparent red or transparent yellow oxide to wash over the canvas before I start. The discipline of using so few colours, of working quickly, wet into wet, to create each mix on the canvas, almost translates the physics of colour itself, with just the three tubes being mixed to develop a fuller palette of harmonious colours.

I also use pastel, mainly for my portrait work and figurative studies. I love washing the textured paper over with thin layers of acrylic ink and then work the pastel over the top allowing the underneath colour to create a variance of coloured surface to work into. I work in quick broad strokes, often completing a painting quite quickly . I love the hands on feel of colour with pastel, no mixing, just creating the optical mix through the pastel strokes, almost like a tapestry.

Sometimes I incorporate mono printing and lino cut prints into my works. I studied printmaking at College years ago and I have always stayed working with mono print. I free draw with ink onto various sizes of Perspex or copper plates taking 2 or 3 prints at a time and then I work back into the piece with pastel, charcoal or paint. I have studied the working methods of Degas for many years, as one of the most innovative artists of his time, and have always been intrigued and inspired by his use of print and pastel. The prints are used almost as a form of underpainting. Most of the subjects I do in this way are either portraits or my figurative work such as the dancers or the water carriers for my series of works on Africa.

I also work on a lot of drawings, usually in charcoal or a mix of water soluble graphite and hard pastel. This allows me to be quite experimental, washing the charcoal back with damp cloths and sponges and erasing back into the composition to create light. I use various ways of applying the charcoal to create spontaneous marks ad various effects. I think the freedom I have with the materials I use has allowed me to play more with the way I now approach my painting.


Music is a vitally important part of my painting. I choose to listen to compositions that conjure up a visual, personal intimacy to my works. Indeed, music has a strongly visual component for me that, with the painting, can bring together sight and sound and keep the work in flow. The undulations and rhythm of the music create a pulse to the painting process.

Studying masters of painting such as Delacroix (and his use of colour), Monet (as a conceptual impressionistic artist with his works of the water lilies), Van Gogh, Turner and Rembrandt, Singer-Sargeant and also today’s great masters such as US artists David Leffel and Richard Schmid and my time spent with UK painters Ken Howard and Ken Paine, have provided an immense source of influence and inspiration and a knowledge and appreciation for the use of colour and light. My studies have instilled a confidence in me to work in a way that stems from a purely emotional response to my subjects rather than thinking too much about replicating a precise scene.

Working on my pieces is an evolution. When I work, the start of a piece becomes the finish. To me the most important part of working on a piece is the journey through the painting or drawing, not thinking too much, keeping in flow and just allowing the concept to develop. This is what I encourage my students to learn. We can fill our heads with a million techniques, but it doesn’t necessarily make us great painters. It is the confidence to begin a work by embarking on a personal journey with the subject and the confidence to finish at the conclusion of that journey. When we do this, working becomes much more enjoyable than when we constantly struggle to simply replicate an image and inevitably convince ourselves that the piece is not a good enough depiction of that image.