Interview With Rosalind M Bunting

Rosalind McKelvey Bunting knows a thing or two about capturing life in brushstrokes. Having developed her practice at the Julian Ashton Art School and an Italian atelier, Rosalind is passionate about preserving the techniques and knowledge of Old Masters in contemporary realist painting. Beginning with portraiture and still life, Rosalind now also captures fragments of our beautiful Australian landscape, which she shares here at Art Pharmacy.

We caught up with Rosalind to chat about finding Italy, creating a landscape from imagination as well as life, and knowing when to put the paintbrush down at the end of the day.

How would you describe your style?
I am a classical realist. When I first attended art school at the age of 17 I knew exactly what style I wanted to develop my skills in. I wanted to be able to replicate reality with my pencil. 

This need to draw people and places exactly as they’re seen led me away from Contemporary Art Schools in Australia and on to Europe where in a small classical atelier in Florence Italy, The Charles Cecil Studios, I studied traditional portrait and figure painting techniques.

This classical realist training put me in good stead to learn how to paint and draw like the great masters did, such as Titan, Rubens, Van Dyck, Singer-Sargent, Sorolla, Degas, and Picasso.

You’ve lived and practiced in Italy. Did it choose you, or did you choose it?
I chose it.  It is up to the individual artist to find someone who can teach the techniques that they’re interested in. And that’s exactly what I did in going to Italy. I leant to draw and paint the way that I wanted. 

The Charles Cecil Studios is a traditional painting atelier directly descended, via R. H. Ives Gammell and William Paxton, to the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris under Jean-Léon Gérôme. Today the school maintains a rigorous drawing and painting curriculum similar to the Academies of 19th-Century Europe.

As a learner, these drawing techniques are very slow and measured. But after a year of doing it the techniques becomes embedded in you and you become quicker and more confident in your mark making.

The works I saw of more advanced students at the atelier showed this development. Each picture was technically brilliant but beautifully loose with confident mark making.

I studied at Charles Cecil for one year, before my visa expired. When I returned to Australia I wanted to keep at it, so I enrolled at the only school where I could continue my training; the Julian Ashtons Art School in Sydney.  JAAS is the oldest continuous art school in Australia founded in 1890, it is a national treasure and the only school of its kind in Australia.

One thing that’s really interesting is your focus on being technically aware, but also having that, as you say, ‘loose’ element in your work. How do you balance those two things?
Good question! I think there are many types of mark making, from measured to loose. I think it is best to know how to do both.

In order to achieve this, it is better to learn the classic techniques and then break away from them, rather than to have not learnt any of these techniques at all. To put it simply; learn to walk before you run.

Once you have understood the basics you are better equipped to develop your own style of mark making. , which I believe it gives the artists a greater depth of possibilities for their work.

Do you prefer to work alone, or with other people around?
I don’t mind either way really. I work both ways well. But if I had to lean to one or the other I would say I love to work with people around.

Sure, It takes twice as long to finish a painting because we chat so much. But that conversation can be golden! It helps me to step back from the painting and re assess what I have done up to that point. This also helps me correct mistakes and plan ahead.

However, If needed I’m also good at just knuckling down and focusing when people are around, so it’s never a problem.

How do you know when to put the paintbrush down at the end of the day?
Yes, usually I can tell when enough has been done for the day. But that is only when I am happy with it. I’m embarrassed to say but many catch-ups with mates have been cancelled, because I think, ‘I can’t leave it at this point! If I’m unhappy with the state of an artwork I’ll find it hard to do or think about anything else. Luckily I have good mates who have learnt to leave me alone when this happens.

When doing a portrait, what’s addictive about working from life?
In Florence my teacher told me ‘you cannot capture life from something that isn’t living,’ and I took that philosophy on quite strongly. There is a joy in working from life. Whether you are painting a portrait or a landscape, if working from life you are given the pleasure of interacting with your subject and it interacting with you.  I believe this gives me a much greater chance of capturing the true life/spirit of my subject. 

Of course there are challenges; such as the subject moving and the light changing, but these are just things you learn to work with and through practice you can only get better.

The human form has always been an important subject for you. How have you gone about adding landscape painting to your repertoire?
As a Classical Realist painter it is important to master not only the human form, but also still life and landscape painting. In my early artistic years I focused on human form as you say, but it was inevitable that I would one day paint landscapes too.

Luckily for me I took to landscape painting like a duck to water. I am certain this transition was so natural to me because the principles of these two genres are the same; you’re assessing the tone, colour and form.

What’s the best time to paint landscape?
It’s a good question, but really don’t think there is a best time. It is so specific to where you are painting and the mood you are trying to create of that place.

I love painting at many different times of the day throughout the year. For example;

Morning light produces beautiful pastel atmosphere turning the landscape into a blur of misty colours. You can see this kind of light mastered in many of the Heidelburg school paintings. Such Arthur Loureiro’s ‘An Autumn Morning’ 1893.

Winter light at sunset is also another of my favourites. The colours are amazing. It is the most dramatic and therefore one of the most challenging times to paint, because the light changes so quickly as the sun drops below the horizon.

Is there a fascination with capturing a moment?
Absolutely! This has always been a fascination for artists. 

You see the subject and the certain way the light hits it and you cant help but feel inspired to create a worthy replication of that moment.

I believe in trying your hardest and admitting defeat when it doesn’t work. Practice and perseverance makes the best artists of us all.

And what about documenting a place?
It is inevitable that a landscape painting is a documentation of that place. A successful work is one that has become imbued with the spirit of that place.

Most landscape commissions I receive are from people wanting to document a place that is special to them.

And then sometimes people take to my pictures without having ever been to the place they are painted from. For example a buyer once told me after he purchased a small plein air study of a hidden glade on the Hawkesbury river; ‘I have never been to this place, but I loved it instantly. It will hang in my study so I can travel there whenever I want to.’ It was a lovely thing to hear.

You’ve mentioned taking a new approach to your practice. What are you working towards?
I will always believe in a wholly immersive experience of painting plein air. But I am now using other approaches to landscape painting, such as photographs, in order to broaden my subject matter possibilities and also all increase the size of my paintings.

Next week I am embarking on my first overseas painting trip to New Zealand’s South Island. Due to limited storage space in my camper van I will not be painting huge pictures but instead taking photos and doing small studies, which I will bring back with me to the studio in Australia and work up larger paintings from there.

It’s a very exciting year ahead. Lots to do, lots more to learn and hopefully some great paintings to produce along the way!

For more, view a selection of Rosalind’s landscapes on her Art Pharmacy artist page, by clicking here.

Rosalind’s work has been formally recognised on a number of occasions, including as a finalist in the 2014 Portia Geach Memorial Art award, and receiving the Brett Whiteley Scholarship at Julian Ashton Art School in 2012.

Words: Liz Strang