Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW
Warrane College UNSW | college accommodation for students at UNSW

Artist Paul Newton shares some life lessons

Paul Newton giving his talk after formal dinner

Famous Australian portrait Artist Mr Paul Newton offered Warrane residents a tour of his award-winning works and an insight into how his career unfolded when he spoke at the College on Wednesday 9 April 2014.

Mr Newton is unusual for a successful artist because he started by completing a science degree before deciding to develop his painting skills at the Julian Ashton Art School in Sydney’s Rocks area. He explained that he had changed direction after a friend told him: “‘You will have a great social life’ — and things of that ilk. And then he said to me, almost as an afterthought: ‘You can learn to draw and paint’.

“I didn’t need any further encouragement,” Mr Newton said. “I signed up the next day.”

He said the Julian Ashton School at the time was a very traditional art school in the model of the Parisian salons from a hundred years earlier.

“What I was confronted with when I first walked through the door was dusty, white-washed plaster casts, figures with drapes and still-life arrangements and the smell of oil paint pungently perfumed the air. There were young turks and eccentric characters and I could relate to them. It felt like finally I belonged somewhere.”

After completing the course he went along to the Commonwealth Employment Service and was told there were no jobs for artists: “Don’t even get involved with looking,” he was told. “Don’t worry, we will set you up — we will put you on the dole and you will be okay.”

But after about six months of trying he found a job with an advertising firm illustrating advertisements. It was a far cry from what he had studied at art school, but it was a beginning.

He said one of the things that kept him going in the early years was Winston Churchill’s comment: “Courage is going from failure to failure without losing enthusiasm.”

This inspired him to persevere with developing his portrait painting skills and the rest is history.

Among those he has painted are many of Australia’s most famous individuals, including former Prime Minister Bob Hawke, novelist Bryce Courtenary, Rugby legend David Campese, radio personality Alan Jones, models Kate Fischer and Maggie Tabberer, and singer Kylie Minogue.

He has been chosen 10 times as a finalist in the Archibald Prize at the Art Gallery of NSW, twice winning the much sought-after Archibald Packing Room Award, and has painted many public figures in the United States.

Two of his best-known works are the painting of Our Lady of the Southern Cross which featured during Pope Benedict XVI’s visit to Australia for World Youth Day, and a painting of the worship of Australia’s first Catholics in the early Sydney colony. Those who modelled for this painting included Warrane old-boy and former staff member Martin Fitzgerald, who attended the talk. Both paintings were part of a major commission to create art works for the chapel of a new Australian pilgrim centre in the heart of Rome, Domus Australia.

Asked about how he went about designing his paintings, Mr Newton said he was taught at art school to work out a composition on a thumb-nail scale. because you could change it more easily.

“If you have a giant canvas and you begin and you think, no, I want to change that, it’s a much more difficult proposition,” he said. “What I do is to work out the composition beforehand and really take a long time to do it.”

He said he sometimes took a month or two working on the composition, taking hundreds of photos in the process. In the case of the early Catholics of Sydney, he photographed many people in various types of clothing and in various poses interacting with others in different ways.

He then used Photoshop to combine the figures into an “aesthetically pleasing arrangement”.

He said he tried to make the people in the composition work “in sympathy and in concert with each other so you have got a narrative going on”.

Commenting on the early Catholics painting, he said: “It’s the obvious narrative — I don’t know whether you are familiar with the story, but in the early colony in Sydney, in 1818, there was no priest. There had been one who had been here for a short time, but he was kicked out because he wasn’t officially sanctioned.

“Before he left, he left a consecrated communion host which is in this little metal container called a pyx, and the early Catholic community guarded that — really, with their lives. And that was the focal point for their prayer gatherings. So that is the main game that I was depicting. But the sub-plots were thinking about the individuals. The poor girl (in the painting) she is probably not sure what it is all about, but she knows it is a very solemn, pious environment and she is acting accordingly. But she is probably more fascinated by the candle than by the reality that is going on. And she is perhaps reaching out for the bright light of the candle. The young guy is looking across at the girl. The girl may be looking back at the boy or she may be looking at the baby — it’s a little ambiguous. It’s like real life…”

The painting includes a convict wearing a convict’s top “with the broad arrow on its sleeve”.

“I wanted to show,” Mr Newton said, “the full range of the socio economic makeup of the community.”

Mr Newton also spoke about the important role played in the painting by the “golden mean” — a mathematical proportion that occurs over and over in nature.

“It indicates the most visually pleasing point at which to place an item that needs to be a visual focal point in order for the eye to be drawn to it and to ensure that it sits comfortably within the composition,” he said.

Asked how he knew that a painting had reached the point where it was finished. He said this was one of the hardest things for an artist.

“It’s not like like a maths problem where there is an ultimate answer,” he said. “One of the skills that you learn from making a lot of mistakes is to know when to stop and when you have said enough — when you have left a little bit for the viewer to finish. That is, to use their own eye to finish.

“There is that famous painting of George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, the American painter. He was often criticised for not completing the attire that George Washington was wearing, but that is part of the charm of that painting because your eye finishes the thing. If everything is nailed down,  there is nothing left to the imagination, then I think that you have overworked the painting.

“There is no hard-and-fast rule. Its just that when you have said all you can without saying too much because it is very, very easy to say too much.”

Commenting on the views of Art critics, Mr Newton said that often they would “just make up a whole lot of stuff that you think has nothing to do with what you intended”. To illustrate, he told the story of a fellow artist whose work was judged for a famous portrait prize and the judge who chose the winning entry “was rabbiting on about how certain elements of the painting were symbolic of x, y and z” and the artist herself said later: “I didn’t know that it meant that!”

Asked what drew him to working with portraiture and painting within the field of art, he said he had found the thing he enjoyed most was painting figurative scenes that involved people in some way.

“I enjoy working with people,” he said. “Being an artist can be a very solitary occupation. You spend a lot of time in your own company. And you can get very sick of that. So it was an example of how I could work as a painter, in the field that I was good at — or hoped that I was good at at the beginning — and still commune with people.

“Also with the Archibald prize, it is a bit like being a surfer on a big wave. In surfing, the impression I get is that if there is a big wave you can do so much more with it, because it is a big wave. And you yourself don’t have to provide all of what the wave is providing.”

Mr Newton’s advice to his young listeners was: “Don’t despair if at the time you leave school or university or any institution you are studying at, if you don’t know yet what to do with your life, because I know that it can take a long long time to figure that out. Really, no experience that you have that you put your heart and soul into is ever wasted. I don’t feel that my science degree is wasted even though I don’t directly use it.

“Whatever you aspire to do give it everything you have, even if ultimately you conclude that it was a blind alley, because you will never be left with that nagging, awful thought years later, wondering what might have been — which is a terrible thing to be left with.”

[Warrane College offers more than just accommodation to students at UNSW: Details of other guest speakers are available here]