Early work, 1987 to 2004

Before 2005, Phil's painting was a part time activity, mostly done in a feverish rush during holidays.

His early work can be divided into three time periods:

1987 to 1992

After 4 years in the US completing his PhD, Phil returned to Australia in 1983. He started working for the Forestry Commission of NSW, in the Wood Technology and Forest Research Division (Wood Tech). Wood Tech was located in the Cumberland State Forest, a small piece of wet sclerophyll forest in the midst of suburban West Pennant Hills. It was a beautiful place to work and became the inspiration for his return to painting, something he'd neglected since high school.

He started with a Wood Tech Christmas party poster. He was inspired by the forest outside his office window, tall pale boles of the Sydney Blue Gums (Eucalyptus saligna) against the mixed green foliage of the understorey. It was a crude picture, that provided a forest background for the poster. It reawakend something.

In contrast to the straight blue-white boles of the Sydney Blue Gum which were serene and startling in their pale purity, Phil was also fascinated by the the bark of an Angophora costata which changed colour and shed seasonally. Phil wanted to portray them as an intimate portrait, close up, as if you could reach out and touch them. Trying to capture this idea resulted in several pencil sketches, and at the time was not entirely successful.

In 1987 Phil was undertaking research work at Eden on far southern coast of NSW. The Eden eucalypt forests are dominated by Silvertop Ash (Eucalyptus sieberi), a curious thing about this species is that the bark of the juvenile tree is a strange blueish-purple colour. Young trees would regenerate on mass with these startling blue boles. Phil took several photos of the young eucalypt regeneration stands, one in particular seem to capture the unique blue colour. Once home, this photo formed the basis of Phil first major painting since highschool, Sieberi Saplings.

Work on this painting was done at night and on weekends in a rented flat in North Ryde. He used acrylic paints because they were cheaper than oil paints, but also because he wanted a thick layered/textured effect. When the paint brushes were inadequate to produce the effects he wanted he started to use palette knifes for the first time - mixing and applying thick swathes of paint, layering different colours, creating textures all became easy and fun. He also started to experiment in applying paint using other objects such as long thin pieces of cardboard or plastic strips to produce curved or angular linear features. Sieberi Saplings was an experiment and as such is a mixed success but he found he really enjoyed producing it. He had it framed and on the framer's recommendation entered it into an art show at Ryde.

Working from some of his earlier pencil sketches, the next painting attempted was the first version of Trio. Three contrasting Cumberland Forest tree boles; the Angophora, a Blue Gum, and a darker rough-bark Peppermint. This project had its problems; working from sketches proved difficult, as did trying to paint in a stodgy flat with limited light and space, and his work was demanding. So, the incomplete painting was put aside.

Sometime during 1988-89 friends of Phil's, Dave and Alison, were showing off holiday photos from a camping trip to the Macquarie Marshes. Amongst these photos was one of spoonbills wading in the shallows of Narran Lake. The minute Phil saw this photo he knew he wanted to paint it. The spoonbill photo haunted him for a while and finally he asked to borrow it. Royal Spoonbills at Narran Lake became Dave and Allison's wedding present.

After completing the painting, Phil asked for his own print for his records. The print was disappointing, it didn't have the same spark as the original, something in the processing was different and the resulting print didn't inspire. This made him realise that if he was going to paint from photos he needed to be able to control the processing, or it would just be a lucky dip.

Phil still can't say exactly what inspires him to paint a photo. It's not what's accepted as an "artistic" photo, his nephew Glen is a talented photographer [see www.invisiblelandscapes.com and glenryan.tumblr.com] and Phil sees his works as pieces of art but they don't inspire him to paint. For Phil an inspiring photo may be what's traditionally considered "quite average" but it will have something in it's composition, colour, light and texture that draws him to it.

In 1991 Phil went to Hawkes Nest for holidays and tried to paint again. Photos seemed to be the key ingredient so he searched through his collection looking for any that had an interesting subject and that strange spark. He found several that had been taken whilst on holidays on the North Coast several years before, while staying at Lennox Head and visiting Big Scrub Forest Reverse north of Lismore. These photos were of rainforest trees, and from them he painted Strangler Fig and Giant Buttress.

This was the start of his, now large, Rainforest series.

For the next year's holiday Phil went to Trial Bay, staying in the old Warden's House, a beautiful old two storey house with a surrounding bull-nose veranda, and in walking distance from the beach. He remembers this as his best painting holiday whilst working in Sydney. There he painted another rainforest picture Laocoon's Liannas complex tangle of vines, and Immaculata from a photo of one of his favourite eucalypts, the Spotted Gum.

These remain two his favourite paintings, especially Laocoon's Liannas which seemed to capture all he'd been wanting to achieve over the previous five years - the close intimacy with the subject, the detail montage of colours, contrasting shapes and textures.

The completion of these initial paintings marked a milestone. What had started out as a part time hobby had become an important activity. Although, still one that could only be indulged with the intensity he wanted during holidays. The finished paintings provided Phil a deep sense of accomplishment and self worth that research work had yet to equal.

1993 to 1998

In 1993, Phil moved to Canberra and started working with CSIRO.

As a researcher, the move to CSIRO was fulfilling, it seemed to be the culmination of all Phil's years of effort and study to establish himself as a scientist and for the first five years his productivity reach a level not achieved before, nor since.

The aim of owning his own home was realised when Phil purchased an average brick-veneer house in an average Canberran suburb with dreadful interior decor. The house slowly came to dominate his free time. Spare funds for holidays had evaporated, so his desires to continue to paint were put aside. They were substituted with home activities, especially gardening and redecoration. All the main rooms of the house had wallpaper with mostly floral patterns and windows disguised with venetian blinds and several layers of bland gauzy curtains. But the most striking room was the toilet, which was painted a startling cobalt blue. At least this was an attempt to coordinate with the ultramarine blue toilet seat and bluish tiles, but for a small space it was somewhat overpowering. Phil started with the toilet, the metaphorical bottom, and continued until the whole interior of the house was repainted.

Phil treated the house as if it was a 3D painting, each room had a theme created with a selection of colours to create a specific mood. His aim was to eliminate all white. Redecorating became a major task and consumed several holidays from 1993 to 1998 and a substantial amount of money. The result was 35 different internal colours and 3 external colours. He admits in retrospect he may have gone overboard.

1998 to 2004

Sick of renovation and staying in Canberra for holidays, in 1998 Phil asked friends Rob and Erna if he could rent their holiday house in Minnie Waters a beautiful small coastal village, 35km east of Grafton and the Pacific Highway, and surrounded by Yuraygir National Park. The house was a typical old fisherman's hut with a garage and laundry on the ground floor and the living quarters above. Most of the houses at Minnie Water are located on an elevated plateau some 50m above sea level with only three vehicle access points to the beach; one in the northern park camping area, one at the shop, and the southern one descending from Waratah Crescent at the southern end of the village area. The house was located on Waratah Crescent, close to the edge of the bluff and opposite the access road to the boat ramp. It was a marvellous location; 180 degree view of the ocean, plus bordered by a park and national park to the south.

When fatigued from painting for long hours, a tonic was long walks along the coast into the park along the bluff or a scramble along the rocks of the beach. There are numerous locations to lookout over the ocean with views from Sandon to north around to North Solitary Island to the south. Phil found it a meditative experience with the ocean, the waves, the ships out sea, and the occasional whale making it endlessly fascinating.

So after a long break from painting, the Minnie Water holidays were very productive, averaging a painting a week. The only difficulties were the long drive to and from Canberra, the need to pack a lot of gear and return the finished paintings in a small car, and trying to find enough holiday time.

This was such an enjoyable location that that Phil returned for painting holidays over the next 6 years, and many of his paintings from this period were completed there. Phil is especially appreciative that Rob and Erna allowed him to use their beautiful beach house as a studio.

During this period, a number of paintings were inspired by Minnie Waters and adjacent Yuraygir National Park:

While others were based on photos taken during year of ACT scenes and saved for the holidays, including:

The need for more subject matter meant that every field trip, social gathering or public holiday was a potential opportunity for sourcing photos (and more recently digital images) that could possibly lead to another painting. This resulted in the capture of new and varied subject matter, as seen in the variety of other paintings completed during this period:

The new subjects included riparian zones and wildfire, with more studies of rock form and trees.

Time for change

The need to paint was becoming stronger during this period so there were increasing conflicts in balancing work and painting. Trying to paint on weekends didn't work for Phil - there were all the standard domestic chores that need to be done plus after a week of work fatigue often swamped any desire to paint. He also like to be able concentrate for several days straight on a painting.
All this produced a personal dilemma.

Find out more about Phil's art: