An exhibition about the sojourns and intensity of artistic vision of an en plein-air modern Australian landscape impressionist.
6 August – 10 October, 2011
Ken Knight is a unique Australian painter. Unique, not by subject matter or by representation, but by standing alone after thirty years developing a style that captures breathtakingly beautiful renditions of the equally unique Australian landscape.
Born in Sydney, Australia in 1956, Knight earned his Bachelor of Arts Degree and Diploma of Education at Sydney University between 1975 and 1978.
As a secondary school geography teacher, Ken already had the natural world at the core of his interest, and painting became the perfect foil for visually expressing his feelings for the landscape.
In 1979 he held his first solo exhibition at Parramatta, and continued to teach until 1982 when he traded the chalk for the full-time elasticity of the oil paint that would colour his life.
Study tours took place during this time to London and Paris, where Ken continued to hone his skills and develop his long-term passion for the impressionist view of the natural world.
Knight acknowledges the influence of his impressionist mentors: painters like the Arthurs, Streeton and Boyd, and Elioth Gruner along with French masters like Monet and the American abstract expressionists, particularly Willem de Kooning.
All have played a part in the making of Ken Knight and his style has evolved into his own way of seeing, as he says, "By closing the left eye, blurring the right and (confidently and boldly) painting what I see and feel."
He paints “outside” following a finely tuned personal methodology using every tool in the book and some that are not, including a surprisingly uncomplicated, yet efficient palette, to make his marks on the boards he takes into the bush and beyond.
His fairly regimented personal painting process has produced results that have gained accolades and awards not often matched by many Australian painters.Leaving behind his specially fitted 4-wheel-drive warhorse, he hauls his kit through the coastal vegetation to a spot in the sand dunes along a stretch of the NSW south coast accompanied by the sounds of a gentle surf carried on a playful north-east sea breeze.
On his firmly planted easel the oils begin to flow onto the board via brushes, paint scrapers and even sticks, and are often pushed around by the end of a finger, accentuating a colour here, or the full side of a hand, smoothing a tone there, to achieve the desired subtlety and balance.
He begins with bold black naive monochromatic lines, vaguely defining the shapes of the main elements of the landscape stretched before him. Ever conscious of the rapid movement of the shadows that traverse his visual plane in the late afternoon, he quickly blocks in the darks that form the basic colour modules and shapes of the major features in the frame.
His pace quickens, putting in the mid-tones, and keeping up with, and yet being ready to capture, the changing nuances of the all-important light as it brightens or relieves the higher profile elements now lit by the retiring sun.
Stepping back, and then, not unlike the animated leader of a great orchestra, he conducts the tonal ranges and features of his subject, mouthing and gesturing the changes needed to each element already gracing the surface.
Warily, he re-assesses his darks and mid-tones before looking to place the detail using the lighter end of his palette. Incredibly, extremely fine detail, like the white-water crested breaking waves in the middle distance, or the wispy roots of foreground vegetation, is captured exquisitely, with an uncanny accuracy, using the sharply honed front edge of an 8 cm paint scraper. A slight upward flick imparts instant movement to a feathering wave, and precise dabs of primary colours produce minute detail here and there.
Water and its movement, or lack of it, plays a major part in Ken Knight’s art, whether it be the iridescent electric blue of the Pacific Ocean that he masters so consistently, or the still, or slowly flowing, reflection charged river and lake waters endemic to this country. It may be the alluring waters of Sydney Harbour, or rivers like the Hawkesbury and the Murrumbidgee, or Lake Jindabyne. Wherever it is he nails it, right there in the open air.
The work is stopped for now, and waits for the other side of Ken’s artistic doppelganger psyche to appear. This takes place inside the studio, where he deals with matters of detail and other technicalities, such as formal composition and tonal ranges, all addressed in turn, drawing upon 30 year’s experience of making art.
Knight feels that sincere landscape artists like himself have an intrinsic interest in the well-being of the landscape. “Boyd, and Streeton in particular, have had long running battles on the side of the natural environment. It’s the emotional response to nature and our connection with it that is fundamentally important.”
The great impressionist works have been painted outside, where it is real and felt; like the sand between the toes, the relentless flies around the face, the heat or the cold, the moisture, or lack of it, in the air.
Knight says, “You can do things outside which, at times, are totally irrational when the flow of energy is given its freedom. But the revision in the studio is becoming more and more important to me”. In his studio it becomes more of a cerebral exercise, and abstraction may be further pursued by closing-out more detail. Shapes may be tidied up, lines and horizons may be straightened within the frame, or blended, or even completely eliminated.
“The exciting thing about painting outside is that it’s a bit like fishing – the next one might be the real winner.”
Knight completes his art utilising two mindsets: one for the outside and the other for the inside, where it’s all about revision, problem solving and design. Working in the studio at the end of a day, he is often reminded of a fellow artist who once remarked that an impressionist painting should always look like it could have one more brushstroke. And he freely admits that he doesn’t find the studio quite as engaging as “going bush”.
However, Ken Knight is not a loner, or an isolationist. His intense approach to landscape is always open to interpretation, collaboration and criticism from fellow artists. In 1995 and 1997 he was artist-in-residence at Arthur Boyd’s Bundanon on the Shoalhaven River. Boyd was one of his major influences, albeit more frequently by reference than in person.
Ken considers Boyd’s mid-1970s Wimmera landscapes among his best. “I think when Arthur Boyd got it right they were really incredibly good. He was a real picture maker, with so many chapters of his life to draw from.”
During the 1995 residency at Riversdale in Boyd’s old studio, he had the idea of asking Arthur about collaborating on a painting which he (Ken) had partially painted of a typical Boyd subject, a riverbank scene. To Ken’s amazement Arthur agreed and on one very late evening, alone, Boyd added his touches to Ken’s work; one of Boyd’s few physical collaborations with other artists that he put his name to.
And closer to home Ken Knight enjoys a long friendship with another landscape painter who was widely viewed as one of the leading traditional realist painters in the country in the mid 1980s. Robert Simpson lives near Sussex Inlet on the NSW South Coast and provides Knight with a haven for visits to talk about and review paintings, and for an interchange of ideas that according to both artists “is supercharged backwards and forwards” between them and the work.
Simpson dramatically changed direction pursuing an abstracted search for expressing the incongruous relationship between humankind and the environment. His intellectually charged symbolism and metaphors draw attention to the detrimental effects of society on the landscape.
Together they developed an idea of sticking small pieces of coloured magazine paper onto paintings under review as a non permanent way of visualising the changes being considered on the work.
Ken feels that it’s nice to have someone else’s opinion. “It’s essential, because it can take months to be objective about your own work and it often takes someone else, particularly an artist like Bob, to provide the key.”
Knight’s style is completely his own. He vigorously employs modern techniques and at times a most unusual kit of tools. His art displays his individual impressions in a style that has won National and International acclaim in Britain, Europe, and the US where he has exhibited extensively. He has earned numerous awards and prizes throughout Australia, including the $20,000 “Best of Show” award in the Herald Sun Camberwell Rotary Art Show.
“By reducing the landscape and abstracting its elements I enable the viewer to make an intimate interpretation of the image, and in this impressionist pursuit ‘less becomes more’. Outside, I observe, perceive, interpret and abstract, relying heavily on colour, perhaps the greatest of all tools.”
Ken Knight is a genuine Australian modern impressionist master producing sincere interpretations of the Australian landscape in the bold and subtle colours this country is known for, and loved by people throughout the world.
We can all be thankful for his “going bush” attitude to life and art – we are all the better for it.
Stan d’Argeavel BA MA (Visual Arts) ANU, Exhibition Coordinator