double self portrait howard taylor phenomena

artist : interview with howard taylor

Howard Taylor interviewed by James Murdoch in 1986 for the Australia Council Archival Art Series

I really took to flying, partly because I had been very interested in model airplane making and aircraft design from the age of about twelve. As I got more involved in it I found that you could actually design airplanes on approved principles - aerodynamic principles - and that really intrigued me. The school was of some benefit to me there because you had quite complicated formulas, and I was happy to be able to work mathematically, draw, calculate, design on a drawing board then make - make the job and fly it, and see how it went according to your design. I think the ones I enjoyed most were the gliders, simply because they soared so beautifully. And if you were lucky - if you got an up current - they just went up, like a hawk, out of sight. That gave me a lot of satisfaction.

So there I was in prison camp. It gave me time to reflect, which I hadnít done previously. My five years in prison camp were a most important period in my life artistically, because thatís when I accepted the fact that I might head that way. I spent a lot of my time drawing. There were a few blokes there that had been to art school, and they were helpful. All in all it convinced me that was what I wanted to do after the war.

On getting discharged I managed through a fellow prisoner of war - actually the camp padre - to organise a two-year study grant in Birmingham. I wasnít taking a course, and the benefit was that I could use the art school just as I wished. I could attend life class as I wanted, and some quite good blokes there could help me, but I spent as much time out in the country painting as I did at art school. And I still got my three quid a week.

I have always been a fan of Constable, and I could see lots of Constables and Samuel Palmers and works by other artists involved with nature, and they became quite important to me. So landscape seemed to be my direction when I came back to Australia. Of course there was a very marked change from the landscape Iíd become used to, and I was most impressed by how the sun flattening everything out. No clouds, burnt trees - quite different.


Painting the Australian landscape involved a big change for me, and another change was that I soon got more involved in tempera painting. Of course if you paint in tempera you become engaged in a highly disciplined technique. Youíve got your dry pigment, you have your egg, you have your laboriously prepared panel - youíve got to plan right from the beginning. In fact you are designing - designing the whole painting program right from getting your raw material together. I put that down as one of the most important periods of my life. I painted for up to ten years in that vein and learnt more about the technique of rendering pictorial qualities than I had from oil painting, simply because you had to plan.

A lot of the tempera paintings were worked out in quite a detailed sculptural sort of way, so you could take a painting and make a sculpture of it. Thatís where the sculpture started coming into my painting. It led me to actually make things. Some of them were painted because I liked the colour-plus-sculpture combination, so I found myself in a situation where painting and sculpture were mixing together. At that stage, early on, I could make a piece of sculpture and then make a painting of it. It meant you shifted to a different way of thinking, because youíre going into a two-dimensional surface but youíre concerned with space and structure still. Thatís something thatís been going on all my life really - the interrelation of sameness, of sculpture and painting, in respect to nature. It all comes back to nature. I have never been very interested in the figure.

I found my work with architects most interesting. In the early stages, around the 1960s, it was rather difficult because it wasnít a practice that was well established here. A few buildings had small things on the walls outside - something decorating the building in an ornamental sort of a way - but there was no serious attempt to combine the work of the architect and the artist. This was partly because it was not considered appropriate to pay an artist enough money to turn out a major job.


Sculpture depends entirely on your material. Iíve found that one of the most straightforward materials is wood. Itís so durable even when itís placed outside - if you work big enough, woodís going to endure for a few hundred years if itís looked after. Iíve done some in the last ten years on a significant scale, and the beauty is that the funds go into labour. All I need is a chainsaw, axes and a healthy helper, with some machinery occasionally - bulldozers to move the heavy stuff. So you have practical problems, but wood is more straightforward. With other modern materials - concrete, metal and so on - you have to go to industry because you canít cope with it and you havenít got the specialised knowledge thatís required. But working in wood youíre using simple cutting tools.

One valuable gain in working directly from nature is that you acquire greater sensitivity about light and seeing generally. I believe that even if you work very abstractly, in a minimal sort of a way, youíre still drawing on your experience of life - the physical business of seeing and the more subjective one of feeling. In other words you acquire skill; you improve your perception by cultivating this looking thing. The danger is often that you produce works from previous work. Although thatís allowable to a certain degree, I donít think you can go on and on that way. Youíve got to refresh yourself now and again. My concern with light is in my drawings, itís in my paintings; itís in my sculpture, because they are simple forms depending on just the play of light. In fact at the moment Iím trying to paint light.

Some of my early Ďlightí works relied on optical illusion to give you a feeling of concavity, convexity and depth. Later on I got into some bigger ones where I attempted to get large enough and deep enough to envelop the viewer in a more physical, tangible sense. Although they rely on the light enormously, they donít depend on it quite so much because of that size, and I think thatís one way of beating the problem of light - to go so big that one is swamped by the piece rather than viewing it as an object.

Overall I find that Iím using any means available to me to express my relationship with nature. I donít separate out painting from sculpture: I combine the two. I donít separate out non-figurative work from figurative work: I can work in both modes as necessary. Because Iím involved with nature, light becomes perhaps my greatest concern. It can be rendered with colour or without colour, but it pervades the whole of the work. I am just using what I can to say intelligibly what I feel, and achieve some form of excellence - which is rather an old-fashioned word perhaps - achieve some sort of excellence in doing it.

Howard Taylor 1986