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Painting the Australian Outback

An Interview with Helen Gordon

Artist and educator Helen Gordon discusses her experience illustrating wild landscapes during a three month tour of the Austrailian outback.

Helen Gordon - My name is Helen Gordon. Currently I am living in Melbourne, Australia with my daughter and her partner. I returned to Australia last year after a 25 year career in international education, starting as a teacher but eventually taking on more senior management roles, the last three as school principal of international schools in Hanoi, Vietnam (ten years), Lagos, Nigeria (two years), and lastly The Netherlands (two years). I have lived and worked in Turkey and Botswana also. I am a creative person and over my life have used my creative talents to various ends, but have never really pursued any one discipline to any extent, as “the job” always got in the way.

I have a great deal of experience and talent in the area of garden design and creation. At one point many years ago, I had an award-winning garden here in Australia and designed gardens and advised on a number of private projects. When I returned last year, I had it in my head that I might set up a “small spaces” garden design business here in Melbourne. It was to this end that I acquired Concepts on my iPad Pro. I have a lot of experience with the Adobe Creative Suite, but was finding the Adobe apps limited compared with the full programs I had on my computer.

I was offered the opportunity to do some traveling in the Australian Outback in an RV with a male friend, and felt it was too good an opportunity to pass up. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. Although I have seen a great deal of the world, there is much of my own country that I haven’t explored. The wilder and less accessible regions are not places you would travel to on your own easily. The roads are all unsealed and almost impassable in places without a four-wheel drive and a lot of courage. And, in any case, it is so much more fun to have someone to share the experiences with.

Termite mound. Cape York Peninsula is covered in these, some as high as three metres.

Whilst I was school director in Holland, I lived in an apartment in a city called Zwolle. The winters were long, dark and cold, and it was during that time that I took up watercolour painting, closeting myself inside my apartment and producing mostly botanical paintings with a combination of paint and pen. When I set out on this recent trip, I packed brushes, paint and pens, planning to paint and write and read during the trip. And, of course, I had my iPad.

Quickly, I realized that setting up to paint was a hassle. Although we often parked for several nights at particularly gorgeous spots, the reality of no easel, packing up and putting away unfinished projects, storing wet canvasses, wind, etc… all this mitigated against much creative outflow. I was using Concepts to finish off a couple of garden designs and began to look a bit more closely at the app with a view to using it to draw and paint.

The places we camped at were so inspiring; I was writing every day about what I was seeing and feeling but wanting to engage with the landscape in a more emotional and intuitive way. The beauties of these wild places are manifold but what most engaged my attention were the skies. So huge and ever changing: sunrises and sunsets and clouds and full moons especially, and this backdrop of absolutely gorgeous colour behind the spare branches and limbs of our wonderful Australian indigenous trees.

Sunset at Iron Range National Park.

And so to Concepts. I began to play with the pen in particular, and the watercolour and airbrush. I have an iPad Pro with just 2GB of RAM and an Apple Pencil. We spent all of our time outdoors as the temperatures were always 25 to 35 degrees. Our outdoor furniture was simple canvas camping chairs, perfect for propping the iPad on my lap and going for it. Capturing the scenes in front of me provided me with endless hours of entertainment and, as I began to become more familiar with the app, my art works became more and more complex, until eventually on one of them, I got the dreaded “memory warning” pop up. By this stage, I was using lots of layers and lots and lots of the various tools, and having a blast. I checked the advice given and tried to save what I had made to transparent PNG, but my iPad just went into shutdown and I was confronted with a black screen.

On this trip there was almost no connectivity available to phone or internet. It is about as far out of touch as one can be on this planet. The next time I was back in connection, I emailed Concepts help and David saved the day for me. The advice was to save often to transparent PNG and re-import into a new project and keep going, which is what I did thereafter. I am not sure, but assume that after I asked Dave to adjust the app so that the memory warning came a bit earlier than it had been doing, this was fixed — as now when I get the memory warning there is time to save.

I found working on the iPad in Concepts perfect. The biggest drawback was becoming so engrossed with what I was doing that my iPad would run out of battery, and I would be so impatient waiting for it to charge up again so I could keep going!

A palm on Elim Beach.

We spent the three months mostly in the Cape York Peninsula (the pointy bit on the northeast of the map). Much of it is National Park or aboriginal reserve and there is very little sealed road. In the rainy season, much of it is completely inaccessible. In time this will undoubtedly change, and I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to have enjoyed it now. The area abounds in virgin country, water lily filled lagoons, an amazing array of bird and plant life, crocodile-infested waterways and plenty of other wildlife.

I am a keen photographer and took lots of photos, of course, but there is something much more intimate in both writing about and painting the landscape. When I started a painting, I took lots of photos of what I was seeing as well. This was helpful when we moved on and I was in the middle of a piece. One other app I found really useful was Adobe Capture. I would use it to get the RGB values of the colours in the sky or water or whatever, and key these into Concepts rather than using the Copic color wheel.

A mangrove tree on Elim Beach.

I have already shared some of my pieces with travelers that we met along the way. I am thinking of printing some of them and maybe mounting a small exhibition in a restaurant or gallery. It is early days yet. My next project is to do a series of doors that are in the small village of Lindos on the island of Rhodes in Greece. Pen and ink with splashes of colour of the bougainvillea that often spills over walls or sits by entranceways in huge pots. I am a regular visitor to that part of the world and the doors there are quite unique and stunning. Perhaps I could sell limited edition prints to the tourists who flood the island in the summer months! I also plan to return to drawing and painting some botanical pieces. And George and I are already planning more travel, both in Australia in the RV, and abroad. There will be some more garden designing, too, I am sure.

One thing is for sure, my iPad and Concepts will be traveling with me. Maybe not this iPad, though. I didn’t know I would be using Concepts when I acquired the iPad Pro at the end of last year. If I had, I would have bought the 4GB RAM model and saved myself a lot of grief. I love the app, love the fact that I can pursue my painting and writing on one device, and travel light. An iPad Pro, Concepts and a Kindle, what more could a girl want!

Journey into the Outback

We started our trip from Townsville on the QLD coast. Initially we headed southwest. We drove roughly 300 kilometres inland and then headed north, keeping well away from the coast and the tourists. We camped at a variety of spots like old gravel pits left over from road construction, or down narrow dirt tracks alongside mostly dry watercourses.

Gravel pit roadside camp in Central Queensland.

View from another roadside camp.

Early in the trip, we found ourselves beside a farmer’s dam, which in the wet season forms a large lake, Lake Louisa. We spent several days there. The place was all sky, and I sketched the silhouette of the skyline trees in black pen and created two different watercolour skies behind it on different layers.

Lake Louisa, a farmer’s dam which becomes a lake in the wet season.

Same pen work as the first of Lake Louisa, with a different sky.

After a brief trip through the Atherton Tablelands, which was overly full of regular tourists, we headed up to Lakefield National Park. Originally, all this country was comprised of huge cattle stations, and the crumbling remnants of some of the homesteads still stand. The Old Laura Homestead painting reflects this.

Old Laura Homestead at Lakefield National Park.

We camped on a number of different sites in this National Park, mostly by spring-fed lagoons full of indigenous water lilies, each one redolent with bird life both by the water and in the trees.

Lagoon near site of old Breeza homestead, Lakefield National Park, Cape York. These are Magpie geese.

Full moon at Lakefield.

After leaving Lakefield, we headed north and west to Weipa, a bauxite mining town on the coast of Cape York, mostly in pursuit of a decent supermarket and a caravan park with washing machines and showers. The surrounding areas have been and are still being devastated by the mining, so we only stayed as long as was necessary, and then headed North along the coast. We couldn’t actually access the beaches in the van, as the way in through the dunes was too much for the 2WD van, but we stayed a few nights and walked in.

Pennyfeather Beach, north of Weipa, western coast of Cape York Peninsula.

After this, we headed across the peninsula to the Iron Range National Park. Most of the peninsula is National Park or aboriginal lands. Iron Range has some of the best bird-watching in the world, but it is pretty inaccessible.

Lagoon on private Aboriginal land (Chuulangun) near Iron Range National Park.

Another scene from Chuulangun.

Again, a wonderful lagoon for a few nights, and then we headed to Chili Beach on the Eastern coast, via a few nights in a rainforest camp en route.

Chili Beach, Eastern Cape York.

After this we headed back to Iron Range through aboriginal lands, camping at various spots along the way. Again, lagoons and watercourses and wonderful skies.

Scrubby Creek Lagoon, Aboriginal land between Lockhart and Iron Range.

Lockhart, Eastern Cape York.

My inspiration for all of the paintings was really just the extraordinary beauty of the places — the textures, the colours, the huge diversity of the landscapes. We’d be camped in front of some of this for days and it just seemed perfect to be able to not only capture some of that magic in photos and writing, but also to engage with it in a more physical way. The iPad, the Apple Pencil and Concepts together proved to be just what I needed to do that.

The last part of the trip brought us back to an aboriginal reserve on the coast north of Cooktown, filled with mangroves, palms, twisted paperbark melaleucas and multi-coloured sand dunes.

Elim Beach, Aboriginal land north of Cooktown. Amazing multi-coloured sand dunes.

As the trip progressed and as I became more familiar and confident with the app, the artworks became more and more detailed. I am not sure this was an entirely good thing in terms of the finished product, more realistic and less impressionistic.

I am 66 years old and still learning. I have a lot of travel left in me and I just love the portability of the iPad and knowing that I can travel light and still be able to paint and draw to my heart’s content using Concepts. And write. What I do know is that life is short and we have to make the most of every single moment of it. We are never too old to embrace new places, new adventures and new technology. How much better can it be?

Helen with her daughter in Melbourne.

Helen Gordon is a recently retired international school principal and has spent the last 25 years working outside of Australia, mostly in developing countries. Over her lifetime, she’s pursued various creative endeavours, ranging from pottery to stained glass to painting and more. And she writes. Lots. She no longer wants to be employed in a full-time job but has way too much energy to be idle. She wants to contribute to others in a meaningful way and make every day count, she just has to figure out how to do this and travel and everything else all at once.

Interview by Erica Christensen


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