Interview with Pat Duncan

Interview with Pat Duncan

Pat Duncan was interviewed by Creativity Cluster facilitator Nancy Lane for the Melbourne City University of the Third Age (U3A) course Conversations with Artists on 3 August 2020. Excerpts from the interview follow, as well as photographs of the paintings that Pat mentions.

Pat Duncan with the acrylic version of her painting Lorne Beach
First, tell us a bit about your background.

I have lived in Williamstown since coming to Australia 33 years ago. Previously I lived in Edinburgh before embarking on a round-the-world trip, expecting to be away between a year and 18 months. However, after arriving in Melbourne 10 months later, I met my husband. Since then, I’ve called Williamstown home. I still haven’t made it to the Americas.

What role does your art play in your life now?

Since retiring from full-time work, art is a major part of my thoughts day and night, as it is part of the world around me. I can’t help but take photos of any subject that I see, which is potentially a future painting. I have photos from all over Europe, taken on our frequent holidays there. Examples of places I’ve painted are a Cinque Terre village and Provence vineyard.

When I am in the middle of painting I keep coming back to the process and considering how I can improve on what I’ve already done.

What medium do you work in and what drew your interest to that medium?

I mainly work in oils. They have a vibrancy of colours and are easily blended. They can also be applied thicker or thinner.

When I took up painting after a very long break, I used some cheap acrylic paints on canvas. I found it difficult to get the paint off my brush and onto the canvas. My first small acrylic painting on canvas board was a success, but did not truly show its colours until varnished.

When I unpacked my old oil paints from Scotland, they were still useable enough to get me restarted with oils. Since then I am happy with the colours, and depth of colour, that I can achieve with oil paint. I get excited when I buy a new colour, such as the Indigo tube I bought before painting Doubtful Sound from a photo I took on a recent trip.

What techniques do you use?

I am fairly extravagant with paint, but can afford to be as my tubes seem to last forever – although I haven’t mastered painting with a palette knife yet. I waste paint on my palette, which I usually clean off before the next session. Through experience I have learned that reusing ‘saved’ paint is just too difficult. I sometimes paint miniature canvases with the paint left over on my palette. These small paintings suit mini easels, which are easy to display on a shelf or sideboard.

When I want to replicate a colour or tone I used previously, I remember the base colours and re-combine them using trial and error. My colour adjustment is good. A mentor once taught me to change the tone by binary division, that is, halving the colour, adding white to one half in an equal amount, then halving the result and so on till I find the tone I want. This can be done with any two colours, not necessarily with white. I tend to stay away from a solid colour.

If the background is dark shadow, I will paint a solid colour, then layer it with dark tones of a complementary colour such as dark green or dark red. These colours are hardly visible in the final painting, but give the background depth. You can see this in the works I am currently painting: Medlars has a dark background tinged with reds, and Asparagus is tinged with dark greens. These images show the unfinished paintings.

What is a typical day’s work in your creative process?

I find it very difficult to take myself to my studio and get started on a piece, or to pick up a painting that I have already started. I am easily distracted with other activities, such as tidying up the studio or staying in my warm kitchen baking or making marmalade. If I have company, even downstairs in the garage, I find it easier to concentrate and keep motivated until the painting takes over.

My days for painting are very limited. Usually I go to the studio, tidy up, then set up the paints and the canvas I am working on. I paint as much of the canvas as I can without going over the paint that is still to dry.

Most of the time I can manage between 2 to 4 hours of painting. I thought with isolation, I would be able to devote more time to painting. It hasn’t worked that way, however, as all the other parts of life demand more time as well.

Where does your inspiration come from? Where do you get your ideas?

Inspiration comes from the things I see. It can be a landscape, a particularly beautiful flower arrangement or a bowl of fruit. Sometimes it is a painting I have seen in a gallery or in a magazine, such as the Asparagus and Medlars still life.

Motivation and inspiration are two different feelings. Motivation can be duty, having deadlines or feeling that I am close to completion. Inspiration is seeing a landscape or a composition which takes me there, either for the memory or the challenge involved in replicating it. Inspiration gets me started on a new painting or series of paintings. My ideas for new paintings are generally random and can start with a photo and memory of somewhere I have been.

I focused on Victorian birds a few years ago after painting a group of terns at water’s edge. This led to a series of birds on 20x20cm plywood boards.

How did you get to your current techniques?

Generally I do not draw outlines on my canvas. I prefer to put the paint straight onto the canvas and manipulate it from there, adding more colours or highlights and adjusting the proportions. I have tried to use more paint to give more texture to a painting, but find that it is possible to obtain texture visually rather than physically.

By chance I recently painted a landscape in acrylic as a quick demo for a workshop I was giving in Geelong. It was not finished, but the basics were there. At home I finished it by going over it with oil paint. The very first photo with this interview is of me with the acrylic painting of Lorne Beach. Scroll down to see the finished version that I painted over in oil. Can you notice the differences?

What are the challenges for your creative process?

The challenges are to finish a work, never to get discouraged and always to get back to the work if something isn’t working out. In the making of art, I am always looking for a style that is mine. I’m not there yet and I’m still experimenting with techniques.

I’m easily distracted with other creative pursuits, such as using different mediums (such as water colours or alcohol ink) and silk painting, making scarves for friends. An alcohol ink painting that I tried in Geelong in a class taught by Deidre Ogilvie was not a success for me, but I recently bought alcohol ink pens. I used these to ‘paint’ the glass shards in the De-Construction/Re-Construction exhibition, now on the Creativity Cluster website. A few from the exhibition are pictured here: Trumpeter, Cymbalist and Creature

Do you try to convey ideas with your work? How does your art relate to who you are?

I tend not to comment with my work. It takes a while to complete a painting, and ideas and political commentary are too transitory to be relevant for long. Keeping on a theme for too long also gets boring and tiring.

An exception to this is the themes our Creativity Cluster group sets. Working to a theme leads me to convey an idea within the theme. These themes or titles change for each exhibition. I think the creative interpretation of the theme is what defines my art.

How do you market your work?

I don’t sell commercially, that is, online. The reason for this is that it takes a lot of time and incurs on-going costs. I have a platform to show my art in various exhibitions, on Instagram and on the Creativity Cluster website.

I do not treat my art work as a job, because to make a living from art I would have to put in the equivalent of a 5-day week. It would include making cards, prints, advertising, posting daily input to social media and entering competitions.

I enjoy exhibiting my work. Most work that I exhibit is for sale. Generally I am reasonably happy with my completed work. Any criticism I take on board to consider with new pieces.  

What parts of your past art would you keep and what would you let go?

There are a few pieces that are personal, such as a portrait and a painting of a Thunderbird car, both done as a labour of love for my husband. Those featuring friends I will eventually gift to them. These include Walking the Dog at Ocean Grove and Tide Going Out at Wye River.

Those paintings that bring back dear memories of Scotland are pieces which I will keep, including those of Pittenweem, Barra and Luskentyre.

I have painted some specifically to hang on my walls. I will tire of some of these and will eventually put them in exhibitions for sale. We have also had regular holidays to Europe and visits to Scotland when I have gifted many of my paintings to friends.

About how often and where do you exhibit?

I exhibit quite regularly. Past exhibitions have included the following:

  • Two each year with Creativity Cluster
  • Various exhibitions with Hobsons Bay Art Society
  • Annual exhibitions by the Melrose Art Group in North Melbourne or Kensington
  • Art in Public Places, which was held every second year.
  • Rotary exhibitions
  • In other galleries, including Brunswick St Gallery (BSG), Linden Art Gallery and local coffee shops.
Can you describe the art you think you will be making in three years’ time.

I am lucky to be one of the Creativity Cluster artists. Over the last two years, I have experienced a different way of approaching my art. Nancy Lane – our leader, curator and fellow artist – has stimulated and encouraged us and challenged us to produce art to a theme. Each theme needs thought and a degree of creativity in the concept. It has shaken me from my easygoing attitude to the work I do.

The Creativity Cluster website, which our group has set up during this Covid era, shows how our exhibition on the theme De-Construction/Re-Construction has evolved for each of the artists. I used several different mediums in this exhibition, including oil on a recycled wooden door, oil on hardboard, watercolour on paper and alcohol ink on glass shards.

I’d like to practise more with watercolour paintings, which are easier to paint in a casual setting, such as on holiday or at the kitchen table. I’d also like my oil paintings to become freer and more impressionistic. In three years, I hope to be devoting even more time to painting.

Cinque Terra village
Provence vineyard
Doubtful Sound, New Zealand
Four images from the Victorian birds series
Lorne Beach, painted over in oil
Walking the Dog at Ocean Grove
Tide Going Out at Wye River
Pittenweem, Scotland
Barra, Scotland
Luskentyre, Scotland