The National Art School is proud to launch its new Drawing Gallery with an exhibition of drawings and works on paper by Guy Warren AM, NAS Alumnus, Fellow and esteemed artist.
The exhibition From the Mountain to the Sky: Guy Warren Drawings runs from 17 April – 22 May 2021. It explores the artist’s primal urge to draw and the diverse ways he makes his mark. The exhibition pays tribute to the artist’s great contribution to Australia’s visual culture, and a lifetime of creativity based on drawing.
Guy Warren was interviewed by National Art School Archivist and Collections Manager Deborah Beck, in November 2020, in his studio in Greenwich, Sydney.
D: I’ve been looking at your very early drawings, can you remember what made you want to draw?
G: I have always remembered drawing. It must have been shortly out of Kindergarten, I have always wanted to make marks. That’s what it’s all about, drawing is about making marks. I think making marks is a primal urge, something people have wanted to do ever since someone picked up a burnt stick and made a mark on a cave wall. The trouble is he went on from there and some other idiot said, ‘Hey mate, if you put some ears and a tail on that it will look like those animals out there you keep chasing every day.’ And people began looking at the landscape and making marks that defined their position in the world, but the original idea of making a mark is such a primal thing, both abstract and human at the same time. A need everybody has always had to make a mark on a flat surface.
When you started at The Bulletin, had you had any training in drawing?
What do you think when you look back at those drawings?
I got called up for three months of [army] training, then let go again. By the end of three months the Japanese were bombing the hell out of Darwin and I thought I should join up for good or ill. I was working at The Bulletin, a lot of people were coming in with cartoons and caricatures because that was part of the character of the paper. I saw them coming in, going into the editor’s office, heard roars of laugher, saw them come out with a cheque in their hands and then go to the pub next door, I thought maybe that’s something I could do. So I started giving the art editor cartoons and caricatures of my own, they were all terrible but he didn’t say anything, he was a very kind man. Then one day he wasn’t kind and showed me how I should have done it. Then he grabbed me by the arm, took me out of the office up George Street and around the corner to an old building there, and pushed me through the swing doors into a big open space. There was one bloke there, a fellow called J.S. Watkins, a trustee of the Art Gallery who ran a little school of his own. The guy from The Bulletin said teach this kid to draw and left me there. So I booked up for one night a week; next year I had a bit more money so booked up for two nights a week; then finally Saturday afternoons as well. It was very basic study, he didn’t believe in plaster casts, thought everyone should immediately draw from the body. At 15 that was a bit of shock but I managed to survive, but it was a very ‘put down what you see’ study, no one talked about art. It was very much learning to draw what you could see but he did insist that you didn’t paint immediately, that you drew for a long time, then you painted in black and white only for a year before he allowed you to go on to oils.
I joined the AIF and they didn’t sent me away immediately, we were held in Australia for quite a while. I got leave now and then and would go to sketch club and draw. I drew in the army a bit, much more in New Guinea, possibly because it was a more fascinating place. So I’m grateful to have the skills to do it.
I was a couple of years in Australia before they sent me from Brisbane to Lae. In New Guinea I bumped into Tom Thompson and drew with him and one or two others. I was very grateful, as I am indeed now, to be able to do something when everyone else was bored out of their minds. Most blokes in the army when they were bored played cards – I could draw them playing cards or doing whatever they were doing, it’s an enormous benefit. I found that during the Covid lockdown too – as one artist said to me, artists are always locked down.
I’d never been north of Newcastle so I hadn’t seen any rough country but New Guinea is a land of jungle, everything is bigger and better, the growth is bigger, mountains are higher, mud is thicker, the insects are bigger, everything is on an immense scale, everything is visually overwhelming. I just liked it, I fell in love with rainforest; something to do with the lushness of it and in a funny sort of way, the jungle itself is like a drawing because it’s full of texture, full of vertical forms and linear marks that wind their way through the jungle. All these vines look like drawings in three dimensions, like the rushing streams, the whole ambience of the jungle.
Why did you go to art school?
Because the government in its wisdom, and I’m very grateful to them, declared all service men and women, if they had started a course and had to terminate it because of war, allowed them to go back and finish it. Or if you hadn’t been in a course and wanted to go to university or a course of some sort, you were allowed to do so at the government’s expense, as long as the institution wanted to take you, so I opted to go to art school. I took in my work from New Guinea in the army, they took a look at that and said yes OK. The only problem I found was when I did get into East Sydney Tech [now the National Art School] the painting courses were full so I had to go into an illustration course. I found that very boring and old fashioned and I kept visiting the guys in the painting department, some of whom I already knew, I thought that was more fun and that’s what I wanted to do. So I badgered the head of school until he let me go in.
Did you participate in any social events at the school?
Only the annual party at the Trocadero, the artists ball, everybody dressed up.
How important was drawing in the course?
Immensely important. I have no idea what NAS is like now on a day to day basis but in those days, it was very much a ‘look and put down’ course. You painted what you saw, it was very much a realist course. Do you still have anatomy and perspective? They did in those days. It was based on the old European tradition of what an art school should be, there was no discussion of what was happening in the rest of the world, there wasn’t even a library when I first went there, it started about a year later. There was little discussion except amongst students about Art with a capital A, it was very much about learning how to draw and paint and some of the art teachers had themselves been in the forces, ex-soldiers or navy, most of the students were ex-servicemen in the painting class of about 12 people. To my astonishment, I can’t remember ever asking them about where they served or what their experiences were. I think everybody was so damned glad to be out of it and doing what we wanted to do, everyone was looking forward and not looking back.
How did you meet Joy?
I met her doing my tenure at the army. Joy had been working with a firm as an assistant to an advertising manager, he turned out to be my lieutenant, and unlike any other army I know, we became friendly and talked about art and he thought every young man should be married and invited me to dinner one night with his assistant. I couldn’t imagine that happening in the British Army or any other army, only the Australian Army could a lieutenant … I had one stripe, I was lowest of the low, one step up from a private, I can’t imagine why he would have invited me. a) because he wanted to talk about art and b) because he wanted to see me married to his assistant.
Did Joy study art?
She had studied ceramics at the National Art School and then when we went abroad after we married she studied again in London but she’d always been interested in art, we went out and did drawings together, she drew as well. Somewhere I’ve got some drawings of hers, she wasn’t as skilful as she could have been but any study she did was part-time, so she never benefited from slogging days of drawing day after day. Joy studied under the head of ceramics course at NAS, Molly Douglas, I bought a Molly Douglas coffee set as a wedding present for her.
After you finished art school you went overseas, can you tell us about your time in London?
Everybody wanted to go overseas, it was the thing one did. I got a job for 12 months after I left Tech with the National Art School, earnt just enough money to pay for a return boat fare. The object was to go over for 18 months and come back, instead of which we started having a family and came back eight years later with two kids. London in the 1950s was fantastic, it was just after the war, everything was beginning to work again, all the galleries were opening again, the artists were beginning to show again, not just British but French, German, Italian, American, so the place was buzzing with everyone trying to forget the past and, once again, look to the future. It was so different from the National Art School, which as I said before had been very much a technical school – after all, the tech came from a technical background. So it was very much about learning how to draw and paint, but ideas weren’t discussed to any great degree. Well, here I was in London, bombarded with art and ideas, people were doing the most extraordinary things and I found it tremendously exciting. The first of the American abstract expressionists were showing in London, the first show was at the American Embassy which I saw, and the next show was at the Tate, they were mindblowers, and for the first time I realised there were dimensions beyond what I had been doing at East Sydney Tech. I think my mind was liberated and I found myself doing things that I wouldn’t have thought of doing two years before.
The only problem is I had to get a job so I got various jobs doing odd, funny things – delivering parcels for the post office, as a clerk briefly, working at a frame makers where a lot of other art students were working, one of whom was Fred Williams, and an American artist, the guy who painted everything in blue.
There was a group of artists there working as dogsbodies in the framing department, and I was trying to paint in my spare time, which was always difficult of course. I was drawing then, I was trying to come to terms with London and London times, which was totally different to Australia, the landscape was different. I couldn’t – I did a bit of drawing landscape, did a bit of painting the landscape but it didn’t mean anything to me because it wasn’t my landscape, it wasn’t my land, I didn’t understand it. I tried to paint and draw London, a few drawings of London I’ve got somewhere. They were just interesting, not more than that. Out of desperation I think I started to draw and paint my memories of New Guinea and that was worthwhile. It’s a pretty peculiar thing to do, to be in the middle of London and paint memories of New Guinea but it seemed like a good idea at the time. So that’s how it started and you know the story, we had a little black-and-white television set, some bloke had been to Mt Hagen in the highlands of New Guinea and had made a film of the Mt Hagen dance festival, indigenous people from all over the South Pacific come to Mt Hagen for this festival and they have the most wonderful decorations – mud and masks and feathers, branches of trees, and god knows what, wonderfully inventive, and I thought because I’ve been drawing the indigenous people of New Guinea, I was always fascinated by the fact that if you gave them anything they would immediately decorate themselves with it, put in in their hair or on their body in some way. The Australian Comforts Fund sent up tins of talcum powder which they thought might help with skin disease – nobody ever used them but one day I didn’t have anything to pay this big black bloke I was drawing so I gave him a tin of talcum powder, and he immediately emptied the talcum powder into his hand and drew, made his own drawings on his own body and I thought god that’s marvellous, these great white marks on this big black body. And I kept thinking of things like that, it seemed to me to be almost, the way they decorated themselves became I thought a metaphor for belonging to the land, because the land itself was so incredibly rich and varied and textured and colourful, that by decorating themselves they were almost making a statement – maybe it was a romantic idea – but I thought it was a nice statement about belonging. And then we saw this documentary on the BBC, so I wrote to them and said could I buy some of your stills because you must have had a still photographer there too. I finally got a call on the phone, I think what happened was somebody had received the letter I sent, thought, ‘Here’s a nut, some bloke painting New Guinea in the middle of London’, and passed it on to someone else, and someone else. I finally got a phone call from somebody who was interested in what I was doing and might be able to help me and introduced himself over the phone, ‘My name is David Attenborough, and would you like to come over for a drink?’ When I went around for a drink, he wouldn’t give me any photographs but he lent them to me and I did a lot of drawing from his photographs and that led to a lot of paintings. The paintings don’t seem to have ceased, there are paintings I see here now that are about New Guinea which were done a few weeks or a few months ago, so it’s constant, it keeps reoccurring.
The symbols that developed over your life – trees, mountains, tree fern woman – started in New Guinea. Can you talk about your relationship with the landscape when you came back to Australia?
Oddly enough the first thing we did when we came back, after finding a flat of some sort, the next thing we did was to get a battered old bomb of a car and Joy and I went down the south coast somewhere. We went up that road that goes from the coast up through the mountains to Robertson and I found myself in the middle of a rainforest, and I found myself stopping the car and getting out and going into the rainforest and drawing these lines, these lianas wandering all over the place, and I think that excited me. Landscape drawing per se is not a passion for me. There’s a long tradition of landscape painting in this country that has lasted much, much longer than any other country I know of, but I think once again it gets back to New Guinea and my reading of the attitudes of the South Pacific peoples who have always seen themselves as being part of the land and the land is part of them, it’s a binding of humanity and the land, and I don’t think Europeans have ever really felt like that. We have our great landscape painters and there have been some marvellous ones, but they always thought of the landscape as separate from themselves, something we look at or admire or use but not as part of themselves.
Tell us about your drawing practice, how you go from sketches up to your larger works?
I’ve been going out into the country in the last few years with a few friends, particularly to the centre, to Alice Springs and I draw onsite a lot. I enjoy it, I don’t paint onsite – why don’t I? I don’t know. It’s becoming more difficult for me to work onsite physically but I like drawing onsite, that’s easy so I’ve got hundreds of sketchbooks and I browse through them. In fact I’ve just been browsing through a sketchbook I’d forgotten about, I had when Joy and I went to the Northern Territory in 1998 so it’s 20-odd years old and I found things I’d forgotten and they just sparked a way of taking these drawings in another direction, so I’ve been developing those on canvas. So they’re no longer drawings, they’re a spark or an idea for canvasses that are yet to come. I do watercolours onsite and gauche onsite but I don’t take canvasses, it’s too difficult.
You started teaching late in life, did you teach drawing?
I taught very briefly at the National Art School, for about a term, I can’t remember what year it was now, and then I got a full-time job which I hated but I needed the money. I’ve spent my life being impetuous, taking a job until I earnt some money and then got so fed up with the job I couldn’t bear it any longer and then leaving so I could paint, and then painting for a period until I had no more money and then finding another job. It’s not the best way of living necessarily but it’s allowed me to keep on painting.
What do you think of drawing in contemporary art? You were the first to do a huge drawing in the sky?
I think my paintings are largely about mark making and mark making is drawing, and I still find it fascinating to have a sheet of paper in front of me and put a mark on it. As soon as you put a mark on it, you establish one big pattern with another big negative mark and then the question is, what do I do on the rest of that space to activate that space and make it look exciting? So you put another mark on and that makes other shapes, other negative spaces, what the hell do you put on that to make those spaces activate and look exciting? So it’s about that business – it’s a game, but it’s an exciting game and I’ve always loved it.
When I was working at Sydney College of the Arts, I had a year off and was able to go to New York for a while and when I came back, I was asked if I would like to go down and use Arthur Boyd’s studio at Bundanon, long before he gave it to the nation, so it was an empty building, the old stone building, with no other buildings around there at all. I was there on my own working in Arthur Boyd’s studio, Joy used to come down on weekends, and the studio is really quite small and once you closed the door, you really were in a cell but there was skylight above, and a big black bird used to come every day and bash itself on the skylight, it was trying to get in, and I felt there was a strange anomaly here, I was in a cell and couldn’t get out and here was this creature trying to get in. I started drawing this creature against the skylight, that didn’t lead to anything and I returned to Sydney and by that time we’d bought a little block of rainforest down the south coast, and our next-door neighbour, it was because of him we bought our block, a sculptor called Bert Flugelman, also a product of NAS. Bert is the sort of guy who used to take chances, he was very inventive, he took risks in his own life, not just his work. And at the same time I found hang-gliders leaping from the cliffs above our block of land and I thought that was dangerous, so I started drawing them, and then hang-gliders of course have wings and they become birds and I didn’t want them to look like angels but they have that connotation as well, I guess because every culture in the world has flying creatures in its repertoire of images. So they started off as birds, they became about taking chances and leaping into space without being sure of what will happen when you land and somehow became a bit like Bert because Bert took chances all the time and fell flat on his face but would always pick himself up and start again. He challenged me to do a portrait of each other, so I thought I’d like some way of commenting on his character, so that’s when I put my winged creature behind him because by that time it had become the idea of taking risks and that of course immediately makes one think of Icarus and his escape from King Minos. That was about taking risks too, so it was all about that.
Doing the huge drawing in the sky, where did that come from?
It came about because the bloke who ran the gallery at COFA, Nick Waterlow, rang me one day and said he was going to do an exhibition on drawing, and was asking us to question what drawing was and to extend the idea of drawing and is there a way to push it further. I thought of several things I could have done, but thought hell, why not use my drawing of Icarus, the winged creature? The obvious place for Icarus to be is in the sky. So I got out the Yellow Pages phone book and looked through page after page looking for someone who could do sky writing. Finally after going through about a dozen people, I found myself talking to a bloke on the Gold Coast who had his own plane and had done a lot of skywriting, so I explained what I wanted to do and sent him lots of drawings.
He did some trials up on the Gold Coast, photographed them and sent me the photographs. I thought they were superb, exactly what I wanted so I agreed to let him do it. So on the day of the opening of the show, he was to fly down to Sydney and at 12 o’clock that day he was to do the drawing over Sydney Harbour. He rang me that morning and said there’s no way, it’s going to be a rainy day.
So this went on for another 10 days I think, it rained like today, it was rainy and grey, no way we could have done it. And then suddenly one day, I was on the phone to him every morning about 5 or 6 o’clock, one morning he said it’s going to be sunny over Sydney today, and then more rain after that, so if we want to do it we’d better do it today. So I said OK, let’s go for it. So we all gathered down at Mrs Macquarie’s Chair and at 12 o’clock nothing happened. We looked at the sky and there was nothing there. At about 10 past 12 a little white spot appeared in the sky, you couldn’t see the plane, it was just a white spot. And then that white spot suddenly became a body, and suddenly wings appeared on the body and it was magical, it really was. The drawing was about three or four kilometres in size. It was just there and you couldn’t see the plane except when it turned and the light flashed on it. It was quite magical and I was enormously impressed with him and his skills because he explained to me later, he drew the body first then he had to add the wings, but you can’t add wings to what you’ve already done because you fly through it and disperse it. So he had to fly 300 feet above or below it, and they all matched exactly! It was brilliant, absolutely bloody brilliant! [Guy laughs] So I was very grateful for that.
So the winged man is a metaphor for leaping into space, of taking risks, escape, it’s all these things, of doing something different. Oscar Wilde wrote a small stanza poem:
“Never regret thy fall, Icarus of the fearless flight
For the greatest tragedy of all, is never to have felt the burning light.”
And that’s what it’s about, it’s about that burning light. And that’s the dumb thing about art, if only one could turn the bloody light off occasionally, but one can’t.
Now you’re in your 100th year…
I know! I never thought I’d make it.
How do you feel about your life? Do you feel you’ve achieved…?
No, I’ve started much too late. I didn’t start showing in Australia until I was 40 after I returned from London, I should have started much, much earlier. Most people start when they’re 25 and I think many people do their most exciting work when they’re 25.
I wish I’d started younger, I wish I’d married a rich woman, I wish I’d come from a rich family, I wish I hadn’t had to earn money every now and then. I’ve had a lot of fun, I don’t have any regrets about it. I’m utterly delighted I’m an artist and not a bank manager. No, no real regrets, it’s a great life and I would do it all over again.
Do it again to 200!