Cliff’s sketchbook

Artists are notoriously coy about letting people into their studios, especially other artists. Picasso was an outrageous bower bird, forever trying to get in to other artists’ studios, but cagey about letting them into his. It’s partly about protecting their intellectual property, but also to do with feeling exposed during the creative process.

Still, some artists are only too glad to welcome guests in to their studio. Far from feeling exposed, they want to share the creative process, and the reactions of their visitors become grist to the mill of creativity.

Tasmanian landscape painter, Clifford How, belongs to the latter category.

Well, at least he welcomed Charmaine and I into his studio where we got on extremely well, with Charmaine free to take as many shots of the studio and Cliff’s work as she liked.

Oil sketch

Perhaps we shouldn’t have been surprised by this laid-back attitude because Cliff, a floor-sander by trade, is an entirely self-taught painter. So, you could say he was spared the corrupting influence of art school. Apart from encouraging a certain preciousness, art schools can also burden students with the weight of the past, of convention.

For Cliff, art was a process of discovery. And that’s what it remains for him today.

I’m reminded of Baudelaire’s insight that art is driven by the desire to re-experience the perceptual immediacy of childhood. After a decade living in Melbourne and working at his trade, Cliff was drawn back to the Central Plateau of Tasmania where he grew up and he became obsessed with re-exploring that experience through painting.

He progressed from drawing through pastels to oils. He learned from books and from just doing it, arriving at an idiosyncratic approach using largely only a palette knife.

Oil sketch

Cliff’s moody alpine landscapes with their lakes and rivers proved to be very popular. Too popular, he decided, so he has changed location – to the heaving, dramatic coastline of Tasmania’s north-west Tarkine region whose character changes with the mercurial weather of Bass Strait.

His is a very process-oriented approach in which the painting has to discover what it wants to be. Indeed, the viewer also has to engage with this process because Cliff builds up a surface to become a matrix of marks, an almost abstract vision which the viewer needs to learn to read.

The process first involves drawings, then doing small-scale preliminary oil studies – when he does use a brush. Then he moves on to the endgame where the final stage involves some subtle, incisive stripping back of the surface to reveal earlier stages of the painting’s evolution. This not only generates a classic abstractionist push-pull effect to unify the surface, but effectively exposes the history of the painting’s making, thus emphasising that painting is a process – not just in the making, but also in the viewing.

Discussing work in progress

To walk into Cliff’s studio at the back of his house on the outskirts of Launceston is to enter the physical embodiment of this process. And the studio, which he built a little over three years ago, is crucial to his work, allowing him to work at a larger scale than before (up to 1.8 metres) as well as light control and the space to track the entire journey of each painting.

It’s all there – the sketchbooks, the oil studies, the paintings in progress and the artist’s armchair for those long periods of reflection.

Above all it’s his space, separate from the house, separate from the rest of life. It’s where he goes to work – and Cliff follows a strict regimen every weekday with no work on the weekends.

Oil sketch

But Cliff’s studio, like all artists’ studios – just savour Alexander Liberman’s wondrous 1960 book, The Artist in his Studio – is a microcosm of his artistic universe. The artist’s studio is not something that can be translated into words. It has to be experienced – and in the presence of the artist, because the artist’s absence takes away the spark that generates all those static presences (drawings, studies, works in progress, finished works, reference books, postcards) into a kind of riotous artistic family life.

Nb Clifford How will be exhibiting new work at the Arthouse Gallery, 66 McLachlan Avenue, Rushcutters Bay, Sydney, July 21 – August 7, 2021.