Soul of the Tree

Trees - being definitive on a philosophy of art practice

(Still under construction - some graphics are added here but not all images referred to will be displayed- Re-edited 2006 by Dan Byrnes. Denoted page numbers refer to the original print version of this text.)


Introduction - 3-4

Chapter One - Search for a New Identity 5-7

Chapter Two - Soul-Searching 8 - 9

Chapter Three - Artistic Influences 10-16

Chapter Four - Documentation and Studio Practice 17-24

Chapter Five - Book of Trees 25-26

Conclusion - 27-28

Footnotes - 29

List of Plates - 30

Bibliography - 31

(This document is a version of Phillip Russell's Honours thesis [2004] in Fine Arts)


In my Honours programme I have addressed several inter-related issues. The first is a review of Australian landscape painting, from the time of the Heidelberg school, through the Modernists to some present-day practitioners. Secondly, an evaluation of the relevance of landscape painting as such in Australian post-modernist society; and lastly, the resurgence of an important movement in painting expressing, in many and varied forms, the spiritual energy and power inherent in nature itself.

My theory paper will explore the romantic, iconic view of the Australian eucalypts and the rural imagery of the landscape, as depicted through the [Melbourne-based] Heidelberg School.

The responsibility of constructing an official national identity fell mainly to these painters; to capture and to interpret the majestic gums and the mythology of the landscape. This enabled people to have an affiliation with the bush, but it was a connection on a superficial level, made with very little understanding of the true nature of the landscape. The scraggly limbs of the gum trees, which are mere decoration in the paintings, give them a picturesque ambience: The wilderness is tamed, and the romantic and the mythological is presented at the expense of real knowledge of the landscape. In addition, any interaction between the traditional custodians of the land, the Aboriginals, and the land was not considered in 19th Century landscape painting.

In the early 1940s, this perception and attitude towards Australian landscape painting changed, with the emergence of Nolan and Drysdale. They paved the way for a far more individual and naturalistic way of viewing the native Australian bush, which later allowed artists like Fred Williams and others to exploit these opportunities. Concurrently, Aboriginal art was no longer considered museum art, but was recognised as a valid art form.

My aim is to develop the spiritual aspect of the tree and the landscape. This would be achieved through a series of paintings and drawings, each one documented in a written form in a journal as part of my research paper

Most cultures have, from ancient times, expressed a spiritual connection between themselves and nature. In today's increasingly urbanised environment, however, many people have become disconnected from nature and this spiritual connection. Although many people enjoy urban parks, many others have little contact with nature, and have become, I believe, spiritually estranged from the natural world.

This will increasingly become the case as cities expand, and I think that ways to incorporate the natural world into city landscapes will be essential, as well as the preservation of large pockets of land outside the cities where people can be amidst nature in a way that does not impact on the environment in a detrimental way. This interaction with nature is essential for the physical, mental and spiritual health of people.

I see my role as informing and educating people about the spirituality of the natural world, incorporating holistic and integrated theories about Gaia - the living earth.

I intend to achieve this through a naturalistic series of paintings, followed by a more abstract series. The final works will show the effects of global warming and the destructive effect it is having on how waterways and our ecosystems function. The effects of drought and the appalling conditions of the land, which have appeared frequently in photographic form in newspapers, inspired me to create a tryptic as a vehicle to display my inner feelings on the carnage being wreaked on the earth.

Chapter 1 - Search for a new identity

The depiction of the Australian landscape in painting of the 19th century by the Heidelberg School clung to the European tradition of representing nature: An interpretation reflecting the conservative views of the day. The landscape was often depicted as rolling hills, open grass fields and well-placed eucalypts, and via the deification of light 1. (With the new middle-class out for a Sunday stroll.) With its high tones of blue and gold, it stamped its authority and style as "identity art". (3). This Australian pastoral concept of landscape fitted well with a newly-occupied country, which had recently been tamed through extensive logging. The original landscape had been transformed into a sort of arcadia. So began the mythologising of the Australian bush.

By the 1930s, the conservative values of the past and the academic naturalists, as the traditional painters of the day were referred to, were being swept away by a new group known as The Modernists. Their aim was to break the mould of these visual clichés, which had denied artistic freedom, to a more democratic art form. The 1940s saw the emergence of new and dynamic artists, such as Nolan, Tucker, Boyd and Drysdale. These artists were to present a far more invigorating and creative landscape than that depicted before. Nolan wrote,

"If the Australian artist was to achieve a new sense of the Australian landscape, his experience needed to respond with a naturalness comparable to the relationship between the Aboriginal and the land." 2.

It is clear that Nolan was already in touch with the meanings and spiritual belief-systems the Aboriginal people expressed with their relationship with the land. This recognition is important because it came from one of Australia's most inventive artists, who had embraced the landscape and its primitiveness. Nolan's paintings caught the emotional and spiritual essence of the vast emptiness, isolation and tyranny of distance of the Australian landscape. In contrast, this vast continent of deserts was considered useless by most conservative-thinking people, only fit to be exploited for its mineral wealth.

Drysdale was an artist who set out to explore and to paint the desert. By doing so, he was able to challenge old perceptions and to present a new vision. At first, this represented a loosely figurative style, but as he became immersed in the landscape, he adopted a more abstract style: the rocks became patterned, angular or rounded forms: the colours became rich and dark. The Aboriginal people were also represented in the landscape, not as a form of tokenism, but as belonging to an ancient culture. Drysdale walked a tightrope in depicting them, because in the 1950s racism was very much alive; however, I believe he had real, human respect for these people.

The video Two-Thirds Sky, made in 2002, focuses on five artists who explore the desert country, with the help of the Indigenous people who are the custodians of the land in that region. This is a unique experience, for artists, to have this spiritual guide to the connection between the land and the creative process.

Artists featured are Peter Sharpe, Jenny Sages, Idris Murphy, Judy Watson and Gloria Petyarre.

The benefit these artists derived from physically staying in the region, albeit for a limited time, was apparent in their internalisation of a deep understanding and connection to the land, which was then transmuted through the creative process into their very individualised and unique works of art. The fact that they only spent a short time in the desert was in itself a difficult problem for people entering such a strange and vast land. For example, Peter Sharpe found the landscape overwhelming in its vastness and decided to concentrate his creative efforts on exploring a small object such as a stone, which confines his vision to a close-up aspect. Jenny Sages became interested in the effects of fire and the resulting marks on the ground, giving her an entry point. Idris Murphy describes his experience in the desert country in these terms: "Aboriginal people have a story to tell, and he has his own story to tell." Others found ways to concentrate on smaller, specific aspects of the landscape.

Nolan's concepts of sharing and learning from the Indigenous peoples in the 1940s is an ongoing endeavour that has been developed by many artists in Australia. Some fruits of this collaboration are evident in the works of these five artists, not so much in the technical aspects of the work, but in the expression of emotions and the spiritual connection to the land.

William Robinson is an artist who also incorporates the search for spirituality in his landscape paintings. He has been credited with reinvigorating the traditional depiction of the landscape. (Athough, this statement can give a very false impression.) His paintings capture a sense of grandeur and majesty in a multi-point-of-view format. The feeling of movement in things growing through time, and the awareness of all living beings' existence on a revolving planet also incorporate night and day in a strange, multi-time concept.

One of his most ambitious projects was the creation series (1988-1997), an evocative and compelling recent interpretation of the Australian landscape. Robinson offers a unique insight into his visionary response to the natural environment, centred in the rainforest and the coastal landscape of SE Queensland. The rainforest is depicted in great detail, which gives a feeling of ancient spirits which live in the environment; its natural diversity of lush mature trees in the thick undergrowth. The viewer enters a world where he can hear the sounds of nature at work.

Chapter 2 - Soul Searching

How important is landscape as a subject and is it important for the development of my creative ideas?

I have been working in landscape for many years and being a painter is a matter of commitment and a passion, which can be hard to explain - it is something inside an artist, needing to be expressed in an image that involves the excitement of seeing and making. Being able to work within oneself, to allow questing, and to keep working, is a very important ingredient of my art. Learning to build on past knowledge is ongoing in its production, which is a slow evolution on the nature of past learning.

Self-discipline is also a key motivating factor. Learning how to work alone for long periods was part of the training I received at Julian Ashton's art school, teaching self-reliance and self-criticism. Painting the natural objects in the landscape leads to the freedom of exploration in more abstract forms. What is found to be the most challenging is the possibility of creating a new vision, allowing for freer forms of expression.

Painting is a personal form of exploration and investigation, which finally has to be shared. 

Do people care about the environment when they are observing a painting of nature, and is it the place of the artist to educate them about how important it is to conserve the natural landscape?

These issues of conservation are important in the development of people's attitudes and concerns about how we care for the land. Art is a way of fostering a greater understanding. I feel that as an artist, we can use our art to show society that we don't just paint pretty images - the art we produce today can have a significant political impact, i.e. the saving of the Franklin River - here, the well-known photographic image of the wild river cascading around a large rock produced an emotional response in the public.

This is just one way for people and art to be inspired to join forces to save our forests; the paintings I produce do carry a message of how the spiritual aspect of the land is a prescription for wellbeing. People in cities need to connect with the land even as visitors - they will experience a renewal of the feeling of the importance of preservation. In addition, the work of the artist will play a significant role in society.

Not only via the creation of beautiful images as a way to show how we should preserve the landscape, but also with getting to grips with issues such as the effects of global warming and the degradation of the land, are important factors for the artist to deal with.

How is my art related to the art of today - postmodernist multimedia and installation? Concepts and a democratic world-view in art are important in relation to my painting. I want to feel I can express my ideas without the label of landscape attached. I try to embrace new ideas as an artist. It is important to face new challenges and to have an open mind. Moreover, experimentation and incorporation of new thinking which could develop my art is important, such as the use of new technology, i.e., for my research I use a digital camera and download my images into a computer. Painting is just one of many disciplines in the art world. The need to be aware of the statements we make, what are we try to achieve and what we are trying to say. The artwork I aim to produce will be in oils until I exhaust the medium or find a different media to work with.

Chapter 3 - Artistic Influences

In the course of my studio practice I will investigate three artists who had a great influence on my painting to be included in my paper as they reflect a vital connection to the spiritual aspect of the land.

Sydney Nolan 1917-1992
Nolan was one of the modernists in the 1940s that broke the mould of the Heidelberg School and its reliance on visual clichés.

Nolan's vision facilitated a fresh approach, revealing a new form of landscape interpretation that was closer to reality and more dangerous than the views of his predecessors. He was able to turn the stark landscape with its isolation, distance and monotony into an inspiration, not a disadvantage. This was partly due to his seeing the landscape for the very first time, as a young man fresh from the city. His circumstances gave him a freedom to interpret and express his vision in a new way. His naive and childlike approach gave the form and structure of his work a directness and spontaneity that expressed a new vision.

Nolan is important to my studio practice because of his directness in paint and the connection to the land. The painting Wimmera [from Mount Arapiles], Plate No. 1 1943 , 61.9.5 cm, is a good example, as Nolan's vision overturns the conservative view of Australia landscape - and only the colour remains of the high tones of bush blue and gold.

It is important for an artist to be original to ensure that he avoids the superficialities of the academic, overstated pastoralpainting of gum trees, which had become the popular landscape art.

"It was first necessary for them to discover themselves as artists in their own immediate environment." 1.

Fred Williams 1927-1982
FW was an important contributor to the new objectivity of the 1960s. He drew his subjects from the traditional genres of the landscape and the eucalypt forest. There are no visual clichés or sentimentality here.

His paintings have a strong pictorial structure, which has a concentrated painterly feel. This is important in defining the landscape, as his secondary subject-matter is often minutely examined - as with looking through a magnifying glass. Example: Landscape ...

Plate 3.1: Sidney Nolan, Wimmera


Plate No 2 1969, oil on canvas, 92x198 cms. On examining this painting, executed in a flat, dull, khaki green, it is evident that the marks are placed so that the eye travels all over the surface. These marks are made by the tip of the paintbrush and are deliberately stabbed onto the canvas as if in some form of mortal combat with the subject. It is a minimalist approach - there is no identity art here - it goes far beyond that and touches the spiritual heart of the land. It is reminiscent of the way Aboriginal artists use sticks to make very deliberate marks. In my studio practice, I will look at structure and colour that was a feature of FW's work.

Graham Sutherland 1903-1980 
GS became a leading force in subject-matter dealing with nature and the environment. Plants, trees, foliage, animals, driftwood and insects - they are all part of his landscapes. The abstraction, which occurs amongst the natural formations ...

I have always liked to study GS's drawings and paintings, as I feel that he was an artist who had a connection with the spiritual aspect of the land. I had a teacher called Madame Tobbin at East Sydney Technical College who once told me to go into the bush and pick up any ground debris, to take it back and study it analytically to discover its underlying structure. In doing so, I was able to appreciate that GS also pursued the same agenda. Example: Treeform in the Estuary, Plate No. 3, 1945, oil on canvas, 9½ x 10½ inches. His underlying analytical drawing technique is evident in the painting and he emphasises this structure with very strong colour in exciting mauve-pinks and yellows, drawing on the central subject - the tree. In my book which will contain the drawings and studies on trees, this will become an investigation into the very nature of trees

William Robinson 1936- is one of Australia's leading contemporary landscape painters, who has provided an insight into the spiritual nature of the landscape. The word influence can be misleading: his love for the natural world and a clear understanding of the spiritual connection to the land is what influenced me about his work, not any technical aspects. The Twin Falls and Gorge (Plate No 4, 2000, oil on canvas, 137-183cms) is a painting of the cosmos: the depiction of the sky, with clouds drifting in above the rainforest, with light penetrating the foliage, creates a land of mystery. His eye for
Plate No 3.2: Fred Williams, Landscape


Plate No 3.3: Graham Sutherland, Treeform in the Estuary


detail and the highly-textured surface in its depiction of the diversity of plant live is reminiscent of the pre-Raphaelite artists' techniques. Robinson has taken the landscape to a new level of awareness in the Australian psyche, that the connection to the natural environment is important to everyone, and an awareness that we should preserve it for future generations. The pastoral scene had been considered a dominating identity in the past and even after the 1950s, while William Robinson has given us grander vision of nature.

Betty Churcher states that:

"One cannot now stand in the damp embrace of Queensland rainforest, looking up at the vertiginous height of its great tree trunks without thinking of Bill Robinson and becoming aware of his urgent prayer to protect and respect this land's last natural wilderness." 2. 

Plate 3.4: William Robinson, Twin Falls Gorge

Chapter 4 - Documentation and Studio Practice

This is the first in a series of paintings that deal with the segment of the tree. My exploration resulted in observations and feelings of great strength and resilience and continuing growth in these old trees. The shapes of twisted bark are of great interest in the way they curl around the limbs and drape over them like sheets of fabric.

When researching my work, I find that a reliance on spontaneity and memory is important. My initial approach to a painting is direct and broad, as it is important to capture that living aspect of the tree and the immediacy of the subject. It also allows a certain freedom of expression before the subject begins to crystallise. The vitality of colour expresses the life force, with its pinks and dark reds. The background remains muted in greys to allow the tree to remain the central feature.

Plate No 4.1: Phillip Russell, Touching the Eternal 1, Oil on canvas 2004

This is a central panel of four canvases which are the beginning of an idea I had about spirituality, expressed in nature through space and time. I see the trees as being conduits to a cosmological understanding of our place in the universe.

This is just the start, and I will be adding further panels on both sides and re-introducing the same theme. The use of small canvases allows a greater freedom in building up the composition into a total of 12 canvases, measuring 300 x 300mm. The process of redeveloping and working these into large painting is documented and photographed. For this work, I use my notes and drawings and photographic references from a field trip. The illusion of space and depth is created by the distortion of trees and the relationship to size becomes surreal - it creates a link between sky and earth.

The colour has been heightened to add to the natural drama in nature. I don't need to add detail, so I keep it broad and delineate the shapes of the foliage in a camouflage of greens. The trees are treated with the same pattens of browns, pinks and yellow-oxides. Being slavishly tied to a colour scheme that has been formalised in traditional landscape painting is something I avoid.

Plate No 4.2: Touching the Eternal 11, Phillip Russell, Oil on canvas 2004

This group of small paintings is similar to the larger work, concentrating on the fork of the tree. Each work is developed so that the panels are connected by a directional movement of the limbs, not so much in the physical sense, but as a depiction of their spiritual nature. These works are the outcome of my own experience in a slow evolution as an artist trying to connect with nature. I look for a non-static relationship with the land, so that the image is not frozen in time, but reflects the ongoing life of the tree. I try to push my ideas and further explore the unknown and I rely on intuition to solve the problems and in this way my art comes together.

The Twentieth Century English painter, Graham Sutherland, had an idea of focusing on a single object as a starting point and as a first step in the creative process. The technique of working from light to dark when introducing colour clarifies the negative and positive spaces. I enhance the greys and browns and contrast them with the subtle grey background. I spend time walking over the landscape and reflecting on the images and collecting information and drawing as part of an ongoing creative experience, which I introduce into my studio practice.

Plate 4.3: Treeforms, Phillip Russell, Oil on Canvas 2004-07-14

This painting is the product of my smaller works. It contains the spirit of nature and the connection between sky and earth through the addition of reflections in the river. This creates a slippage between the real and what is not, so that we move between two realities. The ambiguity of nature is always present in the landscape.

Organic structures can metamorphosise into different shapes, and as exampled in this painting, I wanted the underside of the tree foliage to take on the appearance, as for instance, a rock. Gravity is also an important consideration, because it is a natural force of nature and allows observation of the movement of the sky within the landscape and the sensation of space and atmosphere from a solid standpoint.

By the time I started this painting there was already enough information stored in my memory to give me the freedom to create a large work. In exploring the connection of external influences and pondering, why we want to paint the landscape at all, working on such a large scale allows ideas to develop so that the artist and the observer increases their scale of vision. This is different to more analytical works, where the attention is focused on small details. My colour is high in tone because the light is important, the blues and yellows are dominant.

Plate 4.4 Phillip Russell, Treeforms 11, Oil on Canvas 2004

Chapter 5 - Book of Trees

The Book of Trees [by myself] consists of twenty drawings in pencil and pen and ink, which will take the form of a book and complement my research paper. The book will explore the subject of nature and trees and our relationship to the land. In making many field trips to examine my subjects, I find it is important to have the experience of walking around and standing still to observe my subject for long periods of time, giving me a clearer understanding of the treatment. Only then do I attempt to draw. Different sections of trees have been of great interest, especially the fork of a tree where the limbs grow away from the main trunk of the tree, creating a feeling of reaching up to the sky.

I see this section of the tree as epitomising growth and the renewal of the soul of nature. When I draw the trees, they increase my knowledge of their structure and their innate nature and they later provide a visual record, which I use when painting.

The pencil drawings allow subtle variations of tone, and are executed fairly rapidly to avoid loss of character by overworking.

The pen drawings are different in nature in that they facilitate a meticulous approach. Intricate lines are created which search and examine the very essence of the subject. In these tree drawings, the pen also provides freedom to experiment and to explore tonal variations and texture using the natural drama of the medium.

Keeping the drawing simple is essential because if it becomes too fussy and overstated, the character and essence of the drawing's treatment of the subject can be lost.

I have chosen that all the drawings in the book remain simple statements from my notebook, and should be seen as part of my ongoing research into the study of nature.

The importance of skill in drawing as a foundation is essential to my understanding of the subject-matter. A point of divergence can then be developed from this basis and a translation made into other forms, with a firm foundation to be re-found in the original information found in the analytical drawing.

"If you can't draw you can't do anything." 1.

This statement is expressed in relationship to contemporary art practice. I feel that most of the general viewing public would agree with this statement. The drawing skills I use are to do with reinforcement of memory and observing the visual environment, which allows the creativity to flow into my painting. The use of the sensitive in line is important to me because it gives me a tactile feel for the form. The subtlety of line comes about through the pressure of the graphite on the paper, guided by an almost unconscious sensitivity to the subject, after intensive visual observation. (The book of trees will form a vital part of my end-of-year presentation, along with my paper.)

I have looked at the history of Australian landscape painting and its association and connection to nature and the way Australians feel about the environment. Artists in the late 1930s, such as Nolan and Drysdale explored this subject in their work. They rejected the visual clichés of the pastoral landscape genre in favour of a depiction of the harsh, unforgiving reality. They provided new insights and a personal vision without resorting to pictorial archetypal template(s) of Australian landscape.

However, in a postmodernist world, the very nature of landscape painting is facing great challenges about its relevance in today's society. These are important issues relating to the new technological age: the question becomes, how should artists explore and experiment with concepts concerned with the current age, rather than the creation of clichéd images of pastoral landscapes. Questions are also raised about painting itself as a valid art form and its role in relation to other disciplines, such as video art and installation, and how painters could find ways of dealing with some of these issues.

Today as well, there is much more awareness of the fragility of the landscape in Australia, and of how easily it can be destroyed or changed irrevocably. With this questioning of the value of the natural world, many artists are responding with parallel concepts about our spiritual connection to the land.

Conservation and the destruction of native forests is an issue that artists can express very effectively in their work: emotive feelings about such things as cutting down giant eucalyptus have made conservation a political issue, which can influence governments. Painters can express the importance of the spiritual connection to the land and forests, thus addressing an important contemporary issue.

In the video Two-Thirds Sky, noted above, artists such as Peter Sharpe, Idris Murphy and Gloria Petyarre demonstrated a commitment to the spirit of the land in differing ways, while remaining relevant in the contemporary art world of today.

William Robinson speaks of the very essence of the soul of the tree and the spiritual creation of the trees in the landscape is a concept he sees and paints. His paintings of the Queensland rainforest make us aware of the need to protect and respect this endangered area of wilderness.

I believe that landscape painting has a place in the visual arts and is not a dead genre, and that it continues to be relevant to contemporary art.


Chapter 1, Search for a New Identity

1. Julie Roberts, Art & Australia, vol 37, no. 2 1999, Essays, p 222

2. Haese, R. 1944, p. 194 Rebels and Precursors: A letter to Joy Hester (from Tucker's Papers).

3. Art Gallery of Western Australia, Education Schools Program, Australian Identity

Chapter 3, Artistic Influences
1. Reed, John, Rebels and Precursors, p 290
2. Churcher, Betty, Introduction, William Robinson.

Chapter 5, Book of Trees
1. Peter Hill, Exceptions to a rule, Visual Arts, Spectrum, p. 8, Sydney Morning Herald.

List of Plates

Plate 3.1 Sydney Nolan, Painting Wimmera [from Mount Arapiles], 1943
Oil 61.9.5cm
Plate 3.2 Fred Williams, Landscape, oil, 1969.
Plate 3.3 Graham Sutherland, Treeform in the Estuary, 1945, oil on canvas 
9½ x 10 inches
Plate 3.4 William Robinson, Twin Falls and Gorge, 2000, oil on canvas 137x183

Plate 4.1 Phillip Russell, Touching the Eternal, series 5, oil on canvas
Plate 4.2 Phillip Russell, Touching the Eternal, series 1 to 4, oil on canvas
Plate 4.3 Phillip Russell, Treeforms 1
Plate 4.4 Phillip Russell, Treeforms 2

Chapter 5, BOOK OF TREES
4.1 Phillip Russell, Study of Tree.


Haese, R., Rebels and Precursors, the Revolutionary Years of Australian Art, Chapter 7, The Season in Hell, p. 194, Penguin Books Australia. Allen Lane, Australia, 1981.

Clark, J. Sidney Nolan Landscapes and Legends, a retrospective exhibition: 1937-1987. International Cultural Corporation of Australia Limited, 1987.

Splatt, W. and Burton, B., 100 Masterpieces of Australian Painting. Currey O'Neil, Melbourne 1981.

Berndt R. M. & Berndt C. with Stanton J. E., Aboriginal Australian Art, a visual perspective. Methuen Australia 1982

Gleeson J., Modern Painters 1931-1970. Lansdowne Press Pty. Ltd., Australia 1971

Dufour G., Howard Taylor, Sculptures. Paintings. Drawings. 1942-1984, Art Gallery of Western Australia, 1985

Fern L., William Robinson. Craftsman House, Singapore, 1995

Kalepac L., William Robinson Paintings 1987-2000. Beagle Press, Sydney 2001

Geczy, Adam, Art, craft and ecology meet at the Styx Forest, pp. 14-16, Art Monthly Australia, May 2004, on Richard St Barbe Baker, 
Lovelock, James, Ages of Gaia,, 2004

Lieberman, Max & McFadden, Michael, Divine Inspiration and Art, http://www.sol.comlau.kor.9, 2004

Noble, Jean, The Cycle of the Trees of Life, Museum and Art Gallery, Inverness, 8-22 October 2003,

Cooper, Douglas, The Works of Graham Sutherland. Lund Humphries, London, 1961,

::::::::: (Finis - Phillip Russell, Newcastle University, Australia, 2004) :::::::