Dr Linda Tyler explores the intersection of art and gardening with artist Katherine Throne. Katherine shares how her garden influences her art, how she balances gardening and painting, and the techniques she uses to create immersive and three-dimensional paintings.
You moved to Central Otago over a year ago, and planted a garden so that it wraps around your studio. Can you explain how this works to create a conversation between the real and the pictorial?
Are the plants in your garden those which you paint, or is your source material spread wider?
Looking back, I realise that this garden has been growing in my mind for a long time. It’s the culmination of many gardens I’ve loved being in, reading about and painting. As I planned and researched my garden, new colour combinations, textures and shapes spilled into my paintings. All the principles and elements of design translate from art to garden design and I found that ideas I was percolating in one discipline cross pollinated without intention to the other. Ultimately though, the overlap between the real and the pictorial is more apparent in essence than content.
When you’re painting representationally, no matter how much you want to retain abstract marks there’s a desire to tighten up exactness and illustrate what the mind expects to see. I’m most interested in a feeling of life and energy. Looking out at at my garden – its an allusive view of colour and texture. This reminds me to step back from my painting. The garden is loose and expressive, which is exactly what I’m aiming to present in my paintings.
Gardening is very creative, but can also be exhausting, especially where the ground is frost hardened as it is in Central. In your case, you grew plants from seeds, and planted out over 500 perennials. You describe that your efforts in the garden often translate into energy for making your art. In practical terms, how does this work? Do you allot times in the day to each activity during the growing season? Do you ever paint at night under artificial light?
Most of my gardening effort was in late winter and early spring: sowing and watering all those seeds in trays, potting them into individual pots as they grew, each day watering and taking those pots outside to toughen up before bringing them back in at night. As laborious as the job was, I found the effort was superseded by the thrill of seeing the seedlings grow. This activity happened early in the morning and late in the afternoon, leaving the day free to paint. There was a period of frenetic activity in late spring when I’d spend a few big days in the weekends or work into the long evening light planting the seedlings into the garden. I remember back breaking days when I’d dig for 20 minutes and have a hole no deeper than 20 centimetres. By the time the summer heat kicked in the workload had decreased. It was time to enjoy the incredible growth, and my short walk to the studio often took an hour just so I could look, pull a few weeds and marvel. No matter how tired my eyes or body were from standing all day in concentration, a roam around the garden set my design brain off again with ideas for the next day in the studio.
I can imagine parallels between preparing the soil and planting out a garden, and preparing the layers of your painted surfaces. Your images are often immersive, painted from within the garden bed itself, it seems. Do you see this as the true gardener’s perspective, in amongst the plants, as opposed to the flaneur passing by?
What role does photography play in capturing gardens for you to paint?
A feeling of being immersed in the garden is very intentional in my work. I want to put the viewer right there: to share my experience. I do this using chiaroscuro effects to heighten shadows and create depth, almost to the point where the painting takes on a three dimensional effect. Oil paint applied in thin layers allows light to pass through, and I manipulate the paint to mimic the effect of light refracting through stems and leaves. I vary paint application across the surface to create a push and pull result, similar to what you’d experience if you were looking closely at a tangle of plants. Areas overworked and scraped away recede into a blur, while heavy impasto juxtaposed with raw canvas immediately pulls the eye into focus.
Colour is often the overriding element when we look at a garden. This can create havoc when trying to work out a strong composition and perspective, so photography is useful to work out shadow and light. While I’m not particularly interested in the correct depiction of a flower; photography is useful to get a feeling for structure and growth. Once I get a sense of light, I take a liberal license with content, adding plants and flowers and merging different gardens. In saying that, I’ll never paint a garden or group of wild plants I don’t visit frequently or know well.
I have never noticed insects or birds in your paintings, yet they are there in the images you post on Instagram of your garden. Do you want “nature stilled” in the paintings, or are you aiming to generalise rather than particularise your images?
In 2019 I had an exhibition called “The Beauty of Courage” that was the start of this recent journey into floral paintings. I spent a huge amount of time at Kelmarna Gardens, which was just down the road from where I lived in Auckland at the time. The gardens were crammed with colour and life. Everything teetered on the edge of bedlam, and the abundance was impressive. I was floored by the vigour with which everything grew. I saw gumption and a will in each plant and flower to be their best everyday no matter what was thrown at them. I loved that despite a mish-mash of vegetables, flowers, trees and weeds, everything existed in a wonderful chaotic balance. I noticed how being immersed, both in looking and in painting, gave me a huge sense of optimism. These flowers weren’t perfect, but they were glorious. Their grittiness and flaws drew me in and invited me to connect with them. This drive for life and the giving of joy is what I’m interested in sharing.
The saying “it’s not what you paint, it’s how you paint it” is always forefront of my mind. I had an art history professor in America who taught this idea perfectly. “David’s (Jacques-Louis) realistic painting’s say “this is what I can do”,” she said. “Delacroix’s expressive paintings say “this is what I feel”.” If you can feel energy and life in my paintings, then I think my work has succeeded.
You seem to have moved away from painting cut flowers in jugs and vases and reverted to depicting them outside growing in sunlight, yet I notice you often have vases of flowers in the studio to paint from. Now that you have created the masterpiece that is your Wanaka garden, do you prefer to leave the flowers growing or do you still pick posies for the house and studio?
My garden is full of natives and perennials that I chose because of their ability to withstand extreme weather and poor soil. Within that range is a huge selection that have beautiful long blooms and wonderfully unruly growth habits. Whether my flowers are in a vase, in the garden or on my canvases, I’m conscious of staying true to their natural inclinations. The house is always full of flowers. Interior spaces seem to be so much more inviting with nature rambling through. While I haven’t showed any still life floral paintings for a while, I’ve been experimenting quite a bit recently in the studio and am keen to keep pushing and seeing where this goes.
Central Otago has had an amazingly long dry hot summer this year, while in the north we have been constantly soggy. Your exhibition is called Verdant, but to keep things green and growing must have necessitated a lot of time and water. Have you thought about the symbolic parallels between keeping a garden growing in difficult conditions and caring for/nurturing your family?
I haven’t really considered parallels, only that I want my girls to grow up resilient! In saying this, I contemplate my daughters’ tenacity and uniqueness a lot, and this could be a motivating factor in being drawn to natural planting methods and aesthetic.
Looking from the house, my garden lies in front of a row of Douglas Firs. When the sun dips behind the trees in the evening, the garden is backlit. The effect is that the whole garden glows as the sun sinks down. The greens are luminous and the jewel-toned flowers glow like orbs. The word that always comes to my mind is “verdant”. I regularly photograph the garden, and contemplating its change since the bare earth of five months ago is quite mind-boggling. That the summer has been extremely hot and dry only makes its progress more remarkable. I’ve been pretty tough on the plants, giving them only as much water as they needed to survive because I knew that spoiling them with water in their first summer is setting them up for disaster. These aren’t precious plants either. They’re tough and wily. The garden is designed to be as naturalistic as possible, so the less I interfere the better.
Your recent large commission for St Cuthbert’s shows wild flowers growing in profusion, linking up and forming associations as girls might do at school. What other symbolism suggests itself to you in the painting of flowers?
Floral paintings have a long association with the feminine and decoration, all which were denigrated during the rise of modernism. While this was tragic, and the effects of those negative connotations still exist, I love that the power of the feminine was so immense and threatening that it was deemed necessary to be demolished. My paintings are a message that flowers, gardens and floral paintings are worthy and relevant. Everything they represent is of value.
The paintings are also about embracing personal unique qualities. A naturalistic garden is full of diversity. When humans don’t interfere too much, plants will thrive and self-seed. The shady ones revel quietly in the sheltered cool, while the loud and gregarious ramble over the edges. They are allowed to be themselves, giving and receiving within a community without judgement. That seems to me like an ideal growing environment.
You have joined a fine tradition of Otago flower painters now, one that stretches back to the nineteenth century, and has remarkable high points such as the impasto compositions of Alfred O’Keeffe (1858-1941). Do you envision yourself ever moving away from floral motifs in the future? What do flowers offer a painter, (and a viewer) that no other subject can?
The flower motif itself has endless possibilities, and my original route to it was very different from what I’m doing now. It grabbed my attention as the most prominent icon in design history during my MFA thesis research, and I became enthralled with its trajectory during the height of 19th century decoration, and its subsequent demise and denigration when modernism took hold. Nature, the feminine, and the emotive became drivers in my work. While my paintings may not stay the same visually, I feel there are so many threads to keep pulling and exploring that my subject will keep me sustained for quite a while longer.
The flower – and the garden – represent life and hope. Joy and energy are omnipresent. Whether I’m out looking for inspiration or working in the studio, I’m grateful to look at such life-affirming subject matter.
Dr Linda Tyler has taught History of Art at the University of Auckland, Victoria University, the University of Canterbury, the University of Waikato, Unitec and Otago Polytechnic. Linda has also worked as an art curator at Waikato Museum, The Hocken Collections and Gallery and the Gus Fisher Gallery. Since 2018 she has been in charge of the Museums and Cultural Heritage programme at the University of Auckland.