Australian Artist, November 2005

Inspired by some unripe apples she picked, Sophie Dunlop began her painting in earnest, but then she heard the words of her mentors ringing in her ears - BE CAREFUL OF GREEN! Here's how she conquered one of art's most difficult subject.

You don't have to be afraid of green
By Sophie Dunlop

When I moved from Sydney to Adelaide I particularly enjoyed finding fruit trees full of subjects for me to paint. While driving to Hans Heysen's studio in the Adelaide Hills, I spotted an apple tree at the side of the road and stopped to pick branches of unripe apples. On the same trip I also found plums and pears. So when I returned to my studio in town, I had buckets full of inspiration!

I then looked through my fabric collection for a piece that might complement one of my finds. I found a green Balinese piece and then a green glazed Afghan bowl. These all seemed to match my green apples, so I started painting, quickly before they died.

Oh no! it's green!

My paintings are often done in a frantic rush - I have to capture leaves and fruits before they die. Leaves are the first to wilt, followed by fruit, and then of course, the rest can wait.

I was interested to learn about Hans Heysen's life and work too, to see that we shared the same love for fruit and flowers as reflected in his garden and paintings. The guides at Heysen's house explained proudly that his flower paintings "only took two days to paint!" and we all gasped and admired his virtuosity. I knew it must be true, the flowers were obviously painted from life, but I felt sure he must have spent more time on the background and objects, surely!

I hurriedly set to work and got to the stage of having an almost fluorescent green background with glowing green apples, before it struck me - I was doing a green painting ! Then I heard the words of my teachers. "Be very careful of green" and, "Green, it's such a difficult colour!" and also the words of my agent, Eva Breuer "Green paintings, they're so hard to sell". Then I started to feel a bit sick and found it hard to look at the painting for too long.

I quickly put in the purple and ochre design on the fabric but was still feeling discouraged and thought of giving up. Luckily my father, artist Brian Dunlop, turned up for a rare visit and said "Good, I like your bold paintings". This encouraged me. Also, a fellow artist, Chelsea Lehmann, commented that green was what the painting was all about, unripeness and the promise of fruition. So I was back on track!

Green Fruits Triptych 20, Oil on canvas
Green Fruits Triptych 2003, Oil on canvas, 50.5 x 142cm


Extending to a triptych

I got to the stage where the canvas was covered and blocked in. I felt it was looking a bit contained, like it needed more space around it. I decided to add two smaller panels on either side and make a triptych. This was something I'd always wanted to try. So I picked more fruit, matched up the design on the fabric, and the painting grew. The composition was built around the central panel. The smaller panels were of ripe and over-ripe fruit, they seemed to complete the life cycle and complete the painting.

I recommend this method for the timid painter, afraid of tackling large canvases, or for someone with limited space in their studio. It's a lovely format, reminiscent of medieval paintings where the added, smaller paintings relate to the central piece, usually in a narrative or thematic way.

Art in the making conquering green

My green palette

I used so many types of green for this painting. To give you some ideas of how to mix them, I'll describe the different objects.

The apples
Cadmium Green, Cadmium Yellow, Cinnabar Green, a dash of Terra Rossa and Violet for the shadows.

The leaves

Cobalt Green, Chrome Green, Burnt Sienna and Naples Yellow to lighten.

The cloth

Sap Green, Viridian, Cadmium Green, Burnt Sienna

The glaze on the bowl

Viridian, Cadmium Green, Sapphire Blue, Alizarin Crimson. To lighten, I added Titanium White and/or Naples Yellow. To darken, I used Violet.

Finding inspiration in fruit and nature

For some years, I studied the wall paintings of Pompeii and used the ideas of the Romans to inspire my work. They are very simple yet profound principles and are very helpful when trying to work out what to paint. The Romans loved their food and the natural processes that produced it. Their paintings and poetry are a celebration of the life cycle and the seasons. I was so inspired by a poem by Virgil:

There are waxen plums of autumn's season,
And chestnuts and sweetly blushing apples:
There is Cere's pure gift of Love and Bacchus
There are blood-red mulberries with grapes in heavy clusters,
And from its stalk hangs a blue-grey melon

A teacher by the name of Philostratus wrote a text called The Imagines , telling young Roman students how to paint. Some of his instructions are very helpful and insightful. He tells his students to paint figs.

Figs and Sari, Oil on Canvas, 36 x 76 cm

It is a good thing to gather figs. . . purple figs dripping with the juice are heaped on vine-leaves and are depicted with breaks in the skin, some just cracking open to disgorge their honey, some split apart they are so ripe. . . Do you not know that in a little while you will no longer find it so fresh, but already the dew will be gone from it?

I still find this approach very helpful when deciding what to paint and have produced many pictures with these instructions in mind.