As an Australian, it was the exoticism of the gyrfalcon that first drew me to this bird, the largest of the falcons. They breed in the Arctic circle, but range across Northern Europe, Asia and North America – and I’ve only once caught a glimpse of a wild one, from a car winding up the mountain roads on the Olympic Peninsula, in Washington state in 1997.

This is the painting that resulted from that brief glimpse. Thankfully I had lots of photographic and sketchbook reference already, mostly from falconry birds, and so back in my Seattle studio – with Superbowl XXXI playing in the background now that I think about it – I sketched out a ‘thumbnail’ drawing of the composition. I’m particularly enamoured of the mantling pose birds of prey adopt with a fresh kill – shielding the catch from potential scavenging crows, buzzards, etc.. On that same drive into the glorious Olympic National Park I’d photographed a beautiful spruce grouse – a favourite prey of the gyrfalcon – and I used these photos to paint the falcon’s quarry.

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Pursuit’s End
Gyrfalcon and Spruce Grouse
1997
68x86cm
(mixed media)

It is perhaps my favourite painting from all my years based in America, and was one of my works in the landmark New York Spanierman Gallery
Exhibition of 1998 – Natural Habitat – Contemporary Wildlife Artists of North America.
http://www.spanierman.com/Roberts,-Jason/album/0/1/

Within six months I was working on my next major gyrfalcon painting, Arctic White. The subject this time was the stunning white ‘morph’ of the gyrfalcon, which occurs predominantly on Greenland. Again a falconry bird was my model(the white gyrfalcon is traditionally the most prized birds in falconry, once reserved solely for kings and sultans) and the background this time was from a gorgeous mossy rock face in the North Cascade mountains, also in Washington.
Happily this is the painting that saw me successful in my fourth attempt to be accepted in the prestigious Birds in Art Exhibition at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, Wisconsin.

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Arctic White
1997
68x86cm
(mixed media)
Private collection, USA

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Here I am, a somewhat earnest 27 year old in 1997, at the specimen collection of the Ohio State University Zoology Department, sketching gyrfalcon ‘skins’ in preparation for painting Arctic White.

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Covering Ground
1998
42x68cm
(oil on canvas)
Private collection, USA

This is one of very few oils I’ve done in my career, and shows a gyrfalcon at rest on the lovely mottled ground above the tree line in the Olympic Mountains. This was actually the first oil I’d painted since art school, 1999 was the year, and by this stage I was based in Florida. I was debating exhibition it at the South-Eastern Wildlife Art Fair in Charleston, South Carolina, that year, but it was purchased essentially off the easel by a collector of mine visiting my studio from Texas.

I haven’t painted a gyrfalcon in over ten years – since I moved back to Australia – and this small study was one of the last paintings I produced in America. I’m very proud to say that it joined the collection of Emma Ford, founder of the British School of Falconry in Gleneagles, Scotland.

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Gyrfalcon Portrait
2000
22x16cm
(mixed media)
Private collection, Scotland

I do love mushrooms…Not in a hippie, ‘man, let’s do some ‘shrooms’ way, I just think they’re the most quirky, character-filled little delights around, and for years I’ve bundled them home from markets – and occasionally from the woods – to paint back in my studio.

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On King Island there was a great stand of pine trees that lined the road to Currie, and in autumn I could be found plucking out the jewel-like red ‘muscaria’ toadstools to paint.

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I particularly love how fresh and vital they appear the first few days after springing up through the pine needles, then after 10-12 days they’re bloated and haggard, stained and dimpled, and more resembling an ancient relic that’s withstood a thousand harsh winters in the ground.

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The Swiss Brown(these are good because after you paint them you can pop them in an omelette…)

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This elegant little white tropical toadstool I plucked from the balcony of a hotel room in Singapore(obviously I stay in only the finest establishments…)

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A Pine Mushroom, one of the Queen Victoria Market’s finest.

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A Shiitake Mushroom, painted in my hotel room in Hokkaido, Japan, once unwrapped from the origami-like tissue and brown-paper parcel the local grocer packaged it in for me…

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A Caesar Mushroom. Now, I paid around £8 for this thing at the Borough Market in London – and he wasn’t very big…really tasty though…(Which is something you’ll hardly ever hear me say about, say, my Giant Panda paintings…)

Vienna is one of my favourite cities in the world, a place I’ve visited many times since my first encounter at age 21 in 1991. It had been spoken of lovingly as I grew up by my aunt Gabrielle, who was an opera singer, and for whom the city held much affection. Sadly Gabrielle(‘Auntie Gai’) passed away that year while I was living abroad, and as a small homage I visited the Austrian capital, with an idea to tracking down a building in the background of one of my favourite photos of her from the mid-70’s. Of course, it turned out to be the Wiener Staatsoper – the Vienna State Opera House.

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Auntie Gai, Vienna State Opera, c.1977

My most recent visit was last June, a glorious summer stay, with my focus being the legendary Spanish Riding School. Under the ornate baroque roof of the school’s arena I watched a stunning array of the beautiful Lipizzaner horses – mares and foals, and young, un-trained stallions(the extravagant classical performances are held here only in winter), and I also traveled out to the summer stables of the school on the city’s outskirts for some sketching; I was met with some bemusement by the locals…

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Sketching at the Heldenberg Lipizzaner stables

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Lipizzaner stallion, Heldenberg.
watercolour

My hotel was very close to The Belvedere Palace, home to many gorgeous Klimt and Sciele paintings, but my attention was particularly drawn this visit to a group of 18th century bronzes by Frans Messerschmidt, and I filled a few pages with his amazingly contorted head studies.

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Head studies, F. Messerschmidt
pencil

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Belvedere Palace
watercolour

Finally, as someone whose only breaks from the studio most days are cafes, I consider myself something of a cafe -‘connoisseur’ is too urbane – I’m a cafe ‘junkie’…and one of the great pleasures of Vienna are her ‘palaces’ to coffee. I indulged hours at a time across the city, writing, sketching and reading morning after morning(thank you to the developers of The Age app), shifting from the bohemian charm of Café Hawelka one day, to the colonnaded excess of Café Centrale.

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A Summer Coffee, Café Hawelka
watercolour

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Café Centrale
watercolour

I’m planning on my next visit to approach the Spanish Riding School about a residency of some sort – an unabashed attempt to stay for more than just a few days at a time in glorious Vienna.

It was exactly two years ago that I was last in India, an unforgettable trip where I found myself navigating through great herds of camels, rows of buffalo, and a dizzying array of Indian cattle breeds at the Nagaur Camel Fair in Rajasthan. I’d returned to the Maharaja of Jodphur’s ancestral Thar Desert residence, Ahhichatragarh fort – which translates very exotically into ‘Fort of the Hooded Cobra’. Six months earlier I’d been a guest there of the Maharaja, sponsored to do some paintings of this, and a number of other sumptuous palaces and forts of the royal family around western and central Rajasthan.

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The Maharaja’s Courtyard, Nagaur Fort, Rajasthan
(watercolour)
40x80cm

I had an exhibition at the fort that February, which was a great success happily – in addition to the fact that I got to spend two weeks in this magical place. I was sketching everyday amongst the livestock, eating fantastic street food that traveling vendors set up in temporary dining strips(the fried puri were particularly addictive…), and communicating enthusiastically – if rudimentarily – with the farmers as they showed off their prize bulls and camels to me – the mutual goodwill went a long way to bridging the communication gulf.

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Photo of the camel ‘quarters’, Nagaur Camel Fair, 2011

Back home in Melbourne my first painting was not of the bustling fair at it’s height, which I am keen to depict one day(and certainly to return to!), but a scene of the fair as it was the last few days, still colourful, but eerily quiet, with a single grain merchant heading back home after a busy week. One by one the camel trains slowly disappeared back into the desert, gaudily painted trucks loaded up the cows and buffalo – many off to new homes after successful trades, and the puri sellers and other vendors moved on to the next fair or festival – there’s never one far away in India.

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‘After the Fair’ Nagaur, Rajasthan
(watercolour)
32x50cm

Another painting for my Royal Easter Show residency in Sydney next month – The Charolais Bull.
I painted this in January, from a glorious big bull I’d seen in Canberra years ago. I initially thought a plain, dark background wash would do, but as I painted he really started coming to life and I wanted to give him a ‘home’. With no barns near my inner-Melbourne studio, I went for a walk down some of the 19th century alleys and lane ways of Coburg and found a beautiful wooden fence that was at least 100 years old, and I’ve painted that behind him.

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I’ve just finished my most recent sheep painting, ‘Sun Blazed’. I spent a week on a South Australian sheep station back in September, painting with some friends, and while the gorgeous landscapes and river gums captured our attention most days, again and again I was drawn to the sheep.
I’m adding a couple of my sketchbook pages here, just quick, gesture sketches I do on the spot. I take lots of photos as well, and I use this all back in the studio to create a finished painting.

It’s turning into a running series, my ‘Sheep Period’ you could say…I particularly love these crowded compositions, the painting a mass of wool and the handsome, lively faces of the merinos.
I’m keen to expand on the theme – I have one in mind of Kashmir goats of various colours and markings – what superb faces they have! And from my travels: Nubian goats in Qatar, sleek black animals with particularly expressive eyes and sensationally long ears, and camels in Rajasthan.

I’m getting Sun Blazed framed this week, it will be in the Collins Street Gallery for a couple of weeks, and then in mid-March I’ll bring it up to Sydney with me where I’m resident artist at the wonderful Royal Easter Show – more livestock coming soon…

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