FIVE reasons why I don’t touch the subjects of my paintings

I was taught to leave nature the way I found it, but there was a time when artists wouldn’t hesitate to pick, cut down, trap or kill subjects so they could take them to their studios to study while painting. In 2021 I don’t need to do that because I can document what I see and experience with photos, notes and memory. While I’m on a hike I’ll carry a camera that can do both macro and zoom photography. This means no matter what I encounter, I am prepared to photograph it from a distance that is comfortable for both me and the subject, and there’s no reason for me to touch or startle it. Besides the convenience a camera brings, there are other reasons why I choose to let things be.   

1. Removing things from nature leads to unnecessary destruction.

When I paint, I am free to create, and show care and compassion. To remove living plants and creatures from their natural habitat would be against the reasons I am doing any of this, especially when I can make the art just as easily without destroying anything. 

Photo from Gippsland: There’s no need to trap or kill a bird for art when we can see this much detail through a photo.

2. Usually I’m not exactly sure what it is I’m looking at.

Every day I get better at identifying the species of flowers, birds and animals I encounter, but some of them require careful study and specialised knowledge to identify correctly. Recently I encountered a flax lily flower that I hadn’t seen before. I decided I wanted to paint it so I went through my process of documenting it through photography and notes without touching it. After I had painted it I tried to identify what it was and from what I could tell it was possibly an endangered plant. The differences between the endangered and common varieties are so subtle that I’ll never know for sure (odds are it was the more common variety), but had I picked the flower to take home I would forever worry I had destroyed something very rare and precious. My art is about positive energy and caring for nature, so such an act would be counterproductive.    

3. Everything seems to have tiny creatures living on it. 

With the benefit of macro photography I can see tiny details on the plants I encounter that I can’t see when I looking at them from a few meters away. Often when I’m studying a photo I will see little insects or spiderwebs that I couldn’t see with my naked eyes. It doesn’t matter how clean something looks, it always seems to have tiny living creatures on or in it. If I were to remove a flower from the wild, I’d be taking something else home with me without knowing it. Something like a banksia that has hundreds of openings will house hundreds of insects. It’s best these stay in nature rather than sit in my studio. 

Close up of flowers.
Many plants have tiny spider webs on them if you look close enough.

4. I don’t know how the subject or its environment relates to Indigenous culture

I welcome opportunities to learn more about Australian Indigenous culture and how it relates to nature in Australia. Through my art I am gradually learning more with each subject I paint, but I am far from being any sort of expert. I know there are places, plants and animals that are very sacred to Indigenous culture and I shouldn’t be damaging them in any way if I am to show respect and care. People have been walking where I walk for thousands of years and I can never know how an area or space has been used over all that time. It’s best to assume everything is sacred and leave every location as it is.  

How did Indigenous people use this space thousands of years ago? I have no way of knowing.

5. It’s easier to leave things where they are.

These store-bought leaves do not have the same beauty, lighting and energy as those found in the wild.

I am certain that if artists centuries ago, including the masters, were able to use photo references of their subjects rather than have them physically in the studio, they would have done so. Why would I go to the trouble of carrying things around and taking up space in my studio when I can document them with photos? Plus if I’m painting something that is in my studio, which I occasionally do with plants purchased from florists, the lighting, energy and attached emotion changes significantly from if I am painting something found in the wild. I usually want to capture nature thriving outside, not what has been brought inside to fade away. 

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