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I’M NO ARTIST, BUT I HAVE LOVED DRAWING AND PAINTING SINCE I WAS A CHILD. Now that I have more free time I’m determined to try and improve – and nurture those creative instincts.

IN MY WORK AS A LANDSCAPE DESIGNER I had to draw up plans – so my art work tends to reflect the tightness I have inherited from that discipline and I thought it was time to at least attempt to loosen up a bit. I thought that probably going back to basics might help and to immerse myself, over five days, in the wonderful, if mercurial, world of WATERCOLOUR PAINTING – which I love. I had checked out Chan’s work online and thought his style of painting might be the right fit for me – so what did I have to lose? If not now, then when?

OUR TEACHER, CHAN DISSANAYAKE is a multi-award winning watercolour artist living in Canberra and teaching at ANU. His teaching style was thoroughly practical, patient and gracious. The nine participants on the course brought a whole range of painting ability with them – from beginners to experienced artists, some of whom had done Chan’s, and other retreats, before. He did his best to guide and encourage every one of us.

WE WERE HOSTED BY THE BLACKALL CULTURAL ASSOCIATION in their LIVING ARTS CENTRE which had previously been a hostel for country kids going to school in Blackall. The cost of the retreat covered TUITION, ACCOMMODATION and ALL MEALS – breakfast, lunch dinner AND morning tea. This included being taken out to dinner three times, a delicious afternoon tea, a fun Paint and Sip night and various excursions to places of interest around Blackall. It was an absolute treat to not have to think about a thing for a week – except immersing myself in painting and learning. A big shout out to Mardi Noonan from Marmaladies Catering who fed and watered us so well – I’ve been starving ever since I got home!

THE LIVING ARTS CENTRE was very clean and comfortable. I had a single bedroom with shared bathroom and we could also enjoy a large kitchen, diningroom and sunny courtyard for plenty of cuppas. The teaching space was well set up and everyone had plenty of room to spread themselves out and face the daily challenges of being in a classroom situation and then trying to paint to order – which I found quite a challenge – but, ultimately, a rewarding one.

BLACKALL is an outback town in Central West Queensland two hours south of LONGREACH. They have an airport and can arrange transfers for course participants – but I decided to drive – the long way!! I used the whole trip as an excuse to see as much outback art as I could on the outward and homeward journey. This is a growing phenomena around Australia as country towns look for innovative ways to attract the increasing amount of travellers on the road and keep their towns alive.


FIRST STOP, YELARBON GRAIN SILOS Worth the 100km detour. Aren’t they fantastic? Sitting on the edge of a spinifex desert they are entitled ‘When the Rain Comes”.

NEXT STOP, GOONDIWINDI and the sculptures on the approach into town. For hundreds of miles the road verges were piled with white – like snow – then I realised it must be cotton balls, for this is cotton country. In fact, the sculptures below were sponsored by the Goondiwindi Cotton Corporation.

NOTE The country clothes shops out here are full of beautiful, good quality, local cotton shirts in every colour imaginable – for men and women. Mine is in gorgeous magenta.

AND A FAVOURITE – which looked fantastic in the darkening sky – Lot’s Wife Came from Easter Island’ – you gotta love a witty outback artist?


CHAN STRUCTURED THE COURSE so that every morning we explored a new subject- like tone, washes, composition, brushwork, colour, perspective, painting figures etc. He did this very clearly by demonstrating the topic in a quick sketch or painting that was projected onto a screen. We then attempted it ourselves. He also showed us slides of some of the painters that have influenced him – like Heysen, Herbert and Singer Sargent.

WE COVERED A LOT IN FIVE DAYS so I’m just going to give you a taster here. You will have to book yourself in for a course with Chan to get the full picture!


TOP TIP FROM CHANget in the habit of squinting at your subject – you see the tones more clearly. (For the first few days I just thought he was short sighted!) It does work, by the way – try it. These are a couple of my attempts at quick tonal sketches. I learnt that its a good idea to try these in just one colour. Here I was using burnt sienna and prussian blue

COMPOSITION Some valuable things I learned from Chan.

  • Don’t be afraid to change the composition that you are trying to interpret to make it more interesting.
  • Be selective about the detail you put in – a painting is not supposed to be a photographic representation of the subject.
  • We all have eye/brain muscle memory that fills in the gaps when we are looking at an image – you don’t have to paint all of it. An implied image has much more freshness and liveliness about it than one with meticulous detail – this is in particular reference to watercolour painting, not other art forms.
  • 60% of success with a painting is design and thoughtful composition.



  • Don’t make the most interesting/dominant part of the painting at the edge because that’s where the eye will take you – out of the painting. In Chan’s composition he demonstrated this by bringing the cliffs more into the middle of the painting, softened the colour to make them recede and put some sky above them.
  • Create interest. He did this by; extending the rock ledge down the picture; staggering the figures on the rock ledge so their heads weren’t all lined up and adding a dominant figure, with dog, to balance the painting.
  • Making waves. Chan created more interest by having them crashing with more surf. Traditionally, there is no white paint in watercolour – you create it by leaving that part of the paper blank – this is how Chan painted. It was a joy to watch him doing this – I made a real hash of it! It’s also the same for the illusion of light reflecting off the cliffs by leaving bits of white paper. NOTE: There are other ways to achieve white in a watercolour painting – by using masking fluid or over painting with white gouache – just don’t tell Chan!


PAINT. Chan used a very limited palette, again quite traditional. He prefers WINSOR and NEWTON tube paint for their quality in pigment; the colours don’t go muddy when you mix them and the colours don’t fade.

However, most of us on the course brought what we had because good art supplies are expensive – so we had a mixture of pans, tubes and different makers and Chan helped us to work with what we had without being judgemental – but it was with mixed results!

I HAVE NEVER BEEN ABLE TO RESIST ART SUPPLY SHOPS and I have endless art stuff, but most of what I brought to the course, so I found out, were not very good. I realised that I was not going to achieve what I wanted to unless I upgraded so the first thing I did when I got home was head to the local art supply shop. Chan’s list of fundamentals was not extensive, so it was affordable. These are the basic colours he worked with for all of his paintings. Every colour he wants to achieve is mixed from these paints.

BRUSHES. Chan only had four basic brushes on his course supply list and, although he had a vast array of brushes with him, he mostly used these to demonstrate all of his paintings.

The most important thing I learnt is that your largest brush – for doing washes – should be of natural hair because they hold more water and paint. For the rest of the painting you need to use synthetic because they hold less water and you have more control over the paint.

One of the things I bought, when I got home, was a 3 inch goat hair ‘hake’ for doing washes – which only cost $16 and I am very happy with. The price for some natural hair brushes runs into the hundreds of dollars. The rest are an 8 and 12 synthetic rounds – with a good point, and a 2 rigger for doing fine lines.

PAPER All important to use good quality watercolour paper if you want the magic to work. Chan recommends Arches or Saunders Waterford which are made from pressed cotton and come in different weights and textures. You buy them in large sheets which you can divide up into the painting size you need. It’s not cheap – about $20 per sheet, but you will probably get four paintings out of that – or 8, if you are like me, and use the back too because the first attempt was crap!

Student quality pads of cheap watercolour and cartridge paper are essential for mucking around on; for sketching, trying out paint mixes and doing first draft paintings.


THIS PHOTO SAYS IT ALL REALLY! I’m a swimmer and find it the best way yo relax and get some exercise – and this pool was just perfect after concentrating in the classroom and painting all day. They also had a massage spa pool at 39oC. At $2 entrance the Blackall Pool was a gem of a find.

FOR AN OUTBACK TOWN, BLACKALL WAS VERY GREEN which is all down to the mineral rich endless supply of artesian water. They don’t need hot water tanks either – because it comes out of the ground at 59oC – they have cooling tanks instead.

  • BLACKALL WOOLSCOUR I have been to many sheep farms and shearing sheds but never thought about wool having to be washed before you can process it. As a sheep’s fleece can be up to 25% lanolin in weight and full of dags and dirt – it needs washing – and where better than in a place with an limitless supply of hot water that just comes pumping out of the ground – for free? We had a fantastic excursion here and guided tour of the only remaining steam driven wool washing plant in Australia and to do some painting plein air. I found it fascinating. I am a bit of a machine and tools kind of a gal anyway.
  • BLACKALL SALEYARDS No one but the inimitable Hinzy (Mardi’s Partner) could have made a trip to the huge livestock saleyards so entertaining? Once processing thousands of sheep – when Australia ran on their back – they now have thousands of head of cattle passing through. Chan was put up for auction in the bullyard, but he didn’t get much bidding – a bit long in the tooth and too light in the rump!
  • THE ROLY POLY Blackall has an interesting sculpture trail around the town – and this artwork, made from recycled materials – is one of them. There are about twenty other murals and sculptures – including one in the main street of Jack Howe who shot to fame in 1892 when he broke the daily and weekly shearing records which, apparently, have never been beaten.
  • AFTERNOON TEA AT THE MASONIC LODGE CAFE Another fascinating excursion – with eating! Plus my lovely group of fellow travellers and artists. It was really a pleasure to get to know you.

BLACKALL HIGH STREET by CHAN DISSANAYAKE The freshness and life in this painting – with the shadows, brushwork and harmony of colour sums up what our week was about and what I am now aspiring to.

I HAD A LEISURELY DRIVE HOME VIA SOME MORE PAINTED SILOS AND WATER TOWERS dodging crow black wild pigs, huge kangaroos, burnt umber wallabies, goats, emus and inconsiderate road train drivers – plus the gory humps of roadkill about every 100m. I just stayed for the night in cheap motels and I now know where all the fluorescent tubes go to die!

  • THE WATER TOWER IN CASINO – only 100km away from home and I had no idea it was there.

THE REALITY My dining room table since I got home – with ironing not done! There has also been a lot of prone position contemplating in that spot on the right too and, on Chan’s advice, another stab at life drawing classes.

Marmalade recipe for you Mardi😀 – my easy foolproof one

My rhubarb and rose petal jam recipe.

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