The Heroes of Stringybark Creek – a work in progress

In February of this year I felt inspired to begin work on more paintings with a bushranger theme. My goal was to create a series of portraits of outlaws and lawmen and associated characters and events that could eventually be given the, somewhat lofty, title of collection. A key influence was Patrick Maroney, a painter at the turn of the century best known for his series of oil paintings using the same basic idea. Many of these images are reproduced in scores of history books to illustrate people and events during this fascinating period. My idea to document the creation of one of the main works was actually only after I had started.

I painted in what I call “batch sessions” where I will sit and do as much as I can in an allotted time, usually two hours. As we can see here that was enough to get the general background, figures and some shading done in the first sitting. The image was not entirely spontaneous. I had wanted to do a group portrait of the police ambushed by the Kelly gang for a long time but could never decide on a layout or format. The motivation was that we have thousands of images of Ned Kelly but in highlighting the iconography of the outlaw we forget the victims of his crimes and do not take adequate time to pay respect to the lawmen who were killed doing their job. The Kelly story is one hampered by fierce partisan views but I have no interest in pushing an agenda on either end of the spectrum. My aim is, and always has been, in portraying history to tell the truth divorced from any personal bias insofar as that’s possible.

There is always an intersection of the trajectories from two extremes. This is called The Truth.

I focused a lot on Kennedy and McIntyre as they were the two that had clear photographs to refer to and I had a reasonable image in my head of them already. As I proceeded I found McIntyre to be distinctly difficult to paint as his features that fluctuate between thin and broad wildly were not easy to translate into the way I automatically formed faces (perhaps this is why so few etchings of him from the time don’t really resemble him much).

Contemporary etchings of Constable McIntyre

In the next session I worked on smoothing out Kennedy and McIntyre but mainly focused on Lonigan and Scanlan. Strangely Lonigan was fairly easy to render accurately – likely due to the fact that the only photograph to refer to is horrendously retouched and thus there’s a lot of room for imagination to fill in the gaps. Scanlan turned out pretty well but there was something slightly off about how he looked and I would refer back to photographs to figure out why. As it eventuated there was work to do on his eyes and I had groomed his facial hair too much, he had quite a messy look to his hair all over – did this have any connection to his supposed fondness for liquor? As I developed the image I began to become more intimate with the characters of these men and felt I had a very different understanding of them from when I started.

Having studied the faces I added more detail and fixed up Scanlan in particular. It was around here that I really started to get frustrated with McIntyre’s cheeks that never seemed to look right and I couldn’t put my finger on it. Considering that this was the one man in the group with the most imagery to refer to it was annoying that I couldn’t get it right.

I refined the faces more and decided that it really was time to focus on other elements of the image. Lonigan and Scanlan were actually looking pretty spot on at this point so I was happy to leave them for the interim. Mixing the right colours for the police jumpers was tricky as it needed to be a very subdued navy blue and none of the paint I had was giving me the right mix.

Having found about the right mix of blue I painted the jumpers and began to fill in the field around the figures. The intention was to mimic a top-down view of a canopy of trees as a reminder of the forest in which these men were shot down (with the exception of McIntyre). I think because of the amount of space I had to fill it automatically diffused the effect considerably so I decided to just make it a nice textured looking background instead.

This is what I would consider done. The names have been added and the men given a white halo – not to symbolise purity but to separate the figures from the background and perhaps also because I was thinking about the force ghosts in Star Wars recently and felt that the way they were visualised was quite visually interesting as a way to depict a spirit. I don’t feel at this stage there’s anything I can do within my existing skill set to improve it. Being a self-taught painter I find it annoying that there are situations where I can’t quite resolve in my head how to overcome some of my shortcomings. I found that the paints were annoying in a variety of ways, some were thicker than others and this meant that the thinner paints tended to vanish a bit as they dried so I had to compensate as well as I could for that. Overall I’m satisfied that these portraits accurately depict the men and give a sense of their personalities as well as acting as a rare visual to remember them.

Now I need to get it framed.

And probably tidy my art desk. There’s a lot of crap on there!

The portraits compared to some of the reference material I used. As you can see, they aren’t exact matches but I think there’s a strong enough resemblance that you know who they are.

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