Melbourne is a melting pot of artistic talent, constantly spilling over with a steady output of world-class music, art and culture. Simply walking down a cityside alley will earn you an eyeful of some of the most inviting visual art in the country.
With the styles of street art and psychedelic stimuli currently dominating the centre of the venn diagram between music and visual art, it can be easy to forget one of the oldest, most relatable and most human art forms out there – the portrait.
A picture tells a thousand words, and there are billions of faces on the planet waiting to be painted. Meet Harriet Roxburgh, the Melbourne artist fanning the age-old flame of portrait art.
Blending classic portraiture techniques with a modern street art twist, Melbourne-based Harriet Roxburgh is championing the difficult career path of capturing the human face with naught but oil and canvas.
Catching up with Roxburgh, we find out what fascinates her so much about the fleshy masks we all wear.
“I think the human face is something we are biologically programmed to really respond to, it’s something we automatically resonate with. It can be a real challenge to paint someone’s face so it looks like them, and trying to encapsulate their personality within the painting is also something I enjoy.”
Given that a large part of the world never graduates beyond smiling and frowning yellow faces, we’re with Harriet in regards to difficulty. Simply being difficult, while absolutely contributing to the soul of art, does not make a work great in itself.
What all art needs is personality. This can come from any number of an artwork’s traits, but portraits in particular must naturally transmit their sole subject’s personality. Roxburgh ensures this aspect of her work by understanding the nature of the people she paints.
“All the people I paint are my mates or family members, and I’ve found it to be a lot more resolved and engaging to paint someone I know because part of their energy comes out.”
Although, she admits, this sometimes involves mischief:
“ I take my camera around a lot and get a few sneaky pics of my friends. I’ll often paint one and stick it on Instagram as a little surprise – that moment when they say ‘that’s me!’ is always a good time and I get a bit of a kick out of it.”
While she’s firmly planted in her current artistic style, Roxburgh’s training comes from a different form. Although just as ancient as other practices, in Australia it’s definitely a little left field.
“At Sydney College of the Arts I majored in glass blowing. I did this for three years, and I think it has greatly influenced my practice today. When blowing glass everything is immediate, you cannot wait or hesitate otherwise the glass can’t handle it and your piece won’t eventuate.”
“With my painting…if I take too long I over work it and it loses its expressiveness and emotion. That’s something that’s taken me a long time to realise, a lot of slashed canvases and an angry dad.”
Roxburgh grew up in Sydney, and as mentioned, completed her education there. In a startling juxtaposition to the closure of live music venues in Sydney, public outrage has recently swelled through Sydney University regarding the closure of the beloved Sydney College of the Arts.
Aside from playing host to the Sydney leg of St. Jermome’s Laneway Festival for years, the idyllic sandstone campus has been the subject to a secretive, messy and most of all embarrassing faculty merger, leaving it in the dust despite mass student opposition.
This, and other factors have led to Roxburgh fully embracing the Melbourne way despite landing exhibition time in both cities.
“The Sydney art scene feels more ruthless to me. The arts are so much more supported down here, that’s evident with the closure of the SCA and a lot of funding cuts. Sydney feels very commercial now that I’ve moved, art feels separated from everyday life but in Melbourne it feels really integrated.”
“As my friend describes it: Sydney is gloss and Melbourne is matte.”