Darker in the deep

“It’s always about the water,” says Roger Murphy, looking across a long-familiar river mouth to the ocean beach beyond. “We live on an island … so that makes perfect sense.” 

The watercolourist is on the beach at Douglas River, an expanse of sky, sea and sand that captured him some 30 years ago. It is one of perhaps a dozen places to which Murphy is drawn, and whose mood and colour, light and shade he in turn has caught in his paintings.  

This is a spot he and his wife Jan spend a quarter of the year, a small caravan and annex with privacy afforded by thickets of coastal boobyalla. There’s water on tap, but if you want wi-fi, it’s ten kays down the road at Bicheno. 

Modest perhaps, but a place Murphy ranks with Collioure in France or the Greek fishing village of Kini, where he has painted for the past six years in a row. These are workplaces that occupy a particular place in the heart of this 77-year-old, among the most prolific of Tasmanian painters. 

Understanding a little of the artist requires viewing the landscape as he experiences it himself. As Murphy has noted more than once in a half-century-long career, his paintings are of places he likes to be. “I like to feel myself in the landscape.” 

The little fishing village of Kini, a short boat-ride away from the Grecian capital, Athens, is a particular favourite. Suffused with the warmth of the sun and that of its native population, it’s clear Murphy loves this place. And more, it’s hard not to see echoes of his early watercolours of fishing boats at Margate in Tasmania.

Tempted to stay? “I always feel privileged to be earning my living in these beautiful places,” he says, “but after a while, I’m ready to come home again. I’m a Tasmanian. This is where my heart is.” 

In early 2016, heavy rains dramatically changed the mouth of the Douglas River, scouring its entry into the ocean to reveal sandstone substrates, splayed shoals of weathered river rock and, curiously, mounds of driftwood long smothered by sand. For someone who has taken – and created – delight in capturing and recapturing his favourite parts of Tasmania, including his home turf in Kingston, his next series of paintings of the Douglas will show a much-altered landscape.

A little further south is Orford and Maria Island. Murphy’s perspective of Maria, across the sandbar at the mouth of the Prosser River, is core to his catalogue. Here, he unfolds his table and paints under a young gum, close to a tap where he can rinse his brushes. It’s as utterly familiar to the artist as it is to the oyster catchers and a dozen other bird varieties that are its long-term residents.

His paintings of the island and its littoral context present an affinity of whites and blues, soft in the shallows and darker in the deep. Sky becomes water becomes sand, marin grass punctuating the foreground. At the horizon, the monolith that is the island is the darkest of all, familiar to so many, but somehow, in Murphy’s work, always fresh. 

In recent months, Murphy has been pushing the envelope, reimagining his canon, and in the process turning a convention of watercolour work on its head. Instilled by the English masters and Murphy’s own teachers, the dictate is that an artist does not use white: the paper itself provides the white for the work. “We are taught to think in the negative,” he says. 

No longer. Now he’s going in the opposite direction.

Murphy has rediscovered a casein-based paint known as plaka, which lends itself to his work in an unexpected way. Those scenes of sea, sand and sky that Murphy has painted many times are now rendered in their nightclothes, strikingly beautiful moonlit versions of his earlier work. 

By painting at night, the artist is reinventing his long-loved seascapes, the whitecaps and the subtle reflections provided by the light of the moon. “This paint, which is actually a very old form of pigment, has enabled me to move out of the sun and into the night,” he says. “And I get to use white paint!”

. . . 

Another fresh idea has taken root in Murphy’s head. A sightseeing trip to Spain, including the Prado Museum in Madrid, has him itching to spend time working there. “The galleries are extraordinary,” he says. “You’re looking at works by some of the great artists. And that inspires you to see, to paint, those places they saw.”

Roger Murphy paints flat, on the horizontal rather than on an easel, largely because watercolours tend to run. Some painters adapt their technique to take that dynamic into account, but Murphy prefers to keep it simple. “A flat surface is less problematic,” he says. 

For his sky-sea-sand landscapes, Murphy will reach for a 40mm brush, and wield it at its widest section. There’s a confidence in his application, the product of many years’ experience, a deceptively simple conjunction of hand and eye. He doesn’t consider it so much technique as “just messing about”.

And while Murphy uses a brush for much of his work, that utilising plaka needs a more delicate line. The key strokes of these new night works are furnished by a reed pen, literally a slice of the dry, fat stalk of a water reed.

Roger Murphy attributes his start to his mother, a seamstress who created and cut her own clothes, and who encouraged him to paint from an early age. As a teen, he apprenticed in lithography, now a largely obsolete printing technique, at Cox Kay, a large, family-owned Hobart printery. 

The work included book-binding, elaborate gold embossing and lettering, even designing apple box packing labels. But it was the company’s Roy Cox, himself an artist, who encouraged the young Murphy to take up watercolors. Established artists like Max Angus were enormously supportive.

He studied life drawing under Jack Carington Smith at the Tasmanian School of Art. “Jack was very direct, told you what was wrong – which is what I needed back then. He really made an impression.” Graphic art was taught by Jack Koski. 

“Eventually, I managed to defeat art school,” says Murphy who went on to become a “lowly artist” at the ad agency Jackson Wayne. (Murphy’s youngest son Marcus is today creative director in Tasmania for agency advertising Clemenger.)

A long list of honours for his painting began with the Derwent Festival Art Prize in 1967. He won the watercolour section of the inaugural Wrest Point Casino Art Prize in 1996, which led to official requests from government agencies, mining companies and an impressive multi-work commission from International Catamarans.

Today, Roger Murphy paints in watercolours, acrylics and gouache at his home studio at Kingston Beach, Tasmania. It’s a beach cottage he and Jan bought in 1967, right after the bushfires. 

Roger’s studio is a long, narrow sun porch, flooded with light and crammed with the stuff of artists everywhere: drawers full of paper and sketches, of the valued and the long-forgotten, minutiae and memorabilia. 

Murphy often handles sales of his work himself. The old relationships with galleries are changing, as owners age and move on. “Galleries now want to run everything, to take over. After I’ve paid for the expense of framing, and the bill for the wine and postage for exhibitions, they want a 40 per cent commission,” he says.

He has held an exhibition once a year, and a sale every couple of years. “I think younger buyers are looking for more contemporary work than mine, but there’s still a comfortable living to be made.”

It is perhaps his origins in commercial printing that Murphy is unsentimental about his work, or keeping track of what he’s painted. “If my paintings start to overcome my storage capacity, I’ll arrange a studio clearance sale – a small ad in the Mercury – and that’ll clear the decks.

“In fact, it must be about time,” he says, eyeing his storage shed. I think there’s about 200 paintings there. It’s not easy to sell your babies, but I’ve got bills to pay. A couple of days and that space will be freed up again.” 

That moment is also the trigger to pick up his folding table, a canvas sleeve of brushes, paints and a water jar. He checks the sky for light and colour, and heads out the gate, down the street towards the mouth of Browns River in Kingston. 

The water of Roger Murphy’s workplace is calling again.

. . . 

For more information on the artist, and images of his work, see www.rogermurphy.com.au. His paintings can also be viewed at Strickland and Wellington Galleries in Hobart, Saddlers Court Gallery in Richmond, Waubs Bay Gallery in Bicheno and Huon Art in Huonville. 

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