An Artistic Sense | Sarah McDonald

The vibrant sense of physicality in Sarah McDonald’s paintings is perhaps linked to the fact that the artist loves to move while she works. Music turned up, the South Australian dances and sways, palette knife in hand, getting lost in the rhythm of mark making and the visual language of the naturescapes she captures.Artist Sarah MacDonald

When the prolific artist isn’t creating (and dancing) in her purpose built home studio in Adelaide, she is sharing her decades of knowledge with her students, travelling across Australia to exhibit her work in highly respected galleries, or hitting the road to soak up our country’s vast, magical remoteness.

Sarah’s landscapes and nature studies play with exaggerations of colour and light, and her energetic palette knife application of oil paint evokes the tactility of tree bark, scrub and dramatic mountain ranges. A self confessed tree-hugger, the artist is endlessly inspired by nature. A daily bush walk with her two Spoodles, Pablo and Raph, in the hills behind her studio puts her in a productive mindset“ as does turning up the tunes!

Read on to learn more about Sarah McDonald and her inspiring art practice.

The garden studio of artist Sarah MacDonald

Where do you live and create?

In the foothills of Adelaide in my lovely studio, designed by my husband and situated in amongst my garden. It is clad entirely with recycled timber from old horse stud fence posts that have been milled and sandblasted, still leaving some residue paint, to give a lovely, weathered effect.

I can open up the doors looking right out to the always inspiring flowering, cottage style garden. I can see the hills right behind my studio, and I walk up there every morning with my dogs before I head back there to work. I feel very lucky to call this beautiful space my office.

The garden studio of artist Sarah MacDonald

How did you become the artist you are today?

I was always a creative child and have drawn and painted from a very young age. I knew when I was in about year 10 in senior school that I wanted to make a career out of my art. I did art as my main and favourite subject up to year 12. Achieving a merit certificate, I went straight on to art school for four years, where I had both a visual arts and art education qualification, and then moved to London to teach art and paint during my travels.

When returning to Adelaide, I secured an art teaching position at a secondary school part time and spent the rest of my time painting. I knew I wanted to have an exhibition based on my travels around Europe, so I set my mind towards that and did so. The success of that exhibition gave me the confidence to continue to work towards more exhibitions, and eventually I was shown in some very good commercial galleries in Adelaide.

Fast forward 25 years and I have now had almost 20 solo exhibitions all over Australia and one in New York. Most of them have been focused on my travels to various places around the world and more recently, our beautiful landscape in Australia. I like to go out bush and paint en plein air to really immerse myself in that place. These works capture how I feel when out there, capturing the light and colour is the main focus of my work. It is quite emotive.

Sarah McDonald and her inspiring art practice
Sarah McDonald and her inspiring art practice

Which artists do you admire?

I have grown up with a love of the Australian Impressionists and how they saw colour and light in the landscape. I could relate to that as a very young painter. Matisse has also always been an inspiration, The Fauves, and the way they broke the rules of colour always fascinated me.

Sarah McDonald and her inspiring art practice

Outside of the art world, who or what inspires you?

I am inspired by nature every day, and this plays a very big role in my daily life. A part of my daily practice is to walk up into the hills behind my house and be amongst the trees. I am a self-confessed tree hugger and have based a lot of my work on researching the life of trees. I have read a lot of books about trees and am fascinated by them not only physically, but how they exist in families and groups almost like a human network. They have incredible healing ability when we are in their presence.

Outside of my life as a practicing artist, I am also very passionate about teaching art. I love being able to teach what I am passionate about and share my love of painting and experience with others who want to learn. I think I am a better teacher because I am a practicing artist and a better artist because I am teaching. I feel very lucky doing two jobs that I love. It is very rewarding when you know that you are helping enrich someones life with creativity and expression.

How has your style changed over time?

I am always learning, evolving and pushing myself out of my comfort zone. My use of exaggerated light and colour has always been present in my work, but my technique has changed over the years. I used to use only a brush to make my paintings. I then discovered a love of pushing paint around with palette knives. I used to use a bit of both, but for the last eight years I would say that my palette knives are my primary tool. I enjoy exploring the paints physicality, allowing the work to develop and change throughout the building process. I work with lots of thick oil paint and my paintings are very tactile.

Sarah McDonald and her inspiring art practice

Sarah McDonald and her inspiring art practice

What rituals or activities get you in the mood to paint?

A morning hike up the hill. I paint to music all day in my studio. My music helps me, and it changes depending on the time of day and how much energy I need. I dance when I paint. It happens without me even realising it, but it is now a thing that I like to share on my social media as it makes people smile, laugh and dance along too.

What music gets you moving in the studio?

I listen to a very eclectic range of music but to start the day it is often slower paced female vocalists. Currently Gordi and Mazzy Star are played a lot. As the day goes on, I need more upbeat dance. I always love Rufus Du Sol and that gets me dancing, and then I might get into a bit of old school house music.

Can you walk us through your creative process?

I am constantly inspired by places I may travel to, or even scenes I come across on a day to day basis on my run or bushwalk on a more local level. I respond immediately to light, colour and strong shapes caused by shadows on the ground. I then begin to make paintings in my head when viewing a particular scene and often take a quick snap of it or, if Im prepared, I will do a quick sketch to capture the composition in charcoal with exaggerated tonal areas and strong lines. These photos and sketches then translate onto the canvas when I am back in my studio.

I use oil paint and lots of it! I will build the surface of my paintings with big brushes and lots of oil paint initially just blocking in large background colours, ignoring the details. I then use palette knives to also build up the texture and create more solid forms and details.

How do you decide when a painting is finished?

It is a hard thing but my gut tells me. If I am not sure, I might turn it to the wall or put it away for a while, sometimes up to six months, and then when I bring it back out, I generally know what it needs or to not touch it.

Southern Wild Co celebrates the scent stories of the Australian landscape – what fragrances do you notice when you are painting and walking in your neighbourhood?

Eucalyptus, lemon scented gum, blossom.

Discover Sarah’s work here.


Words and images by Jessica Bellef

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