Painting interuptus – Almost not finishing The Three Sisters

Painting interuptus - Almost not finishing The Three Sisters

February 2013. I had finished the portrait of my daughter Rhiannon a few months earlier and I still felt upset that it had not met my expectations. I did not want to touch a brush again. Then, out of the blue, I was contacted by Richard, an old school friend who now resided in Japan. He had seen the post of Rhiannon’s portrait on Facebook and wanted me to paint something for his parents-in-law. As I remember it, they had visited Australia and fallen in love with the Blue Mountains. Richard wanted to give them a painting of the iconic Three Sisters. For those of you not Australian, that is a rock formation of some note overlooking a large valley.

I was honoured that Richard wanted to commission me to undertake the painting but I refused. With my keratoconus I had struggled to see clearly my own daughter. Some giant panorama was beyond me. It would just be a huge blur. Richard persisted. Eventually I conceded but stressed that I wanted no payment beyond the cost of the materials. Reluctantly he agreed.

How in Earth was I going to do this?

My first problem was seeing the scene that I was supposed to paint. Luckily for me, I love going up to the mountains and always took a camera. Photographs let me see properly the sights at such places because I can hold a camera up to my eye and zoom in or else take a photo and look at the photo a few inches from my face. In Europe I always took photos and video so I could see what I was seeing (so to speak). I knew that I had several photos of the Three Sisters to use as my source.

Next was getting up the courage to put paint onto canvas. Unlike the portrait of Rhiannon, I felt that I might do better if I just pushed paint around on a canvas to get the general shape of the Three Sisters and then start refining.

As you can see (above) it was quite rough and done in acrylics. Below you can see the next day I started adding thin films of oils and liquin. First the sky. I have a favourite colour that suits local skies – cobalt blue mixed progressively with titanium white as it scrolls down to the horizon. I fold and scuff a bit to get a feeling for clouds.

I also used films of liquin and oils to start on the distant tops of the valley. Despite using greens and blues, there is always a tiny bit of purple mixed in for shadow. Faithfully I started recording my progress on Facebook instead of just posting pictures.

17 March 2013: “Have made the horizon a bit paler and started blocking the three sisters themselves. The blocking process is to try and figure out the relative sizes of the spires and rock faces. The background still needs more work (colours etc) but felt a little bit of work on the sisters themselves would help me figure out my direction.”

It’s actually starting to look a bit like the place!!!

14 April 2013: “With Rhiannon on a play date and a few hours spare, I did some more work. Mostly played with the nearer part of the background (still not happy with it). Also started adding finer blocking to the leftmost sister and trying to get a sense of where I will put trees on the leftmost side. Also threw a very light haze over the far ridge, though not sure if too light a haze. Need to think about colours a bit too.”

Then disaster struct. I developed an infection in both eyes – an allergic reaction that impacted my keratoconus. I went blind in both eyes and had to have an operation. I did not return to painting until November. Indeed, I was scared to pick up a brush again.

24 November 2013: “After six months of eye problems (infections, operation, photosensitivity, etc) I have finally attempted to continue a painting I started at the beginning of the year for my friend Richard. I’m not sure that I see the same way as I did then and I feel different when I paint. Hope I can eventually give you something worthwhile. Here is what it looks like at the end of today’s efforts.”

8 December 2013: “From the photo it may not seem much different from the previous one. However I have played with colours to try and make the background recede more and the foreground more vivid. Added purple to the shadows of the sisters to make them richer. Added a bit of orange to the stone and plenty of white. Played a bit with the green, adding light purple to give it a slightly greyer hue. Getting close to completion. I think it evokes the Three Sisters a bit, though I would have liked to have done a better job.”

12 December 2013: “Finished – at least to the best of my skill. I’ve added some yellow and blue in places to add richness, also black and white to draw out contrast. Decided to so this after I graduated today. Now to send it off to Japan

So this was it. My painting of ther Three Sisters. I think that one day I and my thick glasses must go to lessons and learn to paint properly. Nevertheless it hangs on a wall in Japan and apparently it is much loved. What else could I want for it?

So what is the point of this story? I guess the point is that I had little faith in my ability to do something and I didn’t give up. I life it is easy to give up. But sometimes we have to persevere and while the outcome may not meet our expectations there is value in the journey and others may be less harsh on you than you are on yourself.

Thanks for reading.



  1. I have hesitated to say something, but it’s meant in the spirit of constructive criticism. First I have to say you did a great***** job regardless of the fact you have visual difficulties. The part I would have advised you to hold off on is adding so much blue to the foreground and middle ground in the last step. More distant objects appear more blue, so adding blue to the far mountain edge will cause it to appear to recede relative to the middle and foreground, thus creating the depth. More reddish colors towards the front will make the foreground appear closer. Hopefully this will be helpful on the next painting. Don’t stop painting!

    1. Thanks If I can get the guts up to take paint to canvas again I will take your advice. I guess I tend to avoid reds and oranges a bit when I paint because, for some reason, my vision really emphasises them. So they tend to dominate anything I look at. I must work to not let that constrain me. Thanks

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