I recently had the incredible opportunity to meet one of the most amazing Australian artists, whose work I have admired for such a long time. Cressida Campbell is nothing short of a master in her field – her breathtakingly detailed works are highly collectable, and are held in some of the most prestigious public collections in the world, from the National Gallery of Australia to the British Museum.
Working from a home studio in Sydney’s Bronte, Cressida depicts scenes from a familiar world – domestic interiors, unmistakeably ‘Australian’ landscapes, and the most exquisite still lifes. Her intensely laborious process combines both painting and printing, in an innovative technique which results in two unique artworks – a single painted and engraved woodblock, and a one-off woodblock print on paper. As Cressida outlines below, each piece starts with a detailed line drawing on board, after which the linework is engraved to create a single-use woodblock. She then carefully paints thick layers of watercolour into the scene, ‘colouring in’ her carved line drawing. When this process is complete, the entire board is delicately dampened with water, and used to create a single print on paper. Given this painstaking process, its no wonder that each work can take anywhere between two weeks to four months to complete.
Of all Cressida’s lush, densely layered works, I think my very favourites are her domestic scenes. She paints the most beautifully detailed rooms with a deceiving sense of depth – interiors which appear both super flat and multi-dimensional all at once. Many of the spaces she has captured have a sense of autobiography about them – corners of her own home are often depicted in her work, as is the eclectic home of her talented sister, Sydney textile designer Sally Campbell (whose home we have also profiled here!).
As she explains below, the past few years have been a challenging time for Cressida, as she suffered the very sad loss of her husband Peter in 2011, after 29 years together. With the support of her amazing creative family, close friends and loyal gallerists, over the past twelve months Cressida has rekindled her creative practice, and is back in the studio, once again making exquisite work. She staged a solo show last month with Philip Bacon Galleries in Brisbane, and just last weekend she exhibited with Sophie Gannon Gallery at the Sydney Contemporary art fair. Knowing that Cressida is quite a private person, I feel especially lucky to have had the opportunity to visit her at home, and to capture a little of her world and her process first hand. Huge thanks to Sophie Gannon and to Sally Campbell who I think may have had a role to play in gently convincing Cressida to share her story with us!
My father was the writer Ross Campbell, my mother Ruth was an art student and then journalist before having four children. My sister Sally is a designer (Sally Campbell Textiles), my sister Nell is an actress and famous nightclub owner of Nell’s in New York, while my brother Patrick is a scientist doing Solar Energy research at NSW University.
My husband Peter died in November 2011. We lived together for 29 years. He was a film critic for the Australian Financial Review, book publisher, and previously ran a film festival in Adelaide called the Adelaide Film Event.
I was interested in painting and drawing from a very early age, then went to art school for two years when I was 16 years old, and have been working as a full-time artist ever since. I studied painting and drawing at what is now called the National Art School in East Sydney. While I was there I also studied printmaking where I experimented with woodblock printing, and started using the single painted block technique I still work with today.
My work is a combination of painting and printing. The end result is a single painted and engraved woodblock and a unique (as in one only) woodblock print.
Before I start a picture I have either seen the subject or thought about the subject for quite a while. I then will begin the work on a piece of plywood (any thickness works for me!) and draw a line drawing in pencil of the subject from life. I then carve the fine line using an engraving power tool from Kyoto. After rubbing out the pencil and lightly sanding the block I paint the block using water colour paint thickly.
When finished, I then spray the block with water and place a dampened piece of Stonehenge paper on the block. Pressure is applied to the back of the paper by hand using a small rubber ink roller. When enough paint comes off onto the paper the print is lifted off.
A small work may take two weeks to complete from the drawing to the end result, a large work may take four months. I usually work on one picture at a time but I will often put a drawing away for months before carving and painting it.
I am naturally very pleased Australian audiences responded so well to my book. One never knows quite why something connects with people or not, but I did try and make it as visually interesting as possible, and we treated the actual book as a work of art in itself rather than purely a record of my work. We wanted the book to have a similar tactile feeling to the prints and the blocks by using unsurfaced art paper. We were also inspired by a magazine published in the 1930’s called Verve that had a very original way of displaying images.
A typical day starts, depending on whether I have slept well or not, between 7.30am or 9.30am. I start the day by feeding my tortoise shell cat Kinta and my goldfish in the long pond, going to the front gate and picking up the newspaper from under the wattle trees.
I read the paper over breakfast and then walk up the 13 sandstone steps through a small courtyard garden of banksias and cliveas and unlock the studio, and sit at the easel and paint, listening to the ABC radio or talking to someone on the phone while I work.
I have a small lunch any time between 12.30pm and 2.30pm and keep on working till about 6.00pm. Sometimes I work at night if I have a deadline or the subject looks better at night. I usually have a gin and tonic at the end of the day and then a simple but good dinner, grilled fish or pasta or risotto. Or I go out for dinner or entertain!
My main inspiration comes from what is directly around me in the house or garden, but I am also very inspired by exhibitions I see in museums or travelling.
I remember combinations of colours I see in houses, pictures, gardens, buildings or sculptures here and round the world. I also have seen many beautiful exhibitions of Asian art at the Art Gallery of N.S.W that have been very inspiring, like the Utamaro show about a year ago, as well as the White Rabbit Gallery in Sydney.
I am always very excited by the Indigenous exhibitions of artists John Mawurndjul, Galuma Maymuru, Gunybi Ganambarr and Djirrirra Wunungmurra at the Annandale Galleries in Sydney, where they often have wonderful bark paintings and paintings on found materials.
I recently saw a great show by the sculptor Tracey Deep, who does beautiful wall sculptures using organic materials like kelp or petrified ferns.
I don’t really think about ‘Proudest Career Moments’ because like most artists you are generally most interested in what you are trying to do in the present, but I suppose the exhibition at the S.H.Ervin Gallery in Sydney, and the Q.U.T. Gallery in Brisbane showing blocks and prints I had made over about 25 years in 2008 was a memorable time. Mainly because it is interesting looking at a group of images you have made over a long period of time, as well as the exhibition seem to have been very appreciated.
The publication of The Woodblock Painting of Cressida Campbell was also an achievement purely as it was quite a task to produce, also it was great working with my late husband Peter on a project together. It was he who wanted me to do a book and without his encouragement the book would never have been produced.
I don’t have a dream project other than trying to progress in my work in a way that I am constantly exploring new compositions and ways of seeing my subjects.
I am looking forward to making a series of pictures of different rooms with windows, some austere and others not, some large details of subjects that may otherwise not be noticed.
Although I don’t really have a favourite Sydney neighbourhood as there are so many great suburbs (in the city and the suburbs). But I guess my own neighbourhood (Bronte and Bondi) is brilliant because it is very practical, meaning that the fruitologist, art supply shop, fish shop, chemist, Charcoal Chicken shop, great florist, Jewish cake shop, liquor shop and Russian Deli are 2 minutes drive from my house. Also nearby is Centennial Park and the Bondi to Bronte Walk.
I shop at Bondi Road Art Supplies, I also go to Bismac, a wood supplier .
I love The Bronte Road Bistro, it has really good fresh ingredients, very nice owners and a good atmosphere that is cosseting but relaxed.
On a typical Saturday morning I am in my studio, I like to work everyday (obviously not rigidly if something comes up!) and prefer to see people at night.
Even though I am ashamed to say I don’t explore the coastal walks nearly enough, I would have to say there are so many beautiful bush and harbour walks you can do, and I hardly see any one walking on them. I love the view from Mann’s Point at Greenwich where I grew up, overlooking the Shell shipping terminal and Berry’s Island on Sydney Harbour.
Cressida’s stunning self published book The Woodblock Painting of Cressida Campbell is now sold out, with no plans for a fourth edition. You may be able to still find one in good book shops!