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Dani McKenzie’s Detailed Paintings Look Like Familiar Photographs

Studio Visit

There’s an emotive sense of intimacy in Dani McKenzie’s paintings. The Melbourne-based artist has been working from old family photographs since she was a budding art student, but once the pandemic hit, she found new inspiration in the quiet, familiar streetscapes of her local neighbourhood. 

Recreating beautiful homes and everyday moments she’d spied on her daily walks with expert detail, she invites us into these private sanctuaries, filled with reminders of our own inner-worlds.

23rd January, 2023

Dani McKenzie’s Brunswick studio. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files

The Melbourne-based artist has been a full-time painter for the last three years. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files

A look at one of her recent paintings. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files

‘My studio is relatively small but I love it. It’s full brick, so thankfully stays nice and cool in summer, and it has great windows. I love walking around that area too.’ Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files

Picture-perfect period facades are one of her favourite things to paint, citing her love of their ‘little front gardens, sash windows and iron latticework’ charm! Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files

Her work also reflects her curious interest in homes as a hidden ‘sanctuary’, observing everyday life from the outside looking in. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files

Books from some of her favourite artists. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files

‘For big paintings, I will make a small study on paper or board. The study helps me work out my palette and make sure the composition is balanced.’ Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files

‘I start the final painting (on linen) with a flat ground and underpainting, usually in acrylic,’ Dani says. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files

‘I then paint all the detail in oil, alla prima over the top. The time it takes depends on how complicated and detail heavy the image is, but a large canvas generally takes me two-three weeks.’ Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files

Soft colours and warm lighting help imbue her works with a sense of familiarity. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files

She’s currently represented by Olsen Gallery in Sydney, and MARS Gallery in Melbourne. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files

Another look at one of Dani’s beautiful streetscapes. Photo – Amelia Stanwix for The Design Files

Wine Time by Dani McKenzie.

Last Light II by Dani McKenzie.

Right: Afternoon Sun. Left: Dark Night, Starry Sky. And the Moon, I forgot to mention the Moon by Dani McKenzie.

Christina Karras
Monday 23rd January 2023

It all started with a trip to Europe a few years after Dani McKenzie finished high school. Naturally, she spent a lot of time exploring museums and galleries, and fell in love with painting, after being particularly inspired by contemporary painter Michaël Borremans.

‘I bought a book of his early work, and when I returned from my trip, I spent six months in my bedroom attempting to teach myself how to paint,’ Dani says. The following year she started at the National Art School in Sydney. By her fourth year, she began making paintings based on old family photographs, looking into notions of time and memory.

‘Although my current work is quite different, that is where it started,’ she adds. 

But painting only became Dani’s full-time job a few years ago – a silver lining that came about during the pandemic. She lost her job working at the Melbourne terminal for the Spirit of Tasmania when she decided to embrace the change and ‘dive into painting’.

‘There wasn’t much to do while we were in lockdown, so I started walking a lot. I thought I knew my suburb fairly well before the pandemic, but time and repetition can be very revealing. I would return to the same places day after day, and I began to recognise people and their comings and goings.’

It gave her a new perspective. Armed with a camera, she started translating these moments from the urban landscape, into paintings that are easily mistaken for photographs, thanks to their astonishing level of detail. Perhaps it’s because her current inspirations are in fact photographers, including Gail Albert-Halaban, Michael Wolf and Philip-Lorca diCorcia who Dani says have ‘each explored aspects of voyeurism and everyday life in the city’.

‘I start by scouting a location, and taking photographs. Sometimes, I will return to a particular place more than once to photograph it. Other times, as in the case of domestic interior scenes, I will stage scenarios using models’ the artist explains. ‘Once I have enough images, I use photoshop to collage a composition for painting.’

Then, from her studio in Brunswick, Dani creates these enchanting compositions using a mix of acrylic and oil paint. They serve as a beautiful sort of time capsule – sometimes literally looking into a window frozen in time. And with ambient details like the warm glow of a light left on at dusk, or the romantic facade of a heritage home, you can’t help but be drawn into her curious inner-worlds. 

See Dani McKenzie’s latest work in group exhibition, Romancing the Streetscapeon now until April 15 at the Town Hall Gallery, Hawthorn. 

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The Design Files acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the lands on which we work, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation. We pay our respects to Elders past and present.

First Nations artists, designers, makers, and creative business owners are encouraged to submit their projects for coverage on The Design Files. Please email bea@thedesignfiles.net