Gordon Hanley’s life took a new twist with a Christmas present from his wife Shauna in 2006.
It was a metalpoint pen and some formula.
To most of us that would sit right up there with jocks from Nan, but to a renowned artist with a science background, it offered endless possibilities. Manna from heaven.
‘’I’d been reading a book on Da Vinci and the metalpoint art they used at the time, and it intrigued me,” Hanley, 61, explains. And wives have a habit of noticing these things.
All the same it took him six months or so to get around to experimenting with it. He was a busy man after all, one of Australia’s most successful watercolour artists.
Metalpoint art had its heyday in the 1500s so don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of it.
To do it you need specially coated paper – hence the coating, which artists refer to as “ground” – and a metal-tipped stylus (think pencil – but with a piece of silver or gold wire instead of the lead). It’s a slow, even laborious process of drawing, but as the graphite pencil hadn’t been invented back then, it was all they had.
When the pencil came into being, metalpoint art quickly died out and it stayed that way for the best part of 600 years. Until a Hanley family Christmas in Brisbane.
His earliest attempts at metalpoint weren’t too successful, and he realised the coating for the paper needed improving. It was fertile ground for a man with a scientific background and a love of art, so he started experimenting.
Fast forward ten years and metalpoint art – or, more precisely these days, his goldpoint and silverpoint art – has made him one of the hottest artists anywhere in the world.
He has refined the coating process, but still tinkers. In his own words, the paper has to be “perfect”. He adjusts formulas to get the best ground for the image he is about to draw, and the process can take five days before he’s ready to even draw a line.
The metalpoint has evolved too. He now uses pure gold or silver, sometimes a combination of both, sometimes with some carbon added, depending on the depth of tone he’s after.
The result are drawings that can fetch between $1950 and, say, $45,000 each. Images that have propelled Hanley to be officially recognised by the US-based Art Renewal Centre as Australia’s first Living Master, a title he wears with equal parts pride and humility.
Think about it. $39,000 for a black and white drawing that isn’t all that big – 80cm x 110cm is about as big as they get.
He has done still life – he loves playing with the light and transparency of crystal glassware – wildlife images such as his eerily beautiful Barn Owls, and in recent times he is doing more and more portrait work.
Invariably there is an intricacy to his drawings and wonderful tones of shade and light.
“I think light is one of the consistent factors through all my works,” he says. He names three or four pieces that stand out in his own mind because of the way he has nailed the light and shade.
Mind you, it’s painstaking business getting it right.
A drawing will usually take more than 100 hours to complete.
If in his desire to get the tone right, if he presses too hard and breaks through the ground, he has no option but to start again.
“I reckon there has been half a dozen times when I’ve broken through the ground after I’ve done 60 or 70 hours on a drawing – of course Murphy’s Law operates well in that it will always happen at the end of a drawing, but then I start again. There’s no choice.
“You can’t correct a metalpoint. It’s virtually impossible.”
The upside is that metalpoint is receptive to incredible detail, and subtleties of light and shade that even a top shelf camera would have trouble achieving.
Also when the ground is right, and with the advancement in the quality of paper, his drawings can theoretically live for thousands of years.
“Think about it,” he said. “My coatings are far superior to what they used hundreds of years ago. So the people I’m drawing now are immortal in a way. In 500 years’ time we could have some person come up and point at one of my portraits and say that was my great great great grandmother.
“I find that really exciting.”
He also believes it’s one of the reasons he never has to advertise for a model.
“No, now they contact me and ask if they could pose. I think it’s that sense that the image will live forever.”
And when he’s finished a piece, what does he do?
“Turn it around so that it’s face is to the wall. I don’t look at them after I’ve finished. I’m thinking about the next image, and how I can make it the best I’ve ever done. For an artist it’s the creation of an art work that is all-important, not admiring it afterwards”.
“I can’t start the next piece until have every minute detail of it worked out in my mind about how it’s going to look, so I need to put the previous piece behind me and move on. No looking back.”
But if you think Gordon Hanley is at the top of his game right now, the man himself is not convinced.
The tweaking of paper … the combination of gold, silver and carbon … the fact he only started learning his new skill 10 years ago … he’s perfecting his art still. The best is yet to come.
Welcome to the world of Gordon Hanley.
Gordon will exhibit 37 pieces in Mt Cootha Botanical Garden from August 6th to 13th. All pieces will be for sale, with prices ranging from $2250 to $45,000. Free entry.
He has been a member of Jindalee Rotary for 10 years and 10 per cent from all sales will go to support Australian Rotary Health.
Richard Randall Art Studio
Mt Cootha Botanical Gardens, Brisbane
Saturday 6th August – Saturday 13th August
Open: 10am- 5pm FREE ENTRY
For more information click here.