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Response to Robert Nelson on Behalf of Fred Williams

Dogged dabs of a blobby dazzler,

The Age 9/5/2012

Dear Robert,

I was disappointed to read your article on Fred Williams in the Age 9/5/2012.

I think you underrate his achievement and misunderstand several important pictorial issues operating in the work.

Any artist painting en plein air will readily appreciate the difficulties in distilling a wealth of visual incident into a digestible language that will live as paint on canvas.

Fred Williams, through tireless field trips and observational studies was able to do exactly that.

He developed a gestural shorthand that condensed all this visual information and re-presented it to the viewer as landscape experience embodied in the painted mark.

Then there is the issue of his colour. Cezanne showed us that observed local colour in nature rarely works in painting. Faithfully recording observed colour makes for boring work.

So unless you want to return to the studio after a day’s painting with works that are predominantly green with blue for the sky you need to find ways to expand on the local colour to create harmonies that express rather than slavishly represent what’s in front of you. Fred Williams’s colour harmonies achieved this time and again.

Matisse said “Exactitude is not truth” Fidelity to ‘botanical and geological formation’ is as boring today as it was when Williams was painting. Take a photograph if that’s what you want!

Far better to get under the undergrowth and extract what David Bomberg referred to as the “Spirit in the Mass”. Where observed movement of scrub, branch and leaf has its gestural equilivent in dexterous mark making. Record the experience not the thing itself.

This is what Fred Williams did so well, and it’s the reason why his paintings still speak so eloquently to us today.

Finally Robert I think you misunderstand the spatial dynamics in the Landscape paintings.

I think Williams’s painted forms are well and truly anchored, not to a rendered ground plain, but to the picture plane itself. The forms are plastic, both flat and spatial. His is a poetic space existing in the realm of paint layers, one behind the other. We see a similar treatment in Yvonne Audette’s paintings.

Fred Williams found potent forms and signs for the Australian Bush and did it with a natural feel for paint.

No one has been able to replicate that since.

Richard Birmingham

Melbourne Studio School



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