In the Studio: Charly Wrencher

Charly Wrencher is a London-born artist who has called Australia home for 30 years. He attended the National Art School in Sydney. A keen surfer, he now lives in Byron Bay where, according to Charly, he has always wanted to be. He and his wife, four children and extended family reside on a 68-acre property that is a constant source of inspiration. He is a prolific and successful painter and shows his work nationally and locally.

Interview by Nadine Abensur

 Charly in his studio in Byron Bay. Photography by Natalie Grono.

Charly in his studio in Byron Bay. Photography by Natalie Grono.

Nadine.  Have you always drawn and painted?

Charly.  Yes, always. From a very young age, there were unlimited supplies of  pencils, charcoals, paints, unlimited supplies of paper. My parents were never precious about it — they didn’t mind if we made a mess. I moved to Australia from London when I was 11. My brother reacted by becoming very physically active and I responded by drawing and painting obsessively. I couldn’t believe how much space there was. 

Nadine. Sounds like your parents were quite artistic themselves. 

Charly. Yes, my father was a photographer and art director. There were always layouts and storyboards lying around the house. My mother drew and painted and was forever going to to life drawing classes. I basically grew up in a photographic studio and on film sets. So, they were very relaxed about it all — not in the least bit precious and never critical.

Nadine.  Many would envy you that one! So I suppose that the idea of an artistic career was acceptable?

Charly.  Yes, totally. They encouraged me in all sorts of ways and my first work experience at the age of 16 was with Mick White, the leading advertising studio in Sydney, doing layouts. It was a great experience but I knew pretty quickly that it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I knew that I would never enjoy working to a brief and that I needed much more freedom to express myself and so I set my sights on going to art school. I applied and got into the National Art School and went there straight after school. I was there for three years, discovered oil paint, how to be very expressive, how to structure drawings and go from conception to execution; the fundamentals of becoming an artist in other words.

Nadine.  They really teach you how to draw at the National Art School too. How has that influenced you?

Charly.  Drawing had always come easily to me. I was a natural.

Nadine. You say you were naturally able to draw — this is something that intrigues me. The notion of natural propensity, the role of hard yakka… Can you say more about it?

Charly.  I recently found a drawing I’d made of a car at the age of four. It’s obviously a child’s drawing but it has three-dimensionality. Most kids at that age draw flat pictures but this had dimension. I really do think it came naturally.

Nadine.  Well, you must have enjoyed it and been encouraged too.

Charly.  Yes, for sure! My parents encouraged me all the way. All the same, I recently read that the happiest people are accountants and the most dissatisfied are the artists. They challenge things, they need to express things. I’ve always been one of them.

Nadine.  Anyway, big business now turns to artists for inspiration and out-of-the-box thinking, and apparently some of the biggest ideas are introduced into the sciences by artists. Coming back to you — your current work is, and for as long as I’ve known you, has been landscape based. Have you always been a landscape painter?

  Broken

Broken

Charly.  No way! When I was young, that wasn’t cool at all. I wanted to be the next Australian expressionist artist. I was rebellious and political. Last thing I wanted was to be a landscape painter.

Nadine.  Not edgy enough, not confronting or political enough?

Charly.  Exactly. But then I did a huge road trip around Australia and I was absolutely bowled over. Superficially, my work is about the landscape. But I put everything in there. My political views come through in my gestures. Just as everything does. If I get annoyed with the kids, I pour it into the marks. If I see yet another house on the horizon I’ll rant and rave about overdevelopment, but I put all that energy into the painting. Every mark is a working through, an expression, a way of making sense of things, of reaching resolution.

Nadine. We talk a great deal about process in the art world. Do you think of yourself as process-driven, or are you focused on the outcome?

Charly.  I never have a finished product in my mind, if that’s what you mean. I like to throw in bright colours, a surprise line here or there, and one step, one mark leads to the next. I never start with a palette. It’s all very organic.

Nadine.  Interesting. I often speak to artists who tell me it’s important to start with a palette, often a very reduced one.

Charly.  Not me - I get bored too easily! I like the physicality of painting. The spontaneity. I like to work very close to the painting, so that it looks good, even when you step quite close to it. And of course, it has to look good from a distance. It’s not pre-planned but it is fully conscious. I am completely present with the work. So in that sense, you can say that I am completely in the process.

Nadine.  What about materials?

Charly.  I use the best quality paints possible. It’s like a musical instrument. You’re always going to get a better sound out of a good instrument whoever you are. If the tone is good, you’ll automatically sound good. So, I buy the best paints I can — series five or six — where one tiny little tube costs $60. Then I’ll squeeze it out in one go and think, “OK, here we go!”

Nadine.  Your paintings are very large – the mind boggles!

Charly.  Yeah – I worked out that a large painting costs me $1000 just in materials.

Nadine.  You paint outdoors these days. What does that change?

Charly.  I don’t get a headache! Plus being a landscape painter, it makes much more sense to be outside.

  Over the Fence

Over the Fence

Nadine. Do you paint from memory, life, photographs?

Charly.  Never from photographs. I can always tell when someone does. It’s always flat.

Nadine.  Your painting is more left field, more intuitive, more emotional?

Charly.  Yes, absolutely. Also, I have great views from my deck and that gives me reference points and inspiration, and makes the experience really alive. And it encourages my kids to get involved. One of them, Khan, is always telling me what he thinks works and what he thinks doesn’t. He keeps me on my toes!

Nadine.  Favourite artists?

Charly.  Too long a list. The classics — Leonardo, Rembrandt. I was influenced by David Hockney in my early days. I have no art books in my studio. It’s too easy to be a sponge and then I lose me. So I don’t have too much around to influence me. I like to keep my head clean.

Nadine.  It’s interesting because these days, and probably always, everyone is so concerned with who’s who, who exhibits with whom, and where people position themselves. How do you feel about all that?

Charly.  Well, I was a finalist in the Wynne Prize in 2000 and in the Salon Des Refuses the year before that but it just made me quite cynical about the whole game and and I didn’t respect the judges’ choices, so I decided to go it alone and I’m much happier that way. I found that I wanted to paint for its own sake. Painting is its own reward for me. It’s my life.

Nadine.  You love to surf. Does that influence you?

Charly.  I’ve got a lot of energy and I need to burn it off. Watching the sunrise, taking in the landscape… riding the wave sure does influence me. That movement is all part of what I bring to the painting. When I surf, I’m immersed in the living landscape, and when I paint, I’m immersed in its painted representation. I can’t imagine life without one or the other.