In conversation: Penny Mason
Image: samples of watercolour testing by Penny Mason.
Mason | Marsden explores the 45+ year practice of Tasmanian artists, educators and partners Penny Mason and David Marsden.
First meeting at art school in the 60’s, their art practice has evolved over the years, defining distinct and recognisable individual styles.
Their journey as educators in Tasmania has been highly influential, inspiring many students studying the arts across the State.
While sitting in the kitchen of their home/studio in Launceston, Penny begins the process of starting a new work by explaining the sequence of her methods.
“When I set up the composition of a piece, I throw down rice quite randomly to act as indicators for the placement of details,” Penny said.
“I often refer to earlier work, a piece that’s on the studio wall or from earlier sketches. I often use the same or similar shapes again and again.
“This repertoire of shapes are often drawn from things that I've spotted on walks, random objects on the ground, but also contours of different horizons—for example, the profile of Tamar Island often appears.
“Often these shapes appear pre-consciously, I might recognise a recurring motif long after its first use. For example, the ‘L’ shape resembles a space marker for parking spots, an everyday observation that I have only recently remarked.
Image: Penny pointing to an ‘L’ shape parking space marker. In this work you can also see fragments of foliage, a disembodied wing, and Tamar Island.
When asked about the placement of shapes and markers within her work, Penny said it’s all about striking a balance between a satisfying composition and the randomness of objects in the landscape.
“If you think of walking along on the beach, and seeing the waves wash in and re-arranging the rocks and shells on the sand, and everything looks just right; and then another wave comes in only to do the same thing again and everything still looks just right.”
“In a way throwing down rice replicates this process—it’s working in a way of exploring the possibilities of composition, and it keeps me moving.”
Image: rice markers used as a guide for composition.
Once the markers have been defined within the paper, the next step of Penny’s art is to prepare the paper.
“A key part of the process is to get the paper very flat. This is a technique that has evolved over time.”
“The image is going to go face down, and I'll paint the back with a mixture of water and very diluted glue.”
“I then let this sit for about 10 minutes before putting another coat on.”
Image: applying water to the back of paper.
“After this is done, I'll stick this work to a sheet of acrylic to stop the paper from buckling. Sometimes the bucking can be nice, but if you want the work to be quite flat, this stops that from happening and allows you to have more control over the end result.”
“Some works have three or four layers of colour, and I'll repeat this process between layers of colour, leaving the work for a few days to dry each time.”
Image: paper preparation—acetate sheet being lowered on to wet paper.
Image: first layer of paint being applied leaving details as negative spaces.
When asked about her creative process, Penny said it’s important to experiment with different methods.
“For example, I work with frost in some of my works,” Penny said.
“I glue the paper to a sheet of glass, and then apply paint in the late evening. As the temperature drops, a range of patterns of frost emerge, it’s a very hit and miss process, dependant on dew point, whether in fact there is a rain, frost or snow. Sometimes all of these events occur with surprisingly ordered patterns emerging. An example of this process is below.”
Images: the process of frost art.
While chatting, Penny explains that her kitchen is the ideal studio space for her art, all thanks to the variation of light throughout the day.
“I have a studio space here at the house, up the back of the property, but it’s really used as storage.”
“I like working throughout different spots in the house, to get variations in light and breeze.”
“Watercolour works differently in different environments, and if it’s light and breezy, it can do some unexpected things. On days where the temperature is cooler, I can control the colour a lot more.”
“Another aspect of watercolour is its tendency to granulate in response to vibration producing fields of texture reminiscent of sand, clouds, and deep whirling space.”
“I use Daniel Smith watercolours, many shades of which are formulated to granulate.”
Image: Mason | Marsden exhibition at the Queen Victoria Art Gallery at Royal Park (2 Wellington Street, Launceston).
“The exhibition Mason | Marsden traces our practice back to 1975 and includes reference to the influence of teaching on our work as well as our involvement in several artist-run galleries in Launceston.”
Mason | Marsden is now showing at the Art Gallery at Royal Park until 16 July 2023.