Ric Burkitt: each painting becomes itself

This interview with Ric Burkitt is a real treat as we peak inside his world of abstract painting and the constant learning he engages with from making 'mistakes' and reflecting on the process. I love how Ric presents art making as a constant act of discovery and the joy that is evident from approaching art making with that mindset.

Scroll down and hit play on the Jacqueline du Pré playlist and listen along to the cello as you read, as Ric does when he paints.


Michelle Saleeba: Describe your creative journey

Ric Burkitt: Art just turned up one day and never left. As a kid I used to draw cowboys and Indians fighting in and around arroyos and gulches, arrows and bullets flying everywhere, men dying in their thousands, horses tumbling down hillsides. Like on the TV. It was the first time I really let my imagination out on paper; those drawings were battles in themselves, often taking several days to resolve.

In secondary school I was usually the only art student in specialist classes, so I learned things like perspective, form, colour, line and composition one-on-one, and aimed myself at art school for big kids [college] when I was sixteen [1972]. Someone, however, had been speaking to the right people, and I was guided into graphic design, because it paid a wage. And I worked in that area forever, with art taking a backseat. I would produce a painting here and there, but I was a designer there, in Melbourne, for the longest time.

I completed a BA Fine Art [with Distinction] in 1992, which I kind of wasted because I hung onto representational art [as though I knew the secret] and snubbed my nose at abstraction. I then went back to graphics, and it stayed that way right up until 2015, when I decided to cut back on the GD [mostly teaching now, anyway, at college]. I now had one day every week to dedicate to art, and I hit the painting studio like an attack dog.

MS: Have there been any formative experiences, or lessons along the way that have impacted on your art making?

RB: What makes the most impact on me now is what I do in my studio, whether it ‘works’ or not. I learn mostly by making mistakes, and then figuring out what to do next. Often I will paint over areas that are ‘finished’ or are ‘working well’ and go into them again without the distraction of my mind having stopped. The lesson there is, don’t get too precious about the work, and stay open to other possibilities. I probably read that somewhere years ago. It makes sense now.


MS: Describe your current art practice

RB: My current art practice is an adventure somewhat like finding your way out of a maze and then turning around and running straight back in. The glorious Margaret Woodward wrote:

“…a continuous oscillation occurs between the conscious and the intuitive, between the known and the potential of the as-yet unknown. It is up to the painter to find the connections.”

That inspires me!

Often the search for the right language is what propels the work forward, through mark making, colour choices, the removal of paint layers, or the near-destruction of the surface, and I follow my instincts – my intuition – as I make connections and search for a resolution.

MS: Tell us about your choice of medium/s, why do you work with them?

RB: I work mostly with acrylic paints and oil sticks at the moment, on stretched canvas or Bass wood. I like the quick-drying acrylics; I can move the painting along vigorously and still get strong colour and good texture. I love building up a history of layers, adding depth and energy to the work, and I think these materials are working for me at the moment. The wood support has recently become a favourite, with its sympathetic and robust surface able to endure my scraping, scratching and sanding.

Ric Burkitt, in a lighter moment during studio time.

MS: What does a typical day of creative work look like for you?

RB: Fridays are my big studio days. I start work as soon as my wife drives out of the yard at 6.30am and usually stop when I hear her drive back in at the end of the day. Some days involve painting; others are more about developing ideas and trying out techniques. I try to leave the routine things for odd evenings or Sunday mornings – the preparation of surfaces, the proper cleaning of brushes, and so on – and use the Friday for getting paint down. Or removing it. Or staring at it for an hour or two…


MS: Who or what are the strongest influences on your art?

RB: I try not to allow other work to influence my own too much, but it creeps in. I look at as much art by other artists as I can and some of that influences me because it is so diverse and sooo good! I get ideas and inspiration, mostly, and that’s okay. One of the strongest influences on my art is the painting I did last week, what I learned from it, and how I will grow from it.

MS: What do you aim to say through your art? Are there any consistent themes or stories in your work?

RB: My recent landscape paintings have been an attempt to define myself against the backdrop of this enormous sky that looms over the paddocks and winding roads around this neck of the world, to line myself up alongside the fences and grass and sheep, and be as insignificant. I don’t feel that in the city; it’s more apparent when you get out into the country where you can breathe, and connect. There is very little that I would call consistent in my abstract work, especially in terms of themes and stories, but there are techniques and materials that seem to tie it all together. Each painting just becomes itself, in the end, and other people interpret and relate to the work in their own way.

MS: What’s essential to you being able to produce art?

RB: Essential to my work is continuity, being able to immerse myself in the painting, so that ideas can develop rather than suffer through inattention. Having the space and the materials are also [obviously] essential, as is the initial motivation, but time is the big one; a full week of painting each day might cause a revolution, with the connections and predicaments it could create!

On the road to Vasse

MS: What role do you see artists and the arts having in society?

RB: I’ve heard it said that artists are meant to ‘hold society up so it can look at itself’, and I guess some are able to do that successfully. I think artists often draw our attention to things we might otherwise miss, good and bad, and that might well be their role… alongside just pure entertainment!

There are no hidden messages or agendas in my abstract work; it is simply what it is, as I said earlier. I have occasionally made a social comment in my figurative work, [driven by cynicism and misanthropy, for the most part] but it is a rarity for me to use my art for any sort of social commentary.

MS: It’s said that creative expression and arts engagement are fundamentally tied to our sense of vitality and wellbeing. Do you perceive this to be true for you? Why do you think this might be?

RB: Since reconnecting with my ‘inner artist’ I have found myself to be a much more balanced and directed person, in many aspects of my life. I put it down to the contemplative, philosophical nature of arts engagement, especially at the doing end of it, where we spend many hours alone, absorbed in our endeavours and ourselves.


MS: Do you have any exciting news to share about your art practice?

RB: The best news I can share about my art practice is that it is improving with age! I am involved in several exhibitions coming up soon, and later in the year, and I’m very happy to be showing my work in this way, but the main thing for me is that I am learning and improving, and growing as an artist.

MS: What’s the most memorable response you’ve had to your artwork?

RB: Recently, I painted an abstract work that resonated so much with my wife that she would not allow it to be exhibited, in case it sold. We still have it. She loves it. I love her for that.

MS: I’m wondering if there is a quote, piece of writing or music that particularly inspires you?

RB: The Margaret Woodward quote I mentioned earlier always provides inspiration, connecting as it does to my recent approach to abstraction; I have it written on a piece of paper and pinned over my studio door.

Musically, the cello seems to be the instrument that inspires me the most, and I often have the Elgar Cello concerto in E minor, Op.85, played by Jacqueline du Pré on as a special treat.

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