Leanne Barrett: Why do some artists produce work sporadically?

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

Why do some artists produce work sporadically?

Card and Envelope
Gigantic Lilly (Doryanthes excelsa), Newcastle, 6 Nov 1835
Ever wondered about the number of works that a female artist produces?

This thought struck me during a recent talk by Treasurers Curator, Nat Williams at the National Library of Australia (NLA), Life and Death - Dorothy English Paty's Newcastle

So how many works do artists produce? 
Some artists create works daily, called by their creative need to create continuously. While other artists create sporadically or they express their artistic ability creating less traditional productions.

I wonder if the amount of work that an artist produces and whether we consider ourselves artists could be directly linked to our artistic pursuits towards the end of our high school education? Maybe at this point of our artistic endeavours we could be categorised into three main groups of artistic pursuits. 
  1. You were discouraged to pursue your art interest at school beyond year 10 and were told to pick something else as 'Art is not a real subject.'  
  2. You studied art for your High School Certificate but followed other pursuits after school.
  3. You continued your artistic pursuits well beyond your school years.
If you categorise yourself in groups one and two you have probably dipped in and out of your artistic pursuits, letting less traditional artistic productions be the expression of your creativity.

As a female these pursuits often present themselves in the following ways, but they are by no means exclusive to females, nor is this an extensive list.
  • creating costumes for your children for a school events
  • patchwork quilting
  • sewing clothing
  • cross stitching etc.
  • scrap-booking 
  • stamping or card making
  • producing themed birthday parties
  • cake or cupcake decorating
  • home decorating

Maybe there have been times when you answered your artistic call and you may have drawn and painted  at home sporadically or you enrolled into evening art classes. But ultimately you wish for time in your life to be able to just create, without worrying about your responsibilities to work and family.   

Which brings me back to Dorothy English Paty, the wife of the Deputy Assistant Commissary General in Newcastle, NSW in the 1830s. She painted over 55 watercolours between December 1832 to September 1836, approximately 1 painting every three weeks. 

In exploring Dorothy's life and paintings we see that her works were sometimes painted in bursts of output. 
1832 - 1 painting
1833 - 12 paintings
1834 - 31 paintings - six over a 14 day period
1835 - 9 paintings
1836 - 4 paintings
(These numbers are taken from the images in the NLA digital catalogue)

I can relate well to Dorothy's bursts of output or weeks of no creating. Currently I am trying to produce one artwork a week as part of the 52 Week Illustration Challenge. To date I have produced 20/28 works. The weeks that I have missed creating an artwork have generally been due to the busyness of life.

As an aspiring artist who often paints the subjects of plants using watercolours I was interested to see why Dorothy's artwork creation may have been so sporadic. 


Nat Williams 
Dorothy was born 14 May 1805 to a wealthy family in Bideford, Devon, England. Her father Thomas Burnard had been mayor of Bideford twice and upon his death in 1823 he was an '...owner or shareholder of nearly 60 sail vessels employed in the foreign and coast trade.' (Nat Williams, 28 June 2017) Historically women from wealthy families were trained in the gentile arts and these skills often included sketching and painting in watercolours. One method of learning watercolours was to use instructional books like Easy Introduction to Drawing Flowers by James Sowerby.

Dorothy married John Paty in 1829 and later that year they arrived in Hobart, Australia before moving to Sydney in 1831. On the 23 January 1831 Dorothy's first son, George Perry Paty was born. Then in 1832 the Paty family moved to Newcastle and it is here that Dorothy began to paint the artworks held by the NLA. During the next 46 months Dorothy painted around 65 botanical watercolours (Nat Williams, 28 June 2017).

Dorothy's first painting in the Newcastle volumes was of Blandfordia Nobilis, painted in December 1832 from a specimen collected by her husband John. After the birth of her second child, Elizabeth Dorothy Mary Paty in May 1833, Dorthy painted  around 12 watercolours. Between March and November of 1834, after the death of Elizabeth (8 January 1834), Dorothy painted around 29 watercolours. In 1835 Dorothy painted around 9 watercolours, most of these were painted after the birth of her third child, John Thomas Paty in the March. In 1836, with two children to take care of and the busyness of colonial life, Dorothy's painting output diminished to a handful paintings before the birth of her fourth child, Francis Australia Paty on 28 September. Unfortunately Francis died a few days after he was born and Dorothy followed him on 17 October 1836. 

Why is Dorothy's small watercolour collection important? 
Her works are not just pretty pictures. They are of a high botanical significance. While Dorothy exclusively painted from specimens and not in the field, she was meticulous in; 
  • signing and dating her work
  • recording the location of where the cutting was collected from
  • labelling the plant with its botanical name, though some names have changed over time (Nat Williams noted in his speech that these annotations were mostly written by Dorothy's friend and watercolourist, Mrs Anley, from Matiland)
  • recorded the plant's flowering times
  • sometimes she painted cutaways to show the seeds inside the pods and the plant's structure. 
While Dorothy's plant artwork collection may be small, it is historically important for artists and botanists. Knowing how hard it is to create one artwork a week with all of the modern conveniences of the 21st century, Dorothy managed a fantastic feat. 

Dorothy English Paty's sporadic production of approximately one artwork every three weeks is amazing achievement, especially taking into consideration how busy she would have been with her role as a wife and mother in Newcastle in the 1830s. 

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