A change of painter's 'palate' brings artist Simon Richardson out of his shell

by Amie Richardson / 07 October, 2018
Photography by Guy Frederick.

Painter Simon Richardson comes out of his shell.

Dunedin painter Simon Richardson begins his morning by cracking an egg, separating out the precious yolk. He sources his eggs locally, near his home in Broad Bay on the Otago Peninsula. He particularly likes these eggs, he says, because the yolks are glossy – and when the yolk is for an artwork, not breakfast, the gloss matters.

Paintings hang on the walls, including some that were gifts or “swaps” with other artists. Among his own works is “Mila”, a portrait of his then seven-year-old daughter, recently returned from the UK after becoming the first New Zealand painting accepted into the prestigious BP Portrait Awards, in 2016.

The portrait – capturing the depth of a father’s love while confronting the fragility of life – was painted as Richardson watched his brother-in-law Wayne Biggs (my late husband and the father of our two children) dying of cancer. Richardson, 43, travelled with his wife, Gepke Schouten, for the exhibition opening at the National Portrait Gallery in London, where the painting remained on display with other award finalists for several months.

“Watching Wayne dying, and trying to live to have more time with his boys, was gut-wrenching,” he says. “Painting Mila, who had a special relationship with her uncle, was my way of ordering the grief.”

“Mila” was part of his show, Southern Gothic, at Milford Galleries in Dunedin which finished earlier this month. It was his first exhibition in New Zealand for almost a decade. He also exhibited four other paintings, alongside works by other artists including Jeffrey Harris and Grahame Sydney.

“It takes time to learn what you want to do and how to do it,” Richardson says, as he adds several drops of water to his yolk. “I’m still learning about the sort of artist I want to be.”

Left: Inside Richardson's studio. Right: 'Mila', a portrait of his daughter, which was painted as her much-loved uncle battled cancer.

Over the years, Richardson has won numerous accolades, including the Canadian Elizabeth Greenshields Award (three times) and the Mainland Award in 2003. He was a finalist in both the Adam Portraiture Awards in 2004 and the Visa Gold Awards in 1998. He’s painted many notable New Zealanders, including poet Hōne Tūwhare, former All Blacks captain Anton Oliver, former Dunedin Mayor Peter Chin for his official civic portrait and, more recently, a commissioned portrait of 1987 World Cup All Blacks captain David Kirk and his wife.

Richardson only recently began using tempera, a medium where pigments are dispersed in an emulsion – typically egg yolk – that can be fully combined with water. The method was popular in Europe between the 12th and 15th centuries, then was returned to favour by American painter Andrew Wyeth in the mid-1900s, but isn’t commonly used by contemporary artists. “I love the level of detail and richness of colour you can achieve with tempera,” Richardson says. “It’s a slow medium and very pure, mixing the paint as I work.

“In today’s world, painting is in an interesting position. There’s so much visual media competing for your attention, telling you what to think. Painting requires you to go out and seek the original.

“No one’s there to tell you how long to stand in front of a painting or what to think. It’s up to you.”

This article was first published in the September 2018 issue of North & South.


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