Wendy Sharpe and me.  Wendy is holding one of the paintings I did at the workshop.

Wendy Sharpe and me. Wendy is holding one of the paintings I did at the workshop.

Wendy Sharpe is one of Australia’s most awarded artists.  She has won the Archibald Prize, the Sulman Prize and twice won the Portia Geech Prize. She was Australia’s official war artist in East Timor and Wendy has been the recipient of many national and international scholarships and residencies.  I have long been a huge fan of Wendy’s work. (I am lucky to own a small piece!) Last year I had the opportunity to join a weekend workshop with her.  She is an amazingly generous teacher and I came away very inspired having learned so much.  This year a major retrospective of Wendy’s work was held at SH Ervine Gallery in Sydney.  A book was published to coincide with the exhibition, ‘The Imagined Life’. I made sure I managed a trip down to see the exhibition and to get my copy of the book & DVD.  Wendy is a great traveller and many of her works are the result of these adventures.  She recently returned from a stay in Paris and generously made time for me to interview her!  Read on and enjoy!




Why do you sketch?
Firstly I must say that I don’t like the word ‘sketching’. I would never use the word. I draw and for some reason which I can’t describe, sketching isn’t the right word.

I have always drawn. As a child I drew and I just kept it up. I was always known as that person, as a drawer. I did the school magazine and I was just always drawing. It has always been how I communicate. Even now, when I am talking to people I will often draw to show them what I mean.


East Timor - 1999 - Charcoal

Click image for a larger view. East Timor - 1999 - Charcoal

What is your favourite subject?
I draw people and where you have people you have a story. I am interested in stories. When I’m drawing people I am imagining what is going on and what they might be thinking. I have never been and never will be a landscape artist. It is people who interest me.

View from the roof, Gouache o paper, 50 x 65cm , 2007

Click on image for a larger view. 'View from the roof'. Gouache on paper, 50 x 65cm , 2007

Can you describe your process of creating a drawing?
I draw in gouache. I like gouache because it is paint and I love paint. I can thin it down and create washes that are almost as transparent as watercolour but it can also be opaque. You can also put white gouache over black if you want to. I don’t use a pen. I water it down and draw with it with a brush.

I spend most days in the studio. Today has been quite different with a visit to the gallery to discuss an upcoming exhibition, but I have a few hours here now before a friend arrives later. Because there is not time to paint, I will draw, doodle really. The series I’m working on at the moment requires quite complicated compositions. I will be designing the paintings with these drawings. They will be just loose sketches. I will be working out where to put the people, how many to put here, does it need to be dark there. They won’t look like anything but they help me work it out. Hopefully by the end I will have worked out enough to be able to do a more complete drawing.


Suai Cathedral - 1999 - Gouache on paper

Click image for a larger view. 'Suai Cathedral'. Gouache on paper, 1999

I noticed you said the word ‘sketch’ then.
Yes, well that is the difference. To me a sketch is something you do to prepare for a painting. It is not a work in its own right. A drawing can be a work in its own right. I haven’t thought about it before. It’s interesting. For me its some kind of connotation with the word sketch. Generally I don’t sketch, I draw.


Madeline on the Balcony

Click on image for a larger view. "Madeline on the Balcony (red tights)" 2009 gouache on paper 28x36cm

When you are drawing out and about, do people speak to you? How do you deal with it?
Usually people don’t. You get a few who might glance at what you are doing when you start but if it doesn’t look like a photograph straight away they go away and think you are terrible. What you are doing may end up looking quite like a photograph at the end but at the beginning it is just a few broad shapes.

It is a good idea to take a friend with you because people are less likely to speak to you if there are two of you. I don’t mind if people just want a quick look and to say hello but it is quite difficult to have someone standing close by while you are drawing. And it is quite a surprise but they often stand in front of you, blocking the view you are drawing!

I don’t do much drawing out and about while I’m at home. I mostly do it when I’m travelling. I have in the past done a series around Newtown area, near where I live and near the studio. I may well do that again, but I generally only go out and draw when I’m away. I would never go out into the bush to draw. It is cities that interest me, it’s not that I only like other countries trees or something! It is always cities for me.


When you are travelling and you sketch, what materials do you use?

Paper, of course, and I use tubes of gouache. I usually carry a big bottle of water and two smaller watercontainers, often other water bottles with the tops cut off. When I’m working I use one as water for the dark colours and the other for the light ones. It makes it a lot easier. I also have two palettes, usually two plastic takeaway food container lids. I keep the warm colours on one and the cool on the other – that way they don’t mix as much and it helps me with what I’m doing.

By the Canal

Click on the image for a larger view. "By the Canal" (4 panel double sided screen) 2010 Oil on linen 165x320cm

Self Portrait with St Marks

Click on image for a larger view. "Self Portrait with St Marks" 2009 Gouache on paper 36cm x 28cm

When you come home from your travels, how do you create your works?
If they are drawings I usually do them while I am away. If it is an oil painting, I work a lot from memory. If I’ve drawn a lot while I was there I find that I will remember it. As you know, when you are drawing you are seeing in a special way that really benefits the memory.

You frequently put yourself into your drawings. Why is that?
My drawings are of my experiences, my recollections of being there. I do put myself in many of my works but not as many as people say. Some of the figures people think are me are quite ridiculous!

Do you ever draw from photos?
Almost never. If I use photos it is usually to jog my memory. My recent exhibition was of paintings of Venice. I did use photos to remind me of how the light is reflected on the water and things like that. Sometimes I might wonder how a building went at the top and a photo will remind me that it had those curly bits. But other than that I don’t use photos.

What are your 3 top tips for people beginning to go out and draw?

  1. Take a friend with you! They are useful not only to limit the conversations of strangers but you can always take a photo of them in front of whatever scene you want to capture. You can also pretend to take their photo and then when you move the camera away, quickly take the photo of what ever it is.
  2. Don’t take too much kit. If you find you really need something after you get there you can usually buy it.
  3. Never pack ink. It’s not a matter of ‘if’ it will leak. It WILL leak. When I’m travelling I water down black gouache and use it instead of ink.

Thank you so much Wendy.  I definitely feel inspired after talking to you!

Here are links to Wendy’s website, representing galleries, places to purchase the book as well as workshops you can attend:

Paris Gouache on paper, 28 x 36cm, 2007

Click image for a larger view. "Paris". Gouache on paper, 28 x 36cm, 2007


– Wendy Sharpe is currently represented by:

Workshops available through –

‘The Imagined Life’ (Book and DVD) available from –