On Painting the Churches of Tasmania

An Australian plein air painting adventure: Why two artists visited the churches in Southern Tasmania, and what they learned.

by Ruth Bosveld

I had been keen to paint en plein air for a number of years in order to improve my painting skills. To that end, I had in mind that if I could find someone to go with me, it would be a safer and more enjoyable experience. I came across an art blog by Fiona Verdouw, who described how she was getting back into oil painting after years of working as a graphic designer. She ticked all the right boxes and I sent her an email. She agreed and we were off!

Ruth and Fiona at St Paul's Anglican Church for plein air painting
Ruth and Fiona at St Paul’s Anglican Church

It seemed every time we booked a joint outdoor painting session, the weather was less than favorable. It was fun to paint together, however, so we persevered. After a couple of efforts at painting the landscape at a local park (once, under the barbecue shelters because of the rain!), I suggested we could paint a series, possibly of sheds, following the success of American artist Gwen Gutwein, who painted barns. Fiona countered with the suggestion of old churches as possibly more of an appropriate option since sheds are not so interesting or accessible here in Tasmania. As we are both Christians and there are many beautiful old churches no longer being used for their original purpose, it seemed like a good time to document them before they disappear.

Many of these buildings are beautifully detailed and speak of bygone eras. Long ago, when their respective towns were more populous, with thriving industry and stronger community ties, life often revolved around events held in the church buildings we chose to paint. Property owners donated parcels of land for them. Communities formed committees and staged events like fairs, jumble sales, and cake stalls to raise money for the construction and maintenance. Sunday school picnics were held. Youth groups met. Generations of families were baptized, married, farewelled, and remembered from within their walls. It is this tangible sense of place and history that makes painting old churches so interesting. More urgently, since some of the buildings we painted are due for demolition or extensive renovation, we were keen to observe and paint them from life while they still stood.

Painting on location has practical, skills-based advantages. Walking around a church’s grounds helps to establish a far better understanding of its structure and scale than a two-dimensional photograph can offer. Physically getting up close to each building also reveals details that make each church unique, which we sometimes chose to emphasize in a painting.

And so, for over two years, we traveled southern Tasmania, painting mostly decommissioned churches. Some of these were in suburban areas, but mostly, they were in small, country communities.

Fiona and I often chose different perspectives. She tended to focus on a structural feature or a distant view, whereas I usually endeavored to fill most of my panel with the building.

plein air painting churches
Fiona Verdouw, “Sanctuary Within – Congregational Church, Richmond, Tasmania,” Oil on panel, 6 x 8 in.; At Cradoc, the caretaker came along to check what we might be doing to the Congregational Church. He was initially very concerned when we said we were going to paint it, but settled down when he realized we were doing its portrait!

The first church we painted was in the small rural community of Collinsvale and we nearly froze. I have no idea how many layers I had on and wasn’t too happy with my painting, which I did from up the hill in the cemetery. I went back another time on my own and had the cows over the fence to keep me company. Everyone who drove up or down the road smiled and waved.

Ruth Bosveld, "Collinsvale United Church," oil on panel, 9 x 12 in.
Ruth Bosveld, “Collinsvale United Church,” oil on panel, 9 x 12 in.

One very fine day that we painted was at the St James’ Anglican Church, Jericho. We had three men stop to chat. One was the next-door neighbor, who was full of the history of the place, then the gentleman who had purchased the church, and later, his son. They each had something interesting to say about the building and their attachment to it was obvious.

Fiona Verdouw, "Perched in the Sun - St James Anglican Church, Jericho, Tasmania," Oil on panel, 7 x 9 in.
Fiona Verdouw, “Perched in the Sun – St James Anglican Church, Jericho, Tasmania,” Oil on panel, 7 x 9 in.

St James’ Anglican Church, Colebrook (formerly Jerusalem), is being fitted out as a “weekender” for a couple from New South Wales. The builder was on site and showed us through. His big dog was also friendly, knocking over my easel at least once. It rained that day. Fiona painted out her car window and I sat in the back of my van, using the door to protect me and my painting.

plein air painting churches
Ruth Bosveld, “St John’s Anglican Church, Franklin,” oil on panel, 8.5 x 11.7 in.; The best weather we had was at Franklin. St John’s church was sparkling in the sunshine. My view of the Huon River was delightful and the colors sang. It did start to rain just as I was packing up, but the sunshine had done its job and I was very happy with that particular painting.

I have enjoyed reading the history of the different churches. There is a blog called “Churches of Tasmania,” written by a gentleman named Duncan Grant, having an associated Facebook group. Many people have connected with our painting posts in that group and added additional information and family anecdotes about the churches.

Our paintings, along with the information we gleaned about each of the subjects, were exhibited in historic cabinets in the Cloisters of St David’s Cathedral, Hobart. St David’s is celebrating its 150th anniversary and the display was very appropriate for the occasion. We are glad to have made a contribution to the historical record of our Tasmanian churches and feel we have developed our painting skills in the process.

Ruth and Fiona opening night
Ruth and Fiona on opening night at St David’s Cathedral
Paintings by Ruth Bosveld and Fiona Verdouw on display at the Cathedral
Paintings by Ruth Bosveld and Fiona Verdouw on display at the Cathedral

Have you ever painted a portrait of a church or other special building? Tell us about your plein air painting experience in the comments below!

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