Russell Drysdale

The White Canvas by Geoff Harrison

There was a time when the white canvas totally intimidated me.   I’m pleased to report those days are gone.  But I felt rather better about my initial hesitancy after seeing a program on Russell Drysdale.  Shortly before I acquired my first VCR (if only…) the ABC screened a program dating back to 1966 when Drysdale received a visit from an old pal George Johnston, a writer and journalist who wanted his portrait painted.

White canvas.jpg

I once heard Drysdale described as the artist who ran away from the canvas.  Did he what!!  He would get Johnston into position in a chair and then faff about looking for distractions.  They would go fishing one day, then visit an old mate at the local boozer the next.  I can recall the camera focusing on the near blank canvas regularly. 


After about 2 weeks, Johnston gave up and returned to Sydney convinced his portrait would never be completed.  Drysdale must have made some progress during Johnston's stay because I can remember him saying it was as if Drysdale gone into a trance in front of the canvas.  Some 6 weeks later, Johnston gets the call, “I’ve finished”.

George Johnston 1966.jpg

These days the white canvas represents possibilities and I focus on just getting something happening as quickly as possible.  So the next time I walk into the studio I can see I’ve made at least some progress – there is so much psychology involved.  To a point, I let the painting develop a life of its own although I do have a final image in the back of my mind.