Published in INDEPENDENT LIFESTYLE, Sunday Mail February 2023
Words by Lynn Cameron – Photos by Russell Millard
Artist Roscoe Shelton has made his name painting the South Australian Outback and hopes to complete a series of paintings for this year’s SAL Festival
At home on the range
South Australia’s diverse Outback inspired emerging impressionist artist Roscoe Shelton to pick up a paintbrus
As a young child, Roscoe Shelton was enamoured with his father’s artwork. Tom Shelton was a talented painter who learned from some of Australia’s most notable artists, including Max Meldrum, who also mentored Clarice Beckett – today recognised as one of Australia’s most important painters of the interwar period.
When his father died in 1969, Shelton drove from Melbourne to Arkaroola to immerse himself in the solitude and beauty of the Flinders Ranges. It was here his passion for the South Australian Outback was born. “There’s a ruthlessness about the northern Flinders Ranges and a softness about the southern Flinders Ranges,” he says. “The Heysen Trail is nice and pretty, but Arkaroola is rough, robust and you can’t beat it – it’s supreme.”
In 1980 Roscoe moved to Adelaide where he held successful roles with Mobil and the Department for Environment and Natural Resources, as well as 20 years as proprietor of Flinders Camping. His work involved spending time in the Outback and Northern Territory and he built up an impressive knowledge of the local landscape. So, when he decided to pick up a paintbrush four years ago, it was the obvious subject upon which to unleash his talent.
“Having been there, you begin to understand the depth of the landscape, which doesn’t always come out in a photograph – the sharpness of the rock face might be in a shadow,” he says.”But when you’re physically there and take a photograph yourself, you know what you’re recording, so when you come back to paint it, in the back of your mind you’re seeing, “This is the feeling, this is why this spot is important and has to be painted”. “That’s why it is a journey of learning”.
As an ex-engineer, the learning is the fun part of painting for Shelton. “As soon as something gives me an idea, I’ll give it a crack,” he says. “I’m interested in the problem-solving component – once I’ve done that the job is done. In a sense, that’s a little what painting is – it’s a little bit of a problem to solve. It’s like Einstein talking about e=mc2 – there’s something about nature that’s very simple, but it takes a lot of time to discern what is the very essence of the scene – its geology or whatever it is.
“I’m a fan of Fred Williams’ work but, because I can’t afford a Fred Williams, I have painted a Fred Williams. I’m a bit of a cheat because, in that exercise, this artist has done that simplification and so I am copying his techniques and learning how to go about it. Then I try to think, “How would Fred Williams have approached this scene?” Whether someone else liked it or not is irrelevant – to me it is solving the puzzle.”
Unlike his father who learned from the experts, Shelton is largely self-taught – in part, he admits, of his own volition. “I rocked up at a local art school and said, “You have to understand me, I don’t listen.” he says.
“All I want is to get the feel of the oil on the brush and get it onto the board. Once I get the feeling, I think I know where I am going because I remember how Dad used to construct his paintings, and I’ve looked at the Meldrum works and WB McInnes (sic) works and the Clarice Beckett’s.
“I know how these paintings are painted and once I’m confident of using the oil and the brush, I’ll fix that up. “Thankfully, one of the instructors understands me so I’m going there to be better at the craft of being an artist. I’m determined to be a good artist.”
Despite being a relatively new arrival on the art scene, Shelton’s works have already featured in an online SALA exhibition and he has plans to hold another exhibition at the end of the year, based on the journey from Adelaide to Darwin.
“I want to tell that indigenous story – the string of springs, the Old Ghan when it went up through Marree, the new Ghan, the telegraph line, the explorers, the mine sites and more,” he says.
“I know Adelaide to Darwin like the back of my hand. It’s such an interesting trip with so many different stories attached to it, I think it is fertile ground to do a series of paintings around, so I hope to have that ready for the SALA Festival in August.