Into the light with Dave Sparkes

Stu Nettle
Talking Heads

Dave Sparkes' watercolours have an assured scroll-stopping quality. Viewed on a smartphone, they're guaranteed to give your thumb a rest, and your mind too, as you halt the flow of inane photos and concentrate on his Arcadian watercolour scenes. If Instagram seems an unlikely place to enjoy his work...well, just consider it an introduction, an invitation to further appreciate his work.

Dave is a Bondi native, it's where he learnt to surf and where his artistic career commenced. Most surfers would know Dave from his photography and journalism, a combined skill set that saw him both write and shoot stills  on surf trips for Tracks for over two decades. Somewhere along the way he escaped to Pacific Palms, and more recently even further north to the Byron region.

However, Dave has not only changed his postcode but also his vision, hence his watercolours halting my Instagram flow, and hence the following conversation.

Swellnet: As far as I’m aware, you started your career as a photographer, then became a writer, primarily to complement your photography, and now you paint. How did the move towards painting come to pass?
I actually painted before doing anything else, way back in my school days. It was acrylics and oils, but watercolour always held a sense of intrigue for me from a distance; I knew it would come into play sooner or later.

In those days - being the 1970's - a lot of commercial art and graphic design was rendered in watercolour, and I would always notice the freshness and luminosity of a watercolour wash. There was something unique and beautiful about it.

When I was around fifteen though, I got an amazing dog and wanted to get some photos of him. Straight off the bat I got some great ones and next thing I was shooting a lot, painting not much, but surfing more than anything. Eventually my passion for surfing blended into the photography, and painting was out of the picture for a long time. Like twenty odd years!

Do you see many similarities between photography and painting?
As far as actual execution goes, there are none, but subject and design-wise, there are plenty.

As photography became increasingly more of a focus - sorry pun haters! - for me, I was keen to work on composition and other ways to increase the impact of any given photograph. Composition is virtually the same concept whether a photo or a painting, and building imagery around theories such as the rule of thirds and golden section - which have stood the test of time for centuries - is a solid jumping off point for sound design and composition.

Light, of course, is probably the strongest aspect of most artist's approach, including photographers. It has to be, because without it there is only blackness.

'Wollumbin Dreaming', 40cm x 50cm

Subject-wise, however, I am realising more and more that good subjects for a photo are not necessarily good for a painting, particularly in landscape painting which is my main theme. Photography seems to lend itself to the most spectacular setting possible; the viewer knows the scene is real, and there are some really trippy images out there of outrageous geographical formations, shot in colourful light. If you try to paint such scenes though, they usually look overcooked and over the top, sort of kitschy, almost.

I am finding that it is better to paint a more sedate or 'normal' scene, and manipulate light and shadow and atmosphere to create a much more beautiful result that people would like to live with on their wall everyday.

I still fall into the trap at times, but it just reinforces the concept that for me, light, mood, and feeling are more important than actual subject.

These days, when you stumble across a great vantage point, do you frame it through your imaginary viewfinder, or do you compose it on your imaginary easel?
Like I said, it really depends on the scene. But most of my photography these days is done with the motivation of eventually creating a painting from the photo. These are never a 'copy' of the photo, but more 'as suggested' by the photo. I will often incorporate bits and bobs from several photos to create a composite painting. I hate having an otherwise beautiful painting fail because of poor design, so while I like staying faithful to the landscape as it is, I am happy to move a tree or a rock to help with composition. I think as long as you catch the spirit of a place, it is ok to use artistic license. With commissions I will stay truer to a scene; if someone wants a painting of their home beach, you can't change the shape of a headland to suit yourself, you have to just make it work.

Painting 'en plein air' [on site] is a whole different ball game. You have to distill and simplify often complex scenes, and boil them down to the essence of tone and shape. Getting caught up in details is fatal, if you want to ever get out of there; details are really just suggested through, hopefully, well chosen calligraphic marks.

Your photography often features surfers, yet people are largely absent in your paintings, in fact few man-made objects appear at all. Are you trying to paint the world as it is, or the world as you’d like it to be?
I'm actually trying to paint the world as it was! I live in a virtually constant daydream state, as I am very saddened by the state of the world we've produced. Every major problem on earth has been exacerbated, if not created outright, by over population, and I despair at the lack of much motivation by people to address it. I know you can't stop people having kids, but there are 100 million orphans out there who need a home: it is possible to raise kids and still help reduce the problem, if you're not locked into the obsession of reproducing your own genetics!

'Barrington Tops Trail' 60cm x 90cm

Is the Australian bush ideal for reproducing in watercolour?
I love painting the Australian bush. It intrigues me how long it took our early artists - many of whom were European imports - to really see the Aussie flora, rather than just paint English parklands and manicured vistas. The Australian bush is disorderly, untidy, almost chaotic, or so it seems. When you really observe it, there are patterns and rhythms there, but they are very subtle. Hans Heysen was probably the first to really 'see' a gum tree, and his work from around the 1910's to 1930's still resonates with me.

Watercolour painted fairly loosely seems to be very suitable for creating a feeling of chaos.

The nuances of our greens are endlessly intriguing to me, there are khakis and grey greens and brown greens and blue greens and green greens. It is easy to fall into the trap of painting Aussie landscapes too green, too limey, but really you need to subdue that high chroma, play it down and maybe just add some high key colour here or there as an accent. Really, juxtaposing warm and cool colours effectively is more critical than actual hue for creating a feeling of distance and realism.

And what about the coast?
I love painting the ocean and suggesting waves and chop and different surface conditions, and watercolour is great for that. With things like water and skies, the less you try and paint them exactly as is, the better they look. The best skies are just dashed in with calligraphic abandon, when you over work them they just lose all of their mojo and become dead. It's like a signature; if you write it slowly it is just a word, it's not your signature anymore. Of course, painting loosely doesn't mean rough and ready. You have to get the fundamentals down over many years first, then it looks easy, but the work has been done. No musician can improvise a lead guitar riff without years of practising scales first.

'Broken Head Trail', 50cm x 70cm

A watercolour speciality is an object reflected off water; recreating that imperfect mirror image. Is this something you seek?
It is definitely something I like playing around with, especially the imperfect reflection. Painting mirror image reflections is something I am yet to achieve with any satisfactory prowess, it is too close to a copy and it's a nightmare to get right. But wild and crazy reflections are great fun, and like skies and oceans, much better when they're not overworked. This means getting the tones and colours right first go, which is tricky. 

Timing is so critical in watercolour, as every wash, every nuance of edge, depends on the degree of moisture in the paper. You can work on paper that has every level of water in it from bone dry to dripping wet, and pigment that goes from thin, almost pure water to thick, pure pigment like butter. There are endless combinations of pigment strength to paper wetness, the variables of these are mindblowing and are never totally mastered. This is the key to watercolour. But what better way to paint water than with water?

'The Pass, Dusk Glow', 40cm x 50cm 

Shooting into the sun can be problematic with cameras, but many of your paintings benefit from the same perspective, making a strength of that white, overexposed look. Is that on purpose?
Totally. The idea of trying to recreate the feeling of intense, sunny glare, using only white paper, thrills me no end. In art terms, painting with the sun in front of you rather than at your back is called 'contre jour', in French 'against the light'. I paint in the traditional English approach, meaning the paint is transparent, and all light tones are really just the white paper reflecting through the wash. It means you have to think in terms of negative shapes: you're not painting light objects, you're leaving them by painting around them. A cloud is just sky painted around it, and it still confuses me sometimes when I have to think in opposites.

But I love the idea that mere white paper can look like the sun - how could that ever be? The sun is so intense and bright, yet if you juggle the surrounding tones well enough, you can produce this illusion that the paper is just throwing out these sun rays. That is one of the most magical things, and the first time I achieved this effect I just couldn't believe it.

The funny thing is, this part of the painting is the only part you don't actually touch with brush or paint, and it is the best part! There's a message there somewhere.

'Wategos Glare' 50cm x 70cm

You currently have an exhibition on at Tweed Regional Gallery. ‘Incandescence’ runs for six weeks. What theme, if any, will your paintings have?
The theme is pretty much about atmosphere and mood, the exquisite beauty of the Australian East Coast, and my continuing quest to create a feeling of intense sunlight. The approach is what I call Impressionistic Realism, where the paintings look quite realistic, but when you look closer they are just paint marks. I think this sort of style has a lot of impact. A photo realistic painting is an incredible achievement, but for me, I love the energy and vitality of an impression that still looks real, but can be painted in sometimes just an hour, or up to about four or hours hours, rather than months of painstaking toil.

INCANDESCENCE runs from 28th March - 12th May.
Opening night April 12th from 5pm - 7pm
Gallery Downtown (An annex of Tweed Regional Gallery)
Brisbane Street, Murwillumbah

Insta: @davesparkes_art
Facebook: Watercolours by Dave Sparkes


blindboy's picture
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blindboy commented Friday, 5 Apr 2019 at 5:37pm

Great stuff!

simba's picture
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simba commented Friday, 5 Apr 2019 at 5:53pm

Wow very impressive Dave.


Taprobane's picture
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Taprobane commented Friday, 5 Apr 2019 at 6:29pm

Talented man. Loved his photos but his painting looks grouse.

stunet's picture
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stunet commented Friday, 5 Apr 2019 at 6:45pm

Dave's latest post on Instagram is a great example of an image relected in the shallows. Makes it look luminous, especally contrasted against the matte sand.

the-spleen_2's picture
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the-spleen_2 commented Friday, 5 Apr 2019 at 8:05pm

Dave makes it sound easier to "genre hop" than it actually is. It's true there are laws that've stood the test of time, but what he doesn't mention are brush and colour techniques that can only come from hundreds of hours of painting. It's very hard work and a lot of people don't ever get there. I've got huge respect for anyone that can see the world in numerous ways.

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Wong commented Saturday, 6 Apr 2019 at 9:12am

I keep coming here to less and less to read about things purely about surfing, great stuff Stu!

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Tenn commented Sunday, 7 Apr 2019 at 8:16am

Me too I remember checking swellnets forecasts through 7 news weather page in school now it's such a well rounded website, great stuff guys! The only thing I subscribe too

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Blowin commented Sunday, 7 Apr 2019 at 1:12pm

Talented bugger.

Interesting interview too.

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eyesurfer commented Sunday, 7 Apr 2019 at 6:12pm

fabulous work and a good story too

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jacksprat commented Monday, 8 Apr 2019 at 11:23am

Dave, I like the shot of Basil on your instagram page. Come on then...


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gray's picture
gray commented Monday, 8 Apr 2019 at 12:47pm

Interesting interview, and great pictures. These really resonated with me as the light and general compositions (beach scenes, etc.) is obviously very familiar. I'm not normally a huge watercolour fan, but these are something else altogether. I've not seen other artists capture the bright light and 'ambience' of beach scenes as well as Dave.
Keep up the great work!

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Halibut commented Monday, 8 Apr 2019 at 12:57pm

Every time I think I've sworn off swellnet another gem like this comes along to remind me there's more to surfing than gymnastics.
Magnificent artwork. On display here is the kind of talent which cannot be taught. I have been painting for years and have never even come close to the kind of sublime inspiration captured in these superfine works. Great art work and great article work.

in the future, everyone will be anonymous for 15 minutes

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BirdPerson commented Monday, 8 Apr 2019 at 3:50pm

Amazing work.

The part about the Australian bush gardens is a bit off however, there's a fair bit of evidence of indigenous people sculpting the bush in a more hospitable way. It just made more sense to say the artists couldn't paint that to say indigenous people could garden. "Dark Emu" had a good chapter on this.

That said, they were burning regularly so even untouched it would look a lot different to the bush of today.

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the-u-turn commented Wednesday, 10 Apr 2019 at 1:09am

Really enjoyed that, ta.

The U Turn
...a little Aloha goes a long way.