Jonathan Bowden

A River in Flood, Tasmania, Spring


This painting, which eventually became a group of three paintings, began in the Spring of 2012 when I put my head over the bridge at Corralin Gorge and the roar of the flood waters below soon became irresistible.

Later that day I prepared some large gesso panels on plywood, and next morning early I scrambled down the goat track to the North Esk River and went to look for where the noise was loudest. It was easy to find, at the end of a wide and placid pool where the river is forced between boulders into a long and smooth tongue of water which moves so fast that its surface remains smooth and transparent like a curved reflecting lens through which the greenish black rocks are still visible.

 As this waterfall gulps down air a multitude of little bubbles are created which fight and jostle with each other underwater until they can break upwards through the surface of the stream into masses of silvery blue foam.

It is a joyous process to watch once you have found yourself a secure foothold to watch it from, and you have the advantage, now you are there, of being able to study the same processes over and over again all the way down the river until you begin to see patterns within the chaos.

 This is not something a camera could do for you, because vital tool as a camera is, it can only record. It cannot perceive or interpret patterns that repeat over time; nor can it close its eyes at night and remember what it saw and heard during the day. Nor can it remember the smells of dry leaves and wet rock, or hear the orchestra of sounds made by water falling, or coin words for them as the native Tasmanians could and did.

The sound that turbulent water makes, a continuous roar within which a rumble and a pulse can be detected is represented in the Palawa language by "moe-win-e-dur-um", which vividly suggests stones turning over underwater.

For the more delicate sounds the little flows make as they meander and splash at the margins, "lea-lari-ghtea", and most powerful of all, "Mangana-Lienta" which could be Latin if the Romans had thought of it first but no; they drowned in nouns, verbs, and adjectives; and so do we, whereas the first Tasmanians sang their metaphors for nature aloud.

This small pencil drawing shows a parallel event to the larger pastel but in miniature, a Bonzai'd waterfall as it were. The process of water dragging down air as it falls headlong into a pool below, the flow of water contained by rocks and the frictional drag of the slower currents against the rock faces are all perhaps easier to read at this small and much tamer scale. The wind ripples which move the surface of the water backwards against the direction of the current can be seen at the bottom right of the drawing. In a major flood they would of course be invisible.

For paintings where there are violent contrasts of tone from the black rocks up to the bluish white foam I begin the drawing almost in monochrome; just enough to show the patterns and follow the corrugations that water is forced into as it is slowed and lifts up its surface on its approach to a rock, or gathers into a waterfall which plunges down and buries itself in a mass of bubbles in the pool below.

This pastel sketch is not so much an unfinished painting as the finished beginning of another water painting, and over the course of this Blog (what a hideous word, Blog, who created it? It sounds like  something stuck in a toilet), over the course of this Blarney I shall show more of them. I include 'At the Bend' (painted along the same river a few years earlier) in order to indicate how I attempt to reduce the first description of a complicated event into a simple colour language which can be worked over with successive layers of pastel, fixing thoroughly between coats so as to preserve the clarity of the first idea.

At the end of a mornings frantic drawing, I pack up and scramble back up the cliff towing my panel behind me one handed like a child's blanket. Then there will be a break. Perhaps it rains in the night and the rocks are too slippery to risk it. But soon another day dawns fine, and then by looking at what I have done I get an idea of what to do next and I go back.

Over the weeks this first observation turns into an explanation, a rendering into line and colour of what I have experienced every day, down there, wedged between rocks at the base of cliffs which have been hacked and smoothed from dolerite by a river which has bullied and tormented, and rejoiced and sung its way along that same course for hundreds of thousands of years.


Jonathan Bowden