“Paint what you love, and love what you paint” Tom Roberts
Let’s take a closer look at the iconic Australian painting, Sheering the Rams by Tom Roberts. When I think of outback Australia, this painting comes to mind. I’ll cover:
- Key Facts and Ideas
- Warm and Restrained Colors
- Dynamic Positions and Movement
- Busy and Quiet Space
- Linear Perspective
- Implied Lines
- Light and Shadow
- Brushwork and Detail
- Want to Learn More?
- Thanks for Reading!
Dimensions: 48.2 x 72.1 inches (122.4 × 183.3 cm)
Year Created: 1890
Medium: Oil on Composition Board
Current Location: Melbourne’s National Gallery (Victoria, Australia)
Key Facts and Ideas
- The painting is based on a timber shearing shed on the outskirts of the 30,000-acre Brocklesby Station near Corowa, New South Wales. It was owned by distant relatives of Roberts. His initial visit was for a family wedding in 1886. Unfortunately, the shed was destroyed by fire in 1965.
- Rather than only showcasing the pastoral idyll, Roberts emphasized the physical labor and the skill involved in shearing. The top shearers were folk heroes back then.
- Roberts created seventy to eighty preliminary sketches. Unfortunately, I could only locate one (see below). This was done in gouache and pencil and was acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria.
- Much of the painting was done plein air (on location) and partly in his Melbourne studio.
- A 2007 X-ray study unveiled an original sketch, showing the central shearer in a more upright position and without a beard. Good changes. The beard pushes the rugged and masculine nature of the scene. And the extra tilt helps exaggerate the shearer’s gesture and pose. You can watch a video about the X-ray process here.
- The main shearer was based on James ‘Possum’ Taylor, a known figure from the Brocklesby Station. Susan Bourne, a 9-year-old girl, was the model for the “smiling tar boy” in the center of the painting. A tar boy was a shed hand responsible for putting tar onto any wounds on the sheep. She also helped Roberts recreate the atmosphere by kicking up shed dust.
- Roberts was good friends with fellow Australian artist John Russell. The main shearer’s pink and white striped shirt is perhaps a tribute to Russell’s portrait of Will Maloney (see below). Roberts, Russell, and Maloney traveled Europe together in the mid-1880s.
- There’s some interesting commentary about the painting in the The Argus, 24 June 1890. I extracted it all into a more readable format below. I underlined the key parts.
“In Grosvenor chambers on Collins street, a picture hangs in the artist’s studio that has been the topic of much discussion. This sheep-shearing depiction by Tom Roberts has attracted the attention of critics and art connoisseurs. They have observed, scrutinized, and evaluated it, commending it as the finest representation of one of the most quintessential Australian scenes. The drawing and coloring have garnered praise, with Roberts masterfully weaving less-than-picturesque elements into an artwork that wholly gratifies the artistic senses.
Both artists and art critics have been joined by practical men from the bush in viewing this piece. Their verdict? Simple and emphatic – “It is right.” This suggests that every detail is authentic, from the shed to the shearers at work, and even the sheep that are reminiscent of those seen in show-yards and stud flocks. Sunlight from the peak of Australian spring filters through the expansive low windows, offering a hint of the radiant bush outside. “It is right,” they reaffirm, indicating nothing else needs to be said.
Yet, some argue that Australian artists often neglect dedicating ample effort to understand local subjects. The backstory of this artwork’s inception might counter that view. Roberts chose a truly Australian theme, journeying to the iconic Australian river for inspiration. He spent a spring there, meticulously sketching the ambiance, structure, animals, workers, and activities. Completing almost eighty sketches, he returned to the city, spent a season on portrait painting, and ventured out the subsequent spring. This time, Roberts set up his canvas in the shed, employed the most emblematic shearers, “roustabouts,” and youngsters as models, and even compensated them. The property owner graciously accommodated the artist throughout the shearing season. Afterward, Roberts relocated to his studio to painstakingly finish the masterpiece. The artwork’s unveiling, framed in gleaming gold and set against dark maroon, was a proud moment, especially when it received unanimous admiration from fellow artists, ardent critics, and bushmen.
However, another aspect of this tale is the effort and resources poured into this creation. Eight diligent months and £140 were invested in travel, model fees, and materials. Roberts valued the artwork at three hundred and fifty guineas. Deducting expenses, this translates to £227 10s for over two years of work. Many might argue other professions yield higher earnings in such a timeframe. The artist’s modest self-worth is akin to a top-tier craftsman, yet the artwork remains unsold in his studio. This raises questions about the community’s value of art.”
- Roberts wrote a letter to The Argus in 1890 with his thoughts on art and the painting:
“It seems to me that one of the best words spoken to an artist is “Paint what you love, and love what you paint,” and on that I have worked: and so it came that being in the bush and feeling the delight and fascination of the great pastoral life and work I have tried to express it […] So lying on wool-bales … it seemed that I had there the best expression of my subject, a subject noble and worthy enough if I could express the meaning and spirit—of strong masculine labour, the patience of the animals whose year’s growth is being stripped from them for man’s use and the great human interest in the whole scene.” Tom Roberts, 1890 (Nelson, Robert S. (2003). Critical Terms for Art History: Second Edition. The University of Chicago Press.)
- Roberts created only one other similar painting of shearers: The Golden Fleece. This is a rougher and less refined take.
- The National Gallery of Victoria acquired the painting in 1932, a year after Roberts’ passing. You can see it there today in the “Australian Painting” department.
Warm and Restrained Colors
The painting features a warm color theme, with mostly browns and ochres. The only distinctly cool colors are the blue shirts. There are also the slightly cool colors of the sky and parts of the roof, but these are so weak and tinted that they don’t carry much weight. The cool colors are scarce but play an important role in the painting. They give much-needed temperature contrast and make the other colors appear warmer by comparison. Remember, painting is all about contrast!
All the colors are somewhat restrained, apart from the burst of cadmium yellow on the right-hand side (see below). Other than this, the strongest colors appear to be the pink stripes of the main shearer’s shirt, the blues shown above, and the oranges where light is hitting the inside of the shed. But nothing really jumps out and commands attention. This allows our eyes to bounce around the painting rather than being drawn towards a single point of saturated color.
We get a few glimpses of the outdoors. The colors here are tinted and warm, like an Arthur Streeton painting. This, along with the warm color theme, plays into the idea of the Australian outback and the lifestyle that came with it. The clothing appears faded and worn, there’s a dusty ambiance, the sun appears harsh and bright, and the landscape appears dry and rugged.
Dynamic Positions and Movement
The painting offers a snapshot in time with many of the shearers and sheep in the middle of dynamic positions and movements. (Note: “Sheep” is a general term for the species. “Ram” refers to a male sheep that’s mature and is often used for breeding purposes.) Men grip the sheep with one hand and shear with the other; a boy walks in with arms full of wool; a tar boy looks back at us, ready to dress any wounds on the sheep; and a man at the back takes a drink from a billycan. Everyone is doing something. Even the old man on the side is kneeling and smoking his pipe rather than sitting down and completely relaxing.
We also get to see the different stages of the shearing process. There’s a sheep on the left waiting to start, several sheep in the middle of it, and the boy carrying the finished product.
This would have been a challenge to capture, unlike painting a still subject. Photography was emerging around this time; perhaps Roberts took advantage of this, but I’m not sure. In any case, Roberts did well. The painting has a sense of progression and movement and activity. The last thing you would want with a painting like this is for it to appear flat and static.
You can also feel the force and power of the shearers and the sheep. Particularly with the main shearer around the middle. His striped shirt is rolled up and you can see the muscles and veins of his forearms as he grips and shears the sheep. I haven’t shorn a sheep myself, but I have heard it’s much harder than it looks! Sheep are strong and heavy and can put up a good fight if they want to. There’s also finesse involved in shearing fast and well. I witnessed sheep shearing in person when I was younger and they worked like artists. I doubt you’ll see much of this shearing done today, as I believe most of it is done by machines now.
If Roberts wanted to use a bit more flare, I think this is where he should have done it. A few energetic strokes could help reiterate the motions and gestures and tension. Something like Steve Huston does in his work. (Tip: When analyzing master paintings, it can be a good exercise to consider what you might have done differently. This isn’t about being overly critical or looking for flaws; rather, it’s about taking the masters off the pedestal and being active and not passive in our thinking.)
Busy and Quiet Space
There’s a clear distinction between busy and quiet space. The busy space being the people and sheep and areas where there’s a lot going on. The quiet space being the background, the glimpses of the outdoors, the roof, and the bare parts of the floor. The quiet spaces play a key role in giving our eyes a break from all the activity and creating a sense of balance. There’s also an interesting contrast between the quiet and serene outdoors and the busy atmosphere indoors.
The shed gives a strong sense of linear perspective. Linear perspective refers to the way objects appear to get smaller as they recede into the distance. This is always at play, but architecture makes its effects more visible and prominent. It’s like drawing perspective lines over the painting. You can see what I mean in the image below. Notice how the horizontal perspective lines converge as they get further away.
Linear perspective is one of those areas that you should focus on getting right. You have little room for error and you probably won’t be able to chalk mistakes up to exercising your artistic license. Universal laws of perspective and physics don’t bend easily!
And there’s yet another point of contrast between the linear and geometric architecture and the organic shapes and forms representing people, sheep, and wool. (Tip: Overlaying multiple points of contrast is how you end up with a sophisticated and dynamic painting like this.)
There are many people looking off in different directions. The lines of vision are implied lines that can help direct attention in a painting. We want to look where others are looking.
Refer to the image below. Most people look inward toward the shearers around the middle. One person looks outwards; he is an outlier but is important for making the scene appear natural and candid. The shearers around the middle look down as they work. Our eyes are prompted to follow these lines. The strongest implied line is that of the main shearer looking down at the sheep. If you had to mark an end point of the visual journey, it would be around here.
Light and Shadow
A key feature of the painting is that it’s an interior setting with only natural light from the outdoors. There’s no indoor lighting. Light streams in through the windows and doors and illuminates parts of the shed. This creates an interesting design and strong value contrast with light lights and dark darks.
Here’s a grayscale of the painting so you can clearly see all the values:
The lightest lights are the outdoors around the middle and parts of the main sheep getting shorn. Everything else is a touch darker. This gives the feeling that we are shielded from direct sunlight in the shed and only ambient light from the blue sky and other reflected light is getting in. (Tip: When painting outdoors, you can treat direct sunlight as a primary light source and the ambient sky as a secondary light source.)
Notice how the foreground is mostly light with a few dark accents and the background is mostly dark with a few light accents. This is a simple but interesting pattern. I also created a two-value notan of the painting using Photoshop. This is the most basic abstract design of lights and darks. This reveals an interesting design with lights clustered around the middle of the foreground. Also, notice how you can somewhat make out the subject even in this abstract form.
Brushwork and Detail
The painting is realistic but still has a relaxed, painterly feel about it. It’s somewhere between realism and impressionism. Though officially, it’s considered an Impressionist work.
Roberts was more detailed in key areas, particularly around the foreground. However, he was also fairly detailed in his rendering of the background areas. He probably could have gotten away with more simplified brushwork here.
It seems he focused mostly on painting basic shapes and creating the illusion of detail. Look at how he painted the hair and wool. He didn’t render every strand. Instead, he used a few feature details, highlights, and dark accents to transform otherwise simple color shapes into hair and wool.
He also did particularly well with the facial features. It can be tedious to paint facial features from a zoomed-out perspective like this. When I painted this study of Chontele and Elora, I remember it being a careful balance between being too realistic and not realistic enough. And there’s a logistical challenge of not having much room to move with your brush.
Here are some closeups:
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