Peter Finlay and Bruce Daniel yarn about the visual artist’s creative process and how memory can be used creatively.

Picture or painting? Representation or abstraction? From life or from imagination? These are the questions that recur when Peter Finlay talks about his artmaking.

I had the pleasure recently of talking with visual artist Peter Finlay, thanks to our concurrent solo exhibitions at Willoughby City Council’s two public galleries: Water’s Edge at Incinerator Art Space and Coastal Exposure: rocks from deep time at Art Space on The Concourse. Both shows run until 13th June.

Peter Finlay’s process seems to be focused on digging into a sort of twilight zone between immediate physical experience and memory.

Pete Finlay is a visual person. He’s been drawing all his life and has had a long career in advertising as a graphic artist.

I have a facility as a visualiser.

peter finlay

‘In advertising my job was to sketch concepts on the spot from what a client described to me,’ Pete explains. ‘I would offer maybe 15 different concepts as a starting point, then I’d draft up a shortlist of them in more detail. But the initial sketches came completely from my head – I was using no visual reference material. It was an essence, a kernel I was always searching for.’

Peter Finlay talking about his art
Pete Finlay at the water’s edge. Photo by Bruce Daniel.

He describes for me a “freeing up” exercise in which you place your subject and your paper in different rooms – you observe the subject, then go to the next room to draw it.

‘It forces you to use an immediate memory of the subject,’ he says. ‘It’s wonderful mind-training.’

In terms of the visual artist’s creative process, Pete’s methods are quite different to mine. Currently I do my primary compositions with photographs. I can make hundreds of quick compositions with my camera, and then wade through them all, making shortlists and short-shortlists before selecting a few to work with.

Bluegold painting by Bruce Daniel
Bluegold (c) Bruce Daniel 2021. Photo by Bruce Daniel

In Water’s Edge, Pete’s subject matter is the Sydney harbour foreshore near his home in Castlecrag. Obviously he carries many strong memories of these locations. But there’s short-term inspiration too. He may be out on a walk when he catches a glimpse through trees of a water scene – there are always new surprises – which becomes a kernel for a painting when he returns to the studio.

Drawing is an essential component. As Pete explains, ‘If you love an artwork, you can copy it, even just a pencil sketch, and it helps you decode what you love in it. And you can do the same with a scene you love.

‘It basically comes out of my mind when I do the drawing. I often draw in graphite and charcoal straight onto the raw linen – then I apply gesso over it, which makes a satisfying, smudgy thing. Then I block in an underpainting – I might do three or four more of these, one over the other – and it’s essentially abstract.

When I step back I’m considering it as a picture, but working up close it’s a whole lot of mark-making, just a surface.

peter finlay
Detail of paint texture in Water's Edge by Peter Finlay
Water’s Edge (detail). (c) Peter Finlay 2021. Photo by Bruce Daniel.

Our sincere thanks to Willoughby City Council for making these two fabulous galleries available to artists and to the public. Thanks also to Council’s staff curators Cassandra Hard-Lawrie and Miriam Foley for their skills, enthusiasm and dedication.