Set against landscapes of ochres and burnished gold, Tom McAulay’s canvases symbolise the ruggedness of the outback and its people.

Story By Janette Jenyns

Tom McAulay paints the characters of the bush. Weather-beaten stockmen, dust drifting from the brim of their hats and their eyes narrowed against a harsh inland sun, come to life on his canvases rendered in oils, acrylics, pen and wash, and charcoal. Heat, dust and shimmering mirages figure largely in his portrayals of mustering camps, branding, roping and riding.
On his frequent trips to the outback Tom remains firmly in the background while ringers and stockmen go about their daily tasks. He photographs them or sketches their images without interference; the last thing he wants is for them to pose for him. He wants spontaneity and drama, and he finds it at places such as Sugarbag Station near Mount Garnet, Qld. “The yards and outstations there all have such character,” Tom says. “There are old timber sliprails and the ringers there are the real deal. Out behind the homestead is a billabong with brolgas. I spend a lot of time there, and at Lucky Downs, north-west of Charters Towers. I love the filtered light of the west, the starkness of open spaces and the gnarled river gums. There is nothing more dramatic than a river; around every bend there’s something new.”
Tom has been painting professionally since winning his first art prize at the age of 13. His hometown is Innisfail in Queensland’s tropical north, so as a boy he weathered more than a few cyclonic events. He was captivated by the sight of the chook pen in his backyard flattened like a pack of cards and this was the scene he painted for the North Queensland Art Competition. To his great amazement he was awarded first prize. The judge, a Russian, told Tom that it was the emotion of his painting that won him over, although at the time Tom recalls that he couldn’t understand much of what the man said.
Tom hasn’t had any formal art lessons but that, he says, is probably a good thing. “I was never restricted by rules and so I developed my own style, helped along occasionally by painters who visited town,” he says. “Dad showed me how to shade and highlight with pencil, and encouraged visiting artists to look at my work.” One was Arthur Evan Read, who told Tom that the mark of a good artist is the ability to paint a mirage. “I took that as a personal challenge, observing and experimenting for years until I felt I’d mastered it,” Tom says. “Even now, a documentary on the plains of Africa has me leaning forward in my seat to scrutinise just how those waves of heat affect the landscape around it.”

This story excerpt is from Issue #72

Outback Magazine: Aug/Sep 2010