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21 April 2022

On the road again

Sean Beldon is a master at capturing the subtle moods of New Zealand’s landscape. A native of South Africa, his arrival in Aotearoa in 2007 inspired him to pick up his paintbrush after a hiatus of many years. He has since painted over 300 works depicting some of the country's most iconic and awe-inspiring scenery.


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The first paintings Sean Beldon made in New Zealand were of South Africa, from photographs of a road trip around the Karoo. He’d never painted landscapes before and says they were emotive but very naïve. The seed was sewn – he’d found his calling.

“I can document exactly my journey from those first paintings of the Karoo, and it wasn’t long after that I’d painted my first New Zealand landscapes, as part of what I now call my ‘road trip’ paintings – paintings made from photographs I take on my travels around the country.”

“These days, I go out on the road and spend a week, two weeks, or however much time as I can in a certain area, and I’ll take hundreds of photos. I spend time smelling and feeling the air and looking at the clouds – I love clouds – looking at the way the light changes throughout the day, from first thing in the morning to last thing at night.”

Sean is old school in that he uses a camera, not a phone, and coyly admits he often shoots snapshots as he’s driving. “That’s how it all started – the perspective you see out of the side window as your driving your car. That’s where you get the movement. I’ve noticed that when you take pictures from a moving car, some of the images become blurred, or sections of the frame disappear. I love that effect,” he smiles. “You click away, not knowing what you’re going to get until later that evening when you sit down with a glass of wine and look through the images. That’s where the gems appear – almost by accident.” 

He’s not too worried about capturing a perfect photo and freely admits that most of the pictures are completely useless, but occasionally he captures something special. This is his raw material, his inspiration to paint. “It’s got to move me and grab me,” he says. “I like a bit of tension, like if there’s a big sky with a large cloud or a headland that’s quite dark and mysterious. Then you can start to create those shapes on the canvas.”

Storytelling

Although his paintings appear to catch a fleeting moment, they are a continuum – a culmination of days spent in a landscape and hundreds of images taken. Back in his Auckland studio, Sean prints out the photos from his road trips and lays them out over the floor – like a vast timeline. “You can see the journey I have just made,” he says. “Essentially, I am trying to absorb everything that has happened around me over several days, then distil everything into one piece
of work.”

Sean’s work always comes in a series of paintings. 

“It’s stories, right; individual stories about that place. I’m terrible with words, so this is how I tell my stories.

The brushstrokes are my words. When I’m painting it, I’m feeling it. And once the painting is finished, I will look at the brushstrokes on the canvas. I have a tendency to touch them, too, which you’re not really supposed to do with oils, and often it moves me. It doesn’t
happen with every painting, but when it does, I get
really emotional.”

“My paintings are moody – not sad mood, happy moody.”

In his quest to discover the ‘mood’ of a landscape, Sean spends much of his time in the ‘golden hours’ of the day – that in-between light during that first hour after sunrise and the very last hour before sunset and often beyond – capturing the very last glimmer of the day, or, in the case of the morning, that very first glow of a new dawn. That’s where the magic happens, he says.

SHAPES

The geometry of the land against the sky is something that interests Sean. It’s a style he has explored with his latest series of paintings – Wide Open Spaces – which he made on a recent trip to Tarras, just north of Cromwell. In this series, the horizon is chopped off, and the sky and the land are divided horizontally, with the hills and valleys reduced to smooth bare shapes. It’s a style reminiscent of Colin McCahon’s work – particularly his North Otago Landscapes. Is McCahon’s work an influence or an inspiration?“This is going to sound terrible, and I don’t mean it to be, but I never knew about him until fairly recently. My studies in South Africa mainly concentrated on local, British, American and European artists, but never learnt about Antipodean artists. I must have noticed some of McCahon’s work through the years, but only made the connection when people started comparing my work with his. That’s when I looked him up. The influence was and still is subliminal. I take it as a compliment. I don’t mind being in his backyard. If he was an influence, it was subliminal. But I do love his work.”

Rita Agnus is another local artist who Sean has discovered and admires.

“I made a few paintings, which I never completed and are still sitting in the studio, around Arthur’s Pass, which Rita Angus made famous in her painting, Cass. I get really excited about those rich, earthy colours. When I think back to my earliest love for paintings, it’s to Van Gogh with his deep colours and textures.”

“And that’s what keeps drawing me back to the Otago region – the way the colours down there don’t just change with the season, but by the day and by the hour. The light down there has an ethereal quality to it, like the Southern Lights with its tinge of luminescence. I’ve tried to bring this colour into my latest paintings – it’s somewhere between white and green and blue – like the inside of a flame. It’s a remarkable colour. Actually, it’s more of a feeling than a colour.”

North vs South

Since 2015, Sean has painted just over 300 pieces, which sounds a lot, but he says it’s easy to be prolific when your work comes in series.

Despite living and working in Tamaki Makaurau, Auckland, and having painted some of its famous landscapes and landmarks – Bethels Beach, Lion Rock at Piha, Rangitoto, Browns Island and Bean Rock – Sean’s heart is continuously being drawn the south; not just the South Island, but south of the North Island, too.

The intense bright greens of the north are not his thing, he says, preferring the soft, earthy ochres of the south. He sees much more depth in muted yellows and browns and reds. He also loves the mountains. 

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