Sydney Artist Debbie Mackinnon is best known for her contemporary coastal artwork. She runs a fabulous creative space called me.Artspace in Crowsnest,Sydney as well as teaching some of Kerri Ainsworth’s Art Travel Adventure workshops. The story below is how she finally got to do what she loves….
As a child drawing and painting was what I wanted to do all the time, particularly drawing. I also loved doing things with my hands and I was very interested in medical things. I really really wanted to be a surgeon. I had this feeling that I would be an amazing surgeon, I could see myself in an operating theatre doing the whole business, unfortunately my physics and chemistry were not up to scratch. This is all true
In my day to be accepted, as a woman doctor, you really had to be at the top of the school in Physics, Chemistry and Biology. Biology yep but Physics and Chemistry it wasn’t going to happen.
So my dreams of being a Doctor hit the sack and then I decided that my next best option was to become a medical illustrator because I would be involved in the Medical world, which I was very interested in and it would involve my drawing too so that’s what I did.
I went off to Art college in London to become a Medical Illustrator. While it was pretty interesting, I made friends with people in the Pathology lab and they gave me specimens to draw. A very interesting orthopedic surgeon let me come and stand at his shoulder during operations and draw things. I loved it but I realized at the end of that training that, altho it taught me to draw, and my anatomy was great, I didn’t want to do it, because it was a bit boring and most of the time doctors wanted black and white slides to illustrate their lectures and you didn’t have any freedom. You know if there are two veins in the leg they had to remain two veins in the leg and they had to be blue, you couldn’t have three and make them green … which is where I wanted to go.
But my drawing ability was noticed at college. I worked with a young lecturer who I really related to, Linda, she was working for a new publisher in London and she said why don’t you come down and help me for a bit, you can draw up all these layouts. As soon as I started working with a big team of people at the publishers I thought this is what I want to do. Being at home drawing on my own is boring.
Being out and in Covent Garden with a load of people working on a book is much more interesting so that’s what I ended up doing.
I bluffed my way into the Graphic Design side of it, and worked in London for publishers for the next 15 years. Drawing layouts, and art directing books for Dorling Kindersley and then for a smaller independent publisher called Frances Lincoln. I had a lot of freedom, worked on lots of interesting books. It was very immersive.
About 25 years ago I moved here to Australia, and I had to reinvent myself. By this time I was writing books for young children, I had kids myself, so I started writing concept books for the pre-school market and I ended up writing quite a few books, commissioning layouts and artwork and by this time they were mostly photographic, so my drawing was mostly storyboards for the photographic books and I would commission all the photography.
I had done a lot of art directing back in London, cookbooks and do-it-yourself books. I ended up writing 50 plus books for children.
I did well with them.
Post 9/11 the whole publishing world changed, the internet was coming up, you had to have a television tie-in to make them work and I felt they were asking me to be a photo copier….you know, can you do another book on …. And I didn’t feel I wanted to do it.
So I had this kind of crisis around the age of 50. What shall I do when I grow up, because I didn’t feel I had got there yet.
I dallied with will I go back to University and do Psychology but when I read the first prospectus and that I would have to do a lot of statistics I realised that wasn’t going to work.
I took myself on a counselling course for a while, and thought no I don’t want to live with other people’s problems.
I was lecturing at Billy Blue Design College at the time, on illustration and design.
Then I read “The Artist Way” by Julia Cameron the self-help book where you work through all this stuff to work out where your creativity lies. I realized that when I was a kid all I wanted to do was be an artist when I grew up, so why the hell was I messing about … I should just get on and do that.
I had a friend who was also looking to get back into Art. I started going to art classes to get back into it. I was painting at home on the kitchen table, but that was hopeless because I’m an incredibly messy painter, I need to make a mess.
So my friend and I decided to go and get a studio, we didn’t ask anyone’s permission, we just went out and found this crazy old apartment behind a disused butcher in Northbridge. But she didn’t stay for long as she moved overseas, but I stayed for nine years.
I ended up staying there for nine years and after she left I needed to find a way to help with the rent so that’s when I started my Thursday art group. A few people came along to paint with me and would help pay the rent.
So that just been something I’ve carried on with since then. I’ve been here in St Leonards for five years so that group has been running for almost 13 years.
We are a group of like-minds, there is no course, they turn up with their own stuff, I provide an easel and table and I’ll help them if they have a problem, but they’ll help one another, that’s part of the whole deal. It’s the whole ethos behind Me. Me becomes We … Mike Staniford ( Debbie’s husband) helped me with the logo and the whole mission statement … it was all about a space for Me would become We. It is an important part of what I’m doing here.
So that’s how I got back into doing my own work, I thought really you just have to get out there and do it. People ask me how can I paint like you, but you can’t paint like me. You just have to get out there and paint like you. The whole 10,000 hour rule is critical. You can’t turn up and be a painter unless you put in some hard yards. You’ve got to try stuff and make loads and loads of mistakes and failures to get to where you want to go.
LG: Has your work gone in different directions?
Oh yes, when I started at this very strict medical, academic background it was very good training, we spent time at Kew Gardens we were taught to draw very accurately. When I came back to do my own large scale work I wanted to go Big, number one, I wanted to get away from the academic stuff and I wanted to be abstract. I started off being very abstract but over time I realized it wasn’t satisfying me to just make colours, I had a very good background in colour from my teaching years but I really wanted my work to have a freedom, I really admired people like Richard Diebenkorn, Bay area artist in America he was able to switch between abstract and figurative works, his drawing ability is clear.
I taught drawing for a long time at Billy Blue and I realised that people who weren’t competent about drawing or weren’t very good at it, were usually better when they used their opposite hand. When you come to drawing, as an adult you have what you did as a child hard wired into your brain so your hand automatically draws things the way its always drawn it even when you were 10 years old so if you use the non dominant hand that doesn’t have that, so it can draw things in a different way.
I realised, hang on, I’m teaching people this, I should be doing it. So in 2008, I started on New Years day … and every day that year I drew with my left hand. I had a sketch book and every single day I did a drawing sometimes for only 10 minutes but it really trained that hand.
I’ve always gone to life drawing, I still go to life drawing and that’s a great way to perfect the quick drawing, particularly in the warm ups. So now I only draw with my left hand.
I draw and paint with both hands, it’s good isn’t it, but that was a great later life revelation. It came out of my teaching.
LG What would you suggest to people who want to do Art?
You just do it- people say I don’t want to waste paper, I don’t want to waste paint, but you will never waste it. Join a group. I’ve run workshops and someone turns up and they say I really want to paint like you and I smile and the doors close and they think I’m going to pull out ‘The Secret’. At the end of the day they say I’m really disappointed in what I’ve done, and I say but how long have you been doing it … I haven’t done much before today, I say what did you expect? A workshop is only ever a beginning.
If I wanted to be in the Olympics I wouldn’t expect to show up at the running track and do a brilliant time for the 800 metres. If you are a dancer or a musician …. You know you have to practice.
If it’s a passion then you want to practice.
So you are drawn to something you like doing aren’t you? For me I’ve always loved drawing. When I was growing up we didn’t have much money, but my dad worked at Tilbury docks and he used to have stacks of paper with the cargo area of ships on one side and blank on the other so I had lots of paper. That was important for me, that was an opportunity … you weren’t allowed to be bored when I was a child, you had to do something so I would just go to that cupboard with the paper and draw stuff.
I was always the kid in the corner with a stack of paper and pencils.
LG What do you get out of the workshops you do with Art Adventure Travel?
When you teach other people you always learn a lot about yourself …. Always…. sometimes you forget fundamentals about what you should be doing and when you tell other people … why don’t you come at it this way … and I think to myself of course that’s what I should be doing. The teacher should always get more out of it than the pupils. You also get a lot out of seeing how someone has interpreted the thing you’ve told them and you are always surprised with what they have done with that bit of information. Its heart warming to work with a group of people and be excited by their excitement.
LG: What about the future.
Its more opportunities to travel, I like slowing down travel. I think as much as I love Australia I love to go back to Europe every year to see the art, I want to spend time in those cities with loads of history. There is something about sitting on a Street with all those different languages and feeling like a stranger in a strange land that I just love. I want to do more Art Residencies I love the intensity of the experience without domestic responsibility …someone else makes the dinner someone else shops for it I am completely free to be the person who works on the art.
LG That’s a pretty cool place to be!
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