Belinda Barnes

Belinda Barnes is a Canberra-based Australian painter originally from South Africa. The moody colouring of her work evokes landscapes and natural shapes seen as memories, while her use of perspective gives a simultaneous feel of the aerial and the microscopic. There is a distinctly Australian quality about her work – the earthy orange and red palette, combined with striking blues, summon extremes of Australian bush and water. Belinda has had several exhibitions and sold numerous works, and took the time to talk to us about her artwork, her process and her story.

When did you first become interested in art?

I grew up in a family of people who were always painting. My grandmother was the first woman in South Africa to get an art degree, and then she became the art inspector. I can remember her telling me stories about Mickey Mouse while she painted me, to keep me sitting still, because I was pretty little.

From early on I was in my grandmother’s studio, painting. I remember that studio well. My mother was also doing art at the same time and my great-grandmother was a painter too; she used to do pastels. I grew up looking at art books. It was just part of life.

You studied visual art (as well as mathematics) in Cape Town; tell us a bit about that.

When I went to uni, you had to do a subject with art – you couldn’t just do art and art history and art theory – so I did maths. When I came to second or third year, I had to choose whether to drop maths and continue with art, or keep going with maths. And I decided at that point that I would probably always paint, but if I stopped maths there and then, I’d probably never do maths again.

You’ve lived in South Africa, Tasmania, and now Canberra. Have the changes in your surrounds affected your art?

When I first came to Australia, we started in Brisbane and bought a car and a tent and travelled. We went down the east coast of Australia, through Tasmania, into the Otways, and then back to Tasmania, where we settled.

Landscape has always been very big for me. I find the big skies and landscape extremely reassuring and grounding, particularly once you get out of the city. The colours to me are almost in blocks – that’s how I see it. I see landscapes in terms of colour and pattern.

‘Kites’, 2010, oil and ink on paper, 50 x 52 cm

Could you tell us about your experience of synaesthesia, and how it affects your art?

There are a number of aspects to it. For me, one of them is ‘number maps’. All my numbers, for example, go in patterns. I see this big three-dimensional shape and there’s direction, so when I’m thinking of numbers they have a place in this great big map, and you move within that. What I find interesting is that if you’re thinking about people’s ages, they have a different map from just the normal numbers, and if you’re thinking about eras and times in history, they have a different map again. The year has its own map, weeks have maps, and days; they all have maps that you travel through.

Another aspect of the synaesthesia is that I think about things in terms of colour and texture. Even mathematical concepts are actually to do with patterns and colour. For me, maths picks up on the abstract concepts of art; they come into maths, rather than the mathematical fractal structures going in art.

Do you have a routine when it comes to creating your art?

Mostly, it’s as the mood takes me. Just like with anything, you have this idea and it starts to form and then you give it a go. A painting never turns out exactly as I had imagined it. That’s where you start, and then as you’re working on it, the artwork gives you other ideas and you shift, and push it and pull it into something else.

For the works with the floating sail-like forms in them, that’s all to do with air and space and movement, and getting inside something, as opposed to being blocked out. When I was at art school, I went through drawing sails at one point, trying to get things with air in them, and what I’m doing now is more things that float.

You incorporate found pieces into your work. Tell us about that.

They bring texture, and they create something very definite in another setting, in a landscape type of setting. Once you put an old piece of tin in the middle of a picture, it doesn’t look like an old piece of tin any more, it turns into something completely different; sometimes it’s not even obvious what it was before. What was originally a piece of rubbish turns into something quite meaningful and different in a picture.

What materials do you prefer to work with?

I work mainly with oils. When I was at art school we used oil, and if I’m completely ridiculous, I like the smell. I’ve learned to use oils in a way that works for me. I don’t use turps or anything, so there’s a lot of rubbing. I really like how the oils work, because you can layer them up and you can get these see-through films of colour, and also incredibly rich colours. You can probably do that with acrylics these days, I don’t know – I just know how to get the sorts of effects that I’m after with oils.

I’ve also found if you combine particular types of ink, even though one’s water-based and one’s oil-based, you can actually use them. They’ll repel each other but you can build layers of them, and that gives you richness. The floaty sail-like forms are largely ink that is water-based over oil. Because it slightly repels, some of the colour will automatically come off, and so you get that floaty see-through, almost unpredictable way of how it’s going to work together.

In one painting, a piece of my hair fell in it, and it made these little ‘scratch’ marks, so I used that and I chopped off another piece, and I actually used that to create the whole thing. So, I use all sorts of effects.

‘Seeping Rocks 2’, 2005, oil and ink on paper, 54 x 59 cm

Who’s your favourite painter, or which artist is inspiring you currently?

Rothko is one of the people I’ve always really liked. I love his veils of colour. I find his works restful, but also I feel that you can move into them, almost behind them. Rothko often has these blocks of colour on top of others and they’ve got these fuzzy edges, and you can move into that space. I find it very calming work.

One of my favourite sculptures is the one out at the Canberra Airport, the ‘tree-thing’, when it moves in the wind. I get a lot of pleasure out of that. Also, Robert Juniper. He’s an Australian artist. I discovered his work only relatively recently, and I really like a lot of the things he’s done, again, with how he uses colour and shape on top of that. Miró kind of effects, only much looser.

Are you working on something at the moment?

I’ve just been asked to design a wine label. That’s what that is behind you, the beginning of that. I’ll do some options for them. That one, too, has got a piece of old flywire in it, that is in between there.

What’s your favourite shiny thing?
Can I show you?
It looks like a large gold pebble.

I found it in a shop, not sure what I’m going to do with it, but there it is!

To see more of Belinda’s work, and for enquiries, visit

Photography by Adam Thomas. Artwork by Belinda Barnes.