Art Practice interview with Penelope Oates


Welcome Penelope Oates to the Gingernut Express artist interviews. Penelope is a mixed media artist specialising in mark making. Her unique style is inspired by the natural forms and silhouettes that merge within the Australian landscape.  From my first encounter with Penny, I was impressed by her vibrancy and dedication to her art practice. The many layers she uses to build up her compositions expel a timelessness in her artworks. Her style of paring back the surface to reveal more, reminds me of an archeological dig. That there is always something more to find in her work is what makes every piece breath a thousand lives. Creating all these lives takes dedication, time and perserverance. This interview gives you a sneak peak at how she manages her creative life.


Where you always a creative person?

Hell yes! I was always drawing and making from a very young age and began watercolour lessons at the age of 14 with a well known Sydney water colourist by the name of Judy Whitlock who taught me how to look at the landscape in detail along with other invaluable techniques and tips.

When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

I was already planning and imagining my time at an art school before I even got to my senior years at school and I distinctly remember my yr 10 Art teacher saying to me ‘ keep that drawing for when you apply for art school”. She would have said this to me because she knew how serious I was about my art.

I did go to art school as soon as I finished year 12, having had my work selected for the first ever Art Express exhibition of Major Works and then having it chosen to be in the William Wilkins permanent exhibition I was suitably encouraged for my first interview to get into COFA.

Along with my interest in the Fine Arts I was also interested very much in theatre and following my three years at COFA I applied and was excepted into the prestigious National School for Dramatic Art to study stage and costume design.

Several years later after freelancing across many art and design fields I decided to get my teaching degree so I had a more steady and reliable income.

When did you decide to dedicate more time on your art practice?

The time for me to become a professional artist came later in life after I had married a wonderful furniture maker and designer and we were able to afford to purchase a beautiful slice of paradise in the lower mountains with more than enough space for a huge shed and studio.

Where do you make your art?

I make all of my artworks from my studio on our property (in Grose Vale, near the Hawkesbury River on the Sydney outskirts in Australia). Set in natural bushland, I am lucky enough to have a plethora of gum trees to refer to at my doorstep. I have plenty of visual stimulus around me and it is just a short drive to many vantage points around the Hawkesbury where I can snap a few photos or do some plein air sketching if I am capturing a particular aspect or sense of place.

Left: Penelope Oates at a Gallery drop-off. Centre: A beautiful backyard to inspire. Right: Every artist needs a good assistant – Miley the dog oversees the studio action from a comfy rug.

Where do you store your paintings? 

I have a separate room where I have to store my paintings once they are finished and waiting to go places, whether that be for my galleries or exhibitions. This has become a necessity not only because I ran out of space to keep them in my studio, but due to the need to keep them in good condition. As an artist that works with mixed media I tend to create a bit of a mess at times with overspray a constant issue from some aerosol spraying.

How do you plan your art making?

Having come from a design background and trained in the area of stage and costume design I have found it quite liberating to not be as formal in my planning of any given work (unless it is a commissioned piece or for an art prize) I tend to freeform it. What I mean by that is apart from knowing what size board is am going to work on and whether it will be an ocean or bush scene I simply ‘begin’. This is what is known as working intuitively and allowing the mediums that you use to direct the beginning of any artwork. This is often the most exciting and liberating stage of the either works or it doesn’t.. the aerosol and ink create colourations and textures that I then begin to pull and push to form an initial image. My soldering iron is the next tool that I will use to block in horizon lines, the outlines of trees or rocks. If I need to reference a feature of the landscape more directly I refer to photographic images I have or just look at what’s in form of me- literally, as I live on acreage and have an infinite number of flora to observe.

The finishing of an artwork is often the hardest to arrive at. Like many artists, I will often have a deliberate break from a work and just look at it on an easel for a while before finally removing it.

Artworks begin with the layering of enamel spray paint and alcohol inks on timber panels, customised to shape and size.

What mediums and materials do you use?

I use unorthodox mediums to create my works, from surface to finish, but this is what gives my work its distinctive style and its one that has taken a period of five years of consistent experimenting and re-evaluating to arrive at the point I am at today.

I choose to work on MDF otherwise known as medium density partial board as it is the smoothest surface for me to etch into and is the least likely material to lose its structural integrity giving me the best results. It has taken many experiments with timber surfaces to arrive at this decision it in the end I came back to MDF timber sounds ethically better but being married to a timber furniture maker/designer I know for a fact how much timber can warp.

A triptych in the making in the studio.

All of my works are sealed or primed with an oil based white paint before I begin any painting work. I use a combination of aerosol spray and alcohol inks for my initial layers of colour, acrylic paint for highlights or skies and all the detailing is done with a soldering iron to give both form and texture to the surface of board. Once I am happy with the end result and have waited at least a week to be sure the work is dried I use my husband’s fancy spray booth and his lacquer to seal the work.

I’m a firm believer that artists should be their own strictest critic – you can love what you do, but to get better, the artist has to be willing to have a conversation with their work to develop their style.

I use a combination of aerosol spray paint and alcohol inks for my initial layers of colour, acrylic paint for highlights or skies and all the detailing is done with a soldering iron to give both form and texture to the surface of board.

Penelope Oates at work in her studio.


Mark making is made by a soldering iron directly onto the panel. Texture comes to life with final layers of lacquer.

What is the focus of your art practice?

Ever since I can remember I have always been a keen observer of natural forms, from the shifting shapes of clouds to the light and shadows that play amongst trees and rocks. My fondest memories I have as a child are of my dad taking my out on bush expeditions to draw and it is no accident that I have introduced the soldering iron into my work as a form of drawing, in this sense I see myself as more of a mark-maker than a painter. It is this tool that really builds the textural integrity of my work with a must amount of lines overlapping and crisscrossing the surface.

How do you schedule your time?

I work on my art most days when I am not teaching. I have no problem working through the entire weekend and don’t really take note of how many hours I spend on any given artwork. I certainly do not base the price of my works on how many hours I spend on them I just try to focus on producing the best possible work I can at the time however long it takes. This is why working toward an exhibition or completing a commissioned piece can be a little more stressful as you do have to work to a set time frame.

Do you like to work in complete silence or do you have music or other things playing in the background?

I usually work with music playing as I find it adds an extra emotive element to the act of making art. Sometimes I even become aware that I am using my soldering iron to draw in time with the music if it’s classical music that is!

Where do you show/sell your art?

I sell works through galleries that represent me, I am represented by The Milk Factory Gallery and KAB Gallery and Manyung Galleries in Melbourne.

I also regularly enter a select number of art prizes every year and sometimes I am lucky enough to sell works this way.

I usually have a solo or due show once a year and perhaps a group show.

This year I have a solo show ‘Landscape Narratives’ that is on from the 5th to 6th July. All works will be available online to be viewed on the Milk Factory Gallery’s website closer to the date.

How do you pay the bills? How do you balance your art making income and out goings with other income?

I supplement my income from making art with teaching, usually 2 days per week at a local high school. If I didn’t have this I wouldn’t be able to sustain my art practice. If I am going through a period where I need a break from making or don’t have any urgent works to complete for exhibitions I will usually take on a few more days teaching.

I don’t find motivation to be an issue for me as most days I just look forward to being in my studio.. I just can’t imagine my life without making art but then for most of my life I have always been happiest drawing, painting or making even when I wasn’t making an income from it.

How do you keep motivated? 

These days it isn’t an issue for me… I find myself wishing I had even more time on earth to make art. This mindset is partly from being diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer 6 years ago. Recovering from this and being healthy enough to keep going has been all the motivation I needed in life to realise time is precious and not to be wasted – just sometimes wish I was ten years younger!

When do you hit a flat spot and how do you get over it?

Take a small break and focus on something completely different for a day or two. Sometimes taking on a week of teaching is enough to spur me back into the right frame of mind again.

How do you tackle social media in the new ‘self promotion’ arena we find ourselves in.

It doesn’t come naturally to me as I am quite a private person and really just want to hide away in my studio and actually make stuff! It’s always a balancing act between deciding whether to travel into the city to see other artists exhibitions which takes most of the day for me or just working in my studio,similarly, how much time you spend on promoting on social media is constant head battle for me as it takes me away from precious time in the studio.

What is the hardest thing about being an artist?

I guess maintaining a strong sense of self worth as an artist and belief in your own work is hard at times when you go through slow periods where your work may not be selling or you may not have been selected for an art prize.

When you do have sales however and you do get selected as a finalist for an art prize you feel validated again and this just re invigorates me to keep producing knowing that there is an appreciative audience out there. I often think being an artist is not really a choice, it’s something that chooses you, and I like that.

What would you say is the best thing about your art life?

The best thing about my art life is working as my own boss and being able to make some money out of creating – a dream come true in this sense.

What is one thing you would recommend to others struggling to get more art in their life?

If you want to have art in your life as a hobby I would recommend doing some short art workshops in your local area to find out what you might like. If you already have an idea, then you could join an art society which is a great way to meet other artists both hobbyists and professionals. Other than that, art making is a highly personal journey and it really begins with simply ‘making’. Of course you need time and a space to create in, so if you don’t have a peaceful space at home this is where joining an art group or doing workshops can be a great help to kickstart your practice.

Where can others see your work or find out about your workshops?

Examples of my work and details about my latest exhibitions can be found on my website

I prefer not to sell works directly from my website but you can get a good idea of the extent of my works and can always send me a message if you see any work that appeals to you for commissions.

I have current works for sale listed online and in store-here are links to my works at each gallery.

‘Antipodean Dreaming 2’.  80 x 80cm. Ink, acrylic and soldering iron on board (framed). Available from KAB Gallery.
‘2 sides to Nature’. 19 x 55cm. Acrylic, ink and soldering iron on curved timber. Available from KAB Gallery.

‘Golden Hues’ Diptych. 120 x 81cm. Ink, acrylic, soldering iron on timber panels. Available from The Milk Factory Gallery.

‘Ocean Alive’.  Acrylic and soldering iron on timber. 40 x 120 cm. Available from Manyung Gallery.

Do you have any exciting art adventures happening in the near future?

I have a solo show ‘Landscape Narratives’ that will open on July 16th at the Milk Factory Gallery in gorgeous Bowral and run through till August 16th. Hopefully galleries will be able to open up for small groups of visitors by this stage, however, all works will be on the gallery’s website prior to these dates with online purchasing available.

I have posted the collection of works for this exhibition already onto my own website – check in out here.



Check out more artist interviews here

Kristine Ballard – Contemporary Colourist

Melony Smirniotis – Textural Expressionist

Chan Dissanayak – Watercolour Artist


These monthly instalments are a sneak peak into how other artists I know build an art life and maintain a creative existence. I hope you will  jump on board as we take a few trips beyond the easle on THE GINGERNUT EXPRESS!

The Gingernut Express is a monthly blog, written and produced by Visual Artist and Arts Educator, Kristine Ballard on
© Kristine Ballard 2020