News / Arts

Late starter makes up for lost time

Brunswick artist wins national plaudits for paintings of his neighbourhood

Joe Whyte at work in his Pentridge studio.

Mark Phillips

BRUNSWICK artist Joe Whyte will draw inspiration from a new source when he takes up a prestigious residency in Rome next month.

Whyte has been awarded a William Fletcher Foundation fellowship, which involves a three month residency at the British School at Rome.

The fellowship caps off a momentous 12 months for the 44-year-old Brunswick artist during which he has won national acclaim for his intimate oil paintings of his local neighbourhood.

Whyte recently held a successful solo exhibition called ‘In Waking Hours’ at fortyfivedownstairs gallery in Flinders Lane, selling almost all of the 22 streetscapes he displayed, most of them painted in Brunswick and Coburg over the past year.

He was also won the 2023 National Emerging Art Prize for his work ‘Through the Clouds’, which captures a moody scene in Hawthorn. In addition to a $20,000 acquisitive cash prize, that award entitled Whyte to a solo exhibition at Michael Reid Northern Beaches gallery in Sydney this year.

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The plaudits have arrived thick and fast for an artist who only took up oil painting seriously over the past decade.

Working out of a small studio in the former wardens’ quarters at Pentridge Prison, Whyte has built his reputation on his highly detailed oil paintings of Brunswick street scenes, often depicted as lonely urban landscapes in the early dawn hours or at sunset.

He regularly sets off on his bike around Brunswick with a sketchbook on which he will rough out the scenes that he will later bring to life over dozens of hours working with oils on canvas.

His works have depicted the Phoenix Street railway bridge, the Edinburgh Castle Hotel, and numerous back streets in Brunswick.

He said he was drawn to painting Brunswick by an “emotional connection” to the area.

“I will often go to other places which I might find interesting, but they don’t quite resonate with me in the same way that that these places that I know so intimately do.

“I’ve ridden past that railway bridge 1000 times and I’ve looked at it every single time, and I find that all adds up so when I begin a painting, I’m thinking about all these experiences that I’ve had and the good times and the bad times and I find that tends to come through in in my artwork.”

‘Through the Clouds’, winner of the 2023 National Emerging Art Prize.

Whyte has drawn since he was old enough to hold a crayon. He studied graphic design and illustration at Monash University, and first put his skills to work designing posters for the hardcore punk bands he would see at inner Melbourne venues.

He parlayed that into illustrating posters for touring bands, including Pearl Jam and Queens of the Stone Age.

Whyte still often listens to heavy metal and hardcore music at full volume when he is working in the studio at Pentridge, something he admits does not endear him to all his neighbours.

He has worked as a commercial and advertising artist for most of his career but always wanted to satisfy his creative side as a painter. When he decided to take the plunge about a decade ago in his mid-30s, there was never any doubt that he would paint using oils.

“When I started oil painting, I immediately loved it – it was something I really connected with,” he said.

“I feel they [oils] are so flexible that you can do absolutely anything with them. You really are only limited by your imagination.”

Whyte says he has been surprised by his rapid success which has been such that this year he has decided to foresake all commercial work to concentrate on his art.

He believes that being a late starter as an oil painter has been to his advantage.

“Sometimes when you come late, you can feel that you’re almost late too the party, like you’ve missed opportunities,” he sai.

“But as I’ve developed it further, I realised that there is a benefit in coming to something a little bit later and using that life experience.

“I can now see in all my paintings, there’s hints of things I’ve been through in my life, various experiences and various moments, which I can see where they are within my work and where they’ve influenced my work.

“I’ve always had a pretty good work ethic when it comes to drawing, but there’s also certainly a desire not to waste any time, that time is precious and I really want to get the most done while I can.”

“It’s going to be really interesting to put myself in an unfamiliar situation, and to paint things which are entirely new to me, and I don’t know what to expect.”

He is looking forward to the three-month stint in Rome, where he will rub shoulders with humanities scholars and writers as well as other artists.

The residency is through the William Fletcher Foundation, which is supported by the estate of the renowned Sydney-based artist who died in 1983.

The biennial fellowship and residency is valued at over $30,000 and includes accomodation at the British School at Rome and a monthly stipend.

At the end of the residency, Whyte will also hold an exhibition at the BSR.

While he has won national acclaim for his intimate oil paintings of his local Brunswick neighbourhood, Whyte believes he has reached a period in his development as an artist where he needs to push the limits beyond what is familiar to him.

“I’ve been painting Brunswick streetscapes for the past few years, and I love it.

“I’m very, very familiar with Brunswick, so I come to it with an attitude of painting things that I know intimately.

“I think it’s going to be really interesting to put myself in an unfamiliar situation, and to paint things which are entirely new to me, and I don’t know what to expect.

“I will be way outside of my comfort zone and I think that’s a good thing for an artist to do.”

He is also keen to explore portraiture further. His subjects to date have included a brooding image of the First Nations rap musician and actor, Briggs.

“For the time being, I want the change of scenery. I’m sure I will come back to Brunswick. But I think it’s time for me to explore some different areas.”

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