What lies behind the broad brushstrokes of eightysomething artist Ann Thomson. By Charlotte Wood.

Painter Ann Thomson: driven to abstraction

Ann Thomson is an imposing figure. Tall and lean, wearing a paint-speckled, faded red overshirt, she stands back from her easel and waits, staring intently, before darting forward, arcing paint onto the canvas in wild loops and scrawls, her long arms swooping. 

Light pours in through the north-facing windows of her studio, not far from the beach, in Sydney’s Waverley. Thomson has lived and worked here since the 1980s. The huge room, once a jam factory, is partitioned into separate areas. One corner is piled high with found metal, steel and wooden materials – for “making things,” she says “…I don’t call it sculpture.” Huge rope and wooden forms hang on thick chains from the metal roof girders. 

Every surface of the many tables, trestles and document drawers is completely covered – in layers of finished and half-done paintings, in rags, crayons, sketchbooks and catalogues, paint-pots and jars. Next to an easel, a trolley holds more than a dozen bowls – the kind used for cereal or noodles – half-filled with paint. Beside that, a wide stack of brushes: she needs about 30 on the go at once.

From a distance, Thomson appears not so much to be painting as pursuing something across the canvas. She lunges, brush gripped like a fencer’s foil, then retreats once more, waits. It’s like watching someone chasing a lightning strike.

She goes to load her brush, casting a furtive glance over her shoulder at the picture as if to catch it unawares, and sloshes colours together in a bowl. Sometimes she brings the paint-bowl with her, at others returns only with a dripping brush, her free hand twitching by her side, before dashing in again. Just when I’m accustomed to these vigorous, stabbing jousts a sudden serenity descends, and Thomson glides to the canvas, quietly making several long, languorous lines, her movements morphing from pouncing hunter to unhurried, elegant dancer. 

She can’t talk while she works, she tells me afterwards. “All the time I’m painting, I’m not thinking. I actually put a little tune in my head, and keep it going over and over, to keep my thoughts still. Then I do what the painting says.” 

She has a deep urge to fill up space. In 1987 she was commissioned to paint a massive work for the Darling Harbour convention centre. “Brett Whiteley looked at his wall and painted a picture. I looked at mine and just thought, I need to fill it up!” The same feeling overtook her last year in Reims, France, when she rented a former art gallery to work in. “I loved that. By the time I left, it had things on all the walls and big canvases and two trestles with my paints on and chairs and everything. I like going into an empty space and filling it up.” 

She does this physically, too, as we speak, often leaping up mid-sentence, striding across the studio to find a picture or show me something – the rolls of rich, tobacco-coloured tarred paper she loves for their dark tones and layered textures; something in a book or catalogue; a sketch. I trot after her with my recorder – at one point I step in a water bowl left out for her daughter’s dog – as she ranges about the studio, pacing it, claiming it.

One wall and table is covered in small paintings: sketches for larger works, never consulted once done. “They feed in, but I never look at them again.”

It’s difficult to imagine the cheerfully restless 82-year-old sleeping, but she reports taking an occasional afternoon nap on a beautiful green day bed against a far wall. She complains that lately she has been feeling tired, and seems appalled by the idea. She swims every day, either at the beach or, as today, 20 laps in the nearby ocean pools.

Thomson discovered painting at the age of nine, recognising an interior force that must be honoured. “I felt as if it was in me, and that it would very unkind – to my inner possibility – to ignore it.” 

Painting has always been a quest for what she calls “the other”. 

“I remember leaving art school and walking up Burton Street, looking at the buildings and thinking, ‘I don’t want to paint things, like this, I want to paint something other’.”

She sees herself as a colourist, and mixes colours – using oils, gouache, acrylics, pastels or oil sticks at different times – on instinct in the moment before application. “Then it might be wrong, so I paint over it with something else, and that’s nice. You get a layering that changes the colour. So it’s not as deliberate as saying, ‘I will paint these dahlias and they are orange.’ ”

The cavalier way visual artists handle their own works has always shocked me; Thomson wrenches and drags hers around, seizing a thick wad of large tarred-paper works, dropping the lot to the floor with an almighty thwack. But this seeming carelessness is also something of an artist’s statement: nothing must be protected, everything is part of the work, there’s no such thing as a mistake. 

Having her two daughters in her 30s interrupted her work painfully, but motherhood was also essential.

“It was terrible! I thought about painting all the time, but I had these little babies, nappies to wash, and I was teaching art to children at SCEGGS. There was just no time during the day. So I would put the babies to bed in the early evening, and I’d fall asleep. Then I’d get up at 9 o’clock, go to my studio and work till I dropped. Or I’d get up at 5, paint for two hours, come back and make breakfast. That kept me sane. But I’m so glad I had children! You know, it’s part of it. If you look at everything as being part of it, then you’re okay going down wrong paths. You can go the wrong way, but that’s good. I used to say to students, ‘Let it go, get rid of it! It’ll come back. Because it’s you.’ ”

Five decades after her first solo show, how does she feel her work has changed? 

“I’m letting go more; I’m freer now. Over the years, you begin to know the artist that is you, the one you have to nurture and develop and grow. And understand. But I’m still trying to reach that other. That’s what I’m always looking for.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 12, 2015 as "Driven to abstraction".

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