Portrait

A visit to the studio of nonagenarian artist Guy Warren. By Sarah Price.

Artist Guy Warren

At the end of a long driveway off a busy road in Sydney’s north, you reach his studio first. It’s in the garage: brown brick, ’70s style, flat-roofed carport off the front. At the door is an arrow pointing to his house. The house is set behind, like an afterthought. He prefers the studio: most days he is out here, painting.

The ceiling is panelled with timber, the air acrid with turpentine. Drawings and paintings are tacked on every wall space. There are palettes smeared with colour, canvases leaning against tables, tins and hats, memorabilia from New Guinea, an old cassette player. Brushes in every size and shape hang from hooks on a wall. Lined in rows on timber shelves are his sketchbooks, dating back to the 1940s. The metal spirals of the sketchbooks are rusted, cloth covers faded or frayed, and the pages browning. Against the far wall is an antique sideboard covered with art books and papers, and a birthday card with red lettering that reads: What do you wish a 96-year-old? The card is a few years old now. In May this year Guy Warren turned 98.

“How did that happen?” he says, shaking his head and laughing. He wears a purple shirt and reading glasses hanging from a cord around his neck. “It is extraordinary. I don’t know where it’s gone. When I was 95 I realised that I was perhaps getting old, but at 98… It’s absurd.”

At his age, Guy tells me, there is more time to think. When you can no longer look very far ahead you start looking back, thinking about the other things you might have done but will never get the chance to do. ‘‘I could certainly have done some things better. You only get one chance … sometimes you stuff it up and sometimes you don’t. The things you are proud of still stand firm, but inevitably of course – this sounds like an old man – one wonders how worthwhile they were. Does it really matter? Not just art, but everything.”

What does matter at 98? “Working still, making things. I don’t like the word creating: it is one of those pompous words. Making things, doing things…” Guy never doubted he would always be drawing and painting. He left school during the Depression, at age 14, worked at a newspaper and became interested in words and drawings. The newspaper’s art editor took him by the hand up Sydney’s George Street to an art school. It changed his life. He took as many art classes as he could afford and drew whenever he could. He started illustrating and writing for magazines. At 21 he joined the army and went to New Guinea, taking a sketchbook. “I lost my 20s to the war and my young 30s were in London. I’ve known the Alice for a long time – hitchhiked there in 1940, sleeping rough all the way. Ever since I was a small boy I have walked in the landscape. I know the Australian landscape pretty bloody well. I’ve slept on every square inch of it.

“One wants to make a mark – I don’t mean a mark in society. Literally making a mark I suspect is a primal urge. When some man or woman picked up a stick from a fire and made a mark on a cave wall – it started from there. At the same time it is the most abstract of things and the most human of things. On one hand it means no more than ‘this is a mark’, and on the other hand it means ‘I am here, I am alive, I am human. Perhaps there are other people also like me here.’ ”

Guy has another studio in Leichhardt, storing an accumulation of 80 years’ worth of work. In the collection is a self-portrait he did at 18, and the paintings he made at art school, after the war. He is currently working from notes he took in Alice Springs last year, but, he says, a painting can start with anything – not necessarily notes or a drawing. “I still browse through my sketchbooks occasionally, but I don’t have to do that. My art is less realistic now than it was many years ago, but I was brought up in that realist tradition. I get my ideas from landscape, from people. Sometimes things are no more than ideas … it’s a strange business.

“The creative process becomes much more difficult with age. I suspect that is because you know a lot more, or you expect a lot more. You know how short of your expectations you are falling. It’s not anxiety in relation to what other people think – you’ve reached a point where it doesn’t matter a stuff any longer, frankly. It is freeing, but you still have the same doubts. We all suffer from great doubts, which is why I paint over things constantly, and why I have been advised many times to leave them alone … but they’re not quite right, and you think you can do better. There is no yardstick, no God-given voice to say, ‘Stop now.’ There are no rules, so you keep trying – uncertain as you are – you keep trying.

“It is not that one makes a decision to paint, be an artist, to make things. It is a dumb urge that you know you have to do. I know artists in Sydney and they don’t start painting until they have a deadline. That’s not what making art is. Art is getting up in the morning and knowing you have to do it. For what reason? I have no idea. You just have to start making marks. Writers get up at 6 o’clock and make words and musicians write music. Among certain people it is essential to make something that you can either hear or look at.”

For 80 years Guy has been asking himself: What is the role of an artist? “I think the job of an artist is to be inventive, to be curious, to take risks. I don’t want to paint the same bloody painting year after year. I’d rather be broke than do that.”

He calls me honey. I don’t mind: he’s 98. He says he wants to go north, into the desert, to make marks. He wants to play jazz with a group of guys. He could have been a muso, a writer. He says there are too many things he wants to learn, too many things he wants to do. He wants another 50 years, then another 50 after that.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 3, 2019 as "The artist as an old man". Subscribe here.

Sarah Price
is a Sydney-based writer.