Painter gilds magical works video

Chris Skelton/Stuff

Artist Neal Palmer talks about his up coming exhibition and the art of gilding paintings.

You lean over the board, hand resting in mid-air, assessing the matte black surface before you dip your calligraphy brush in the sizing, an incredibly sticky glue. Not too much, and careful where you put it — you can't shift it once it's on. You're aiming to fill only the spaces between the delicate white charcoal marks on the board. Once satisfied, you lay the thinnest possible sheet of silver foil over the glue and pat it down with a paintbrush that has been used for just this purpose so often that it splays out like a fan.

Then the fun bit — what Neal Palmer calls the 'magic moment' of gilding — the reveal that comes after many hours of painstaking drawing and gluing, when you gently brush away the excess silver foil to uncover the image below, beautifully reflective and brand new. If you're a newbie like me, yours is likely to stray from plan, with glue swooping giddily into areas it shouldn't, leaving rogue patches of silver in its wake. But idiosyncrasies are all part of the beauty, says Palmer, and to be celebrated — not that you'll find anything but gorgeous precision in his intricate paintings of flax and pohutakawa leaves, cabbage trees and wintry tree branches pushing against city buildings.

Not your average backscratcher

Artist Neal Palmer in his Auckland studio
Chris Skelton

Artist Neal Palmer in his Auckland studio

The highly-regarded London-born painter, who has been exhibiting and selling his large naturalistic works in New Zealand since moving here with his Kiwi wife in the 1990s, is showing a collection of gilded paintings at Mt Eden's nkb Gallery. He has been perfecting his technique for the past 10 years, after learning from professional gilders in Sydney. He was part of the team that gilded the Christchurch Casino and he has done work for private homes as well.

In his purpose-built back-garden studio — flooded with sunlight and dotted with oddities such as a pinata deer head — Palmer lays a wooden back scratcher on the table, leaning his working wrist on it so he doesn't disturb his charcoal drawing. It has been doctored with the addition of some fabric and masking tape wound round the scratching end, and at some point has been painted white. "Like so many of my tools, I've had it so long I don't remember where it came from," he says. "They all develop their own uses. I've still got brushes I bought at art school in 1989."

Reflecting real life

Neal Palmer is best known for his large paintings of native plants.
Chris Skelton

Neal Palmer is best known for his large paintings of native plants.

When he's brushed away the excess and is happy with the result, he gets out a dustbuster and sucks up all the loose leaf that has floated across the table for later use.

"What I like about the gilding process is the reflection," he says. "It takes on the light and the colours around it. It reacts with its environment, which appeals to me. The images I am doing are quite complicated, they are made up of lots of small marks which are perfect for the gilding process. I am really interested in the forms of nature. I was reading a lot of chaos theory and how complex forms are built up from smaller forms. It's about the micro shapes creating the macro shapes and how they relate to each other."

Palmer got into painting the flax leaves he is best known for as a way of acclimatising to New Zealand as a new immigrant, but he also enjoys the opportunity they give him to play with abstraction while producing work that people can recognise. "Flax leaves are like lots of mini planes that work in the way an abstract painting would. Sometimes the focus is so close you start to lose what it is. Where it works for me is where people can still tell what it is but it's just on the edge."

Spitting image

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Palmer met his wife Angela when both worked on Spitting Image, the satirical political puppet show that skewered Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan and their peers in the 80s and 90s. Palmer got a job there straight after art school, as a runner, working his way up to puppet co-ordinator, responsible for ensuring the puppets were in a good state of repair and ready to go on set. "I loved it, actually, it was an exciting time, a lot of fun to work on. It was a million-dollar production and there were 30-odd people making puppets alone." 

He worked in television production again when he and Angela returned to England in the late 90s, on Change That, a short-lived decorating programme. Punters would bring their furniture and household items to roadshows around the UK to be transformed by famous designers, with crew including Palmer turning their outlandish ideas into workable pieces. With a young family the travel became difficult, and it was when they settled in Auckland that Palmer got serious about an art career. 

Hours at the coal face

He jokes that he "didn't even know how to paint" when he left art school, developing his skills on his own, hour after hour in isolation. That is still his practice. Written in blue chalk on his studio wall: "It's all about hours at the coal face."

In addition to his botanical works, Palmer has an interest in horses, producing realistic portraits that are amalgamations of famous racing thoroughbreds, including a majestic two-metre painting in his home. Palmer is intrigued by the way horses represent value, in the same way that art works do. "You can get very good art and spend a few thousand dollars on it, and other artists, you get to a point where you're spending a million on very similar quality work," he says. "I used the horse as an allegory of that — you can spend a few thousand for a good horse, and you get to the top end and it's exponentially more."

This particular horse, gorgeous though it is, has failed to attract a sale, due to its size and the decorating challenge it presents to potential owners. Called Shades of Grey,  it has been exhibited three times, travelled to London and back, but remains in Sandringham, presiding coolly over Palmer's dining room. 

* Complex Rhythms opens at nkb Gallery, 455 Mt Eden Rd, Auckland, on October 15. Neal Palmer will demonstrate gilding at the gallery on October 17 as part of Artweek.

 - Stuff

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