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Shaun Tan's Bakers Dozen: an exhibition of 13 small oil paintings

These 13 works were produced concurrently with paintings for Rules of Summer, so the style and palette of the smaller works do inform the realisation of those other paintings.

Such observational oil sketches have been a regular part of my practice since I was in high-school, much inspired by the cigar-box-lid sketches of the Heidelberg artists, particularly the 9 x 5 Impression(ist?) Exhibition of 1889.

Over the intervening decades I’ve come to appreciate the sheer practicality of this scale, finding that a panel of 20 x 15cm is just big enough to carry a scene honestly, resist excessive detail and revision, and always draw me back to an unpretentious focus on basic principles: light, atmosphere and a simple sense of place and time.

Such studies are frequently the basis of other imaginative departures into books and film, a constant reminder to look outward before looking inward, and above all else to simply learn how to look, a never-ending student exercise.

To paint a variety of landscapes is to realize that that every place is entirely different from every other place, so absolutely specific in composition and unique in personality.

But over time there comes a greater understanding, that every place is actually the same place, always planted upon this one spot – wherever your feet happen to be – and then planted in that other spot, your mind.

And there’s a third spot, a physical surface where each place can persist as an imperfect, paint-encrusted memory – half seen and half recalled – one that will probably outlive its original point of reference (I notice, for instance, that a number of local trees in my paintings have since been cut down).

As for choice, I usually don’t know exactly why I feel so attracted to a certain scene, only that I do: perhaps the act of painting is itself an attempt to answer that very question.

Or to simply say ‘I was here, I saw this’, expanding upon each idle glance, stopping it from drifting away, affording some chance to pause and think.

Shaun Tan

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