Audio: Sydney moderns kids

Find out more about a selection of the artists and artworks in the Sydney moderns exhibition (6 July – 7 October 2013). Click on the linked artwork to find out if it is currently on display in the Gallery.

Eric Wilson Abstract – the kitchen stove 1943 (detail)

1. Grace Cossington Smith The curve of the bridge

Do you recognise this bridge? Perhaps you've travelled over it to get to the Art Gallery?

It's the Sydney Harbour Bridge – one of the engineering marvels of the 20th century.

When the bridge was first opened more than 80 years ago, the people of Sydney were excited because it joined the north and south shores of the harbour and made it easier to travel around.

The artist Grace Cossington Smith painted and sketched the bridge many times. She was fascinated by the skill it took to build it and explored its shapes as it grew and stretched across the water. She loved its curves and the lines of its steel girders.

She painted this particular picture between 1928 and 1929 when the bridge was still being constructed. The painting glows with warm colours such as rosy pinks and soft browns - as if the light of the sun is heating the steel.

Look closely. Can you see her brush marks?

You can see how she has used a flat-ended brush for the different shades of blue in the sky as it radiates and fans like the curve of the bridge.

Notice how your eyes move around the picture. Can you spot the boat on the harbour?

Can you also see the construction workers; tiny in comparison to the huge bridge?

2. Roland Wakelin Down the hills to Berry's Bay

Do you like sketching or painting outdoors?

Many artists love to paint outdoors, or en plein air as it is known, so they can look at how light and colours change in the landscape during the day, depending on the weather and time.

The artist Roland Wakelin painted this picture of Berry’s Bay en plein air. He particularly wanted to show how the light affected the colours of the water, the trees, distant buildings and the grass in the foreground.

Notice how the grass is made up of many different flecks of colour. How many colours can you spot?

Roland Wakelin draws our attention to different parts of the picture with lines and shapes and changes in detail and colour.

Move your eyes around the picture, from the man in the foreground, to the sweeping lines of the trees and hillside, to the water and houses on the bay, and finally to the city in the background

Did you notice how your eyes zigzag around the picture?

Now look back at the man. What do you think he is doing? Perhaps he is sketching or painting? Or do you think he is about to get something delicious to eat out of a lunch box?

Look at how his shadow is directly underneath him. What time of day do you think it is?

It looks like the middle of the day when the sun is high up in the sky so shadows are short.

Perhaps you've noticed how your own shadow becomes longer when the sun starts to go down in the late afternoon.

But this painting is about more than just colour and light – because if you look closely - what can you see weaving its way along the top of the middle hillside?

It's a steam train. The artist has included the train and the distant, smoky city skyline to remind us of the great changes that were happening in Sydney at this time.

The city was growing as more people moved here to live and work – so bushy scenes like this one were gradually being affected by the expanding city.

Luckily, in some parts of Sydney you can still feel like you are in the bush even though you are in the heart of a modern, busy city.

3. Roy de Maistre Rhythmic composition in yellow green minor

How do you feel when you look at this picture?

Would the feeling be the same if there were objects or people in it?

This is one of Australia’s first abstract paintings. Abstract means that the painting does not depict a person, place or thing that is recognisable.

The artist Roy de Maistre was interested in how colours can make us feel different emotions and how colours could be mixed and blended to create different visual effects. He was also very interested in music. He thought a lot about how the two things could be combined together.

If music could be colours, what do you think it would look like?

In this painting Roy de Maistre has used colour to create a picture in the same way that notes are used to compose a tune.

In other words, each different shade of colour is like a different note in a piece of music.

The title of this painting is also musical – the word minor often describes music that has a sad, melancholic sound.

Take a look at the painting. What would it sound like if it were music? Perhaps the soft swirls of a romantic song or the gentle up and down of music that is slow and rhythmic.

4. Thea Proctor The rose

Imagine smelling this rose.

The artist – Thea Proctor – has shown a moment of shared friendship as these two elegant ladies enjoy the fragrance of a flower.

This picture is called a woodcut print. It was made by cutting grooves and lines into a flat block of wood with a sharp tool.

Ink was applied to the woodblock's surface and when it was pressed onto a piece of paper, only the areas that had not been cut away printed onto the paper.

Colours could be painted by hand afterwards. In ‘The rose’ Thea Proctor has used bright reds, vivid pinks and mauve.

Look at the lines and marks she has used to design the pattern of the ladies’ hair and the shapes of the flowers.

The way the ladies' faces are angled towards the centre draws our attention to the rose. This is balanced by more flowers in the ladies’ hair so we zigzag our eyes around the picture.

The artist made this design for the front cover of a magazine called The Home – a magazine full of ideas about fashion, art and interior design.

This was a time before photography was widely used for magazine covers so artists and graphic designers would often be asked to create illustrations to use instead.

5. Margaret Preston Implement blue

Have you ever tried drawing or painting things from around your home?

A still life is a picture of objects that don't move. Artists often set up a still life of objects in order to look at their shape, where the light falls and the shadows the objects make in relation to each other. That's what we see here in ‘Implement blue’.

The artist Margaret Preston is best known for her still-life pictures of Australian flowers – but here we see an arrangement of cups and saucers, a sugar bowl, metal jug and glass.

She has carefully lined up these objects so that we focus our attention on the diagonal lines of the composition and the way the strong back-light creates neat shadows that stretch from the objects.

The title of the work – ‘Implement blue’ – comes from the name of a paint colour. The artist has used ‘cool’ colours such as greys, mauves, blues and blacks which contrast with the white surface the objects sit on.

It almost looks like a scientific experiment in a laboratory. The geometric shapes, shadows and colours reinforce that these objects have been made by machines.

However, if you look closely, you can see something natural that is highlighted by its yellow colour.

It's a slice of lemon – placed into the glass on the left.

Lemons often appear in still-life paintings from the past as a symbol of long or renewed life, so perhaps the artist has included it here for the same reason. What do you think?

6. Grace Cossington Smith The Lacquer Room

Do you like going out to cafes? What is your favourite thing to drink and eat there?

Let’s visit this striking cafe called ‘The Lacquer Room’.

The artist – Grace Cossington Smith – was inspired to paint this colourful scene after visiting a cafe that used to be in the David Jones department store in Sydney. She loved the bright green tables and red chairs, and how the colours contrasted each other so dramatically. Notice how this draws our eyes immediately to the pattern of the chairs.

Look around the cafe – can you see any children?

At the time this was painted it was not as fashionable as it is today for children to visit cafes so we can see only grown-ups enjoying a cup of tea – no baby cinos here!

Notice how the people are dressed. What time of year do you think it is? Everyone seems to be rugged up in thick coats so perhaps it's winter.

Can you spot the staff in their green uniforms? Notice how they are more softly painted, almost blending into the background.

Shades of yellows and browns give a feeling of warmth and cosiness at the back of the cafe, particularly where the man is busy with his back to us – perhaps stooped over a stove making hot food.

Look at the floor of the cafe. Can you see how the artist has used short brush-marks in diagonal formations to give the effect of shafts of light sifting through the chairs and tables onto the shiny floor?

Gaze around the rest of the picture. Can you make out brushmarks in any other areas? What type of paint brush do you think the artist used? See if you can detect if she used the same size brush for the whole painting.

7. Max Dupain Silos through windscreen

Have you ever noticed how looking at a view out a car window is a bit like looking at a picture in a frame?

In this photograph, the photographer Max Dupain uses the front windscreen to frame a view of the city between the car's dashboard and roof. In the distance you can see huge storage containers for grain, which are called silos. Although the photo was taken more than 70 years ago, you can still see these today in Sydney near the Anzac Bridge.

As well as the silos in front of us, we can see part of a building in the rear-vision mirror.

When we look at it all together, it can be hard to tell what is inside the car and what is outside. It all seems to blend and merge.

As a result, we become surrounded by the urban scene with no people in sight. How does that make you feel? Alone? Isolated? Trapped? Or perhaps you feel a different way.

Max Dupain enjoyed finding areas of the city to photograph and often experimented with shadows, light and composition to change our way of viewing the places and objects we see around us every day.

Next time you are in a car, or some other form of transport, use the window to frame your view as you drive through the city.

8. Eric Wilson Abstract - the kitchen stove

Can you spot things from a kitchen in this artwork?

Can you see parts of a stove, a kettle, pots and pans? The brick walls and timber floor of the room? What about part of a sign that may have said 'Don't waste water'? And two fried eggs - where are they?

The artist – Eric Wilson – has taken these shapes and forms from a kitchen and cut and overlapped them to create a Cubist-style composition.

Cubism was an art style made famous by Picasso. Artists would take everyday objects and depict them from all angles at the same time in one picture so we could see how the back, front, top and bottom might look all at once.

They often combined textures and materials to emphasise the differences.

Eric Wilson enjoyed creating abstract art and particularly liked to focus on shape, form, colour and structure.

9. Frank Hinder Dog gymkhana

Do you have a pet?

This picture is of a group of parents collecting their children from school on a wet day. Some of them have brought their family pets with them and if you look closely you can make out the different shapes of their pet dogs.

How many dogs can you spot?

The word ‘gymkhana’ is usually used for a type of event for horses which is a type of racing but in the title of this picture it could mean the playful chaos of a school playground. Notice how the overlapping shapes create a sense of movement.

‘Dog gymkhana’ shows Frank Hinder’s interest in cubism – a style of art made famous by Picasso in which artists depict objects from all angles at the same time in one picture.

In this picture the people and forms are flattened and reduced to geometric shapes such as circles and rectangles and the artist has used soft, muted colours.

10. Ralph Balson Construction in green

Have you ever noticed how many circles there are around us in the world?

Geometric shapes such as circles and squares are often used by artists to create patterns and structure within paintings. The artist Ralph Balson loved to use them in what he called ‘constructed paintings’.

This ‘Construction in green’ blends circles, squares and lines in different shades of green with some white and red highlights. How many red circles can you spot?

Ralph Balson has painted the shapes by hand. He has used opaque paint, which is thick paint that you can't see through, as well as translucent or see-through pain. This combination of paints emphasises the overlapping of the shapes, the blending of the colours and the depth of the painting. It can make it hard to work out which shapes are in the background and which ones are in the foreground.

But did you notice how the white right-angled lines ‘jump out’ at you? What do you think makes those parts stand out?

Ralph Balson trained as a house painter at a time when you couldn’t ask your local hardware store to mix paints for you. As a result, he became very good at creating different shades of colour and this painting demonstrates this skill beautifully.