Aussie Indie Artists: Leon Holmes on the life of a travelling oil painter

Aussie Indie Artists is a series of interviews with lesser known Aussie creators across all forms and fields. The goal is to share exciting new works, find new angles towards the art, and peek behind the scenes.

You’ll never see dull, grey gravel in a Leon Holmes painting, it’ll be flecked with mint, royal blue, and even lavender. His oil paintings render the world in warm, lovely colours while staying wholly immersive– even his studies could be mistaken for photos at a distance, but up close, they’re abstract shapes and gestural marks of rich colour and texture. Wherever a Leon Holmes painting is set, you’ll want to visit.

He’s won prizes not just from across Australia but the world too. A few of the accolades he’s taken home are the Best in Show from the Western Australian Society of Arts, from Plein Air Down Under, and from the Maui Plein Air Invitational in Hawaii.

I asked Leon about his oil painter inspirations, and his en plein air lifestyle.

One impressive thing about your paintings is how quick you are. On your Youtube, you paint a panorama in maybe half an hour? How long does the average pochade box painting take?

Well, these quick paintings en plein air are only a study, a capture of a fleeting moment when the light is creating an interesting design of shapes and patterns. Some take only 10 minutes– when the light is fleeting– whereas a longer, more detailed rendering might take a few hours. If there is a lot of information to digest, I find that the quick ones inspire me most to work up into a studio painting because it leaves more for my imagination. And a studio painting can take me months to finish.

Your Instagram has almost a thousand posts, and you must’ve painted more than that. How many paintings do you think you’ve done?

Yes, I paint a lot. Not as much as I would like, because running an art business is like any other business. We don’t just happily paint all day as many would have us believe. But on average, I probably paint 3-4 studies a week, including an evening portrait session. Over 20 years as a full time artist… I’ll let your viewers do the maths. 

Fun fact: I painted 37 paintings in 5 days in Venice a few years ago. Painting from dawn to midnight. And I just returned from Greece last week with 60 wet works in my suitcase.

Beach bar activities – 20x40cm

Do you have any current favourites?

There are always a few that you prefer to not part with. Some are just a special memory from the spot you were painting, and some you look at and wonder ‘How did I do that?’.

What about favourite artists?

My answer to that question is forever changing. I get bored or move on from what I think is good and discover new ways to look at a scene or subject. But I am always happy to be standing in front of a Painting by Sir Arthur Streeton. Nobody has captured the Australian landscape the way he did and with such spontaneity and economical brush work.

And favourite places to paint in WA?

I’m always looking for something new, but the best paintings can be in your own backyard. It’s not about the scene, it’s about how you compose the shapes to make it appealing. So as for a favourite place, it’s wherever we can set up camp and enjoy the surroundings without a million tourists and drones flying overhead. 

Leon Holmes Paiting of Yachts
Yachties – 1800x500cm, Oil on Canvas

You’ve painted Ireland, Hawaii, the Grand Canyon, Florida, and all over Europe. Where’s a place you haven’t painted, but you’d like to?

Yes, those are a few of the many places that I have travelled to paint. It should be noted that it’s never a holiday, and I paint 10 hours plus a day. India would be a fantastic place to go on a painting trip. Trying to make something of all that chaos and colour would be challenging and surely rewarding. 

How often do you travel for your work?

I seem to be away a lot lately. At least 2 major trips a year, and a lot of little ones within WA. I get my best painting done when I travel because it’s a set block of time to paint outside the office– often it’s tied in with an event/exhibition or a workshop retreat.

Leon Holmes Athens Street Painting
Gods are watching over Athens 30x40cm

And beyond visiting nice places and painting them, you’re doing a lot behind the scenes. For example, you have to delicately space your paintings for shipping after each trip. What else happens behind the scenes in the life of a plein air painter?

Ha ha ha! How much time have you got? This is the part that many don’t see or understand, and trying to explain this to a wannabe full time artist who thinks it’s all glamorous exhibition openings and painting pretty pictures is always fun. I’ll just focus on the logistics of an international trip. 

First, it all needs to fit within a baggage size and weight, so over the years I have designed lightweight equipment and ways to transport wet works– I brought 80 home one year, all of average size 30 x 40cm. 

Then there is travelling with oil paint– what you can and can’t take, and where can I pick up supplies at the other end. Of course, there’s booking flights, hotels etcetera. That comes with any travel. 

If I’m taking part in an exhibition, there is framing and marketing material, as well as all the correspondence with organisations and any requirements they might want.

If I’m running a workshop, there is all the teaching material for the class. Prior to leaving I need to prepare all the panels to paint– that is cutting and priming– and make sure I have enough– but not too much– paint. 

To be honest, it takes me weeks to sort it all, and that’s with years of refining. But to get so much in my suitcase within all the limits, to me that’s the biggest challenge.

That’s certainly a lot more than we see! Thanks for the insight and the interview!

You can see more of Leon’s art at his site. And follow his work, on his Instagram page, his Facebook page, or his Youtube Channel. He also has a store for outdoor oil painting, and holds painting workshops in Mandurah.

Leon Holmes Self Portrait
Self portrait – 20x15cm, Oil on panel

Shapes and Shadows 30x40cm