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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

Observation point

by Fiona McMonagle, 30 August 2016

Untitled No. 1 2010, by Fiona McMonagle
Untitled No. 1 2010, by Fiona McMonagle

A good portrait requires much more than a good likeness to the subject; it must be a good painting in its own right. For me, this means you are able to communicate something to the audience that you cannot achieve with words. 

I paint people because I am interested in the complexities of the human condition. I want the viewer to feel a connection to the people I paint. I take a lot of my inspiration for my work from our suburban lives. I believe that where you spend your adolescent years will mark you as a person. I try to portray images that I have grown up with, and with which I feel enough of a connection to be able to make an interesting painting. The imagery that I work with is often ambiguous. I am not looking to capture the spirit of my subject or own them in any way; rather, they provide clues and suggest what their story may be. The audience will bring ‘themselves’ to the work – their own experiences and views – and this will ultimately influence their interpretation.

Unless I am making what I consider to be a ‘portrait’ in the traditional sense, I try to avoid referring to my works as portraits. I like to keep my works open to interpretation, and, somehow, labelling them as ‘portraits’ feels limiting. This could be because I feel that the subject matter is constantly shifting, depending on where I am with my own thoughts. And certainly it is ever-changing with each different viewer.

The work I have selected, Untitled No. 1, from 2010, is slightly unusual for me in that it is lacking a definitive title, but also because of the overly muted palette. Normally I would give my works a title that would give away a bit of a clue about the subject, and this is not the case in this instance. The muted palette adds to this mystery. I enjoy playing with how the palette and application of paint can really affect the image and trigger an emotional response. This work is an attempt to depict a private moment. I tried to focus on the psychology of the girl; I wanted her body language to suggest what her story may be.

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Bob Ellis (1942–2016) was a journalist, columnist, screenwriter, film director, playwright, speechwriter and critic.

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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.