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By Natasha Percy - "Artist's Palette" Magazine #27

John Vander has been described as one of  Australia's most successful artists. Hundreds of his paintings - and possibly tens of thousands of his prints - hang in homes throughout Australia and the world. Much of his art depicts the nostalgic villages of New South Wales and has struck such a chord with art lovers that he now struggles to keep up with demand!

John grew up in the 'pays noir' of Belgium, in the Charleroi Hainaut area. Perhaps due to it's inhabitants' need to cope with their bleak surroundings, this region is renowned for it's artists, writers and musicians. John began to paint at a young age, and remembers making a name for himself with his finger-paintings in kindergarten. His parents bought him his first set of oils at 15 and a couple of lessons awoke in him the consuming passion that has dominated his life ever since.

As a teenager John thrived on the artistic environment of Charleoi, and was particularly interested inspired by the work of Belgian artists Paulis, Magritt and Delvaux. Art, however was a road he walked mainly alone in those early days. While his mother and uncle enjoyed painting, his friends weren't interested in art and he visited galleries in his own.

The necessity of making a living and the advice of his parents led John to a career in accounting, with painting reserved for his free time. He did manage to travel extensively, spending time in France, Portugal and England, meeting other artists and living 'la vie Boheme', participating in his first exhibitions.

At the age of 21 this life was interrupted by compulsory military service as an officer and instructor in weapons and self-defence in the Royal Belgium Air Force, where he developed a keen interest in air craft. With his national service finished, John set his sights on becoming a crop-duster pilot and obtained a flying licence with this end in mind. This course was abandoned, however, as the deaths of some close friends in flying accidents accentuated the dangers of such a career.

Dreams of adventure brought John to Australia in 1969. The art world that greeted him here was incredibly small compared to the richness of the art scene in Europe. What he did find in Australia however, was a real inspiration in the landscape. From the moment he set eyes on Australia, he was enthralled by it's wide open spaces and, compared to Belgium, it's recent and relatively uncomplicated history. As an Artist born on foreign soil, John felt he could capture Australia with a fresh eye - the outlook of the traveller and pioneer in a never ending journey of discovery.

Over the years, John has been drawn to the old goldmining towns for inspiration. He loves the authentic look of the buildings and their nostalgic aura. He says he can almost hear the voices of the people who populated these towns in the days of the gold rushes. Such towns as Sofala represent the Australian spirit to John, or what he calls "that El Dorado feeling of a gold rush", which beckons him back every year. The central tablelands of New South Wales, with towns like Hill End, Carcoar and Huntley, also take him back to the tiny villages of Europe.

John's central aim in his painting is to "capture the spirit of the town or village". Before painting a village landscape, John always sketches each building on it's own, so he can understand it's architectural contours more fully and he chats to the owners or inhabitants. Along the way, John is also able to get a feel for the town and it's most memorable features while retaining a fresh eye that takes none of it for granted. "When I look down from the top a hill as I am working, I need to be able to know every house in the village so that all the detail can be accurate," he says. While John never tampers with the structure of his scenes, occasionally he makes the paintings historically authentic by leaving out the bitumen on the roadways or painting with the impression of a different season or time of the day.

John relishes the warm colours and bareness of autumn and winter in particular. When the trees are more densely covered in summer, he argues, the cottages are harder to see, while the sparse autumn foliage allows the buildings to be clearly seen through the branches.

Oils are by far a firm favourite with John, who loves the smell of the linseed oil and turps he uses. His British-born wife Frances jokes that this might stem from the fumes he would have lived among as a child in the coal-mining district of Charleoi. The texture of the paste is another pleasure and is sturdy enough to handle the manoeuvring he does with his palette knives. "Watercolur is too quiet for me" he explains. "I need a paint I can get stuck into".

John's first Australian exhibition was in 1975, and it received positive reviews that resulted in 65 paintings being sold. The pull towards full-time art grew ever stronger until, in the late 1970s, he decided to take leave given by his company, which included an option to return after one year, John worked hard at promoting his paintings and gathering commisions. " One of the hardest things as an artist is to blow their own trumpet, " he says. But Frances reflects, " that year really helped to shape John as an artist and get his work out there".

John is one of the Kevin Hill Australia's Top Ten group of artists that includes Pro Hart, Kevin Best, Werner Filipich and Max Mannix among others. "We have become friends without the feeling of competition," he says. The group puts on a couple of exhibitions each year and two books of their work have been produced. This contact with other artists has helped John better understand the Australian art culture and has greatly benefitted his work as an artist. "It's so good to talk to others who are on the same wavelength, especially about the practical things such as mixing paint," he says.

Prince Charles and Kerry Packer are two with John's work in their collections and many other paintings adorn private, public and corporate wall space in Australia and overseas. John is able to speak to many of the people who purchase his paintings and he says they often give insight into the purchaser's family histories or past experiences.

John's life as an artist is very busy. Over the years, he has also painted a series of prints, placemats and even a wine label, which have won accolades. His prints were among the first published by Art Nouveau during it's domination of fine art publishing in the1980s, and one of his paintings reached second place on the national list of all-time print sales. Some of John's work is displayed in his gallery, aptly named Articles, in his home town of Stawell Park. The business suits John and Frances, whose friendly, people-orientated personalities thrive on the contact they have with the public. " It keeps me away from the loneliness of the studio," he says.

Above all, being an artist, John says is simply being himself - even when he's on holidays, he can't help painting or drawing. "It's not me leading my art, but my art leading me, " he explains. While Australia is definitely his home now, the Belgian mindset in him remains strong. "There's a lot of respect for art where I come from, " he says. " In Europe, arts seen not just as a hobby, but actually as a part of you."