New Zealand light through Irish eyes

Few people observe landscapes more sharply than the people who paint them. Irish-born Wellington painter Michael McCormack has painted Ireland and New Zealand and is keenly aware of how the light and colour compare.

Michael McCormack

Michael McCormack by his Island Bay studio

Our luminous crystal-clear light, which so many Kiwis notice on returning home, is different from Ireland’s softer light, he says. ‘The main thing about the New Zealand light is its impact on the colour of water. It turns the sea a beautiful blue. But I miss the dark skies in Ireland when the sun suddenly comes through the heavy rainclouds to light the ground while the sky remains pitch black.’

Michael, 38, was born in Kilrush, Co Clare, eight miles from the Atlantic. In his book, Ten Years In Wellington, he wrote about the first time he saw his adopted city’s south coast: ‘I realised that this coastline, with its weather-beaten homes, the smell of seaweed and unassuming airs, was a lot like my home in Ireland.’

Michael learnt his craft at art school in Cork city. ‘I painted large canvases on location, learning to capture the light and jot down perspective and detail quickly before the rain came’. Cork locals describe wet weather as ‘a soft day’, said in a tone that suggests the rain is a complete surprise. Murphy’s Irish Stout sponsored his first exhibition and he made enough money to head to New York. Later in Hawaii he met Rachel Bell, a young Kiwi on her first OE stopover. ‘I was a legitimate broke artist,’ he says. He hitched up with Rachel and for two years they travelled together.

Now residents of Island Bay, Michael and Rachel have three young children. His studio, 150 metres from the beach, does well. Sir Ian McKellen, a buyer of Michael’s paintings, said they ‘filled the place with light and good humour and a love for Wellington’. Michael probably could have made a living as an artist in Ireland, he suspects, but ‘I don’t know of many who can survive’.

Island Bay dinghies

Michael’s ‘Island Bay dinghies’

The capital is the perfect place to call home, he says. It reminds him of Cork city. He loves the old villas, different-coloured roofs, the boats and old dinghies, the sun shining and the interplay of light, colour, shadow and geometric shapes. Twilight colours are incredible and electric lighting on wet streets can create surprising colour. Spring or autumn are the best times to paint, he says, when the shadows are longest.

In Cork he painted urban landscapes in the street, even if it rained. Wellington is too windy to set up an easel in a street but he’s not trying to emulate a photograph of a particular scene. First he’ll sketch it, let impressions soak in, then use colour photographs to refresh his memory while he paints.

Lyall Bay’s Queens Drive dairy

A painting of Lyall Bay’s Queens Drive Dairy is a typical Michael McCormack work. Friendly, bright colours, shadows, a car or two and a suggestion of earlier days and an easy pace of life. ‘What I love about the New Zealand dairy is that it tends to evoke nostalgic memories for Kiwis the world over. In Ireland we had our corner shops. There was Mickey Honan’s who had the best range of sweets I have ever seen. Every country must have its version of the dairy, where kids go to spend their pocket money.’

In his twenties, he’d avoided things Irish, seeing little point in joining expatriate Irish communities. Now he’s more relaxed. Michael still hasn’t taken down the Irish and Kiwi flags that fly above his Island Bay studio, hoisted this year to celebrate the Rugby World Cup. ‘The older I get, the more I identify with it.’

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