Shani Rhys James Rolf on Welsh Art


Shani Rhys James

Rolf Harris delves into the lives of artists inspired by Wales. Rolf meets fellow Australian Shani Rhys James whose vivid style is influenced by her family history.


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Transcript


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I am on a wonderful Welsh adventure, as I discover more

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about four outstanding artists influenced by this great land.

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During the series, I will be creating paintings inspired by their work.

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I am going to have to paint in ways I have never done before and at the end of it,

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I will probably turn to you and I will say,

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"Can you tell what it is yet?"

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Every time I cross the border into Wales, my heart leaps up.

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It's almost as if I'm coming home.

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I'm off now to meet a fellow Australian, artist Shani Rhys James,

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and she has chosen to put Wales right at the centre of her creative life.

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Like me, Shani is an Aussie.

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She was born in Melbourne in 1953, but when she was nine, she and her mum left Australia for London.

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Shani specialises in amazing autobiographical portraits.

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Some are especially inspired by what she remembers of her early life back in Oz.

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These powerful paintings make her one of the most exciting living artists working in Wales today.

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Shani's dramatic self-portraits are celebrated the world over,

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but if I am to get to grips with her style, I think I'm going to need to do a bit of soul-searching.

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This could be my most dramatic challenge yet!

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Shani's paintings are deeper and more intense than mine, and they're all inspired

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by her own personal experiences, whereas I paint exactly what I see.

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When I do my Shani-style self-portrait, I'll be painting in a way I'm not used to,

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and to paint something as good as these, I'll have to try and understand

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the influences of my own family history and how it has affected my own work,

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so I'll also be going on my own personal journey and revisiting the story of my own Welsh clan,

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the Harrises.

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I can't wait to meet Shani and see her latest work.

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She lives near Welshpool in rural Powys in this stunning house.

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-HE LAUGHS

-How lovely to meet you!

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Lovely to meet you, too! This is amazing!

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Paintings, paintings, I want to see your paintings!

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All right, off we go!

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'What I like most about Shani's paintings

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'are the vivid colours and the intensity of the characters she creates.'

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It's a little bit crowded.

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'This is the first time I've been to see where they all come together in her studio.'

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How nice to have a bit of space like this!

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-Is that from Australia?

-Yes, that's an Australian memory one.

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Gosh, it looks so Australian,

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-doesn't it, this...

-Well...

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..far-distant chunk of blue and going off and off and off.

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Gosh, you do some BIG stuff, don't you!

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What I'm interested in is really getting like under the skin.

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It's not necessarily my head, I'm just looking at like a landscape,

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so I'm doing it like a landscape and I'm just sort of seeing like the surface of the head,

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and it's the paint becoming the skin and...

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I don't follow the process. Are you looking in a mirror to get this?

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Yes. I use my hand mirror for all the portraits I do.

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You can see how grotty it is.

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You can hardly see your face, but it gets covered in paint in the course of...

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Suddenly, I'll realise one day that I can't actually see any more,

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so I'll give it a clean, or get another one!

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In fact, I nearly bought another one!

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The back of it, all covered in paint!

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You should see the other ones!

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It looks like my joint - paint everywhere!

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Do you still feel that your early years in Australia

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impress upon your painting now?

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I feel that that early time in Australia is just the most important...

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Yeah, I do feel it's very important, very important.

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What age were you when you left?

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-Nine.

-Oh, oh!

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But, you see, there was never any rite of passage, because we were going to go back after a year.

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We had the return ticket

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and mummy sold it

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and we hitched around Europe

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and we could never get the money back to go.

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And you still have that memory?

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Those memories, those early memories, are almost the strongest thing you base your whole life on,

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because it's like how you were, what you were in essence

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when you were little and how you felt so strongly and, maybe, arrested development.

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-I've sort of stayed at, sort of like, ten, forever!

-HE LAUGHS

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Like my dad, Shani's father was Welsh.

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Shani moved around from place to place with her mother after leaving Australia.

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They emigrated to England so Shani's mum could follow her dream of becoming an actress.

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They eventually settled in London, where Shani spent the next 20 years.

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How did you come to end up in Wales?

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We came here really because of the children.

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You wouldn't think, "Ooh, I'm in East London now, where all the artists are,

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"I know, I'm going to go to Wales and live in the middle of nowhere,"

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but, you know, career move, but it was for the kids, you know, because I saw my kids

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wandering around East London with their little faces like drooped

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at exhaust level when they were in a pushchair, no trees, nothing,

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and unbeknownst to me, suddenly I could paint and I loved it here and it was like my soul home.

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-How nice is that!

-My soul home.

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Good for you! When did you know you wanted to be an artist?

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Well, when I was about eight. I might have even been seven, actually.

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It never occurred to me that I would be anything else!

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I would say, at the age of three and four and so forth,

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"I'm going to be an artist," and then I would pause for effect and say,

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"And a good one!"

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-Oh, really!

-You know!

-Oh, goodness!

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I've got to do a painting

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In the style of this lady from Wales called Shani Rhys James.

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-Oh, the name rings a bell.

-So how would you suggest I go about it?

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What scale are we thinking here?

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Well, I could do one little like that, or I could do a huge one.

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Yeah, well, I might stick, if I were you, with the...

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Stick with the small one?

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'I think doing a small self-portrait will be difficult enough for me to tackle!

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'I know even Shani finds the larger pictures challenging.'

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-There you go.

-That's lovely!

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'And I still need to learn more about her work.

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'I've really got to get to grips with how she manages

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'to bring her imagination alive so vividly on the canvass itself,

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'and so Shani has arranged some of her pictures for me to see.

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'She is hugely talented.

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'Her paintings are exhibited around the world and she has won art's top award,

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the Jerwood Prize, as well as a gold medal at the National Eisteddfod.

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Scraped through... What do you use to scrape that?

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Well, I use a pallet knife, yeah.

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I love the red,

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that the background is painted over the red, coming through.

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-That's it there, scratching it through.

-Gorgeous, yeah.

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I often work with layers like that, yeah.

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That painting, I'd have started off with an eye or something!

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Very apprehensive look she's got.

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-Well, yeah.

-What does the future hold for me?

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That was in the Royal Academy last year, hanging.

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The eyes are the powerful things, aren't they? In all your paintings, the eyes. They grab you, bang, bang.

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Is this your mum?

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Well, this is a funny one, just looking at it now, actually,

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I'm thinking, it could be me and my mother or it could be me grown up...

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Turning into a woman.

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Yeah, turning into a woman,

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and also there's that sense of rootlessness that me and my mother have had in a way,

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this whole business of being catapulted out of your country of origin

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and in a way forever searching for those roots, but as an artist,

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you are always, in a sense, an outsider, you know, you are.

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What does nationality mean to you?

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I certainly don't feel English.

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I don't feel foreign in Wales,

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because actually, I feel very much taken to the Welsh heart in many ways,

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I do feel the Welsh are very fond of me.

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Australian, well I've only been back once, but I certainly, like, I seem to click with you

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and there is a bond, you know, that you feel straightaway,

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you don't need to, sort of...

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-Don't have to explain anything.

-No.

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-It's good.

-Sometimes, I think people find my paintings too confrontational and in-your-face.

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-I'm sure.

-You know.

-There's no half-measures, is there!

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No, so for that reason, I don't know what I feel!

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It's a magic face, that, looking-around, you know, over-the-shoulder look,

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yeah, that's good.

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I love those piercing eyes.

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'I've been snapping away with my camera in the hope

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'that these images will help guide me when I do my self-portrait later.

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'I do feel I have learnt lots about Shani's technique...

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'..but, taking Shani's lead, I need to find out

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'how MY family ties shaped me as an artist.'

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Talking to Shani,

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I realised what a huge influence her childhood and her family history have had on her art

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and so I thought, maybe I should head back to my Welsh artistic roots,

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maybe lay myself bare, if I'm to try and create

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a self-portrait unlike anything I have ever done before,

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so I'm heading south to Merthyr.

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I'm in the South Wales Valleys, where my grandfather lived and worked as a professional artist.

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I need to find out what motivated him, just like Shani's family,

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to leave his home and emigrate to the other side of the world.

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George F Harris left South Wales for Australia 90 years ago.

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Here we are in Merthyr High Street.

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My grandfather, George F Harris, and his father

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had a very successful photographic and portraiture business here.

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Of course, that's long gone, but people still fondly remember

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Harris Photographer, 88, the High Street.

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Merthyr is a very different place today from when my grandfather lived here in the late 19th century.

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It was once a boom town, growing rapidly

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due to the success of the local steel and coal industries.

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My granddad was in demand

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with well-off customers who wanted him to do their portraits.

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The rich would have him do oil paintings

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and the rest would have to make do with far cheaper photographs.

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These images of the time are fantastic, aren't they?

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I'm here at Cyfarthfa Castle, which has a collection of my granddad's work.

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It's amazing, isn't it, that over 100 years, ago my granddad was using a convex mirror to paint

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his portrait and I'm reminded instantly of Shani Rhys James

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and the way she used a mirror, a portion of a mirror,

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looking in it at her facial features to put it in.

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He didn't obviously come that close to the mirror, but that convex shape of the mirror

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shows the whole of the surroundings and curves everything and you see

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the edge of the easel is curved because of the curve of the glass

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and he's sort of distorted everything

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and I guess he was well ahead of his time for that sort of painting.

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1909, it's lovely - I'll keep that in my mind

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when I do my self-portrait in the style of Shani.

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It's lovely.

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'Castle curator Scott Reid has found some fantastic family photographs.'

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Talk me through all this, Scott.

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Well, in essence, this is a snapshot

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of your grandfather's business in Merthyr

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and, of course, when they first came,

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they were primarily photographers.

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Your great-grandfather, Cleopas Harris,

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when he first turned up,

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he advertised himself as part of the American school of photography,

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because the Americans picked up photography

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much more quickly than everybody else,

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-and here we've got some examples of a family.

-They're great, aren't they!

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Yes. This is a family called the Atkins,

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and you can see he's put them in poses,

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he's used various props while they're taking photographs,

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and this shows how artists and photographers merged.

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In fact, most of the early photographers

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started out as artists.

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I've just caught this -

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"Oil portraits from 30 shillings!"

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Oil paintings were seen as a quality mark,

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so what he would frequently do for better-off people

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is he would take their photograph first

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and then he would actually use

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a glass lantern slide and project the photograph onto a canvas

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and then just paint it off like that.

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They're still using that today, aren't they,

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projecting from slides onto canvas and then painting it?

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And what about this book?

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Well, this is actually the first tourist guide for Merthyr Tydfil,

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done in the 1890s,

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and your grandfather actually took the photographs for the guide!

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Here, we've got a lovely little one of Victoria Street in Merthyr.

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Here, we have one that your grandfather took of Cyfarthfa Castle.

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Oh, yes. Good shot, isn't it?

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Oh, yes!

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Oh, wow!

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This one here is of the lower High Street in Merthyr, with the crowds bustling all over the place.

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While I'm here in Merthyr, I'll be calling on some old friends,

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the Dowlais male voice choir.

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'I'm going to sing some songs that take me right back to my childhood in Perth, Western Australia.

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'I also want to discover if the guys or their families know anything at all about my grandfather.'

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# Father knew Lloyd George. #

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I couldn't help myself! There, you've just reminded me!

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I believe your mother actually knew my grandfather?

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Well, she remembers him from when she was probably about eight or ten,

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and she described your grandfather as a very dapper gentleman.

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He obviously had a reputation for being well-dressed, like yourself.

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-Have you seen my shoes! Get off!

-LAUGHTER

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Apparently he was famous. Not famous, "notorious", perhaps, is a better word.

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People would say,

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"He wears a brown velvet smoking jacket in the daytime"!

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LAUGHTER

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And that would have been sinful!

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Yeah, and he used to paint in a brown velvet jacket with a homburg and a tie!

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How he kept them clean I don't know. If he's anything like me, I paint over everything I own!

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I was reminiscing a little bit about when I was a kid,

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I learnt all the songs parrot-fashion, you know?

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Because we used to go to the Cambrian Society every Tuesday night

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in Perth in Western Australia and I didn't know what that meant,

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but I learnt all these wonderful songs,

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and suddenly, one day, my dad, he said, "I'm going to stop this.

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"We're not going to go to the Cambrian Society any more, we're Australians,

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"and that's it, we are Australians now,"

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and so that suddenly stopped when I was about nine,

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and I find that it's still with me, you know.

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It's still ingrained in me, that Welshness,

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and it's amazing to me that, you know, as I get older, I cross over into Wales and it's all there.

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I have but to hear a Welsh choir and I'm in floods of tears!

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Unless I'm trying to join in as well, make a bit of noise!

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Listen, let's do it! What's a good key, E flat is good?

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NATIONAL ANTHEM IS PLAYED ON PIANO

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# Gwlad, gwlad

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# Pleidiol wyf i'm gwlad

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# Tra mor yn fur

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# I'r bur hoff bau

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# O bydded i'r hen iaith barhau. #

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ROLF LAUGHS

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Oh, gosh, isn't that gorgeous!

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Just magic feeling.

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I'll be in tears again!

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LAUGHTER

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'I suppose with my family history, I was always destined to become an artist.

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'My grandfather was quite a character in Merthyr

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'and I've decided to reveal a little family secret,

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'because he was involved in a local Victorian scandal!'

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This is my grandfather's old home.

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He built up a very successful business in Merthyr, and he and his wife bought this old house.

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I intend to head straight upstairs where there's some interesting Harris history.

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The previous owner of this house did wood panelling all over this attic area,

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but he had the sense to leave that piece of bare wall

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where George Harris, my grandfather, had done all these lovely pencil drawings of Rosetta, my grandmother.

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She was just a maid at the time.

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She looked after the children, this was their playroom,

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but George and Rosetta fell in love, and they ran away together,

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leaving George's first wife.

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You can imagine the scandal that would have rocked Victorian Merthyr at the time.

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My grandfather and Rosetta left Merthyr in 1895

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to set up home in Cardiff, away from prying eyes.

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They went on to have nine children, and eventually married when George's first wife died.

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It was actually my dad, though, that finally persuaded his own father

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that the Harris family future lay in Australia.

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It's there that my dad and his brother Carl enlisted in the Aussie army

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and were soon fighting in the World War I trenches.

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A family portrait from that time is on show here at Cyfarthfa Castle.

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It's one my grandfather painted of Rosetta in 1918.

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This is a very emotional painting and focuses on one of the saddest stories in my family history...

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..the death of my Uncle Carl in World War I, 12 years before I was born.

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And that was just painted...

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..just after they had the news of Carl's death, their second son's death in the war,

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in the last couple of weeks of that war.

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You can see her eyes are wet with tears about to be shed.

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It's funny, isn't it, that years later I had a huge hit with Two Little Boys

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about potentially two brothers going to fight in the war,

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and my auntie once said to me,

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"I can't listen to that, I have to switch it off if it comes on the radio," and I was quite offended.

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"Why?" I said.

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She said, "Well, it just reminds me of your dad and of Carl,

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"and I can't listen to it. It just brings back those awful memories of hearing about his death."

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And that had never occurred to me until that point.

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It's amazing, isn't it?

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When you get to the bit,

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# Did you think I would leave you dying

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# When there's room on my horse for two

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# Climb up here, Joe We'll soon be flying

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# I can go just as fast with two

0:21:570:22:02

# Did you say, Joe I'm all a tremble

0:22:020:22:07

# Perhaps it's the battle's noise

0:22:070:22:11

# But I think it's that I remember

0:22:110:22:16

# When we were two little boys. #

0:22:160:22:19

My visit to Cyfarthfa has really helped me.

0:22:220:22:26

Like Shani, my granddad was seen as a bit avant-garde at the time.

0:22:260:22:31

He wasn't afraid to try out new things, and I think that's something

0:22:310:22:35

I've got to come to grips with if my self-portrait is to do Shani any justice.

0:22:350:22:41

'As I head across the border back home, I feel invigorated by,

0:22:450:22:50

'and I must say more than a little proud of, my Welsh clan's history.

0:22:500:22:56

'I've enjoyed discovering more about my grandfather, and it really is a lot to take in.

0:22:560:23:02

'I'm almost ready to do my painting in Shani's style.

0:23:020:23:06

'All I have to do is remember the advice she gave me about how to do it.'

0:23:060:23:12

So how would you suggest I go about it?

0:23:120:23:14

Well, you've got to have a little hand mirror.

0:23:140:23:17

I have a little hand mirror and I would look at myself in parts, you know.

0:23:170:23:21

It's not like I'm looking. I never look at myself like in a mirror.

0:23:210:23:25

Take your glasses off a minute.

0:23:250:23:26

And there we go. You see, you could do all the nice big hairy eyebrows there.

0:23:280:23:34

The eyes are quite important in my paintings.

0:23:340:23:38

You've got lovely colours and things that you can emphasise,

0:23:380:23:41

the relationship between that eye, for example, and the nose,

0:23:410:23:45

and under here, and the nostrils and then the lips,

0:23:450:23:48

and then you just build up from that.

0:23:480:23:51

What I do is I don't just use the palette knife, I use the brush,

0:23:510:23:55

so that the paint also is significant as well as the marks,

0:23:550:24:02

but you can if... Now, you're going to have to loosen up.

0:24:020:24:05

You're not going to be able to go into this business looking like a photograph,

0:24:050:24:09

and so you just think of yourself as a landscape.

0:24:090:24:12

-OK.

-And you break it down into parts with a close mirror.

0:24:120:24:16

I will try, and you'll be the first to know!

0:24:160:24:18

'I would never have thought of it that way -

0:24:200:24:23

'painting the face as if it were a landscape!

0:24:230:24:26

'Shani's words had been so helpful, and obvious when you see her large-scale pieces.

0:24:260:24:32

'I now need to do the best I can and hope it comes close to these fantastic paintings.

0:24:320:24:39

'So, the plan is, take on a smaller canvas and just concentrate on painting my face.'

0:24:390:24:46

I'm back in my own studio now.

0:24:480:24:51

I'm all set up to try and tackle a portrait in the style of Shani Rhys James,

0:24:510:24:57

and she said "get your glasses off, cos we want to see right in there".

0:24:570:25:01

I've got a little hand mirror, check the looking at myself the way she does, OK.

0:25:010:25:07

Very red there.

0:25:110:25:14

That's very red out there.

0:25:140:25:16

Watching her doing all her bits and pieces,

0:25:190:25:23

it was really fascinating.

0:25:230:25:27

There is probably a method in how I do it, but I don't know how I do it.

0:25:290:25:32

The eyes are going to go here,

0:25:320:25:36

and the other one there, like that.

0:25:360:25:39

I sort of maybe stop at the eyes sometimes, there's a way.

0:25:390:25:43

I mean, why I have my eyes looking out at me is to focus my attention,

0:25:430:25:46

the relationship I have with the painting.

0:25:460:25:49

-Do you use colour an awful lot?

-I use a palette knife, brushes, rags, push it around.

0:25:510:25:57

I need to get that line of light on the nose perfectly.

0:26:000:26:04

This is really difficult to tackle because mainly I've never done anything this way before.

0:26:040:26:11

Hmm. Oh, well!

0:26:110:26:14

I'm getting a likeness to myself there.

0:26:140:26:17

That's better already.

0:26:260:26:28

Hey, that's good. For such a long time I didn't do any painting.

0:26:460:26:49

Now it's so lovely to get back into it and feel the joy of doing some painting again.

0:26:490:26:55

Oh, it looks roughly like me,

0:26:580:27:00

after a very rough night!

0:27:000:27:03

I'd better sign it.

0:27:030:27:05

Maybe I should leave it for a couple of days to dry and then come back and do a bit more.

0:27:050:27:11

Don't feel you're in control. Let it start speaking to you so that you lose control of it,

0:27:130:27:19

so that you are not in control, that you're allowing yourself to get out of your comfort zone.

0:27:190:27:25

I think what I've got to do is take off this whole left side.

0:27:250:27:29

There's about one out of ten I like of mine.

0:27:290:27:32

Um-huh.

0:27:350:27:37

That's better already.

0:27:410:27:43

It's really a shock when you try and do something

0:27:450:27:49

like somebody else does it, and they've been doing it for years and years and years and years.

0:27:490:27:54

You try it for the first time and it doesn't work, it's such a shock.

0:27:540:27:59

I think I'll go back to what she does so well.

0:27:590:28:03

I think I'll...

0:28:030:28:05

I'll use a palette knife down that side.

0:28:080:28:10

Now, wish me luck with these bits.

0:28:100:28:13

I'm going to do a big background bit here.

0:28:130:28:15

I'm happier with that.

0:28:270:28:30

We're all a product of our upbringing, aren't we, whether it's Australian or whether it's Welsh,

0:28:350:28:41

and this is just me. Who am I?

0:28:410:28:45

I'm Rolf Harris.

0:28:450:28:47

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:540:28:57

E-mail [email protected]

0:28:570:29:00

Rolf Harris goes on an entertaining and personal journey to discover more about four artists inspired by Wales and its people. Rolf meets fellow Australian Shani Rhys James, the hugely successful painter who has chosen Wales as her home. Shani's dramatic self portraits are directly influenced by her family history and childhood experiences so before Rolf attempts a self portrait in Shani's style, he goes back to Merthyr to discover more about his own family's Welsh roots and makes a startling revelation about a family scandal that rocked polite Victorian society.


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