Kevin McKay - Towers and Spires: Vaucluse Paintings - Part One

I am delighted to bring you the latest paintings by the wonderful urban landscape artist Kevin McKay showcasing his exhibition currently running at May▲Space Online. The exhibition will run for the entire month of November 2021.

Even though I have lived in Melbourne most of my adult life and dearly love my city I have a great attachment to Sydney which I would rate as one of the most beautiful cities in the world, steeped in an early European settlement history which Kevin has cleverly woven into his visual interpretation of Sydney’s South Head Peninsula.

Kevin emphasises in his description of the exhibition that this area of Sydney, along the South Head Peninsula is where a cliffside lighthouse, signal station and sandstone church stand as landmarks in space and time.1

Witches Hat - St Peters Watsons Bay, 2021. Oil on canvas 40 x 50 cm © Kevin McKay

It is important to understand the narrative that is integral to each image because these are not just superb paintings of buildings in a beautiful city - these images are woven with visual stories containing significant elements of history. Kevin has provided a detailed description for each painting.

Cliffside - Macquarie Lighthouse (above left) - This work places the Macquarie Lighthouse in its working context as a beacon in the interface between land and sea. The awesome grandeur of nature diminishes the scale of this noble tower, illuminated by late light, while its form finds a distant echo in a less celebrated column - the Bondi Sewer Vent which facilitates the discharge of effluent back into the sea that first delivered Sydney's colonial founders. The cliffside railing leads us safely away from the perils below, paralleling the canvas frame, before leading us into the illusionary space beyond the surface. 1

Mast down - South Head Signal Station (above right)- The Signal Station on Sydney’s South Head Peninsula has hosted a beacon since the earliest years of settlement. A radar mast replaces the prostrate Semaphore mast once used to convey messages about incoming ships, including the presence of infectious disease. I chose the view that makes the keeper's cottages more prominent, including the Hills Hoist clothesline, as the home is our bastion during times of crisis. 1

Witches Hat - St Peters Watsons Bay (above centre) - This modest church was built in 1865 on a rock above a fishing village and is named appropriately after the patron saint of shipbuilders and fishermen. This painting followed a plein air session threatened by storm clouds. The atmospheric drama above the stillness of this stone church pitted the human effort to approach the unknowable with a daily manifestation of the sublime. I tried to contrast the way I painted the built form with the expressive sky. The magic of light and shadow seemed to connect both with a complimentary effect. The incidental witches hat interrupted the ‘Romantic’ and found a correspondence in an ordinary tiled roof in the background.1

As Kevin further explains:

With histories dating back to the earliest days of colonisation, this site is dedicated to maritime navigation and communication. Semaphore signals would alert the city to new arrivals and warn if a ship was carrying infectious disease on board. The virtuous qualities of beacons and the stoic form of stone structures, assume obvious metaphoric connotations. I am looking to place these in a surrounding residential context, to juxtapose the domestic and contemporary with the historical and heroic, as our homes have become our bastions in recent times.1

Lighthouse Shadow, 2021. Oil on canvas 52.5 x 70 cm ©Kevin McKay

Lighthouse Shadow (above centre)- The oldest lighthouse in Australia stands as a relic to an colonial past and like all lighthouses provides a symbol for virtuous qualities like truth, stoicism and hope. Against the brilliance of the sun, however the lighthouse is reduced to a silhouette and I am relegated to its shadow. I liked the way the bluish tones of the sky and the warmer earth tones are reflected in the whitewashed walls and even in the clouds. When we see one colour we are psychologically inclined to see its opposite. It would be nice if this exchange between complimentary opposites could correlate with an ability to recognise the “other” in any situation. 1

Back yard view - Macquarie Lighthouse (above left)- A line of pot plants against a picket fence presents a domestic view of this historical site while a glimpse of the ocean horizon alludes to a world beyond.1

Green Window - Macquarie Lighthouse (above right) - The residential demands of the city have encroached on the oldest lighthouse in Australia with town houses replacing the keepers cottage on the south side. I looked for rhythm and order in this contest between the historic and the contemporary, the grand and the everyday. 1

It's important to understand that artists such as Kevin who strive for perfection spend hours, days, weeks to produce works of the magnificent standard you are viewing today. Kevin explains that:

Plein-air studies inform my studio paintings, which are rooted in the particularities of place, but I am always hoping the engagement of light on architectural form within atmospheric space might also allude to the metaphysical.1

To conclude today I will show you some of Kevin's studies for the final paintings which demonstrate the discipline required to paint at the level achieved by this remarkable artist: the composition, the palette are all very carefully planned.

Macquarie Lighthouse study
Geometric considerations involving a horizontal bifurcation and golden section underpin this study painted in late afternoon light in the Lighthouse Reserve Park.1

St Peters study II
Grey clouds presented an opportunity to make a plein air study in quieter nuanced tones. 1

Hornby Lighthouse study
This distinctively striped lighthouse was erected at the South Headland to help guide ships to the harbour entrance after the Dunbar ran aground at The Gap in 1857 with the loss of 121 lives. The sole survivor of that disaster, Henry Johnson, was appointed as its first Lighthouse Keeper. The verticality of the Lighthouse is countered by the long horizontal reach of the North Headland on the other side of the harbour. 1

And a poignant reminder that the Lighthouse Keeper, dedicated to saving lives, returned after a shift to his own home and personal life is found in this study below where the threatening skies and small sail boat are symbolic of the precarious lives these early settlers lived.

Keepers Cottage - Hornby Lighthouse study, 2021. Oil on paper 20x28.5cm. ©Kevin McKay

Keepers Cottage - Hornby Lighthouse study

This plein air study of one of the Hornby Lighthouse cottages at Sydney’s South Head was painted under threatening skies and captures the sail of a passing boat returning in haste to the safety of the harbour.1

I introduced you to the birth of the paintings for this exhibition back in August 2021 in the post Kevin McKay seeking constancy in an ever changing city. Please check out this post for more Sydney’s South Head peninsula paintings by Kevin McKay.

Tomorrow we will continue to enjoy paintings from Kevin's South Head Peninsula exhibition as we move into the more personal urban scenes and buildings because as Kevin emphasises - it is important to view a city through both historical and personal perspectives.

© Thank you to Kevin McKay who kindly gave permission for the images of his work to be shared on AnArt4Life. A special thank you also for the contribution Kevin made to the explanatory text accompanying the images of his paintings.

We wish Kevin all the best with the exhibition and look forward to seeing where he leads us next in his creative journey. Kevin is also an art teacher and so if you live in Sydney and would like to learn to draw or paint please check out his website for more details.

Other AnArt4Life posts on the works of Kevin McKay are given below in the bookmark links.

Kevin McKay’s Broken Hill
Come with me to visit Broken Hill, the iconic mining town in outback New South Wales and see the paintings being created by Sydney urban landscape artist Kevin McKay. Image: Vanity Mirror by Kevin McKay (
Kevin McKay: Repurposed panel in memory of Troy Quinliven
Sydney artist Kevin McKay today pays tribute to his friend and fellow artist Troy Quinliven by repurposing an unfinished and abandoned panel of Troy’s. His study depicts Sydney’s National Art School where he first met and became friends with Troy. Image credit:

1. Description of painting provided by Kevin McKay