Wax and flame

Carly Le Cerf captures Australia’s arid landscapes in ethereal interpretations.


Artist Carly Le Cerf works in overalls and boots for a reason. In her studio near Mount Barker, WA, hot wax is flicked against boards and a blowtorch throws flame. In a corner, in a frypan, something is melting. A wall is a canvas of its own – scrawled random thoughts and inspirations, chunks of melted paint, waxy shavings on the floor. If it were red it would look like a massacre. Out of the chaos emerges a desert landscape, viewed from above as though a wedgie has directed the work.

Carly does encaustic painting, a technique that mixes pigment with native Australian beeswax and Damar resin, and the resulting combination lends both translucency and depth to her sprawling works. “I heat the wax and resin in muffin trays on a George Foreman pancake grill, unless I’ve got a big batch and then I use the Sunbeam frypan,” she says with a smile. Both are coated thickly. To the melt she adds pigments and applies the concoction to boards either flat or on the wall. Every layer of paint is fused with a blowtorch. To the work she adds alcohol inks and sprays, and uses oil sticks to add and partly remove colour. Metre-long painting sticks allow her “to paint without control” and goat-hair brushes are used because synthetic bristles melt. “I’m working with a natural subject so it is important to me to work with natural materials, and let them do their thing,” she says.

Carly’s journey to the free expression of arid landscapes was seeded years ago. She grew up in Perth after migrating from England with her parents in 1982 and later studied art at Edith Cowan University, finishing her studies with a Diploma of Education and a husband, Dom. The Pilbara called to them and Carly’s first teaching position was in Onslow for 5 years before moving to Dom’s home town of Tom Price.

Carly Le Cerf in her Mount Barker studio with metre-long paintbrushes.

“I used to paint a bit of everything back then, but at Tom Price we lived on the last street before nothing. I would take my art backpack and walk ’til I couldn’t walk anymore and paint,” she says. “I became obsessed and it lit a fire in me to paint landscapes.”

When pregnant with twin girls (Maddi and Cinty) the family moved back south in 2006 and settled in Mount Barker, where painting gradually overtook Carly’s teaching until she taught no more.

“My work is a bit of a dance,” she says. “It’s about having an idea and letting it grow; pushing it to the brink of disaster and finding and working with mistakes. I love things dripping, melting, forming, and I am constantly destroying and saving.”

Carly applies the blowtorch to a work in progress.

Most of Carly’s work depicts aerial landscapes of the rugged Australian interior. She regularly sends her drone skywards and flies around on Google Earth. “It’s hard to explain [why I work with aerials],” she muses. “It’s like my self-conscious expression, my dreaming or meditation.” She also feels the aerial aspect is important for those viewing her work. “You can be passing through a land every day and not see it. Aerials give us a different perspective – both visually and mentally.”

When Carly is physically in a landscape, she spends at least 2 weeks on site. In this time she will walk and meditate, write and photograph, paint and sketch and make colour annotations (‘ruby eucalyptus’, ‘ghost gum sunlight’), and store memory and feeling. Back in the studio, these tools inform the blank board before her.

The Pilbara remains her muse and her largest work is 5 x 1.8m, consisting of 5 panels representing Hamersley Gorge. “I wanted people to feel they were walking into the gorge when they stepped into the gallery.” 

The people of the Pilbara also hold a place in her heart and she has exhibited in the Cossack Art Award “because I know how these things bring those communities together”.

Native Australian beeswax and resins melt in Carly’s studio.

Carly’s inspiration and work are expanding like the horizon in her paintings. In 2023 she held an exhibition in Sydney, reflecting on her time leading an artist tour through the West MacDonnell Ranges, NT, and her art has been displayed in Perth, rural NSW and Berlin. A 3-day flying adventure from Queensland’s Channel Country, over Lake Eyre and to the Coorong in 2023, will be the subject of future artistic expression.

Aside from winning the Wynne Prize – “the pinnacle landscape art prize displayed in the most beautiful gallery in Australia, amongst the country’s most renowned artists” – Carly’s ultimate artistic goal is to become a master of her craft and to continue to exhibit her work both in Australia and overseas. “I want to show the world what’s out there in Australia’s arid landscapes and encourage respect and understanding for our unique ecology.”