The hero painting for Jon Tootill’s upcoming exhibition at Sanderson Contemporary is a full-spectrum colour study. Pīwakawaka (2010– 20) completes a decade-long series that studies the rau, or plumage, of native birds through colour sampling.
Tootill’s works act like an index, mapping colours found in nature. He selects colours using Adobe Capture, processes those samples digitally and arranges them in combinations. Then he creates delicate watercolours, patient studies that elicit the nuances of nature all over again. The inherent colour irregularities of these works seep into the fibres of absorbent Fabriano paper. Finally, he scales up into meticulously painted acrylic on linen. However, he says, “Titling these works indicates the origins of the colour combinations, rather than a narrative.”
His works are a blend of art, technology and observational science. Tootill’s innovation is to bring Indigenous knowledge and Māori visual culture to these Western knowledge systems. Tootill is a bookish artist, one who studies and likes history. In talking
about his research, he reveals, “The patterns were developed from drawings of whakairo (carving), specifically, areas that might fill in the background, behind more dominant features.” Like a carver, “I am interested in the flow of light across a work’s surface, and the changing of colour value.” His paintings look abstract but also reflect the patterns and repetition found in te ao Māori, such as those in tāniko or tukutuku. Clearly, too, like botanical illustrations, they reference the observable world in which Tootill is charting and cataloguing taiao, or the environment.
The pīwakawaka is frequently under- stood as a messenger, living on forest edges and in scrub habitats. Tootill refers to this bird as the anchor for Kahukura, Better Biculturalism, his fourth exhibition with Sanderson Contemporary. He subtly speculates that parallel, inclusive systems of knowledge are portals to new directions, with both ancient and new knowledge creating an optimistic future.