There’s no small irony in the fact that one of Australia’s leading artists of country life, and the people who live there, lives on the outskirts of the largest city in the nation.

Max Mannix lives in Kenthurst, on a large property that comfortably houses his family and his studio. He’s been here for over five years, after moving to the area largely to suit his four daughters’ busy lives.

His studio, neatly ensconced in an old sandstone church that bears the chisel marks of hand swung picks, seems perfectly suited to housing his many works. Here are quintessential scenes of Australiana, with characters that could only be laconic country Aussies, in vivid, arresting colours that seem to be accentuated by the tawny colours of the sandstone walls.

“I remember when this property in Kenthurst was bought by a friend and this church was turned into a gallery. I had a couple of successful exhibitions in here, and I always said to the owner that this would make a better studio than a gallery,” Max recalled. “We were in Melbourne, and I saw it had come on the market, so we made an offer and here we are. That was about five years ago. It’s a fabulous space. It’s a hundred years old this year.

“We love it here. As an artist I have a lot of space, and it means freedom for me. You need freedom for your mind to work. We love the garden — it’s very peaceful. We enjoy this area very much. We’ve gone from a million acres to one acre — well, you’ve got to be adaptable!”

Max Mannix's characters are iconically Australian.

Taking to the road

Max Mannix has made his living from painting Australian characters for decades now, but his early days were spent far more actively in the country. Born in Nyah West, Victoria, in 1939, he discovered his talent for drawing at a very early age, and scored high marks for art at Castlemaine High School. At 16 he took to the road, and ended up droving near Quilpie in outback Queensland.

He spent long periods on horseback droving cattle, working in mustering camps and shearing sheds, as well as doing odd jobs like fencing. Max suggests that his generation enjoyed the best kind of life experiences, watching as the world changed from horse and cart to the Concorde. “And I have travelled on both!” he said.

In 1966 he took on the job of station manager at a Dalgetty cattle station near Thargomindah, 1,300 square miles in size with 8,000 head of cattle and 300 working horses.

Then in 1973, he and his wife Lynne moved to Melbourne, where he found a job at a screen printing company. In all that time on the road and in the country, though, there was never a moment when he didn’t have a pencil and pad handy for sketching the people and places around him.

The pencil was soon replaced with a brush, although his knack for sketching a moment has never left him. He still uses pads that reveal remarkable sketches, “just whacked down on paper to catch a scene,” he says, of places as far flung as Venice and Tuscany in Italy.

“I’ve always painted people,” said Max.

“When I was small I copied the Disney characters for hours and hours. It was never my environment, always people. And not for any particular reason — it just happened.

“All I’m doing is sketching with a brush. I’m totally self-taught as an artist. I never had any lessons, which is a reason why I wouldn’t be able to teach, because I don’t know how I do it a lot of the time!”

His unique style of character painting soon emerged, with a distinct Australian flavour, overlaid with a laconic, almost comical view of life expressed through the characters’ expressions and poses.

“I’ve been very lucky. I’ve always been able to paint what I want to paint, in the style I paint,” said Max. “I learnt about colour from my screen printing job. I love strong colours. We were printing a lot of stuff with very strong colours. And I learned an appreciation of design, and image composition there.”

His painting developed a life of its own as he started to sell them. His reputation soon spread.

“People started coming around to the house to look at them, and before I knew it my paintings became quite popular and sold through some local galleries. It got to the stage where I was getting home from work and painting until three o’clock in the morning and then going back to work at seven. In the end we thought if we can make a go of it we’ll take it on full-time. That’s all I’ve done ever since,” said Max.

A bold move, especially with four young children. But the Mannix household flourished, due in no small part to a full family commitment to his chosen path, according to Max.

“My wife Lynne raised the kids, ran the business, made the frames and mowed the lawns!” said Max. “A total team effort. I started painting in 1973 and went full-time in 1977.

“It becomes a total commitment. You really have to commit totally; I never took it on as a hobby — it was always going to be my chosen career.

“When we started selling my paintings full-time, we worked with galleries in Surfers Paradise, Brisbane, some in Sydney and some in Melbourne, so we thought we’d move about halfway. We moved to the Central Coast. It was just developing then, and there were mistakes made. Then our four girls went to school in Parramatta, so we moved to Glenhaven. All our girls have done well.”

Left - Max’s paintings of lawyers reveal his unique style. Right - A painting of a town in rural New South Wales.

Finding the real character

Max Mannix’s paintings are immediately recognisable for their vitality, their strength of colour and inimitable characters. Several great painters have inspired him in some way in his unique painting style, although for different reasons.

“I was inspired by four artists — Vincent Van Gogh, Russell Drysdale, Peter Breughel the Elder and Thomas Hart Benton. Those painters told stories, which is what I like to do. That’s what appealed to me mostly. Van Gogh was a madman, but his colours were just amazing,” said Max.

Max could probably be labelled a workaholic. His working hours still extend to full days, seven days a week. Is he tired of painting? No way, he said.

“I still look forward to getting up every morning and coming in here to paint. I still love my job. I’m 75 now and I’ve been painting full-time for 40-odd years, and still love it,” he pointed out.

“In the early days, when I was finding my way,

I worked reasonably fast but I’m slower these days. I have four or five paintings at various stages, but it takes about a month on each. It’s a lot of hours — seven days a week for many years.”

"I still look forward to getting up every morning and coming in here to paint. I still love my job."

His paintings of Australian country characters are forever etched in the Australian art firmament, but he has diversified his subjects to include scenes of lawyers, who invariably have that unique Mannix turn of facial expression, and some country landscapes, which are not faithful depictions of rural scenes but more Mannix memories of scenes from long ago, presented as remembered.

“Just looking a little left or right,” is his reading of these changes. “It’s just a variation in what I do, looking for something different to do. It’s all part of looking somewhere else and doing something else,” he explained.

He has also contributed work to publishers for books, adding his personal visual interpretations to some iconic Australian publications.

“I’ve done some books for Steele Rudd, and different books on Australian humour, and a French publisher used my paintings in a book, but I don’t know where they got me from! It was probably online,” he laughed. “Commissions are great, because the storyline is already there. I don’t do likenesses of people because I don’t want to offend them. But it is great to have to work to a storyline sometimes.”

Max also dabbled in ceramics and sculpting while living on the Central Coast, and found it immensely rewarding.

“That was fabulous,” he enthused. “I was like a big kid playing in mud. It was very different to painting. Everything I do is towards my painting, so they provide subjects that lead to paintings.”

He has a few words of wisdom for aspiring painters, although he always shies away from any notion of being a teacher.

“There are a lot of fabulous artists out there who don’t make the grade because they haven’t got that little bit extra between their ears. You have to be able to work on your own, you have to put in the hours day after day. The biggest problem for a lot of young artists coming through is you have to do the time; you still have to learn your craft. But you also have to develop your own style. You still have to be an individual. A teacher can’t teach you that.

“Don’t draw a straight line and be adaptable!”

Looking ahead to the prize

There’s no such word as retirement in the Mannix household. Max will continue to paint until he can’t hold a brush, he said.

There are still goals to reach, and even prizes to win.

“A highlight for us recently was being on the short list for the Wynne Prize,” said Max.

“That was quite a surprise. It’s the first time we’ve ever put an entry in a competition like that, and it was a thrill to see it hanging in the Art Gallery of NSW.

“I want to do more of my landscape style paintings. Most of the scenes I paint are memories. Each one has its own attachment for me,” he said as he gazed at the walls lined with paintings.

And with that he went back to his well worn and paint encrusted easel – the one he has used since he started painting all those years ago – and picks up a brush to continue working.

Max still uses the first easel he ever bought.

Max Mannix

Max’s studio is located at 114a Kenthurst Road, Kenthurst. It is open from 11am to 5pm on Sundays, or by appointment on 02 9654 0099.