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  • Writer's pictureLucelle Pillay

The South African 'Artist-Life' is Golden


The ‘weekend getaway’ for the artist is more than just some time away from the city. It’s the perfect opportunity to immerse oneself in a different place, culture and lifestyle. If the place happens to be the ‘postcard’ town of Clarens, then the experience is bound to be ‘other-worldly’ and inspirational. A simple but cosy stone cottage nestled in the foothills provided the perfect haven from which to explore hiking trails, local restaurants and quaint stores brimming with curios and art objét. Clarens named after a town in Switzerland, is home to a bevy of artists and is sprinkled with art shops and galleries. From traditional oil landscapes to contemporary abstracts in mixed media, the visual culture on offer is as diverse as it’s friendly inhabitants.

Golden Gate Highlands National Park

The highlight of the weekend was only 20km away, nestled in the rolling foothills of the Maluti Mountains of the north-eastern Free State, lies the Golden Gate Highlands National Park. The name ’Golden Gate’ originates from the two cliffs that face each other on either side of the road: at sunset, the yellow sandstone becomes a rich resplendent colour. Upon entering the reserve, the majestic cliff faces present an arresting presence that looms and encompasses its diminutive human observers. These gigantic rock formations are of geological interest, as they consist of 3 main layers of rock: Drakensburg Basalt, Quartzite and Clarens Sandstone. These strata’s give the Golden Gate cliffs it’s characteristic red - orange appearance.


The red layer was created 200 million years ago when swampy rivers deposited the mud-like sediment. 196 million years ago, the area dried up and became a desert, resulting in the yellow sandstone deposits. From 160-190 million years ago, volcanic activity capped the area with a basalt layer. The rivers and streams in the park have carved the rocks into their present formations.

During our early morning hike to Echo Ravine, I felt immediately immersed within this pre-historic place, which I secretly named ‘God’s Sculpture Park’. Experiencing the sheer scale and beauty of its primordial energy is quite spiritual. It’s not surprising that artists are drawn to the area in drones, lured by the rock face’s sublime grandeur. Another characteristic feature is the dark sediment that bleeds down from the top layer of rock. This visual phenomenon is caused by ground water mixing with dolerite and flowing over the edge of the cliff tops. Dolerite is a medium- to fine grained, dark crystalline rock which formed underground when lava feeding the volcanoes cooled in its feeder pipes. Dolerite dykes and sills are very common, often seen intruding other rock layers. The ‘dolerite bleed’ was reminiscent of India ink drawings and water colours, which inspired me to capture views to paint when I got back to my studio.


Although Golden Gate is described as an arid, desert region the presence of water is both surprising and refreshing. The smoothly eroded cavern of Echo Ravine, indented with the memory of prehistoric rivers, has become an audial cathedral of sound. It reverberates the tumbling stream that flows through it, as well as the voices of its human visitors. Enclosed like a 'rock-womb', a slash of daylight is allowed in by a narrow ceiling crevice, from which clean mountain water celestially drips. As the light changed, it caught glistening, silver ground-water streams, which punctuated the green foliage and chalky amber sandstone. However, Mushroom Peak was the true sandstone basilica that graciously poured its font of holy ablutions from its lofty heights to the human visitors below.


I often record views on site in the form of charcoal drawings and quick pencil sketches on cartridge paper. Drawing in-situ provides a more responsive approach to the environment and affects scale and perspective. Working from photographs is more 2-dimensional and less immersive, but its important to shoot many angles at various times in order to capture colours and changing light conditions. I often use my Nikon 3200 to capture landscape due to its panoramic lens capability, but opted to use my mobile phone camera instead. The reasons being, I wanted to test the capabilities of the phone camera and I wanted to inform my students on the possibilities of documenting using their phone cameras.

I used a budget priced Redmi Note 10 Pro camera to take the following images, and was quite pleased with the result. Although the Redmi 10 Pro doesn’t fall anywhere near the capability of an Appel iphone, it performs reasonably well with fine detail, exposure, depth estimation and outdoor-colours.

I then edited selected images in Adobe Photo Shop, and before you criticize the intensity of my contrast and saturation, this was done deliberately as I’m preparing the images for painting and drawing rather than printing them as photographs. Enhanced contrast assists with achieving a more dynamic value-scale for painting.

Upcoming Workshop: Golden Gate in Water colour

I’m running a series of day-workshops focused on water colour techniques for landscape. I take artists (beginners included) through the processes of:

•Analysing/ preparing a photograph for landscape painting

•Preparing stretched paper for water colour

•Starter brush set

•Basic colour palette

•Types of washes & layering

Watch This Space for more Details

Email me on to book your spot :)

Please leave a comment if you enjoyed this article, let me know which photo is your favourite, or share your experience at Golden Gate with me.

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