Family ties: in conversation with actor and artist Barry Otto

"It’s hard for actors to work as much as they would like to, so painting for me was a way of having a creative outlet in the periods 'between jobs.' It kept me sane." On his Pre-Raphaelite muses to the time period he most loves to perform (Chekov's Russia), actor and artist Barry Otto shares the creative inspirations behind his latest exhibition, Otto: An Artist's Life, with daughter and filmmaker, Gracie Otto.

Can you remember when you first fell in love with painting?
I loved drawing as a child and always had a pencil in my hand. And I was a commercial artist/fashion illustrator before I was an actor. I used to do Myer’s high fashion advertising in Brisbane back in the 60s.

Can you name some of the artists who have inspired you most across your career in the arts?
Originally I was influenced by Norman Lindsay, and had my first exhibition at his granddaughter's gallery, Bloomfields in Paddington. Then I discovered the Pre-Raphaelites, Burne-Jones and Rossetti, and Lord Frederic Leighton is my favourite. I’ve also been inspired by Klimt and Moreau, and more lately I had an obsession with Renoir and his nudes.

Can you discuss some of your career highlights and how your painting at the time reflected your feelings to work / the period?
When I look back on my acting career I think I am most proud of my performances in the plays of Chekhov – and even though they are set in Russia, the period of the late nineteenth century is perhaps my natural milieu.

Describe how you curated the exhibition [Otto: An Artist's Life] with Belle Époque ...
This exhibition has been the most beautifully curated of all I’ve ever had. Leigh Capel has created the aura of a Victorian gentleman’s drawing room, with antique furniture and statues from the period. Leigh not only hung the work beautifully but complemented the paintings with personal family and theatrical production photographs, and my friend Nadia Reynolds has designed fabulous floral arrangements that also reference the Victorian period.

"These are the periods of art that I admire. I think I should have been born then – in an age of beauty and with no technology!"

"It’s hard for actors to work as much as they would like to, so painting for me was a way of having a creative outlet in the periods 'between jobs.' It kept me sane."

It was also your 79th birthday - who attended the party and the show, and how did you celebrate?
I couldn’t believe how many people turned up to help celebrate my birthday and look at my paintings – I think there were close to 250 as word spread. Theatre, film and television people, fashion designers, magazine editors, old friends – actors Dan Wyllie, Brendan Cowell, Kate Mulvaney, Nell Campbell, Krew Boylan, Claudia Karvan, directors Gill Armstrong and Nash Edgerton from L.A. and Neil Armfield got a train down from his house at the beach, photographers Hugh Stewart and William Yang and artist Anthony Lister whose work I just love. It was the most incredible night of my life. Instead of people coming and looking at the artwork and leaving, everyone stayed for the night! Thankfully we had catered for a few extra ... And we had a huge chocolate cake – in fact two chocolate cakes – and everyone sang Happy Birthday and I wanted to cry!

What was I like as a child painting? I inherited nothing!
Everyone can paint – when you were little I used to let you come into the coach house studio and draw with charcoal and use my oil paints and I would frame your work. Miranda loved your paintings and she’s still got some hanging in her house in Sydney and at the beach.

"I am obsessed with the Pre-Raphaelite artist's models, and they are all dead, but I paint my own versions of their beauty."

Who are these red headed women you paint?
My favourite palette is really just a tube of Burnt Sienna – I can happily just draw and sketch forever. A lot of artists favour redheads as their muses. They’re all in my mind, my imagination.

What would you say to any young person out there wanting to be an artist?
Just do it – every day. The more you paint the better you become. Most of the paintings in this exhibition were never intended for sale – they were for my own private collection as I studied the work of the great artists. I could never afford to buy their original paintings so I was happy to recreate them for myself.

When are you finishing our cat Bogart's painting?
I came across it the other day. I started it, and then I rubbed it off with turps, because I thought I could do a better job. I will get back to it soon.

PHOTOGRAPHY Jake Terrey for