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June 2020 Issue
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Canvassing the landscape

Landscape painter Julia Sternkopf lugs paint, brushes and canvas into the hills to capture the colours of the backcountry. 

When the clouds lift and the lighting is right, Julia Sternkopf has to act quickly.

Putting brush to canvas, the 23-year-old painter hurries to capture as much as she can of the landscape before it changes.

“It requires quick decision making – the sun will be in a different position towards the end of the painting compared to where it was at the first brushstroke,” she says.

The Lake Hāwea resident works from a wooden pochade box, handbuilt by her partner’s father.

“It’s a portable art studio that holds six paint tubes and my brushes, has a built-in glass palette and can store and transport four wet paintings,” she says.

“Fully packed, it weighs only 2kg, fits into my pack and can easily be carried up a mountain.”

The technique is known as plein air painting – the act of painting outdoors – and it has its obstacles in the New Zealand backcountry.

“The biggest challenge is the constant change of light conditions,” Sternkopf says.

“During my latest plein air painting adventure, I was on top of a mountain in a thick cloud. I waited more than an hour for the cloud to pass just to reveal the most amazing cloud formations on the peaks below me.

Everything was changing so quickly, I had to complete that painting in 30 minutes.

“Some weather conditions make it less comfortable to paint, like extreme heat or wind – and don’t even get me started on sandflies.”

Practicing plein air painting at Roy’s Peak

Originally from Germany, Sternkopf visited New Zealand on a working holiday visa after graduating high school and had no idea what she was in for.

“I was so nervous about coming here that I only started reading my travel guide about one hour before landing in Auckland,” she says.

She met her partner while working at the Lake Hāwea Hotel, but had to return home when her visa expired. After nearly three years of having a long-distance relationship and with a lot of travelling back and forth, Sternkopf moved to New Zealand in 2018.

Sternkopf’s relationship with the outdoors wasn’t always an easy one, and she puts her newfound ease with tramping down to ‘sheer determination and curiosity’.

“I’m not the fittest and for a very long time I believed I could physically not make it to the top of any mountain,” she says.

That all changed when she was convinced to summit Breast Hill in Lake Hāwea.

“Suddenly all the muscle pain was gone and that was when I started to fall in love with the landscape, hiking and exploring my surroundings,” she says.

It’s a feeling that Sternkopf tries to capture in her work.

“My goal is to capture the feeling I get when I reach the top of the mountain, when I climb through the bush for hours and reach that view; the feeling I get when I am just absolutely amazed and stunned and blown away by all the beauty that surrounds us,” she says.