When he first got serious about painting three decades ago, artist Mark Wooller held exhibitions in his Herne Bay flat and sold his nature-inspired works to friends and family.

A self-taught artist, who never considered himself bright enough to go to art school, Wooller, 53, is now fast becoming one of our leading contemporary painters. The former landscape gardener says he was surprised when, at last year's Auckland Art Fair, a series of small works on canvas featuring the detailed bush and cartography imagery he's becoming known for, quickly sold out.

"I thought because they were small, people might not take them seriously."

But art collectives, corporations and individual collectors are buying Wooller's work, and one of his larger paintings will soon be displayed in the High Court at Auckland. The Government has also bought his paintings for embassies and consulates in Chengdu, China, Rarotonga and Rome.

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Jill Trevelyan, works of art manager for the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, says Wooller's paintings join a collection numbering about 2800 pieces, which are displayed prominently in New Zealand government offices all over the world. The collection has a strong focus on Maori art and artists, including traditional woven kete and tukutuku panels.

"The idea is that we are trying to create a little piece of New Zealand overseas and promote our culture and identity through our art," says Trevelyan, art curator and award-winning author. "We want to showcase New Zealand as a dynamic and sophisticated nation with amazing artists producing work of a very high quality."

She says Wooller's paintings work well because they represent our landscape, often feature te reo and reference environmental concerns. Wooller says he's long enjoyed painting New Zealand native bush and, being surrounded by it at his Matakana home, does not lack for inspiration. He also has a lingering fascination with typography and maps, all of which feature in his art.

In his latest exhibition, Nature of Place, he includes signage and flags as another way of seeing and reading local landscapes. He's also incorporated marine signal flags in some works, spelling out titles and messages. These paintings are an evolution of the style that has brought him recent success and that was developed after a period of critical reassessment.

"At one point, I painted a lot of sticks and leaves but they stopped selling and no one seemed to like them any more so I had to really look at my work and what I was doing," says Wooller. "It's quite frightening because you get comfortable with what you're doing. When I decided to move into painting solid blocks of bush and roads, I was fascinated to see if I could actually paint the bush like that."

Gradually Wooller became a stay-at-home parent to his three children, now in their teens and 20s, while wife Tia worked as a teacher. Now in his studio, a bush-clad cottage, he works daily from 8am to 5pm and says about six to eight months' effort goes into producing work for an exhibition.

Wooller believes art is often about finding what's within yourself: "Anyone can do it if you have the confidence. I've never had lessons, I just work on intuition."

Lowdown
Mark Wooller's Nature of Place is at the Warwick Henderson Gallery in Newmarket until Saturday, August 26.