Catherine Hiller’s Port Melbourne studio

French-born, Melbourne-based artist Catherine Hiller paints from the heart, not the head. Or in her own words, her works are “the product of instinct rather than intellect.”

Catherine Hiller’s Port Melbourne studio
Swathes of colour dart across large canvases, with sensual strokes made by a wide brush propelling swimming shapes into each other as if on a collision course of colour.

Swathes of colour dart across large canvases, with sensual strokes made by a wide brush propelling swimming shapes into each other as if on a collision course of colour.

Concentrating on powerful, emotional moments in time, AKA ‘human snapshots’, Hillers abstract expressionist oil paintings are raw and visceral. For Hiller, everything that surrounds her emits colour—sounds, people, music. It is her calling to translate them onto canvas, letting her intuition guide her every brushstroke along the way.

Hiller has lived a life as colourful as her paintings—studying art in Paris, living in Switzerland and Kenya, working an 11-year advertising stint in the UK, and then moving to Australia and continuing her art career. Exhibiting in both solo and group shows in France, England, and Australia, she has a number of works held in private collections both here and overseas.

Her painting style has evolved overtime, with her journey to becoming an abstract expressionist painter beginning about 13 years ago when she left her more realistic painting style behind in favour of a more free-flowing form of expression. Hiller pours every emotion onto her canvases, and it shows. The intensity of Hiller’s colour palettes—deep ocean blues, emerald greens, vibrant pinks—combined with her bold brushstrokes and shifting shapes create large scale works that command attention.

Though originally taught ‘never to use black’, Hiller found the dark shade soothing and cathartic during a particularly difficult time in her life and began incorporating it in her work. Now, she uses black underneath all of her paintings to bring about a message of hope—that from darkness, colour and life can grow.

A disciple of oils—their richness, their motion, even their scent—Hiller finds comfort in her chosen medium and has a deep appreciation for the joy they have gifted her over the years. In fact, her studio in Port Melbourne could moonlight as an oil paint museum—layers of dried paint coat every surface while well-loved tubes lay scattered throughout.

Hiller found this ‘dream studio’ in 2021, after years of trial and error elsewhere. And it’s not hard to see why she’s so enamoured with the space. Steeped in history and old-world charm, Hiller’s studio is a heritage listed building that once housed a cart and lorry factory in the 1870s. If these walls could talk, they’d definitely have some stories to tell. Instead, Hiller hangs her own from them, translating words into a visual language.

Spacious and full of character, Hiller’s dream space boasts incredible vintage features including striking industrial beams, high ceilings, original wood floors and exposed brick walls. Light floods the space, with her works on display as if part of a rotating exhibition. Barn doors separate the showroom from the studio, where splatters of paint on the walls and floors indicate a loose and relaxed atmosphere. Back here, there’s an air of controlled chaos. Pieces of cloth and material, which Hiller uses to smudge and shade, fill every drawer and basket. Paper plate palettes line the workbench, and dried layers of oil paint mark the passing of time in lieu of a calendar or clock.

Though the process of art making is a personal endeavour, Hiller does allow one friend to accompany her each day in the studio—her four-legged assistant, Buddy. Walking to the studio from home every day with her dog, Hiller “couldn’t dream of a better space to work in.”

Despite her historical surrounds, Hiller’s work is contemporary, fresh and modern. Nothing about it feels as if pulled from the past, except, perhaps, the memories and moments she draws from when she paints.