In May 1969 Colin McCahon made a decisive step in respect of his painting environment, establishing a studio on a hill inland of Muriwai Beach, a coastal community some 40 minutes drive north-west of Auckland. Two years later, in January 1971, McCahon resigned his position at the University of Auckland School of Fine Arts (Elam) to become a full-time painter. He was now free to dedicate his time solely to painting.
Almost immediately McCahon's attention turned to subjects inspired by his exploration of the Muriwai studio's immediate environs. In a series of exuberant, 'Turneresque' watercolours and acrylics on paper, he both acknowledged his surroundings and reflected his concerns over the environmental issues which threatened them. Throughout the various series from this time - View from the top of the cliff, Ahipara, Helensville and Muriwai - McCahon used colour, predominantly orange and blue, to create mood and atmosphere.
The new paintings were shown in two exhibitions in April 1971 - one with Peter McLeavey Gallery in Wellington; the other, as part of a group show entitled Earth/Earth at Barry Lett Galleries, Auckland, designed to draw attention to 'the many conservation issues facing this country'. (C McCahon, cited in Earth/Earth, exhibition catalogue, Barry Lett Gallleries, Auckland, 19-30 April 1971)
'I am painting about the view from the top of the cliff. This is at Muriwai. My cliff top is as yet largely uncorrupted but like almost everything else it is for sale. My wife and I who would at least try to preserve it can't afford to buy it. It is unfortunate that buying so often has to do with destruction and exploitation. A beach section becomes a shop and a shop breeds a camping ground and a beach covered with plasticised 'Sundae' containers and ice cream sticks and wrappings and plastic bags from the new season's bikinis. There are dead 'Kon Tikis' still armed with hooks, and bottles. Below the cliff, my cliff only at present, quarrying is blasting away a unique and irretrievable rock face, the beach below is smothered in its debris.
'On the lower cliffs there are the nests of Fairy Terns. In the early summer the young are taught how to fly and swim and gather their own food. This goes on in spite of our intrusions, the cliff top parties, the broken bottles, the paper and plastic everywhere.
'I once went to see the 'Queen Mary' in New York harbour moored at the wharf and surrounded by a murky sea of sewerage and gently bobbing contraceptives. I have seen garbage blowing for miles in the Nevada Desert, hurled through that superb and beautiful landscape by the ever present wind bowling tumbleweeds festooned with filth, paper like flags for a garbage festival streaming from scrub and fences.
'My paintings in this exhibition are all about the view from the top of the cliff at Ahipara and Muriwai. I am not painting protest pictures. I am painting about what is still there and what I can still see before the sky turns black with soot and the sea becomes a slowly heaving rubbish tip. I am painting what we have got now and will never get again. This, in one shape or form, has been the subject of my painting for a very long time.' (C McCahon, op.cit.)