Nolan's principal subjects were the Australian landscape and characters and stories deriving from Australian legends and history. As is well known, Nolan's sources of inspiration included: the legend of the 19th-century outlaw and folk-hero Ned Kelly; the tragic history of the doomed explorers Burke and Willis, who perished in 1860 while attempting to cross the vast desert of inland Australia; and the legend of Mrs Eliza Fraser who betrayed Bracewell her convict lover, having been rescued by him from her aborigine captors, and with whom he shared a perilous jungle existence during their return to civilisation.
But the theme which cuts across these different narratives is the relation of the figure to the landscape. And the idea which emerges is that of the outsider: the individual who is somehow adrift from society and yet also an intruder in an inhospitable and intimidating world. In this respect Nolan's art transcends its particular locale, and connects with ideas of alienation and isolation which we see explored in the work of his contemporaries such as Bacon and Beckett. Nolan's lasting achievement is thus to have used this Australian heritage as a vehicle for addressing these universal human concerns.