Most of last year has been an absolute blur and I can’t believe its already 2017. I think the reason time flies for many people is that we try and cram so much into each day (well I do anyway!) it makes the days, weeks, year go so much faster. I had more than enough on last year – some fun and pleasure, family commitments, but a large chunk of it work and that all-consuming ever lasting gob stopper list of home repair and improvements.
But I got through a major hurdle in September re: getting my house in order and since I ticked that off, it had also mentally freed me as well. So my advice to anyone who has been putting off getting something done because it seems painful or tedious to do – get it done asap! Its amazing how much of a mental hurdle it can create for every other aspect of your life.
Anyway, so as that was done and dusted, and Christmas not being as whirlwind as it used to be, I could allow myself time to get back into drawing. Although I haven’t stopped working on my personal projects, having the spare time just to draw or sketch purely for the exercise of it was very rare. The easiest way for me to get back into it was to head out with my sketch groups again.
I met up with Urban Sketches Sydney on the north side of Sydney. A very pleasant picturesque view overlooking Sydney Harbour Bridge and Luna Park. It ended up not being a great day for me sketch-wise. I don’t know whether it was because it had been a long time since I had sketched outdoors, that I was rusty and didn’t know what to bring, or because I slept in and then found out all the trains I needed weren’t running so it took me over an hour to get there arriving flustered and hot! I think it was around 30˚ that day…. Or as my friend pointed out – it was too pretty a scene for me. I thought it was a combination of all the above.
But on further consideration I think it was more the latter. I’m used to not having a full arsenal and drawing on the fly with very little art supplies – once I didn’t have anything so I used a gallery flyer and borrowed a pen. Another time I only had a dried up brush pen at a concert. So I’ve always managed in those situations. And as Everyday Matters shows us you don’t need a lot of time to get something down.
I think it was just too damn pretty there. Even the stormy sky which looked to threaten all day never really announced itself to us. The Harbour Bridge and Luna Park were also at such a particular distance that could be considered as a harmonious viewing distance, engaging but not confronting.
The only thing that intrigued me was a Moreton Bay tree trunk and a local resident exercising his dog in the water. But no decay, no distortion, nothing awkward or unkept. Even all the boats were shiny and new. There was no discord to be found!
Undeterred by my less than useful results at sketching the week before I met up with the Sydney Sketch Club in Leichhardt. One of the more older suburbs in Sydney’s inner west. Its an area visited more for its Italian food and culture but it seems to have diversified a bit more lately, though you can always find a decent cannoli here. We centred around an intersection with the town hall and a church on opposite corners. Sometimes these locations are chosen because they also afford the most street space for us to set up without creating congestion for the locals.
Everyone was already underway when I got there…and I wasn’t late either! It was another very sunny day. And in Australia when I mean “sunny” it means whatever you do DON’T sit in the sun, particularly in summer, find whatever shade you can otherwise you’ll be crisper than pan-fried bacon. Everyone was dotted along the same wall in a slither of shade. It reminded me of a flock of swallows all sitting on the same telegraph line. I wasn’t particularly captivated by the town hall nor the church, but when I looked at everyone from the other side of the road I noticed they were sitting in front of the local public school.
Partially hidden behind the trees was a turret and below a feline-like grotesque. I thought it was a bit unusual for a primary school and all the levels seemed to be stacked and compressed too, so I thought that was a interesting. The challenge was was it’s hulky shape which was partly obscured by trees and that because of its positioning I couldn’t sit far enough back to view the entirety as a whole. The problem this causes is your proportioning can be distorted, for example, the ground floor I was looking at it straight ahead or at eye level, but for the turret I had to tilt my head up to draw it, which changes the angle. It sounds minute but it can create so many problems including making your picture look or feel wrong. There was also this wedge shape in the wall that was hard to show the angle, especially because I couldn’t see where it started and ended.
Still intrigued by this building I went closer and found to my luck the school gates were open. Again I was confronted with the situation of not being able to pick and choose my angle and distance because of a very narrow walkway at the base of the building and a garden area next to it. Even when I could sit further back the trees obscured my view. I had no choice but an ultra tight close up where i was looking up at a 90˚ angle.
With about 20 minutes to go before the group review, I did a quick one of this strange little boutique shop on the opposite corner. It was strange because the roof and walls looked as though at one time in its life it was a much larger house. But they just sliced it in half and patched up the walls. It had all these wonderfully odd angles and geometric shapes like a house of cards.
A sketching friend and I spent 10 days in Canberra and Adelaide seeing the touring Toulouse-Lautrec and J.W Turner exhibitions in each respective capital city. Apart from Canberra being the capital of Australian politics and international embassies, it has most of the national museums and galleries. I imagine it is like a mini version of Washington D.C. – which I would love to visit one day.
The amazing work of Toulouse-Lautrec was on display here. He was one of my first artistic influences who wasn’t a comic artist. What I like about his work is although he painted mostly with brushes, his style of painting mimics gestural drawing. Also his bold use of colour is incredible – luminescent greens and yellows for highlights and a lavender-like purple for shading. This latter aspect of his work is something I have been trying to implement more, especially when I use watercolours.
Colour, colour, everywhere
The more I trust what my eyes tell me to paint, ie instead of my brain, I start to see glimpses of colour I wouldn’t normally think to see. For instance, when I painted the Australian War Memorial below, the building itself is a very sandy coloured, almost muted stone. But the sun was excessively bright that day with wispy clouds slowly moving past the sun creating a light and shadow play on the flat surfaces. I also sat right under the sun, so the glare was affecting my sight as well. With the combination of these factors I kept seeing purples in the shadows and decided to put them in, albeit lightly.
Another thing I have started to do more obviously is “spread” my colours around the page to create a unified picture. When I painted the sky in, which was one of the last things I did, I threw the same blue across the building. I also did the reverse and put some of the stone wall yellow ochre into the sky despite it being a pure blue sky that day. You can also see green areas in the building which match the same colour as the dome. I find that it really completes the picture and gives it some balance, and basically, it just feels right.
Putting it into perspective
Unfortunately I left my camera at the apartment so I didn’t capture the step by step of the above picture, nor what the statue actually looked like. Another thing I am trying to improve upon when I work en plein air is creating more depth of perspective in my scenes. In this case it was making sure the sculpture stood out from the trees in the background. The easiest way to do this is by minimising the amount of detail in the background, not having objects so well defined, and toning back the colours, especially the saturation. As you can see I’m still working on this technique. I also thought that by creating a foreground, ie the leafy boughs on the top and bottom right corners, it would also help create more dimension. I “thought”…! Didn’t work out as well.
For those who are interested, I created this picture by: first blocking in the main shapes with inktense pencils (you can see it in the brickwork); then lifting out the pencils with watercolours (I think, lemon yellow and turquoise); then inked in linework with dip pen and colour drawing inks (ultramarine, sunny green and canary yellow).
Why are we waiting?
As much as I love visiting Canberra, it is such a bastard to get around by public transport particularly on weekends. We were staying at Kingston, which is what I would call inner-city, and buses would only come either every half hour or every hour. It was excruciating to wait 20 mins for a 5 min bus ride. Anyway, one plus about being an urban sketcher is you are equipped with a sketchbook and pen to while away the time instead of getting a kink in your neck looking in the one direction waiting for a bus.
This one is looking a little French boulevarde-y, but at least I got the depth of perspective down better. This sketchbook I’m using at the moment isn’t great for wet mediums. It soaks up all the colour and doesn’t leave behind the vibrancy or saturation I apply to the page. I love it more for its size.
On to Adelaide
Both my friend and I had never visited Adelaide before, so we hoped to fit in some normal sightseeing as well. We arrived to experience some freakishly hot weather. It was in the high 30s, and the next day was scheduled for 40-41˚C. Yaaarrgghhh!!! I made the quick decision that tomorrow we would spend it in the art gallery. I’m not a big fan of air conditioned buildings (no pun intended!) but it was our oasis in a relentless heat. It also helped by looking at Turner paintings of stormy seascapes and lush, shady green country scenes too.
I remember when I visited London over a decade ago I saw many Turner watercolours at the Tate, so it was wonderful for me to relive that experience. Especially now that I have more of an appreciation and personal experience of painting landscapes, not to mention the use of watercolours. So I was learning a lot from such a great and innovative master.
The next day and for the rest of our stay the weather was a lot more reasonable. Not just for us but for the animals at the zoo. To deal with the spontaneity of our furry friends I used my inktense pencils and a waterbrush pen. It seemed the most practical medium.
It’s always a challenge to draw moving creatures, and I include humans in that category as well. One has to employ patience, ie waiting for the animal to appear or turn its head towards you, and you must curb any disappointment as well when it moves away before you’ve finished your sketch.
It’s also a test of your photographic memory and I had to turn to that to help me. Not that I have that skill or its better than anybody elses. It’s more that you NEED to give it a whirl in this type of situation.
By relying on quick glances and my memory to sketch these critters it made me more aware of each animal’s distinguishing features. For the tiger it was its spine and the undulating shape it creates from a side view, or the curling, flowing tail of the lemur or the large hour glass-like snout of the hippo.
Throughout my life I have spent more time drawing the human figure, and one advantage if you are drawing people on the move is that we all have the same skeletal structure and more or less turn and move in the same way. So if I couldn’t capture someone in full before they moved on I could complete the sketch from memory.
But with animals – not only do they look different on the outside and come in different sizes, but their skeletal structures are so different. The face alone varies so much. Some animals have their eyes in front while other are on the side, some have legs tucked in and concealed under their bodies while others look awkward and gangly. They are so intriguing and challenging.
However, it was a successful day and its a lovely zoo. It does seem to be in need of better enclosures for some of its animals and that it relies heavily on donations and visitors to the zoo. So if you’re in Adelaide for a few days, take a trip to the Adelaide Zoo.
I was hoping to get more paintings done at the Adelaide Gardens, but it wasn’t as big as it looked on my map. And despite the drop in temperature, sitting out in the sun was still intense and not much shade could be found. The Palm House, however, was the big attraction so we set up for that.
I got out my dip pen and inks for this, and I was also hoping to use my masking fluid this trip. Sadly I left my old masking fluid brushes at home and I refused to ruin my good paintbrushes just to experiment with (see my masking fluid notes in this post). I found a very cheap set ($2!) in town and my expectations were even worse than I imagined. All the bristles came out every time I washed it.
I used it on the painting below, but I ditched it for the rest of the trip. I’m not sure what I had in mind with this picture, maybe it was me warming up. Or I was possibly inspired by Turner’s sea storms but applying it to a static glass house. 😛
You can see in the finished picture below where I applied the masking fluid in the sky. I would like to take it out again, but not with those brushes. My objective was to make it not only look like a glass and iron structure but to also capture that vintage feel too. It does have a French Riviera atmosphere about it, and some of Raoul Dufy’s work springs to mind.
As I had to wait not only for the masking fluid to dry but the watercolours as well, I started up another drawing of the Palm House. This time I inked the lines in first. If you’ve seen a lot of my ink drawings of buildings you might notice that they’re a little askew in places. That’s primarily because I don’t pencil in structure lines of any kind. I start at the very top and weave my way down, sometimes taking a detour to the left or right. I made that decision a long time ago not to worry about things like that as I can get too caught up in getting it right, especially when it is just a sketch. It also forces me to look harder and try to achieve correct perspective and structure as I work, but its a hit and miss thing.
Here is the finished piece, very different from the first. I think this works better as an overall picture. My personal sense of what makes a picture interesting is if you find yourself exploring the entirety of it. You look at the linework, the squiggles, the shapes, the brushwork, where things overlap, the texture etc. As opposed to something that might grab your attention immediately but it doesn’t pull you in for more review. I dont know if it’s because there is more detail in this picture or that I feel that everything is working together better. And there is more variety in my brushwork to give it more texture. Again, in this picture, like the War Memorial, I have circulated the colours across the whole picture to unify it. See the peach and blue colour in the top right palm tree.
Big day out
Unsatisfied with having only created two pictures at the Gardens, I decided to do a sketchcrawl of my own the next day. We were staying in North Adelaide so my first stop was a nearby park looking over one of many churches.
I like using a mix of all my art mediums – inktense, watercolours and dip pen. But when I sit down to draw something, the subject matter dictates to me what it would look best in, so I may not always use the same things. The photo below was taken after I applied watercolour to my inktense penciling. Since posting it I quite like it at this stage for the white areas I’ve left. Again, I’ve tried to frame the church by throwing in the hanging branch above and the flower bed below.
I think the end result is overworked. I know I was trying to create more contrast with the shadows and light areas but I couldn’t get that intensity with my brown paint. I do like the flower bed and the retreating windows on the side of the building. I managed to show some restraint there.
As I was sitting there I noticed one of the smaller palm trees near me and really like the shape of the tree trunk. I drew this by first outlining the entire shape, then added the details inside it. I’m also using a new paper that is smooth and occasionally my pen nib gets caught in it or collects some of the paper fibres on the surface.
Then I made my way down to the grand daddy of all churches in Adelaide, St Peter’s Cathedral. I sat across the road from it. Thankfully the traffic in Adelaide is nothing like that of Sydney otherwise I would have been poisoned by toxic fumes. Instead I was almost bitten to death by ants. Not good when you’re wearing sandals and a dress!
I really had no idea how to tackle this or what to use. So I spent some time studying it. I decided it was too hard to take seriously, especially considering the heat, the ants and wanting to covering a lot of locations that day. I went a bit free form with my lines and threw in a bit of blind contouring/continuous line technique for good measure. I inked in the black first and ummed and arrhed about adding another colour, but I went with a brick red. It looks a little Dracula-gothic-blood-thirsty-like but I want to start putting more dimension into my line drawings.
Then I headed into town. All along North Terrace are wonderful old building, several dating from the late 1800s. It was almost overwhelming as to where I should start and what to do first. But as it was still such a hot day, finding a good angle in the shade (any shade!!) narrowed down the choices for me.
As it has been awhile since I’ve drawn exclusively with my colour inks and dip pen, I found it really difficult to decide whether to colour it in with watercolours or keep it as a line drawing. When you’re drawing on location you don’t have the luxury of, say, scanning version 1in before attempting version 2, and if it goes wrong then hey! I still have version 1 saved. You instead have to decide how far you want to take it. This time round I decided to leave them as line drawings. I think primarily because this isn’t somewhere I can pop out to on any weekend and do an hour or so of sketching. I didn’t want to ruin my travel souvenirs of Adelaide. I’d love to know how other people feel in this type of situation and how they handle it.
My last sketch of the trip was at dinner. North Adelaide is known for its restaurants, cafes etc. and we found the Italian Ruby Red Flamingo. It was a converted manse (living accommodation for a church’s minister). Very unassuming decor of colourful bric and brac drinking vessels, old wooden school and kitchen tables and used tomato cans for cutlery. But more importantly the food was amazing. I highly recommend to anyone in the neighbourhood. Lovely atmosphere and service, it was a great way to end a trip.