Plein air sketching

January 1, 2011

Searing heat, 35 degrees plus, New Year’s Day, view to street from my front porch. A jungle of verticals and horizontals conveyed but badly here. Will come back to this.

Search around for sketching/drawing/croquis/carnets de voyage/moleskines on the Net means bumping up against USK sooner or later. Their manifesto is as follows:

1. We draw on location, indoors or out, capturing what we see from direct observation. 2. Our drawings tell the story of our surroundings, the places we live and where we travel. 3. Our drawings are a record of time and place. 4. We are truthful to the scenes we witness. 5. We use any kind of media and cherish our individual styles. 6. We support each other and draw together. 7. We share our drawings online. 8. We show the world, one drawing at a time.

I’m much inspired by the work of USK, especially as documentors of place. In a globalised world, where there is so much uniformity in the built environment, it’s vital to take a stand on the unique aspects of locale. We are in a sense ‘going the wrong way’ by drawing what doesn’t fit the mould of modernism in architecture, virtually identical to that espoused a century ago by Le Corbusier.

There is the push-and-pull of moving between the built environment and the human environment, the grand in terms of architectural tradition and the small in terms of domestic environments and ordinary life such as restaurant meals, coffeehouses and tearooms, those public places where we meet with our ‘extended’ family of friends these days. In a world where travel means photographing the same iconic monuments, drawing introduces imagination and much more of the personality of the artist-viewer. There is the great tradition to, especially here in Sydney Australia, of the built environment in terms of the history of drawing: almost all of our great commercial artists have drawn Sydney as part of their landscape studies. Documenting place becomes a much more interesting and important for me when examining the interaction between people and place. What we draw is an involuntary mirror-reflection of our social class, our personal position in society and is all about reinforcing those stances. The danger of personal journey is that the narrative becomes self-reinforcing; we can become victims to it if we simply copy ourselves or remain narrowly-focussed, pleading self-development and self-fulfilment through depth rather than breadth. Where the homeless of Sydney look more or less identical to those of Osaka, at least in terms of ‘standard’ portraiture, when Sydney’s prostitutes look identical to those of Milan, the trick becomes to immerse oneself somehow in the ‘tribe’ or community as someone who is tolerated and shed light on issues of social engagement. Of course Sydney’s homeless will never be as organised and disciplined as Osaka’s; the dynamics of aid and sustenance will differ according to culture. This parallels the concept and tradition of the war artist; society’s establishment sends in a painter (or these days, a photographer) to document the struggle between good and evil. Damien Roudeau tackles this process and these issues wonderfully well.

I’ve spent time in the past with historians who talk about the ordinary people but privately worship at the shrine of iconic historic buildings and their interiors. I’ve donated to USK and am certainly inspired enough to incorporate more built environment plein air drawing into my routine; the drawing from direct observation will be an antidote to all the “second-hand” drawing from photographs. I’ve long adored the industrial environments of inner Sydney, having known them first-hand decades before they were yuppified and gentrified. So ‘doing’ suburban Sydney awaits, ‘doing’ migrant/refugee Sydney awaits, ‘doing’ indigenous Sydney awaits. As does ‘doing’ Sydney’s gay community, notwithstanding the insightful work of photographers you have gone before me. I’ll start with my own homophobic Inner West suburb, or rather continue with it – one of the first things I did on moving here from the Sydney CBD twenty years ago was to photograph and draw, as close to scale as possible, the facades of the high-street shopping strip of my suburb. How to infuse that with its migrant/gay/yuppie/ultra-nationalist elements will be the challenge.

Apart from Damien Roudeau’s social engagement, the aesthete in me adores the rich exuberance of Danielle C. McManus and the understated Andrea Longhi.

The sheer breadth and depth of USK is of course wonderful. It motivates any drawer to explore new media and new subject matter and certainly celebrates the local, the provincial and the personal, at complete odds with globalism and celebrity.

References (see Damien Roudeau) (Andrea Longhi)

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