Drawing cars: NRMA MotorFest, Australia Day – unmodified sketches

January 26, 2011

I couldn’t draw a car to save myself. I haven’t owned a car since 1995 and I’d have to look far and wide for a sketch or drawing of the 1979 Mazda 626 I used to own. This major event in the Sydney calendar was completely unknown to me – cars stretching from Park Street to the Opera House, the entire length of Macquarie Street. Thanks to the Sydney Sketch Club though, I am re-discovering my hometown in totally unexpected ways. The static parade of veteran and modern cars, 1904 to 2010, has been running for the last twenty-five years.

Prep and warm-up

I got around to no preparation for this event at all. No car anatomy, except a quick look at an old pen and ink textbook and several weekends’ worth of Drive motor car supplements of the Sydney Morning Herald. The latter were useful because they reinforced two things: being largely metal, they have defined edges, e.g. doors and windows; the simple anatomy of two boxes has been skewed by contemporary carmakers so that the lines are ultra-smooth and lastly, cars tend in reproduction to come up with three or so distinct tonal values – a light (very high reflection where the light hits hardest), mid-shadow and dark-shadow – which lends them quite well to tonal treatment.

USK has several excellent examples – Christian Tribastone comes to mind – where cars are ‘closed’ objects, often set without any sort of context and thus very illustrational. Given the context of architecture, and heritage sandstone architecture at that, the NRMA MotorFest provides all sorts of interesting challenges: how to set the cars against the architecture? The fact that it’s a major Australia Day event begs the inclusion of the Australian flag, flown on many of the cars themselves.

I had thought of just taking along a ballpoint pen on this occasion: the relative ‘coldness’ of pen matching the hardness of industrial metal of the cars perhaps. I went instead for pencil and shadows and tone and working small, on the basis that the night before this Sydney Sketch Club meetup I was propped up in bed with Ernest W. Watson’s book on pencil drawing. Having read this many times over the decades (it remains a long-time favourite) and having emulated a few drawings from the book, I drank in anew his advice about what we would now call “thumbnails”, especially for beginners, and the fact that Watson himself rarely moved beyond an 8″x10″ format for his most complex drawings. He is very strong on looking for dramatic shadows and working at the pattern of shadows. These aesthetic considerations are a step up from mere reportage sketching; what I particularly like is his Figure 41 which is a sketch ‘report’ and not an interesting play of shadows, an example of what not to do.

Tempe Railway Station, 9am.  H, 3B and 6B pencil. 10 minutes. 2″x3″. This was today’s most successful rendering, if only because I’ve been looking at the subject matter daily for twenty years! Or was it the deadline of jotting it down before the train arrived?

We met at Archibald Fountain at 10am and again I was focussing on three depths of shadow – guidelines in H, mid-shadows in 3B and darks in 6B. The public bench provided the distraction of the lightpole, but otherwise I would have opted for a vantage point without the pole!  I’ve left these sketches exactly as they are, without touching up the obviosu errors. This page shows the first and last sketches at the event.

I’ve left this unmodified, not even erasing some of the guidelines which are distracting. There is scope for adding a touch of colour via a flag on the three-wheeler. I may in fact re-do these sketches with the help of shadow-work captured in photos, notwithstanding any loss of spontaneity arising from the stops-and-starts associated with passers-by!

Another tonal thumbnail, with fierce resistance in terms of drawing detail, though I did move to a second and guidelines for a third car. I had trouble with the people sitting between me and the cars and I’m not skilled enough to have worked through them. First long study was an electric car which ran the Paris-Dakar race of 1926, near a popular 1904 vehicle, the oldest on show. Somewhat deliberately drawn at a fair distance in order to concentrate on the tonal values.

Moved up to Sydney Hospital and found the steep entrance steps vacant for an aerial view of a Valiant. I’m old enough to remember when this car first hit the roads in 1961! I was enormously gratified when a colleague immediately recognised the marque from the thumbnail sketch, so I feel I must have at least captured its essential features!

I went on to Martin Place, with hot rods and muscle cars outside the Reserve Bank, and mercifully getting a seat and out of the direct sunlight. After several serious tonal sketches, it felt great to play and relax with some contour. My scanner didn’t capture the very sketchy linework at all, so I will do them again on separate pages, adding people and buildings from photos taken. I suspect my mashup will end up having a false, inauthentic collage feel, but I’m keen to tackle this liminal area of sketch-cum-drawing.

Time for just one more, a small three-wheeler Messerschmidt, just prior to breaking for lunch at 12.30pm. The excessive heat and humidity required me to break after lunch, with the best part of the event – the spread from Martin Place to the Opera House – left untouched and unseen.

All the cars were particularly popular with the crowds so it was a real test of patience to wait for the passers-by to move.  This adds to the time taken for each sketch, of course. I was aware of the strong feeling on the day to add motifs relating to Australia Day, to contextualise the event in ‘time’.

I’ll come back to the NRMA MotorFest in future years for car-drawing practice. Optimal time is before 10am; event setup is always the best time. I’ll go for some of the buses and veteran fire engines next time! I’m amazed at the sheer number of photos uploaded from this event on Flickr, though they tend most often to be closeups. It would have been nice to include with sketches of the cars,  the doting, proud car owners sitting with their antique picnic sets and umbrellas nearby: something to aim for next year.

I believe that if Mr Ernest Watson was around these days, he might use a digital camera to document his sketches.



Watson, Ernest W. The Art of Pencil Drawing. New York, Watson-Guptill, 1968.

Gill, Robert W.  The Thames and Hudson Manual of Rendering with Pen and Ink. London: Thames and Hudson, 1973.


4 Responses to “Drawing cars: NRMA MotorFest, Australia Day – unmodified sketches”

  1. Great impressions. I have hardly done anything outdoors in years but this is rather motivating, I must say. I am learning not to be too detailed when I sketch and admire your kind of work.

    • rodbyatt Says:

      The heat and humidity were enormously oppressive on the day; I’m coming to grips with the tenacity and ‘pace’ required for working ‘in the wild’.
      I’ll now graduate to working up some others ‘after the event’ – working from memory, from photos and from on-site sketches – which is quite a new process for me, since I normally “walk away” from whatever I’ve created at the time.

  2. Alex Tan Says:

    Gorgeous sketches! =) I can never pass up any car sketches, and yours are wonderful!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: