Great Garden Sketchabout #8 – First Saturday of six

March 13, 2011

12 March 2011, humid and overcast, 8.40am, Chorisia insignis Floss Silk Tree, Bed 65, near Morshead Fountain. Addition of black ink contour, Lamy Safari.

This looks more finished than yestereday’s sketch, but there is still potential for more work. This is the first time I’ve applied ink over watercolor (pencil) wash and the effect was very different from what I expected. At least I was happy with the gentle curves of the tree trunk. I could go back here again and keep working on this drawing (no longer a “sketch”?) or start anew. There was slightly less filtered bright light coming through on the undergrowth, but I was surprised to see any at all compared to the cast of afternoon light.

There is a lot of my “signature” in the pencil drawing; the newest elements are in the addition of colour and penwork. Jeffrey Smart and the other stentorian voices of my father’s generation admonish amateurs like me to stick to black-and-white till they are competent. When competent, graduate to using colour. After fifty years’ of drawing, I’ve decided I’m now competent. Otherwise, I’d be waiting forever. I’ve rather gone off working with experts in the creative fields: I have tended to take their smirks and quiet disapproval of my work much too seriously. No more deferential sitting at the feet of the knowledgeable for me!

The Gardens continues to reveal new and curious aspects of its existence, which I am required to place beside my remembered Gardens of forty years ago. If anything, this RBG ‘exercise’ is all about Memory for me. The Gardens open at 7am and the first of the homeless were settling in to their positions for the day by 8am or so. Not many general public about at this hour. The itinerants lay out their belongings carefully on the grass, at some distance from the public benches so as not to antagonise the visiting public. They have of course the most delightful of ‘sitting rooms’ to themselves all day, were it not for the damp grass from the heavy overnight rain and the stifling heat of midday; there is barely any difference between day and night temperatures now that Sydney is within the orbit of Asian summer monsoons. One stopped me to discuss the Japanese crisis; I scarcely knew where to start. My beloved Japan! I’d been watching ABC 24 hours news watching the tsunami hit the coastal towns of Tohoku (the old name given to Iwate Prefecture). Tohoku enjoys a milder Winter than the west coast because of the “gentle”, tempering Pacific. But, of course, not today. The poly tunnels protecting fruit and veg from the current Winter were swept away, as were countless Japanese. We’ve all been waiting for this one.

I found some of the initial news commentary unfortunate – one poor journo forced to comment on it from Seoul (like commenting on the floods in Grantham or FNQ from Christchurch NZ) but his anchor portrayed her dreadful ignorance of the region’s geography by asking about a tsunami on its way to Korea. Such is all reporting after a great catastrophe. One rightwing commentator on ABC television found himself saying it was “all a bit sad” and proceeded to turn the whole thing in to a political discussion about nuclear power and the existence of climate change. More than once in the last twenty-four hours, I’ve wondered about the unspoken and spoken racism of Australians towards the Japanese, the ‘War’ being alive and well. 

I didn’t have time to check out “my” palm, but did note the wonderfully cheerful sub-tropical bush with red flowers and bright yellow seed pods – still in flower, though less so. Will need to be quick to capture their exuberant geometry. Both will require very slow lines, not the fuzzy fastness of ‘normal’ sketching.

Wanting really only to go and meditate in the HSBC Oriental Garden part of the RBG, I went off to a bookbinding workshop involving – of all things – chiyogami paper. The classic water swirls of the design took on a less gentle meaning this morning, but we completed our hard-cover ox-plough sketchbooks and I look forward to forthcoming Saturdays focussing on sketching. I know I need to score a Sakura Koi waterbrush pen – more water, more fish; every reference to Japan and the Japanese resonates heavily with me today. I haven’t “labelled” the front cover yet (it deserves a plain paper label reminiscent of Japanese books), but I love the way this particular book structure becuase it provides a few ‘landscape’ format pages in amongst all the ‘portrait’ ones – perfect for a sketcher caught on the hop.

Back home, I pulled out, for the first time in ages, all my previous attempts at concertina books, butterfly books, flag books, Langstitch, rifling through bookbinding textbooks noting how few of the wild, contemporary book structures really suited sketching. This design of vertical swirls is traditional, a reference to ‘earthly vapours’. The ladybirds are a bit twee if you don’t realise how important kawaii (cute) is in Japanese culture. A good sturdy set of thick boards, I was impressed as well at how sturdy the Como paper of the textblock is. Sorely tempted to ‘jump in’ before next week’s class – and make subsequent ones to keep up with the sketching.

I emerged at 12.30pm from the Friend’s Cottage to a stifling heat. I settled on a bench under the enormous branches of a tree and took in the Canova Boxers over a bite to eat. It would have been disrespectful not to have added a location sketch to one drawn from a photo of the original in the Vatican. Sketching seems to have an unconscious attraction for people: at least two groups found themselves magnetically drawn into the field and checked out the name of the tree – of all things, an oak. The largest oak, surely, one could imagine! The light and shade on the Canova Boxers can change – one minute the whole thing is a featureless white blob of plaster, the next lively or rather ‘coming to life’. This vantage point – difficult because it is the only public bench in the area – is ideal for the Boxer beneath the Moreton Bay fig. Of course, my sketches need to be completely re-worked in terms of pen-and-ink in order to be decipherable to my digital scanner.

Far too tired to stay on for the afternoon’s sketching, a Sydney Sketch Club meetup, with some hiving off for a High Tea at 3pm. I can enjoy the sketches of others vicariously online, but am happy with my renewed enthusiasm for bookbinding and some focus in the coming weeks for sketching. I found the public display of outsized old postcards, ten of them, of the Gardens inspiring; there is is scope for copying them and the corresponding views today, especially since the medium of coloured photographs seems to mimic my pencil and colour wash.

Back home, this old photo (out of copyright and in the public domain) of the Gardens in the Powerhouse Museum is intriguing. Obviously the formal gates have moved from opposite the Library to further down Macquarie Street – one wonders why they were moved to relative obscurity: too incompatible with a contemporary highway in and around the Shakespeare statue? I found out today that Morehead Fountain dates from 1983, which is long after I came to know that particular entrance (though by the early 1970s the formal Palace Gates were ensconced in Macquarie Street. The big landmarks are obvious – Govt House, the Con, the Captain Cook statue and nearby (already tall!) palm trees. I can deduce from the photo the site of the (current) Pioneer’s Garden (a Neville Wran initiative from the late 1980s or later) and the path leading down to The Boxers obscured behind the (already large) oak tree. The frigate in the background surely dates the photo from the 1930s or 1940s. I wonder where this photograph was taken from; the rooftop of (former) buildings corresponding to 185 or 187-189 Macquarie Street is my guess.

(taken from the delightful RBG tourist guide)


Things change and move on. I noted, in passing, the wonderful potted plants in Martin Place near the station entrance on my way in. How they’d become slightly overgrown, their colours muddied. Several weeks ago, they were much smaller, less ragged and formed the most delicate patterns, one with the other. Had I stopped to sketch them? No. On my way out, Council workers had removed all the pots, leaving only a tangle of black plastic flower beds.  Nothing to show for any of it, black plastic and some remnants of white roots. A tsunami of the human variety.


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