Great Garden Sketchabout #9: Revised plan for themed sketchbook

March 17, 2011

Some desperate kamikaze-like acts trying to cool down Fukushima Reactor 4 today and I’m contemplating the end of Japanese civilisation (as we know it) if things don’t work out and southerly winds prevail, taking radiation to Tokyo. I’ve devoted much of the last ten years to some of its cultural traditions, especially textile ones, so the last week has been very trying. The first scenes today on television of winter landscapes in Iwate Pref that I recognise as typical. I can only hope to emulate the very best of those traditions in my own work; there are plenty of indirect Japanese influences already in this Botanic Gardens sketchbook and I’m surely I’ll find ways of planting even more.


In her book, Cover to Cover: creative techniques for making beautiful books, journals & albums (1), Shereen LaPlantz has a section devoted to single sheet fold books, which she calls mazes. This use of a single large sheet of paper folded then cut to form a single signature is of great interest to sketchers and drawers. She starts with small single sheets creating 8 pages (Single-Cut Maze and T Shaped Cut), movings to 12 and 16 pages (Multiple Cuts) which forms the basis of the “ox-plough” book, since like a ox-drawn plough it moves up and down the single “field”. This resonates for me because this movement, from our time-honoured agricultural past, is the origin of the word “volta” in Italian, the word for “time”: moving forward and back in field constituted a single “time”, hence the word “volta”.

I’ve been considering the potential for the ox-plough structure in terms of themed or ‘closed’ content for a sketchbook in terms of the Sydney Royal Botanic Gardens venutre, the Great Garden Sketchabout. I like the fact that the RBG is itself a giant ‘portrait’ format rectangle, from its north (Opera House) to south (Mitchell Library/Domain), from east (Art Gallery of NSW) to east (Macquarie Street) and the possibilities of representing the geographical aspects on to a large single sheet of paper.

I like the idea of my garden sketchbook being ‘read’ from left to right like any ordinary (Western) book, as well as potentially opened out to form a large, A1-sized, single page.

In terms of timeframes, I have five Saturdays to go for the Garden Sketchabout, divided into three sketching sessions: a short, pre-sketching workshop session before 9am; a sketching workshop sessions 9.00am-12.30pm and a two-hour afternoon Sketchabout session, 1-3pm. So with a little forethought and planning, I have potentially fifteen ‘long’ sketches which will substantially fill my 16-page ox-plough book. With some sessions up to 100 minutes or more, I can concentrate on developing ‘slow’ lines. ‘Slow’ lines will help make my plants and trees identifiable to a botanist; I think this preferable to simply generating sketches of “generic” trees and shrubs.

I’ve been astonished to find new approaches and new content among my sketching colleagues who’ve already hit the Gardens sketching, so even without delving into the work they have done, I’ve come up with the following, panels done ‘separately’ not as two-page ‘spreads’. Because panels 1-4 and 9-12 are the ‘right way up’ I will aim for landscape format sketches of the landscape; the other panels will be geometric, abstract and all-over ‘field’ sketches, thus contrasting between the Gardens seen ‘at a distance’ as well as ‘close up’, echoing what we do physically: we take in vistas of trees as well as examining up close flowers, leaves and seeds.

Panel 1           SW corner of the Gardens: Morshead Fountain Gate and/or the tall palms near the Captain Cook sculpture

Panel 2           “My” boab tree, which I think is called a ?Chrysia in Bed 65

Panel 3          The Tropical Plants Centre – more a landscape study featuring the architecture, rather than the individual plants inside

Panel 4          SE corner of the Gardens: Art Gallery Gates

Panels 5-8 will be “upside down” if the book is ‘read’ as a full, single page, as will be panels 13-16. So that these panels can effectively be read both rightside up and upside down, I thought of doing closeups of plants, flowers, seeds, forming more a geometric, abstract impression, rather than naturalistic in the formal Landscape tradition.

 Panel 5        The flying foxes/fruit bats plaguing the Gardens. There will be some irony here because they themselves hang upside down (!)

Panel 6        Geometric patterns associated with the Wollemi Pine

Panel 7        Cadi Jam Ora – content associated somehow with the First Nations, the plants and culture of the indigenous prior to 1788

Panel 8        Seeds and/or geometric pattern associated with the Succulent Garden (eastern side of the Gardens)

Panel 9        Western side of the Gardens: Palace Garden Gates or the Rose Garden Pavilion

Panel 10     NW side of the Gardens: the art installation of sandstone columns

Panel 11      North side of the Gardens: the Sydney Opera House.

Panel 12      The Canova Boxers or Lady Macquarie’s Chair

Panel 13       North side of the Gardens: the Bamboo garden

Panel 14       The HSBC Oriental Gardens

Panel 15       Seaweed/sea algae of Farm Cove, a little known or little-appreciated responsibility of Gardens botanists, since not everything associated with the Gardens is necessarily on land!

Panel 16       A red flower I’ve taken a shine too, yet to be identified (!).

While this takes care of the recto of each page or spread, I’m thinking of the fourteen panels on the verso as well. I’ve yet to test the Como paper used in the textblock to see how well they take mixed media; if there is bleed through or wrinkling associated with the application of water, then I may simply scan and print digital photos used in the research and use them to illustrate the versos. The effect of PVA glue on the recto of each page is also a factor I need to consider.

I think it’s important that my handmade sketchbook reflect the ‘closed’ nature of the walled-in gardens and be able to be read ‘normally’ as well as a single-page layout. The book structure has plainly much more potential for this than an everyday commercial sketchbook, which can’t be folded out like a ‘map’ of the Gardens.

The single-page ‘map’ of the Gardens raises questions about text. Normally I find text, especially written the right way up and decidedly legible, to be a distraction from the visual. Lettering and words draw the eye immediately and reflexively. In landscape drawing we add figures to help establish scale, but it’s always the people or figures or faces we’re drawn to before any other content on the page. What I am considering is very small print, so small and geometric that it looks abstracted, in the forward and backward lines across the page reminiscent of the ox-drawn “volta” and echoing too the practice of convicts in others in the early days of White settlement who write not only on the front of back of each page in their letters, but from top to bottom and left to right, forming an almost indecipherable “maze” of handwriting. I suspect I will add the lines of text close to the folds and cuts in the paper and I will add it at the end of the entire exercise.

Lastly, the content of Panels 6,7, 10 and 11 is very deliberate forming an inner central ‘square’ within a frame, rather like a Persian rug, itself an artistic representation of a garden. I want the content of the central panel to reflect both the most ancient and the most modern. I want the Opera House and the 20th-century art installation there in the upper panels, foundered on two lower panels depicting the prehistoric Wollemi Pine and the agricultural practices of the Cadigal people.

I guess some will find this over-engineered, even postmodern, but I’ve become so used to adding sketches into commercial sketchbooks, one after the other, without any ‘internal logic’. I’m also thinking ahead to the requirements (or potential) of a sketchbook devoted to Every Day in May, which starts barely a fortnight after the Great Garden Sketchabout concludes. LaPlantz’s complex patterns, especially those with 4×8 or 32 pages, seem ideal(2). My ‘take’ on Every Day in May may well be sketching objects unrecognisable (or barely recognisable) to my grandparents, if they were alive today, e.g. May 2, Every Day Matters Challenge #2, Draw a lamp – featuring an eco-friendly “modern” light bulb. But I’m jumping ahead of myself!


(1) LaPlantz, Shereen. Cover to Cover. Asheville, NC: Lark Books, 1995.  

(2) See LaPlantz, Fig. 35, page 95, with the “Ram’s Horns” cuts.

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