Great Garden Sketchabout #26: trees, bromeliads, flying foxes

April 9, 2011

9 April, Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney. Trees, Lower Gardens. Derwent graphite pencils; Staedtler watercolour pencils.  We put the training in colour today at the Bookbinding & Sketching Workshop (Session 5), by tackling the area around the Macquarie Wall. Governor Lachlan Macquarie and Francis Greenway have been front-of-mind this week in re-reading The Fatal Shore of Robert Hughes as background to Georgian architecture both in Sydney (St James Church and nearby convict barracks) and Windsor; I’ve also been deciphering a photograph of 1892 taken from the GPO tower, extending from Martin Place (not yet extended through to Macquarie Street) and the not-yet-built Sydney Hospital, St Stephen’s Church, the NSW parliament buildings right through to the NSW Conservatorium crenellated towers, the rooftop of NSW Government House and the Lands Department building). The photo was taken just ten years after the fall of the Palace and some forty years before similar city landscapes were drawn from the North Shore by Lloyd Rees. Ernest Watson talks a lot about copying from old black-and-white photos as ways of dealing with both tone and composition and I wouldn’t mind including some sort of collage from a copy of the b&w photo combined with some green colour denoting the cards, mimicking the coloured postcard of the Garden’s Vintage Views display.

From 8am, some pre-sketching of the Silk Floss tree in the Palace Gardens section, as well as some rapid gestural sketching of flying foxes trying to sleep. Not only do the foxes sleep fitfully but they have the habit of spinning around on their branches. They also seem to enjoy bugging each other. I well know the cantakerous sleeping associated with working the night shift! Very like gestural sketches, prior to a long pose at life drawing classes. I’m not sure how many sessions it will take to get the likeness right! Today’s bright, sunny weather does allow the sketcher to see more of the browns/oranges of their bodies; on previous wet days, they cover themselves up much more completely with their charcoal grey wings. Looking up into rain in previous weeks produced even less convincing results! I will persist because I think a contemporary Gardens sketchbook really ought to include these animals, which have made their presence felt not in terms of ripping the trees apart, but from their smell and noisy shrieking as well. I’m quietly appalled at the number of trees they inhabit; stripping the leaves and branches of tall palm trees to trees, they seem to move to ones very much closer to ground level.

I was looking for shade from which to draw and benches along the Macquarie Wall came in handy. My limited range of pencils were not up to capturing the wondrous blue-greens of much of the vegetation under filtered light, but that’s okay. As with all these subjects, it’s always possible to come back at another time. I applied the water with a brush, not a water-brush, so there was less overall control, but I love the unpredictability of the medium. Since colour was the focus, I moved off the graphite more quickly than usual. Today’s biggest lesson for me personally was an accident: a touch of green used next to chocolate brown pencil, which under water, becomes a wonderful, vague contrast of green and red. I knew straight away that this technique could be applied to some nearby bromeliads!

I guessed exactly how little pencil work to add to the paper, allowing the water to do all the work. Variety of marks and differing pace of line. Very limited palette: just violet, pale green and yellow, with brown watercolor pencil line instead of graphite. This is an entirely new way of working for me: less time looking at my own work and more timing observing the subject. I’ll re-do sometime with a better eye to the plant’s geometry. With the KISS ‘Keep It Simple, Stupid!’ principle uppermost, I could go on to do many more of the plants in this part of the Gardens, an unusual number seem to be the palest greys and blue-greens. Less in a ‘photographic’, hyper-realist desire to get the detail right, and more about the overall impression or feeling.  Time now to invest in some watercolour paper alongside colour-sketching on this very white 110gsm sketchbook paper. I watch my colleagues use their water-brushes with much less abandon and more judicious painterly strokes.

Here’s a re-statement of the original sketch and as is often the case in ‘translated’ sketches, a lot of the original spontaneity was lost, even though a lot of the geometry was corrected. I lost my brown watercolour pencil on location yesterday and you can see that a replacement black hasn’t done the trick.

An excellent day of intense visual concentration, but I ran out of puff after lunch. In the background to today’s field work was not just a heightened sense of colour, but some strict botanical illustration by a workshop colleague done in Polychromos pencils; I was expecting exotic rare flowers, so was heartened to see humble things like seed chillis, capsicums, aubergines, pumpkins (which stay they way they are for ages!) and even insects bought over the Internet. Imagining these works on full-sized paper takes me back to my calligraphy days. I’ve been aware this week of the National Library’s former exhibition devoted to State library jewels, including scientific illustration from the likes of Raper and the recently-UN heritage listed sketchbook of fishes by William B. Gould, Tasmanian convict. This puts yet another sketchbook into the limelight, alongside the 72 stuffed birds from the Macleay Museum which won this year’s Adelaide Perry Drawing Prize. Lastly, more of the short documentaries on television, Perfect House, featuring architectural illustrationist Ptolemy Dean (who uses a 0.5 Microliner pen and double-spreads of an A4-sized sketchbook, watercolours delivered later over an interesting ‘signature’ of wavy lines whenever he draws a ‘straight’ one).

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