Urban Sketchers Sydney – Pyrmont NSW

January 12, 2013

Pyrmont has always complied with the model of a “village” within the larger city of Sydney, mainly as a result of its physical location, a relatively isolated spit running into Sydney Harbour. Many of the traces of the original 19th-century village have disappeared and more recently its industrial character has been replaced by a service industry one, as part of the general trend away from Sydney Harbour as a working port to prime residential property. For many of us who knew personally the village in the 1970s, the changes have been profound. The hub of the suburb is now the casino, while previously it was the electricity power station, both occupying huge sprawling buildings near the harbour. The tenement housing poverty-stricken residents has been replaced by coffee shops and high-rise apartments.

Urban Sketchers Sydney met today to look at the village and because of the summer heat, we stuck to what is known as Union Square, though some of us remember it formerly as a busy through road for traffic. Next month, we will do a walk down Harris Street to the water, but the focus of attention for many was the remnants of stone single-storey buildings. I think there was this subconscious attraction of the Village and the C19 architecture amongst nearly all of us.

Personally, I went into my private ‘zone’ and reveled in the architectural detail. I’d wanted to capture the Walter Liberty Vernon post office for more than a year, so here was my chance, given the relative lack of sunshine. What should have been a 40-45c degree day turned out to be an average ‘February’ day of high humidity and overcast sky. The post office facade is in shade in the early morning and it has quite an awkward angle, contrasting with its Academic Free Classical detail. The lack of sunshine meant everything was in a bland light, so I concentrated on architectural detail in H pencil on an A5 double spread. I moved to the left because the awning-less 19th century buildings in a plain Georgian style are now coffee shops and are very busy, all the more hectic because of the trees everywhere.

What links the two are the rather strange street furniture: mushroom-like domes of Pyrmont sandstone, recalling that other industry of Pyrmont’s past, sandstone mining. As one colleague reminded me, it comes out of the ground soft, malleable for carving, but because of the iron content ‘sets’ concrete-hard with exposure to air. The ‘domes’ are in fact a very dark charcoal grey.

Uppermost in my mind today was the urban sketching of William Sim, the Singaporean urban sketcher whose work I most identify with: he uses (very) simple pencil foundation (much less than I do), followed by a regular patterning effect of colour (often just two or three) imitating the local colour of the buildings (not some atomspheric background wash). He uses no colour in the sky so everything has a delightful, sun-drenched bleached effect. There is no Hogarthian distortion of perspective. What makes it uncharacteristic in terms of his colleagues is that it looks like urban Landscape in an island-state where of course there is no Landscape; there are no masses of things, no speed and no action. His people are like ghostly presences out in the midday sun.

I was pleased with the sensitivity and lightness of the Pencil Drawing but I knew it wouldn’t take with my scanner. I ended up flooding it in quinacridone and permanent magenta watercolour, ostensibly clothing it in the shadows of the day. I absolutely LOATHE the finished product mainly because it obliterated the ‘struggle’ of the drawing but I just have to ‘move on’ and forget about the experiment, hoping that I’ may have learned something en route!

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I adopted a different pace for the second spread, my ‘hunting-and-gathering’ mode when I wait for people to come into view for some People Sketching. Normally I associate Urban Sketching events with ‘Architecture’ and Sketch Club Meetups with ‘People’. Probably the most important new thing I learned today was to draw people sight-size: your pencil has less distance to travel. I’ve ‘colour-coded’ each of the individuals: the Chinese man reading his newspaper, the two young men slumped over their mobile phones, Lisa who kindly came into view to sketch (you’ll notice her right leg tucked to the side) and her two poses – one while ‘sketching’ and the other ‘looking’ at her subject.

With roughly a new sketch every hour, I wandered away and happened down Harris Street to the Fire Station I drew a year ago. My viewpoint was the same and wondered how my sketch might differ from the one I did last time. It was in another sketchbook and I didn’t have it to hand. Again I reveled in the Pure Line and again the facade was almost entirely in early morning shadow. As I stopped, a fire engine pulled up which I managed to photograph and so will include a separate side-sketch of the fire engine later on. I added pen and watercolour at home and this completely altering the sketch was quite brutal and unexpected. I would still like to go back and try and capture the contrast between yellow sandstone and brick-red brickwork, reasonably happy that I’ve at least got the overall aspect ‘right’. I absolutely adore Walter Liberty Vernon’s buildings around Sydney, for reasons I don’t really understand. I deliberately took along an A4 sketchbook today because I half-suspected an A5 would be too small this time round for Long Poses of buildings, especially those like the Fire Station with which I was familiar; A5 is okay for buildings I don’t ‘know’. In fact, my original intention with the Post Office was to do several different thumbnails from half-a-dozen different angles (if only because the ‘odd’ triangle effect of the upper-storey balcony is so bizarre.

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Some of my colleagues spent time on the World War I memorial statue in Union Square, a winged Liberty. I particularly admired Ethna’s very natural-looking pose of Liberty. This should have been a ‘natural’ given my recent attention to figure drawing and will return to it as a subject, mainly because it’s a piece of traditional public sculpture using the figure which is accessible: it’s not so high off the ground it’s awkward to sketch.

Lastly, after 3 hours of sketching came a further 3 hours of discussion over a Long Lunch: book illustration, published books which include urban sketching (David Gentleman on London, Mark Alvin Tan on his Compostella sketchbook). Next meeting I will bring along my Paul Hogarth and Ptolmey Dean books. I’ve decided I’m a post-prandial sketcher, as opposed to sketching food & drink before consumption. The Still Life of the table was by no means settled since the objects kept migrating; I persisted with faces hoping some characteristic feature would emerge.

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