Airport sketching, Sydney-Bangkok-Sydney

March 9, 2013

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A5 Laloran 180gm sketchbook, pencil; watercolour added at home

Sydney to Bangkok, door-to-door, was 1.30pm to 11.30pm. I managed a sketch of people in a waiting lounge at Sydney Airport, broken up by the bands in the glass walls. Most of these passengers were heading for London. Sketching not only fills in time, especially the otherwise ‘dead’ time of travel but helps set aside the anxiety associated with the unfamiliar and the bureaucratic. It also makes one see more closely and take in things that otherwise would not be ‘noticed’ at all. Take for example the Sikh gentleman in the red turban and brown suit, pacing around endlessly on his mobile phone. If I’d not sketched, I would never have noticed the very same gentleman on my return flight a week later from Bangkok.

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A4 Laloran 120g sketchbook, LH page of double-spread.

This is a series of vignettes of the interior of the very dark cabin, seated in the middle of a row. The haziness of the pencil is due to my tentativeness concerning the subjects; it was difficult to settle on any one particular thing or things as interesting enough to create a sketch. The jumble of vignettes was the result.

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A4 Laloran 120g sketchbook; RH page of double-spread; pencil watercolor added later

One of the trickiest things these days is to what to pack into carry-on luggage in the most efficient way. Airport check-in inevitably involves three hours of continuous movement from one checkpoint to another, involving taking hand luggage apart several times and having exactly the right documents to present at the appropriate time. I didn’t want the hassle of leaking pens and wet media on the plane, especially given the ban on taking on board anything liquid, so resorted to my two sketchbooks and sharp pencils, my sharpener having been relegated to the hold. I started with the Argentinian plane parked on the tarmac (aeroplanes are not common in my repertoire); a stand-up sketch unfortunately with the plane out of view while seated. Later on board, one of the passengers lay down over two seats to go to sleep, barefoot while still wearing his seatbelt.

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A4 Laloran 120g sketchbook, pencil

Bangkok to Sydney, door-to-door, lasted 5am to 10pm, including the rally driver of a taxi driver (who gave a vivid impression of a gamer playing a driving video game while on the King Rama expressway to the airport – I couldn’t bring myself to see what speed he was going). For 500 baht, the trip was arranged at the hotel; the same as the trip in, which involves going to a desk on the ground floor of Suvanabhumi Airport where a desk clerk completes an official form before summoning a driver from a waiting queue.

This sketch was done in a scrap of about 20 minutes between arrival at the gate and boarding. The recently-built Suvanabhumi International Airport is a giant rectangle, along the sides of which one travels by moving footway. Along the way are giant public sculptures representing aspects of traditional Thai life. The inbound journey saw huge, vast sculptures all worthy of their own sketch. Here is a relatively small one, representing an old teak shrine. Its dimensions are exaggerated (10 metres tall?) and is of course plastic throughout, including the palm trees, but is very impressive given you only get a fleeting glimpse of any of them as you are whisked past. Your everyday Thai wouldn’t get to see these either. In the background (and in the next), I’ve included the cocoon-like undulations of the airport architecture.

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A4 Laloran 120g sketchbook; pencil.

Mimicking the airport lounge I started with, this boarding gate involved passengers queueing in front of glass walls crossed with bands. Behind was a very misty, polluted breaking dawn with a bright orange-red sun: all much too complex to capture at the critical junction of boarding. No sketching on the trip home; the plane was at capacity. Almost all of the time was spent chatting instead.

It became obvious to my during the trips there and back, as well as with conversations with SE Asian sketching colleagues, just how expensive and how far Australia is from the urban sketching hotspots of Singapore, Penang, Kuala Lumpur, Bandung, Taipei, Kuching and Bangkok. Someone visiting from Sydney is the equivalent of travelling from Tokyo or Jerusalem, whereas a trip to Bangkok for a Singaporean sketcher involves a short two-hour plane trip (expensive enough, as demonstrated by the number who caught trains from Malaysia). The furthest possible trip for SE Asian sketchers to Australia would be Darwin, a distant destination for most urban sketchers in the southern capital cities. One or two have had sketching holidays in Perth. I hadn’t realised that Bangkok was something of a popular holiday destination for Singaporeans and Malaysians: many had been before and some had been regularly – the sort of thing you’d organise for your wedding anniversary. They said Wat Arun had seen better days and I suppose that landmark would have seemed larger and more important fifteen years ago, compared to today, alongside so many shining, tall skyscrapers. The oldest wooden houses in Bangkok, and those dating from European influence (the Old Customs House by the river, being probably the best example) give a very clear indication of how ‘human’ the scale of the city was, compared to today.

I imagine in the years to come, urban sketchers in SE Asia will continue to rotate between their cities – Singapore, KL, Penang and Bangkok. Travelling into the past might involve Ayutthaya, Angkor Wat and Burma, but most will want the vibrancy of modern urban life. Land travel will have to be an option for many. Jakarta would be a ”hardship’ post; I don’t know how expensive Hong Kong is for them. Some might venture to Taipei and, China becomes increasingly significant as airline routes open up, but Osaka/Kyoto/Tokyo as well as Sydney are way too expensive and distant. And for the moment, I doubt anyone anywhere else can replicate the incredible hospitality, including food and drink, as offered by the Bangkok Sketchers, at least not without considerable cost.

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