QVB NSW 2000 (Part 2)
August 5, 2013
Milini 150gsm A4 sketchbook, 6×7.5″ sketch using a 4×5″ Albertian veil; indoors; 90mins
These days, I’m experimenting with linking my urban sketching to formal Western academic traditions. I believe that my time spent drawing the figure, the portrait and still life and stuffed animals, everything short of drawing from plaster casts, is helping me. The Australian Impressionists were only a whisper away from Gerome, after all. Reading Robert Hughes, “The Art of Australia”, I note that my drawing would be considered by him to belong to the “hard” tradition of drawing. He’d be quick to say that my sort of academic realism is not supported by much intelligence and lacks imagination. How an artist can convey a sense of his IQ and imagination in depicting landscape, especially topographical watercolor for instance, escapes me somewhat. When Hughes can describe in this way the work of Toowoomba-born watercolorist, Jesse Jewhurst Hilder, arguably the father of watercolor in Autralia, I wonder if he’s not simply looking down his nose at Hilder’s working class origins and his lack of a university education.
I’m very conscious of how contemporary Urban Sketching differs from some art movements in the past and maintains certain traditions as well. Most contemporary sketchers would agree with 19th-cenutry audiences about the “coldness” of gouache, for example. Following their approach, I’ve been producing single works based on single moments of time, a sort-of living in the moment. The idea of “living in the moment” is essentially Buddhist and, largely, each work is like a meditation session: it’s here now, then it’s gone. A meditation session, whether sitting meditation or walking meditation, will leave its effect on the mind and spirit; an urban sketch will be an artefact or a record of that moment, one in a long succession which make up a life.
The 19th-century English watercolorists believed that drawings and paintings had a direct influence on the morals of the viewer. A well-ordered composition produced virtuous behaviour in the viewer; a badly-composed sketch or drawing was morally dangerous. I assume these ideas have their origins in those of the Ancient Greeks; I’ve wrestled with their attitudes toward music in the past. These ideas about artistic composition as vehicles of morality have morphed into the morality of the picture’s content or subject matter; we’re very familiar in the West with the power of art to corrupt the viewer, given the strictures on body parts during the Renaissance, right through to entartete art under the Nazis, even to our own times with Bill Henson’s photographs and their condemnation by the nation’s Prime Minister. Similarly, artists who are strict Moslems will include no humans or animals in their art. I personally have no moral agenda in my own work, though it’s plainly neither Moslem (in its portrayal of living things) nor Judeo-Christian (drawing the human figure and face sets me apart) and even my strictly Buddhist friends would consider my sketching to be a waste of valuable time and energy.
I’m always conscious though of political agenda underpinning all Urban Sketching. I cannot sketch a Roman Catholic cathedral these days without being aware of the gathering storm over paedophilia, the various government enquiries at present, and the palpable end in sight of celibacy among priests. All urban sketchers these days are commenting on cities as being enclaves or ghettos for inhabitants escaping from larger issues concerning the human world and climate change; viewers of urban sketching in the future will certainly see our current work through this lens – the lens of plastic, pollution, petroleum, weather, climate, physical resources. They will view our efforts to depict the built environment with the natural world in radically different ways to which we regard it currently. Thus, along these lines, I’m very deliberate these days when I juxtapose trees against buildings. I’m certainly making a statement about the Built Environment and the Natural World. Similarly, some painters are following the lead of their predecessors such as Rembrandt and Signac by including the latest of technology: a windfarm in a painting now is as revolutionary as a windmill appearing in Rembrandt’s.
Our art is very often a consequence of our training. Arthur Streeton produced sublime Australian landscapes but unlike his Australian Impressionist colleagues couldn’t draw or paint people. Thomas Girtin produced sublime topographical watercolours but his human beings look odd. Not so, his colleague JMW Turner who, with his academic background of drawing from casts and the human figure, enlivened his landscapes with swathes of humans. The first painters of Australian city life – Tom Roberts and Fred McCubbin – included not only people but also animals. Witness Roberts’ Allegro con brio, The City’s toil and The old Sacramento, or McCubbins’ Melbourne Gaol and Old Stables. So some formal, academic training seems inevitable.
In terms of formal academic training, then, here’s a studio sketch based on a reference photo of the Queen Victoria Building. I’m wrestling with the building at left, in shadow, and closer to me than the QVB. I’ve deliberately minimised the amount of straight lines and only used them when absolutely necessary. I’ve knocked back the buildings behind the QVB, a lot further back than they appear in the photo and than they appear in real life. “Getting in my way” of course have been the street furniture verticals and I’ve essentially given up when it comes to the landscape beneath the large white awning on the building. In reality, this is a never-ending stream of buses and cars. Also troubling me is the rendering of the large ellipse (from this angle) of the copper dome (it looks too tentative). Also the tonal values of the largest copper dome. In real life, the grey of the tree is similar in tonality to the brown sandstone in shadow behind it.
Perhaps the most troubling compositional element of all is the entire lack of any ground plane – see the photo below. It’s so closely cropped it looks like a Japanese woodcut. Perhaps I’m fighting against myself about whether to go Portrait or Landscape. With all these issues, I’m going to stop and think about things before attempting anything more. At the very least, though, I am happy I seem to be making some progress with “direction-less” pencil line.
Hughes, Robert. The Art of Australia. Ringwood, Vic: Penguin, 1970.
Lane, Terence. Australian Impressionism. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 2007.
Smith, Greg. Girtin: Thomas Girtin, the art of watercolour. London: Tate Publishing.
Wilton, Andrew. Turner Abroad. London: British Museum, 1982.