Sketching as exorcism and catharthis – the first days of a political New Order

September 27, 2013

I’ve mentioned Life Drawing, a book by Robert Barrett, previously. In his final chapter devoted to sketchbooks, he lists five ways to use a sketchbook. The first two are a Record of Observation (an artefact, representative of a single moment in time/place),  and Practice (technique devoid of aesthetics).

This week’s sketches conform to both of these uses. I’m closely observing light and facial proportions and drawing the same subject from a variety of angles. This is not just idle activity.  I’m also conforming as closely as I can to Barrett’s advice about firstly establishing a contour ‘envelope’ around the subject (differentiating the form from its ground) and then developing proportional landmarks and proceeding to facial detail. I’m not yet exploring Barrett’s use relating to imagination and interpretation – I’m “sticking to reality” for the moment. Barrett’s approach is at odds with Charles Reid’s; Reid starts with the head then measures away using plumbline marks, while at the same time developing a feel of the whole through his slow contour between all sides of the page.

There’s a psychological dimension to this technical methodology and it relates to subject matter. It’s accepted practice that we draw a portrait of someone we like and with whom we identify, presumably based on the idea that the artist works as an important intermediary between the human subject and viewer. What we feel about the subject is somehow magically transmitted in the drawing or painting. Here, I’m coming from the opposite direction: what happens when we draw our enemies? How prone do we become to caricature, to exaggeration, to parody, altering reality to convey the negative? Can we remain “objective”?

Is there any benefit in observing our enemies closely and drawing them? Is there an element of catharsis, of confronting what one hates and then transcending that emotion. Is there psychological value in having “objectified” the subject and then, as the self-help jargon goes, “move on”?

I’ve drawn in hospital emergency rooms to ‘ease the pain’, to project my fears and high emotions to the ‘externality’ of lines on paper. I’m not advocating a voodoo approach where we stick metaphorical pins into an image, but I have to acknowledge the superstition and magic and super-naturality surrounding things like ‘pointing the bone’ in Australian indigenous culture and photography adversely affecting the ‘soul’ of those photographed.

This week is the twelfth anniversary of 9/11 in New York. Notwithstanding the incident pales objectively into insignificance beside similar incidents in the Middle East and elsewhere, I have to acknowledge that subjectively I had to stay glued to my television set at the time in order to ‘make sense’ of the event.  In a very similar way, I’ve been glued to my television set and internet sources (The Guardian Australia and The Conversation) in order to ‘make sense’ of last weekend’s Australian Federal elections. Part of my ‘therapy’ has been to draw the new, 28th Prime Minister, leading just the seventh change of government in Australia since World War II. He’s unique in being the most unpopular Opposition leader in Australia’s political history to become, somehow, Prime Minister.

I’ve long been exposed to political cartoonist’s versions of Tony Abbott’s face, so I’m acutely aware of how his actual features can and have been exaggerated. I’ve also seen his face on television almost daily for the last four years and I marvel at how professional photographers are able to disguise certain features such as his broken nose. I thought I’d stick to his actual features initially, resisting as much as possible any caricature. I’ve been sorely tempted to make allusions to classical Roman and Greek busts if only because it’s about a man in power. Certainly Robert Barrett has excellent examples of drawing from the Antique and from casts, especially on toned paper.

tony abbott day 1

A4, graphite pencil B

Day 1 of his thousand-day reign (I can’t imagine he will endure beyond a single term) and I’m surprised by how Australian feminists have made a last-minute volte-face and now support him. I constantly attribute wisdom to feminists, but I keep being deeply disappointed. After forty years of naive idealism, you’d think I’d get around to learning from experience.

I’ve been careful to note horizontal and vertical plumb lines: what’s on the horizontal between the tops of the ears; what’s on the vertical between eyeball and extremities of lips (it’s very easy to exaggerate the width of the mouth).

tony abbott

A4, graphite pencil B.

Day 2 and I’m wondering how I can survive the Abbot years. I have vivid memories of similar situations in years past: living through the Fraser years (politics disappeared like a stone from public gaze) and through the Howard years (feeling shame, on an almost daily basis, at being an Australian citizen).

I am suddenly aware of advice given by Charles Reid in his book on watercolor figure drawing: watch your ingrained habits! One of my ingrained habits is that I tend to elongate the subject vertically: Tony’s head is simply not as “long” as I’ve drawn it. To correct my private headspace, I reduced this to a standard schematic of proportions. The resulting form is much more “box-like” than my sketch and I hope this rubs off in future sketches.

tony abbott schematic

A4, graphite pencil on tracing paper.

Day 3. Australia’s neighbours are getting concerned about the new government. The new Prime Minister believes in the natural supremacy of the “Anglosphere”. Like his Liberal Party/Country Party predecessors, going back to at least Gorton in the early 1970s, he’s fundamentally anti-Asian. I’ve said sorry today on Facebook to all my Asian friends and colleagues because the negative impact of Australia’s actions on them will be significant.

I’m enormously curious about how the official painter of Prime Ministers will go about painting Tony Abbott. In applying classical proportions to this photo, I realise that there are slight differences in the measurements which I attribute to the horizon line of the photographer being at around the level of the sternum.

tony abbott FRAMED

An important aspect of today’s “research” is the inclusion of a frame. I like to think I’ve well and truly moved past Object Drawing and its limitations, i.e. drawing an object in the exact centre of a page, encircled by lots of white space. Though I sometimes forget myself in the heat of the moment and fall back on old habits. The best way to overcome this is to make the subject more like a traditional painting or photograph and work within a proscribed frame. I notice the proportions are height at double the width, in both instances.

The reference photographs are very big on tonal values, but I’m more concerned for the moment about measurement and proportion, deploying Barrett’s idea of the ‘envelope’ and proportional landmarks within. As a potential portraitist, I can’t ignore my subject’s hands, so I’m promising to myself to do more on that front.

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