Working on Perspective: Sydney Harbour #1

November 16, 2013

circular quay 3

For some months now I’ve been concentrating on traditional landscape, that mainstay of Australian art, looking at better managing compositional structure, asserting the ground plane and deepening pictorial space. Consistent use of an Albertian veil, not just for sizing up the potential for a composition, but for actual measurement of objects  has also helped: not only to “shut out” extraneous detail, but also “edit” an endless 180-degree view into something transferable to paper. Everything we sketch or draw or paint is in a frame, whether stated or not – whether it be a standard gold frame, or a mattboard, or simply the edge of turned-over canvas, or within a drawn frame in a sketchbook, or in an absent or assumed frame, whether it sits on a single page, or moves across the gutter to form part, or even the whole of, a double-page spread.

Now that the Draw on the Mountain sketchbook competition is finished, and armed with the knowledge that my two biggest weaknesses are The Figure and Perspective, I signed up for two city-based sketch group events recently.

The first was a Sydney Sketch Club meetup at the observation lookout on the Cahill Expressway above Circular Quay, with views of the Sydney Opera House to the east and the Sydney Harbour Bridge to the left. I found this by accident one day when I took the lift up to the expressway from Circular Quay. At the time, I stopped at the lift, drawing the views north along Circular Quay East and west along the expressway.

In anticipation of the event, I sussed out the observation lookout and did this view of the opera house, partly obscured by 1 Macquarie Street, pejoratively called “The Toaster” because of its steel-and-glass facade. It’s a long-standing tradition among Sydneysiders to give their public buildings and public sculptures off-color monikers: the Opera House has become “the scrum of nuns” or “dishes-in-a-drying-rack” (after a print by an artist whose name I can’t recall); the Harbour Bridge is referred to as “The Coathanger”, and so it goes on.

A4 Milini 150gsm sketchbook, graphite pencil H. The thing about this view is the time of day: in the morning, the sails are grey and in shade; they become white only in the afternoon. Of interest to me here, and not conveyed well in the sketch, is the palm trees and historic 1920s building just at the level of the safety handrail. They are worth getting right next time because of the injection of color they provide.The vantage point  – comfortable public seating under an awning – poses challenges composition-wise since the metal and stone railing sits quite close to the horizon-line/eye-line.

I notice an increasing trend among sketchers to use the word “sketch” to refer to a light quarter-hour thumbnail done on location prior to a hefty three or four hours’ reworking in the studio. It seems to me to be a little bit disingenuous to pass off a studio drawing or painting as a mere on-location ‘sketch’ in this way. So these days I dig deep and work out a sketchers’ processes in order to make a realistic assessment of their results. It can be as misleading as the annoying habit among Americans to refer to anything musical as a “song”, everything from a folk song to a symphonic movement, even an opera. I’m finding myself operating to a personal hierarchy: a note-to-self/squiggle/doodle takes less than 15mins; a thumbnail takes less than 20mins; a sketch lasts for 60-90mins, even an hour. Drawings are sketches redrawn from scratch at home. Sometimes paint is added to a sketch, but I try to retain the freshness and looseness of the original wherever possible. If I want to correct it, with the potential for “stiffening” it, I will add a tracing paper overlay to the sketch or redo it on an individual sheet separate from a sketchbook. Or sometimes with the sketch for comparison purposes.

Come the early evening of the meetup event, I arrived early to do a 60min sketch standing up of the area between the Opera House and the Bridge. I was curious to see if it could fit within two connecting areas of my 4×5″ Albertian veil. It subconsciously imitates the view as painted by Margaret Olley not long before she died recently. Criticized as “too postcardy”, her painting was a testament to Olley’s love of the city. The two architectural “icons” are of course over-exposed by government tourist organisations, but are not unworthy of sketching. The observation lookout has plenty of public seating, shaded and not in the way of tourists. However, the only way of combining both the Opera House and the Bridge is by standing, hence the scrappy look of this sketch.

The event coincided with the anniversary of my burying my father some years back, so the mood was somewhat somber. A quote from Ian Rankin’s introduction to Graham Greene’s A Confidential Agent: “The landscape painters of the seventeenth century were not interested in the direct representation of nature, which to them was no more than the occasion for a formal decoration. They constructed a scene architecturally, balancing for example the mass of a tree with the mass of a cloud, and used light and shade to make a definite pattern. Their intention was not to portray a landscape but to create a work of art. It was a deliberate composition. In their arrangement of the facts of nature they were satisfied if they did not outrage the spectator’s sense of reality. It was left for the Impressionists to paint what they saw. They tried to catch nature in its fleeting beauty; they were content to render the radiance of sunlight, the color of shadows or the translucency of the air. They aimed at truth. They wanted a painter to be no more than an eye and a hand. They despised intelligence. It is strange how empty their paintings look now when you place them beside the stately pictures of Claude.”

I am looking at urban landscape these days via Claude rather than via the Impressionists, i.e. formal decoration (hence an interest in the Albertian veil and compositional structure), rather than Truth.

circular quay panoramacircular quay 4 A final sketch of the Harbour bridge, which quickly descended into tone because it was by now early evening. Not conveyed properly here is the wonderful sweep of the roadway at the northern end (right), exquisitely rendered by 1920s Australian painter Grace Cossington Smith in her paintings of the Bridge, completed in March 1932. The evening shadow it casts is truly glorious.

I am determined to try and rectify some of the issues associated with sketching the Harbour Bridge.

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