Today’s post is a compilation of recent sketches, as they unfolded on my daily sketching uploads over at

Pseudocheirus peregrinus: Common Ringtail Possum (Pseudocheirus, Greek for “false hand” and peregrinus, Latin for “pilgrim”, “alien” – so basically a ‘Strange-Looking Animal with Odd Hands’). Not to be confused with the Brushtail Possum which invades attics and deprives homeowners of sleep, the Ringtail is the one that has reached plague proportions in New Zealand where it was introduced from its native Australia.

Why animals? Why this one? I’m sufficiently old-fashioned to believe that artists/sketchers should be competent in rendering in all the traditional genres: Landscape, Still Life, Animals. I know this sounds terribly 19th-century (Charles Bargue and all that), but I’m constantly surprised by the extent to which traditional artists “mixed” their genres. Turner landscapes are full of people, Holbein included lots of still-life objects in his work dominated by portraits, Leonardo was working landscape and drapery magic (even a live ermine) into his portraits. Yes, there are some like Morandi who only drew bottles but consider someone like Vermeer who, in his small output of less than 30 paintings, covered People, Interiors, Musical Instruments, Drapery and Still Life.

Mid-Winter is not an ideal time to be out doing location sketching, so museums are part of my indoor sketching regime. Sketching from paintings and sculpture in the Art Gallery of NSW has the whiff of subversion about it; I’m constantly under the glare of mildly-angry security guards. Art these days is not about skill or competency or the next generation of artists coming through, it’s all about Ideas. Art is the transmission of cerebral thinking, so patrons are being conditioned to Walk Around & Think, not to see the works as 2- or 3-dimensional physical objects and certainly not to be peering at them for long periods of time. That’s the gift to us of Post-modernism and it’s not going anywhere for the time being. Art students, after all, clutter up the rooms and pose a safety hazard. Given that some museums are already banning live sketching, I’m getting in now before blanket bans are instituted. Sketching in the Australian Museum is a little better; I feel reassured in the Search & Discover Room, designed as a Petting Zoo of Stuffed Animals for children because, by the entrance, they have an area set aside for Drawing Animals, an offshoot of Coloring In time at school.

Animals are things we can’t ignore. They are, however, very “loaded”. The film “Blade Runner”, looking into the future, depicted our relationships with animals with incredible foresight. Performing animals in circuses, vivisection, animal testing, zoos, companion animals, vegetarianism and eating some animals but not others, the carbon footprint of animals for food, live export trade, poaching and illegal hunting, biodiversity and species extinction, animals for medicine, species culling – the relationship between humans and animals is contestable in the real world and, as artists, we are implicated in all that. All art, all sketches, all drawings are deeply deeply political, whether we realise it or not and no matter how “innocent” our subject matter may appear to us and to others.

Drawing animals invariably means fur and it means understanding the skeleton under the muscle mass. I don’t have access to horses, probably the most common animal in art, but a one-year membership to the Australian Museum is allowing me to alternate between skeletons (Skeleton Room) and their taxidermied equivalents (Search & Discover). As you’d expect in any museum, the lighting is crap form a sketcher’s perspective (skeletons in near pitch dark and stuffed animals under fluoro lights) so I make do as best I can.

I’ve returned to last year’s drawing of a tiny possum (often 550-1100gm and 30-35cm long) done in those waxy coloured pencils that are halfway between pastels and coloured pencils.

ringtail possum sketch

The thing about the heads is that stuffed specimens are minus their ears because the cartilege doesn’t translate to being stuffed. This particular specimen is far from pristine; it was from roadkill at Alstonville, a north coast country town. So I have to imagine protruding ears…

ringtail possum 1

The body mass comes next and this is difficult because I have to imagine the muscles from the way the fur glints in the light. My biggest challenge is how to include the very long tail.

ringtail possum 002

I try moving the specimen into different positions – it sits on a desk in front of me. And I move to the Skeleton Room, transferring obvious parts of the anatomy (ribcage, spine, pelvis) from my understanding of human anatomy. The shoulder blades are extraordinarily delicate…

ringtail possumringtail possum neck vertebrae

Here I’m striking difficulty because the skull bears absolutely no relation at all to the stuffed specimen. Have I got the right animal, the right species? Internet research throws up a side view of skull in Museum Victoria, and at the same time I’m trying out Derivan’s Liquid Pencils. At this point too I discover possum skull replicas can be bought online, at $US70 each. Ah, no. I’m not that maniacal…..

ringtail possum skull

Now while the Search & Discover room at the museum has lots of stuffed specimens of Brushtails, I come across two more, quite small, Ringtails. I brought a tape measure with me to make sure I was getting the proportions roughly correct. An Australian postage stamp design shows the possum minus his tail.

ringtail possums

Drawing in the Skeleton Room is a tricky business. I am confused by an Opossum skeleton (apparently Opossums are American, not Australian, and the reason why Ringtails were called “foreign” was because the American animals were well known to European zoologists and when the Australian specimen turned up, it threw them into confusion. I read that a ringtail was taken back to England by James Cook when he discovered Australia, thus allowing the zoologists there to examine the critter in detail. Hence it’s naming in 1785.)

Here are two sketches of the skull: the top is when I’m able to stand as close as possible, nose pressed to the glass cabinet. When there are crowds coming to look at the Australian Animals, I have to stand to one side; hence, the sketch below drawn at an angle. I have to alternate between the two positions.

ringtail possums 2

ringtail possums 4

An important breakthrough! I’ve come across a still photo of a live Ringtail Possum in my local newspaper, so I can now get on with accurately drawing the snout and ears. What’s next? Having captured the mass of the animal with reasonable accuracy, there’s still heaps more to be done with details: claws and the strange-fingered paws in particular. Where’s all this heading? Nowhere in particular. It’s curiosity that’s driving me, the story behind the animal. Aesthetically, it’s linked to my looking at hares painted by Durer and Hoffmann, which in turn were thrown up by my looking at the history of watercolor.

Coming up, a month’s worth of work devoted to perspective in landscape drawing.


One of the first to use watercolor and bodycolor in Western art in an authoritative manner was Albrecht Durer. Here’s his 1502 hyper-realist “Young Hare”, where he’s been keen to run the eye towards the hare’s eyes with his use of white via the ears in particular:

durer young hare

Hans Hoffman copied the Durer, with his own twist, in 1528. he pursued the same visual path as Durer by concentrating on white.

Note that he honored his predecessor by quoting Durer’s monogram.

hans hoffmann hare 1528

Here’s a thumbnail of mine based on a stuffed specimen (in a rather bizarre stance) in the Australian Museum, Sydney:

australian museum rabbit


After yesterdays’ record summer temperatures (it was over 50 degrees Celsius inside my house), I thought I’d be feeling washed-out for this international SketchCrawl(TM) but managed better than expected. The Sydney Sketch Club Meetup event was at Sydney’s Royal Botanic Gardens and the Canova sculptures of “The Boxers” has been on my wishlist for a long time. In addition, I’m comparmentalizing things: Buildings on Urban Sketchers AUS events and People on Sketch Club meetups. The sculptures look excellent in full sunlight but that means sitting out in the sun. A couple of 30min thumbnails in my A5 Milini everyday sketchbook, working as large as I can, including context and working to the sides of the page, just as Charles Reid says: I’ve been closely reading his book on figurative watercolour this week. Charles Reid would frown at my use of so much contour of a tentative nature but today I’m adopting his technique rather than my usual foundation lines (especially George Bridgman’s initial eight lines for figures). Not unhappy with these; I got distracted directing fellow sketchers to the meetup venue and slightly misjudged the lower limbs of the one on the right: I notice I’m not at ease with proportions in back views but that’s due to lack of practice.


I really wanted to come home today with several views of Canova’s sculptures and wanted to work large: so here’s my A4 Milini sketchbook just for figure drawing. Here is the brutish Kreugas from the east, out of the way of two other sketchers drawing Damoxenes across the footpath. Originally both Boxers were installed a hundred years ago in the open air, with no trees at all around them; these days Kreugas scowls under a century-old Magnolia grandiflora and so there’s a mossy green patina. I understand these statues were last madeover and cleaned up a few decades ago. I’ve adopted Charles Reid’s basic contour, here in graphtie pencil 4B with bits where the contour is darkest (either from the dark background or from the sunlight). The big issue was what colours to use, since Reid mixes his red and yellow on the page to create a flesh pink, with a signature cerulean blue in the torso. I used a light green for the “mossy” bits and went for my cobalt blue in the darkest shades, working the brush slowly up the page, not down and working right to the ferrule of the brush. Reid spends a lot of time on the head and so have I today.


In deference to my sketching colleagues, I kept out of their sightlines, staying in the same location and capturing the ill-fated Damoxenes across the footpath. Slightly smaller because further away but I also notice that when I tire I draw smaller – here a 6″ figure on my A4 Milini 150g sketchbook which produces a scan showing the faintest line and doesn’t buckle with this small amount of water and paint. I went over the gutter with the hint of a sculpted lion in the distance, mimicking where I went over the gutter with Kreugas showing a tiny park bench (bottom right here). I have of course ruptured the narrative of the Canova originals: the boxers are here not facing each other. I was sorely tempted to draw more of the contextual architecture, piling on the buildings which inadvertently show a history of Sydney architecture: the 1920s Rose Garden pavilion, The Astor apartments behind (1930s, Sydney’s first high-rise apartment block), the AMP building (the first to exceed the 100-foot height limit in the 1960s) and the later squarish pagoda-type building in Alfred Street fronting East Circular Quay. Pleased with what I can get down in 30mins, boding well for long 20min poses at life drawing. With a bit of gumption, I can start including some on-the-spot watercolour at life drawing in this Charles Reid manner.


Still keeping out of the way of colleagues (who’d been working for over an hour on their oil sticks), I knew I had to tackle another difficult back view, here of Kreugas. This was mostly in shade and the sun was fading. You can tell I was getting tired from the size and lack of correct proportions. After 2.5 hours, I’d done all I could with these two blokes.


Here’s a photo I took in 2011 – it’s taken me all that time to get the confidence and technique to tackle them in a meaningful way. I got some very odd looks from passers-by today, presumably because a bloke drawing another bloke naked in public arouses suspicion, which threw me back to the rather strange narrative of The Boxers themselves. I assume they were installed a century ago to raise the tone of this very genteel Victorian-style Public Garden. Presumably fig-leaved men would not damage the morals of Sydney women, but I doubt anyone today recognizes the violent boxing match of the original in 400BC, when Kreugas (under the tree) killed Damoxenes (out in the open) using a very underhand tactic in a boxing match. Was this a controversial choice at the time they were installed, since most public sculpture is heavily criticised in Sydney?  Is this not all about the Hard Man destroying the Soft Man – the narrative of being a bloke in Sydney and certainly the story of my life (and I’ve wandered past these statues for over forty years)? Is this not emblematic of the power struggles in nearby Government House and Macquarie Street’s State Parliament? For me also, it’s telling Canberra has Rodin (the Calais burghers) and Sydney has Canova. Canova incidentally was a sketcher and I’m curious to find out more about gender in outdoor sketching, comparing Sydney with Singapore and Bangkok shortly.


I started wandering back to the meetup venue when I came upon “Summer”, a small sculpture with interesting drapery. Also there is a female model at next week’s life drawing. As it turned out, she’s lost the demure look of the original (notwithstanding the dangerous-looking scythe she’s bearing) and I’ve misjudged the shoulders and her legs look like a man’s. The drapery alone is worth returning for. Almost entirely in shade, surrounded by very black vegetation. I got distracted by a sketching colleague and added yellow instead of ochre to one of the legs. A5 everyday sketchbook, 150g Milini.


I have missed out on my regular visits to the Australian Museum down the road in recent weeks and so having lugged all my Prismacolor Coloured Pencils today with the aim of rendering fur in colour, it seemed a good idea to get out of the impending rain.  I wanted to include the eyes so worked big in my A5 everyday sketchbook, even if that meant not including the full length of the tails. The head on the one on the right is still too large; this one is roadkill from Alstonville NSW; the one on the right is backlit and I’ve included some cobalt blue in the torso in the Charles Reid style (which makes him look like he’s wearing a swimming costume). In any case, this was useful (graphite pencil then coloured pencils; pencil then watercolour then coloured pencils for the second go on the left) and I’m now ready to find out from the experts how to render animal fur.


This was the last sketch of the SketchCrawl(TM) day: a possum skeleton. The Skeleton Room was crowded on this weekend afternoon so it was impossible to hog the glass. My aim here is to try and re-do this adding fur and to re-do the stuffed specimens with their skeletons in mind. This transference between skeleton and body is important to me and I want to apply it to the elephant skeleton and the live ones at Taronga Zoo before they all get shipped off to Dubbo Zoo. Even animals as roly-poly as possums clearly show ridges on their fur indicating skeletal foundations, so it’s all worthwhile.


Lastly, a watercolour done in the 1950s by my father when he was a student at the (now) National Art School. He reckoned he studied under John Passmore (we visited the ANG in Canberra in the months prior to my father’s death and stopped by the John Passmore painting there) but I suspect he knew Passmore or knew of him a few years earlier when Passmore was working as a layout artist in Lintas, a connection in the then burgeoning advertising industry in Sydney. My father never took up watercolor after this; he always had the belief that art-making had to be 100% original. I believe he came away from the NAS experience with a lack of patience; he spoke very harshly and disparagingly about student colleagues turning up to class, rather pathetically in his eyes, with a banana in a briefcase in order to spend a night trying to paint it, like this one, on (mere) cardboard. Anything artwork resembling that of another artist was “useless”. In aspiring to be 100% Original, he ended up making no art at all.

I rescued this and a few other of his watercolours on the way to the rubbish dump after he died, no-one in the family seeing any value at all in his art.  I have spent the week working on Charles Reid’s book on figurative watercolour. My father owned a copy of the same book, but never did any – he simply admired the limpid, open, watery style. Certainly if my father saw my work today, he would dismiss it as derivative and he would certainly cringe at my working on the male nude. It’s interesting how problems and solutions in art and art-making work themselves out from one generation to the next. Certainly in my last years, I am preoccupied with art as he, my father, was preoccupied with the ins-and-outs of classical guitar in his.

A good day today, auguring well for Bangkok: six pages of A4 and four in the A5!


Charles Reid, The Natural Way to Paint: rendering the figure in watercolor simply and beautifully. New York: Watson-Guptill, 1994.

Australian Museum, Sydney.

Some of the mark making is becoming a bit slick, so need to up the ante and move to colour. Logistically, there is the challenge of working standing up and in darkened rooms!

I’ve moved from kangaroos to the skeleton of the bettong (a rat kangaroo) and the smaller wallabies (no more than two foot high). The stuffed possums cling to their branches but by rights I ought to have started with their skeletons in the Skeleton Room. For them, the freedom required by the hand – especially with the rounded curves of the Possums – really demands an A4 sketchbook rather than this 5×8″.

While Andras Szunyoghy’s book, “Anatomy Drawing School: Human, Animal, Comparative Anatomy” (Konemann, 1996) tells me all I need to know about Horses, I’m ‘on my own’ when it comes to Australian animals.

Next visit, some colour notes!

The Green Turtle in the Skeleton Room of Sydney’s Australian Museum is particularly impressive. The shells, upstairs in the Discovery touchy-feely room  are miniatures by comparison.

Australian Museum 1 of 26

October 15, 2012

The first of 26 scheduled trips to the Australian Museum, once a fortnight for twelve months, to get some fluency going with Animals.

The light is so low in the Skeleton Room I feel like I’m drawing blind contour in the dark. Got the proportions wrong, but will return! Need to ‘prep’ this some more and get the proportions right from photos, especially comparing the clavicle/shoulder blades/vertebrae to humans and where bony bits show on the kangaroo’s face. Next stop, kangaroos at Taronga Park Zoo!


Noticed efforts to save newly-hatched turtles on islands in the Great Barrier Reef (and how turtles swim) so took a shine to these two ‘stuffed’ animals in the Search & Discover Room.  The Hawksbill was remarkably small; the brown shading of the shell dizzying. I was intriged by the four ‘stilts’ holding the upper and lower shells and this is a prelude to the Turtle skeleton in the Skeleton Room where I’ll be able to draw it front-on. Should complement these outings to visits to Sydney Unversity’s Macleay Museum.

5B pencil on slippery A3 Bond paper.

Sunset, Prince Alfred Park, Sydney NSW 2012. Fierce northerly winds, so just a handful of dog owners and animals off-leash. The dogs tired of running around in the wind all of a sudden and settled down with the humans for protection from the cold. The humans were as twitchy as the animals; I kidded myself that some gestural drawing would be useful as a warm-up to some Life Drawing indoors.