Today I took to looking at how Albrecht Durer renders deep pictorial space in his woodcuts. In his earliest work (e.g. in the work of the late 1480s/early 1490s), Durer makes no distinction between the ground plane, mid-ground and background. There’s just one undifferentiated line used throughout the whole woodcut.

After spending time in Italy, learning about perspective and coming under the influence of Mantegna, Durer starts around 1500 to create a sense of depth. He distinguishes clearly between the foreground, often dark with both of lot of detail as well as thick hatching, diminishing to fewer lines in the mid-ground to long, continuous single lines for any subject matter in the background. Obviously the black-and-white medium mitigates against any use of color perspective, relying instead on strength of line and strength of tone.
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Here’s a late woodcut from 1513 which features landscape alone. It’s unusual among Durer woodcuts because it is “pure” landscape, without any humans or animals. It accompanies a Madonna in a Circle. I’ve emphasized the rendering of deep pictorial space by using color: three shades of Stabilo 18 point 88 Fineliner pens, a black, a grey and a light grey. The black and grey are difficult to differentiate, but then the ground plane quickly merges into a middle-ground of sorts. It will be interesting to go on location sketching in future with just these three pens to sketch landscapes in black-and-white.

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In doing a partial or limited transfer from the squared up woodcut, Durer’s skill in dealing with the strong diagonal of the composition was immediately obvious. More subtle is his use of locating key features or landscape ‘landmarks’ at strategic positions matching the Golden Section.

Durer has been careful too to leave the strongest dark against the lightest light in the foreground lower-left, with a pattern of ‘open’ light areas in both the mid- and background, all at the same horizontal level.

Imitating this strength of compositional structure when sketching plein air would be quite difficult. It does show that however artless or casual these woodcut landscapes may appear to be, they are nevertheless very highly structured, composed and engineered.

Day 5 involved a train trip to Katoomba and a long walk down to Echo Point past the 1920s hotels and guest houses to look south-east to take in the Three Sisters and to look west to take in the cliff face. It was impossible not to take in the tourists milling around and I needed any excuse at this point to include the figurative. Gone is the precarious chicken-wire barrier fence of old; the viewing platform now is an immense concrete area, with line upon line of buses disgorging hundreds of Chinese tourists.

The walk back to town took in the Blue Mountains Cultural Centre. I was surprised to see the Blue Mountains Art Gallery charging admission. The view south from the cultural centre is very impressive and I would have stayed longer if it was not a designated non-smoking area. What’s particularly lovely about the view is the receding lines of mountains in successively lighter shades of blue.  In a need to “anchor” the panorama, I had to include the extensive white roof of the supermarket below it.

Day 6 involved botanical specimens, in an effort to keep the variety of sketching content throughout the sketchbook as wide as possible. The only weakness is the lack of the figurative, which could have been included had I taken in the Festival location, the Lindsay museum at Faulconbridge, with its female nude sculptures in the garden.

I regret the use of Derwent graphite pencils producing grey linework. The grey suggests weakness and lack of confidence, so I need to upgrade to some sort of very dark, black pencils. In hindsight, the use of coloured pencil is regrettable since coloured pencils convey but one emotion: superficiality. For a sketchbook destined to be included in a public exhibition, one needs gravitas, not superficiality. I thought, though, at the time, that the sketchbook needed a positive, optimistic high note, best conveyed with colour.

This brought the sketchbook to a total of 16 pages, worked on both sides of the paper.

The sketchbook exhibition

The exhibition included work from everyone who participated; I lost track of them after about sixty or so. The vast majority created sketchbooks with massively cockled pages. Only a very select few (including the winners) worked in dry media only and only on one side of the paper. None sketched on more than 8 or 9 single pages.

What conclusions did I come to about the winners and other participants? Colour is a no-no. So is wet media. The wettest media producing any effective results was a marker pen. No sketchbook project or competition I know of has paper stronger than 90gsm. To realistically expect decent wet media, the minimum has got to be 200gsm. Only one or two featured very highly detailed pencil drawings. I noticed an unfortunate trend (in more than one sketchbook) of inserting whites over pencil or charcoal with liquid paper or white paint; the horror of this is the texture is so jarring.

Obviously the focus is on landscape, though some featured a lot of figure drawing, based either on people in cafes or the Lindsay garden sculptures. The focus too is on commercial art – sketches which can be reproduced for advertising and promotion purposes. All up, it’s patently obvious that there are only two imperatives in sketching/drawing: Perspective and Anatomy. If either of these is not 110% correct, then all one ends up with is feeble sketching. This is personally encouraging for me, because I’m well down both those tracks. I just need to persist with them. Only one or two sketches were worked as double spreads; the key thing here was that the ugly metal spine needed to blend into the sketch. And one involving complex penwork managed to disguise the spine.

The two biggest weaknesses in my sketchbook were the lack of correct perspective and insubstantial figurative work. Pontoons and fence posts at Wentworth Falls Lake, the soaring architecture of the Lithgow Blast Furnace all had to be immaculate in terms of perspective. I was surprised (but not surprised also) to see so many sketchers rush to sketch other art at the Lindsay museum. Admittedly, the museum is probably the second-biggest tourist attraction on the Mountains after the Three Sisters, but I thought better (for some reason) to not include the art-referencing-art of figurative sculpture.

What I certainly need to do next time is make all my images larger on the page, with only an inch or so as a white border. This has implications, of course, for the size of the marks on the page. Because sketchbooks are to be read as books, at very close range, no mark on any page can afford to be gratuitous. Every mark has to count!

It’s also incredibly important not to disturb the viewer by jumping from long-distance views to close-ups, from Claudian landscapes to botanica. From the winners, it’s obvious that one must maintain more or less the same distance from the subject throughout the whole sketchbook.

It’s pointless to create more sketches than the minimum: one per page, nothing on the reverse. It was interesting to leaf through the sketchbooks and find the weak sketch which should have been removed – and with 11 pages it was always possible to tear out the weakest. Unlike an exhibition of paintings, where all are of similar quality, it’s inevitable in any sketchbook to come across “dud” sketches.

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In 1891, the painter Arthur Streeton travelled up to the Blue Mountains outside Sydney and painted “Fire’s on, Lapstone tunnel”. Lapstone is one of the small villages relatively close to the Cumberland Valley and the Nepean River before the altitude rises substantially to the Blue Mountains proper. He recorded the blasting of the rock to form the tunnel and his painting, apart from the dramatically thin rectangle of its format, is interesting in terms of its being split, literally down the middle, between the untouched natural environment (left half) and an environment savaged by humans (right half). His painting is about progress and development radically changing the natural environment and the theme resonates with us today in an age of climate change.

With the Lapstone painting in mind, I wanted to revert to the Built Environment after spending time depicting the natural environment. One of the biggest changes going on currently in the Blue Mountains is the widening of the Great Western Highway, the once-thin and tenuous road created exactly one hundred years ago across the mountains to the great plains to the west of New South Wales. The highway is affecting the properties on either side of the formerly thin road; the roadworks are slow and disruptive since its the main road west out of Sydney and Parramatta. I thought it too good an opportunity, especially during the centenary of the opening up by white colonialists of the Mountains, to not include the roadworks in my sketchbook.

The most interesting vantage points are the pedestrian walkways across the highway (and over the roadworks) at Woodford and Hazelbrook. The background vegetation viewed at Hazelbrook is far more prominent in my sketch than in reality; the trees seem to be fighting for their lives.

draw on the mountain p8The second sketch of the day was the early 20th-century hotel, flanked by the former Bocci’s Hardware, at Lawson. The best vantage point for me was from the railway station platform opposite.

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 Page 4. A4 Draw on the Mountain sketchbook, 90gsm. graphite pencil H.

Blast Furnace Park, Lithgow. Only in Australia could one find an archaeological site devoted to a factory built in 1907; it speaks volumes about the relationship Australians have with their past. Lithgow is a small country town west of the Blue Mountains and east of Bathurst, the first inland city; it is primarily a mining town built on coal and iron, so its chief tourist attraction these days is the remains of a blast furnace. I visited the town on a Sunday when  there was hardly any sign of human activity, save the sound of singing at the local Anglican church.

I forgot my Albertian veil and made the fatal mistake of starting to sketch in medias res. I lost my head,  attracted by the striking shadows on the building facade. I had the misfortune too of choosing a very high vantage point with a biting westerly wind. It’s obvious that even though it’s a very warm early summer, nothing “heats up” till after midday. At the railway station, there are signs warning about slipping on ice and snow.

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 Page 3. Thumbnails.

Stopping around midday, I acquiesced to moving around to find different viewpoints. I could have spent all day trying to find the “perfect” vantage point. I wanted a looser interpretation and something different in scale to the sketch on the other side of the double-page spread. I was so tired and affected by the fierce wind, I lost it with the perspective, but was careful not to work below the gaping arch.

I am extremely unhappy at this stage with the huge physical and psychological effort involved in getting down just a small amount of sketches. I am constantly balancing the ‘original’ and ‘innovative’ (stated criteria of the sketchbook challenge) with the somewhat tawdry character of the mundane. Trying to find aesthetic nuggets in the Blue Mountains and Lithgow was always going to be a struggle! Life on the mountains has always been far from easy and so everything about them is chiuso in se stesso. Twelve kilometres of walking yesterday resulted in just two pages and having crawled all over Lithgow, including sussing out Eskbank Museum and the Lithgow Court House, only another two single pages today.

The sketchbook has 22 pages or 11 double-page spreads. At six days of sketching, that’s at least two double-page spreads a day. The criteria are obviously about creating interesting Scenic Views or Tourist Views, very similar to the imperatives governing the early work of English watercolorists J.M.W. Turner and Thomas Girtin. Their market was manufacturing interesting scenic views for their clients. The iconography these artists created was instrumental to tourists and fellow artists who came to ‘view’ the scenes from the same vantage points. Similarly today, we have a conditioned “image” of that symbol of the Blue Mountains, the Three Sisters, given that we (almost entirely) see them from the Echo Point lookout.

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Page 1. Draw on the Mountain sketchbook, A4, 90gsm. Wild Valley, Wentworth Falls NSW.

The wet media cockled the paper badly, so I’ve decided to only work with dry media for the rest of the drawing festival. I will need to knock back the sky with some diluted gouache. This was done over an hour between 10 and 11am on a bright, sunny morning; the light and colors of the distant national park forest changed wildly; I can normally adjust to changes of tone, but the wild shifts in color were a surprise.

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I lacked colored pencils on-site and would have loved to have reinforced the reflections in the water lower left. The indistinct lower left burnt-out log completes a very shaky start.

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Page 2. Wentworth Falls Lake, Wentworth Falls NSW.

This substantial lake is known as a “hanging swamp” since it results from water originating from between layers of shale. The inspiration came from the contrast of native eucalypt trees with evergreen pine trees, a common occurrence on the Blue Mountains. No known olive green colored pencils come close to the natural colors of these eucalypt trees. The weir embankment at right is problematic. The  water reflections changed wildly in the hour I spent sketching so I settled on one particular design from several. One of the nicest reflection patterns involved chocolate brown and bright sky blue (left) changing to chocolate brown and silver (right). The saving grace of this sketch was the repetition of dark triangles. The park was buzzing with people: a bicycle festival and large families enjoying outdoor birthday parties.

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I was exhausted by having had to walk everywhere, given that for me Draw on the Mountain equates to Walk on the Mountain. Walking at least provides a pace suitable for close examination of flowers, stones and the oft-repeating motifs on the mountain of electricity boxes and reservoir tanks. The ornamental cherry blossoms and wisteria are already in flower here, months ahead of the Cherry Blossom Festival in Cowra and the fuji wisteria on display at the Gosford Japanese Garden on the coast; I associate cherry with October and wisteria with November.

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A Blue Mountains art shop/eco retreat, Wild Valley Art Park, with the assistance of some prominent artists who live locally, is organizing a local drawing festival in September. I’ll be participating in the self-guided drawing trail event from Springwood to Lithgow. I’ve registered and will receive a Draw on the Mountain sketchbook which I’ll fill up over the ten days of the event. I won’t be attending any of the fine-looking workshops being given by the local artists, all of whom are big names in the art scene.

It will be a good opportunity to sketch the Australian bushland near Sydney but to maintain visual interest will inevitably be a mix of Buildings, Streetscape and People that I associate normally with Urban Sketching as well as landscape and botanica. The Blue Mountains is urban, suburban and rural, all rolled up into one, since it’s close to urban Sydney and Parramatta but also sufficiently removed to be a collection of small villages, now technically suburbs of Sydney, surrounded by National Park.

I had the opportunity to commute by train on a daily basis to the mountains for a week earlier this year and for this event will repeat that dynamic: a nearly three-hour train trip up the Mountains, some sketching and then a three-hour train trip back home.

On the mountains, I hope to practise sketching a variety of trees, since at least some of the drawing festival locations include or are adjacent to national park eucalyptus forests. Sketching, drawing and painting the Australian bush is a tricky thing, not lease since most of art books don’t feature advice on sketching Australian trees in particular. The built environment is changing rapidly given that the villages which for a hundred years or more have been one-horse towns along a thin winding road but are being radically altered both by suburban housing subdivisions and suburban high streets now being swallowed by by a widening of the road to become a modern expressway.

While I hope to venture into the more interesting landscape locations, I’ll be limited to public transport, so the pace will inevitably be ‘slower’ than if I was darting from one mountain lookout to the next by car.

There are some interesting subtexts going on. For example, Norman Lindsay lived on the mountains, combining the figure and landscape. It will be interesting to revisit those themes perhaps with a visit to his home, now a gallery featuring his work. He was an inveterate sketcher growing up and his early sketches have been an inspiration personally. The long-standing Kedumba Drawing Prize, held locally every year in November, is a focal point for Australian drawing and I’ve learned a lot from the drawings exhibited there. The Mountains are home to one of the world’s oldest trees, the Wollemi Pine and also to one of the few places close to Sydney to observe kangaroos in the wild. Some commentators have dubbed this the “first” drawing festival, though I would have considered the Drawing Marathons in Adelaide, established back in 1997 as the first of this kind.

I don’t want my sketchbook to be a visual journal in the strictest sense, with dates and written commentary (often done in very questionable calligraphy), but it will in part be structured around each of the ten days because of the nature of the travel involved. I’ll try not to limit myself to one particular medium. I’m mindful of one watercolor exhibition I attended recently where on display were expensive-looking, relatively unused leather-bound books, some of which only contained one or two very studied watercolor paintings – and these were all dubbed ‘artists’ sketchbooks’ in glass cabinets designed to flesh out the framed paintings on the wall.

I want it to be an exploration of the sketching medium, with color notes and personal observations of a technical nature. Unusually for me, it may include text annotations, mainly because of late I’ve been anticipating what questions people ask when they look through my sketchbooks, i.e. the narrative imposed by the viewer. And I can see some value in providing that information “in advance”.

I don’t want it to be a chocolate-box presentation of the best of the Blue Mountains’ tourist views or in the style of sketchbook illustrators like Cedric Emmanuel with one medium throughout, in his case, pen and ink. I’m highly resistant to epithets like “Charm School”. There’s nothing more deadly than being labelled “Charm School”!

I’ll probably be doing it alone because no-one I know would be prepared to commute and walk as I’m prepared to do. This is a long way from urban sketching by Sydney Harbour, but the bush landscape is an incredibly strong tradition in Australian visual art, impossible to ignore or reject simply because I live in the city.

Today’s is a “non-sketch”, so flimsy as to be of no significance at all. Ten minutes’ worth, while waiting for a train.

What is significance is its context. Travelling widely around Sydney this week, the ugly national mood sweeping through Australia at the moment, ahead of Federal elections on Saturday, is very very palpable.

I’ve seen this all before. Thoroughly anticipated, I’m used to it, though It’s just such a very bad feeling when it comes around again. I first experienced this Zeitgeist shift  first-hand in November 1975, when the USA quietly helped organize a coup to bring down the government here. The tide comes in and goes out; the social fabric is mended for a time, then rendered asunder again. A decade or so of benevolent dictatorship takes hold for a decade or so, but then we tire of the cruelty. Thus follows a few short years of democratic socialism (loosely based on Christianity, so Christian Democratic Socialism of a sort). It’s fun re-discovering our humanity again, but that palls after a time so we all swing back to Fascism. But, hey, that’s what being Australian is all about!

So I’m busy reorganizing my life in response: quickly ditching my charity work and volunteering, any activity that is free and unpaid. Everything must have a dollar value attached to it or it’s not worth doing; none of this namby-pamby Helping Others! Altruism and compassion are fast becoming dirty words, being replaced by self-centredness, mutual suspicion and merciless exploitation of others. Inflicting pain on others is something in our collective DNA, reaching back to our convict/penal colony past, and is again to the fore, but not being a naturally cruel person, the next ten years will be hard for me!

With art-as-refuge in mind, I’m momentarily bypassing reality with some Casuarina trees (Australian she-oaks), 10mins, 4B pencil, with today’s soundtrack, Sungha Jung’s cover of “Some Body that I used to know”(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x3uZAAjqDsc).

She-oaks never feature in the work of Australian painters, probably because they’re so non-descript and “lifeless” (but perhaps Sydney Long attempted to paint them?). Little wonder Australian artists stick to angophoras. If that great artist Lloyd Rees could spend the Great Depression drawing Moreton Bag figs around Sydney Harbour, then perhaps so should I!

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