It’s necessary with this medium to work from light to dark and to keep the areas distinct from each other. It’s quite tricky to keep Chinese White away from Ivory Black – otherwise, an oily grey (see lower left cheek) arises. The head is still too elongated and can be generally more rounded. There will always be a certain roughness, arising from the texture of the paper, and too-strong tonal contrast arising from just a single black and a single white, but otherwise it’s good practice in getting to know the strengths and weaknesses of materials.

By the end of this week’s Yawning Babies, facial anatomy ought to have improved somewhat.

Pencil on toned paper – Derwent Drawing pencils on Strathmore Toned Gray paper.


After preliminary sketching on the first day (all were discarded) and settling on a cartoon by lunchtime on Day 2, came the transfer to 16×20″ canvas panel on the afternoon of Day 2 and working on mid-tone flesh colours in the succeeding days. By rights I ought to have kept drawing till I was 100% happy, perhaps even until the end of Day 4, with some risky alla prima painting on the final day.

I tried to leave intact as much of the Raw Umber imprimatura as possible and fiercely resisting tackling any of the lights. The paint is applied in the early Flemish style, with no use of mediums or solvents or turpentine at any time – just ‘glazes’ of unadulterated thin paint, applied leaving no brushstrokes and with the canvas texture intact.

Because of my lack of interest this week in pursuing furniture, soft furnishings and context, the painting remains largely monochromatic. I watched my colleagues apply colour to the dark olive green drape behind the model and the bright blue sheet the model was draped on, but the colours were so garish I decided not to go down that path.

Working with the less-than-competent drawing and cartoon caused endless frustration. With that frustration leading to ‘tunnel vision’, my best option was to short-circuit everything and work up a portrait on a separate A3 canvas panel so I could approximate some of the larger paint areas adopted by my colleagues.

At each point, I had to say to myself, “This is as good as I can do at this time,” and move to the next process.

I tried to transfer all of the good qualities of the larger, A3 portrait to the smaller face on the figure without success. After scraping back three times, I abandoned the face – my hog bristle flats were simply too big for the job.

I was able to construct a grid of paints on the palette (Ivory Black, Van Dyck Brown, Burnt Sienna, Yellow Ochre, Titanium White) from which to construct my own mid-tone flesh colours, given the moreno complexion of the South American model.

Of utmost important were the unity of the flesh across the figure and maintaining the integrity of the tonal values. On the morning of Day 4, I had to stop “painting” and make some drastic alterations through the act of “re-drawing”. It wasn’t enough to fix the underlying errors in the cartoon but helped significantly. The ‘re-drawing’ decisions were made two metres back from the easel. It’s worth mentioning that I wasn’t able to see the whole model at any one time because of the closeness of the other easels which may have contributed to disparity in the legs.

On the last day I paid attention to edges, aiming for just one sharp edge and “losing” all the others. My paint surface wasn’t as ‘creamy’ as that of my colleagues (they retained a graphic quality from separating the tones much more clearly than I did) but I was able to make the paint thicker and more opaque as required on the lights, leaving the darks as warm as possible with the Van Dyck Brown and as thin as possible.

The photos were taken every four hours and I’ve duplicated the sequence in more detail at http://rwb-art.tumblr.com



Day 2, late afternoon









Day 3, late morning










Day 3, late afternoon








Exif_JPEG_PICTURE Day 4, late morning








Exif_JPEG_PICTUREDay 4, late afternoon




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.

At the last class, our teacher threw Portraits and The Figure into the mix, while also reinforcing Buildings in his demonstrations. Privately, I’m still struggling with brushstrokes and paint consistency, but the worst seems to be over. A lot of my initial anguish has subsided and convinced I know intellectually what’s required, I’m resigned to simply do dozens and hundreds of watercolor sketches putting into practice what I’m learning. It’s not as simple as just “drawing with the paintbrush”.

Here’s a couple of different strands I’m working with – Portraiture, Buildings and Boats/Water/Reflections.

Watercolor Portraiture

First up, work on a portrait of a famous Aboriginal creative who died a fortnight ago. I can’t reproduce my several watercolor portraits of him publicly because of cultural protocols surrounding the imagery of recently deceased Aborigines, but I can post the background of the portrait which attracted me. It involved something my watercolor teacher never does, wet-in-wet. I found it interesting that wet-in-wet effects are not just a figment of the watercolorist’s imagination but do exist in real life, as here, in the smoke haze of a rock concert.

treaty now color


tony b handout copy step 4

Having come to the realization that I understand intellectually what my watercolor teacher is on about and that I just now need to reproduce dozens if not hundreds of the same sketch to get it right, I’ve taken one of his four-step class handouts and reproduced it. First one down, 99 more to go!  I’ve been careful to have a scrap of paper beside me marked off with 1″ squares so I can record what paint I use progressively (not so much the color but the paint consistency). Except for the blob on the tower , I give myself a mark of 7 or 8 out of 10. I’m most pleased with Steps 1 (drawing) and 2 (background wash without any paint marks); I’m understanding the ‘coloring in’ of basic shaded areas (though a bit more differentiation/gradation, please) for Step 3 and even the detail with dry paint (Step 4) is on the increase.

eilean donan castle pencil eilean donan castle paynes gray eilean donan castle watercolor

The following day, I moved from an imaginary landscape to a real one, in this case, Eilean Donan castle in Scotland. I’ve chosen it because it’s universally photographed with dramatic lighting, and has the requisite towers and rooftops my teacher prefers. I started with a tonal sketch on A4 Milini 150g sketchbook, with far more detail than I could possibly translate to watercolor. I notice a Montreal watercolorist I’m keen on seems to do a tonal sketch first as well. A fortnight ago, I tried doing both simultaneously on either side of a sketchbook double-spread and this is definitely the ‘trick’ I’ll be working with from now on for location watercolor sketching; it allows the watercolor paint to dry while I indulge in my favourite pencil sketching.

On a piece of A4 Canson watercolor 300gsm paper, folded in half, I did a watercolor sketch in monochrome Payne’s Gray, then another in color. My watercolor teacher tends not to confuse things by using a backdrop of hills or mountains in his demonstrations. In hindsight, I could have got away with a direct translation of my tonal sketch to watercolor using a Payne’s Gray wash JUST for the areas in shadow. My complicating matters with wet-in-wet (I need to stop ‘going back in’, especially with a brush loaded with water!) was interesting but inadvisable. Not too unhappy with this, though my Montreal watercolorist would simplify things even more.

Boats, the sea, water and reflections in water

venice lagoon 001

A4 Canson watercolor paper 300gsm

My watercolor teacher loves water, boats and reflections in water. He’s yet to demonstrate boats/water reflections for us, but I’m hoping he will. I’ve included water in some of my watercolor sketches already. What I’ve learned from this preliminary sketch is to keep the distant horizon dead straight (difficult when I keep ‘going back in’!); I’ve taken note of how the yellow of the sky is repeated in the water (not obvious here). I’m also using dry Payne’s Gray paint, so dry it has a sticky matt consistency on the page, which is as close as I can come to “juicy” – not very convincing, I’m afraid. I’ve been observing boats and their reflections out in the wild lately.

The Sydney Sketch Club met recently on the Queen’s Birthday public holiday to go out and draw some statues of Queen Victoria here in Sydney. This got me thinking about Queen Victoria statues in Asia, especially given the chequered career of the bronze statue outside our Queen Victoria Building retail complex. Bought and completely refurbished by a Singapore company, the Federation Romanesque QVB building needed a statue of Queen Victoria, so the owners combed the world and, given no-one wanted to give up their statues of Queen Vic, evetually found one, abandoned on a farm in Ireland.

On these Winter mornings, strong sunlight tends to fade very quickly after 9am. Here’s the first, at Queen’s Square, outside St James’ Church and the Law Courts.

queens square 1

A4 Milini 150g sketchbook

You can see here how I was attracted to the very shortened pose and got increasingly interested in the skull. She ends up looking like a Chinese emperor out of Gilbert and Sullivan and I was trying very hard not to give her a beard because of the way the light fell. After a time, the sun got a bit hot so I withdrew to do a context shot.

queens square 2

This was instructive because I started to include the plinth. In hindsight, I realise it was important to MEASURE it properly and not simply work from top to bottom based on visual geometry.  The trees reminded me of last week’s effort at Ashfield and I ended up including a patch of the city skyline. Colleagues pursued the contrast between the trees and the statue with a vengeance and really developed the foreground/background space.

qvb 1

I thought the second statue outside the QVB would be very difficult because I knew it would be in completely shade – I expected a big blob of black as a consequence.  Despite the fact she looks like Quentin Crisp in dress-up (and she looks as if she’s holding a choc-top and not an orb), it turned out to be an interesting exercise in Drapery, which I don’t pursue as often as I should.  I went back to do the plinth under her arm only to discover that it was completely out of whack with the plinth on the left-hand side. I ought to have measured more carefully and the biggest lesson learned today was to do a foundation of the plinth before adding the sculpture.

qvb 2I

I didn’t have all the time in the world, so opted for a re-work of the plinth – interesting because it’s a trefoil or three-pronged granite monster. I definitely need to return to get the geometry of the plinth correct. The characters at the base were charity workers, resting from their spruiking passers-by. It was crowded with pedestrians, one asking me if this was some sort of artists’ happening (there were forty of us sketching!). We were adjacent to a pavement artist who rolled out a giant canvas on which he was working in pastel crayons – a Rubens’ 1616 painting featuring women and lions.

The ‘soundtrack’ when doing these sketches was really very annoying: John Laws had loaned his voice to a recording embedded in a nearby statue of Queen Victoria’s dog. Every time someone approached the dog statue, his voice would start up, begging for money. Similarly, there was a busker at Queen’s Square earlier in the morning with a relentless mournful repertoire played on a tenor recorder; it drove me nuts as well.

qvb queen victoria color setting queen victoria in calcutta 001

Two follow-up sketches of Queen Victoria statues elsewhere. The important thing about drapery is to establish the big areas then break them down with smaller detail – this I know, but find hard to do; the use of toned paper ought to help establish the basic light, mid and dark tones.

The second, Queen Victoria in Calcutta, belies my important lesson not adhered to: I really must draw the plinth first and get its symmetry correct before starting on anything else. I have started introducing a bit of color, which is something which is now sneaking in to my daily toned paper sketches, hopefully in a better way than my sketches on toned paper of six months ago, of Bangkok scenes prior to my trip there.

queen victoria in bangkok

The thing about adding the plinth first is that can “cramp” the subsequent statue and working with relatively blunt charcoal pencils means a loss of detail and errors in perspective. I need to return to this reference photo and work larger, with sharp pencils. My take-out from this is to go back to doing more practice with perspective. My guru, Ernest Watson (Emeritus Artist of American Artist magazine), advocates endless drawings of a 3″ cardboard cube.

I saw a post on Facebook recently by a sketcher in Bangkok explaining to his sketching colleagues how to draw the skull. Nothing new there, except that he finished with an Asian-looking skull/face, not a Western one. This was surprising because of course we are all socially conditioned to depict in our art what we see around us. It really threw me back on my to own social conditioning: everywhere I look, at least in the art world, I see the Western face – examples of Western portraiture, public sculpture, art textbooks, life drawing models. Admittedly, some textbooks mention portrait painting in terms of African-American coloring. Ian Sidaway in his handbook on portrait painting mentions Asian facial coloring in passing. I’m sadly lacking in the non-Western portraiture department: where are my Asians, not to mention Australian aborigines, Middle-Easterners, African Americans?

So with this in mind, I’m consciously (and conscientiously) endeavouring to widen my repertoire by including non-Western faces in my daily portrait practice. I say “daily”, because it’s not always every day, and sometimes the daily portrait merges with figure drawing practice. I have two Strathmore toned paper 9×12″ spiral sketchbooks on the go at the moment, so in the wake of the recent Strathmore 2013 online workshop by Stephen Cefalo, I’m alternating between toned gray and toned tan paper.

I’m not at all happy with these most recent attempts, but I’m pretty sure I’ll get better over time.

Man from India Man from India 2 japanese tan

I’ve picked out some reference photos with very strong lighting to point up the white whites and the dark darks. So far, they are all top-lit which is something I’ve not tried before. Such stark contrasts are not normally found in ‘traditional’ portrait sketches, drawings or paintings. I’m doing them quickly, anticipating sometime in the future when I’ll be in a portraiture class or at a life drawing session; this means the marks are pretty scratchy in general.

I’m still struggling with the fact that I can’t re-state as much as I’d like in this soft graphite pencil/white charcoal pencil medium. When I overwork things, I get a curious blue. Otherwise, I’m not blending the pencil marks at all, e.g. with my finger.

asian portrait asian portrait 2

Left: Still struggling. I resist turning the reference photo upside down to see where I went wrong with proportions and measurement till the day after I’ve done the sketch. The long nose worries me here: what my Japanese colleagues would call a ‘typical long-nose Westerner’. Beginning to think I need to make the transition between my strong visual social conditioning to the non-Western by sketching pakeha Maori and Eurasian faces. These days, if I get to look at a face for long enough, e.g. a tv interview, I’ll consciously consider the triangle between pupils and nostrils, an ongoing problem for me.

Right: Sketched with the reference photo upside down, with further re-statement/darkening with the photo the right way up, with graphite pencils on very smooth cartridge paper. Even with this technique, his face is still too long and “Western”-looking. So my next step is to examine contour.

Yosuke Kubozoka

A moody Yosuke Kabuzoka, from the Japanese film, Go (2001) about Japanese racism. This was done on A4, mostly with a hard graphite pencil on silky smooth paper, which is very satisfying. After laying down a foundation, I progressed to “cheating” by re-stating things using the reference photo upside down. I’m still training my eye to look for and progress from one geometrical shape to another, so it’s still ‘legitimate’ in my view.

roslyn oades pencil

Strathmore Toned Tan, 9×12″

Strongly-lit reference photos seem to be coming my way. The strong whites and darks end up somewhat illustrationist in tone, but that’s okay. Image of actor/community worker/boxing trainer/labourer and didge player, Billy McPherson, who features in the Roslyn Oades’ film, I’m your man. “There’s light at the end of the tunnel and that light is you.” (Billy McPherson) which pretty much sums up a week of Russian heterosexual propaganda, the murder of Clement Meric in Paris and a depressing fortnight of race/gender politics here at home.

I survive the onslaught of heterosexual propaganda these days by retreating to a world of image-making, with J.S. Bach cantatas as my support group. Significant this week as been Cantata no.5, not just the viola solo representing the river ever rushing forward, but also Verstumme, Hollenheer! which seems an entirely apt response to the American surveillance state, the Far Right in France, let alone the shockjocks, heads of football clubs and Liberal-Country Party coalition in general here at home.

practice 5 viking foundation

Every May I register for the free, online workshops run by Strathmore, the American paper company. This year, it’s focus is on traditional, realistic, representational sketching and drawing, with four video lectures by Stephen Cefalo who specialises in the portrait and the figure. He deploys a very light, mechanistic pencil technique, which I personally find difficult, and he’s working on toned paper. Unless you’re making your own, which is entirely possible with gesso and acrylic paint, for example, toned paper is not all that widely available, especially for drawing. Strathmore puts out a Toned Tan and a Toned Gray, which I’m using this month because its tooth is better than some others, including kraft paper, which I have to hand.

Cefalo in Week 1 talked about the nature of light and shadow and the umpteen words used in sketching and drawing to describe them.

Week 2 was devoted to the portrait and because it’s an online workshop, he gave us a striking close-up photo of a bearded man in a leather hat, looking all the world like a modern-day Viking.

My first sketch was the foundation of the skull and I drew it in a C5 sized spiral-bound Strathmore Toned Tan sketchbook. I felt immediately cramped by its size for the pencil technique required, so quickly upgraded to the American large size, 9″x12″.

practice 6 viking on toned gray 9x12

Here’s my first pass at the “Viking”. The pencil linework is still very raggedy and I need to come back again and attempt a more detailed version of the beard, for example. The eyes aren’t so bad but the bridge of the nose is incorrect. It would be fun too to try and re-create more carefully the nature of the hand-stitched leather hat.

practice #7 facial features

I thought it worthwhile going back again aiming for greater accuracy in the facial features. Cefalo has made it easy for students by giving us just eyes and nose surrounded by a great mass of white beard. A more difficult subject would be a “fuller” skull including all the other bits and pieces of the typical portrait – ears, mouth, etc. Here;’s mine again, done small, on a C5 Toned Tan. I am not trying to replicate the darkest darks of the (very dark) photo. I just wanted to get the nose right today, but moving to the eyes, I made them too large, so I need to do this again getting the nose-eyes proportions a whole lot better!