draw on the mountain 5

Page 5, A4 Draw on the Mountain sketchbook, 90gsm.

Another post reviewing daily progress in the “Draw on the Mountain” drawing festival, held at the Blue Mountains, outside Sydney. Obviously I’m by now aware of the winners of the competition and their style and approach, but I want to try and re-create here my thinking and processes at the time.

A lot rides on the format and character of the sketchbook as part of the Draw on the Mountain sketchbook competition.

I had no idea what I was paying for in terms of the official sketchbook. Thin paper, portrait format, 11 folios, spiral bound. The restriction implied in dry media affects the potential for color, mainly because cockled pages are so hard to reproduce digitally.

The concept of sketching locations across the Mountains promotes the sense of tourist, scenic impressions. Even though someone like Arthur Streeton back in 1891 spent many days in Lapstone on the mountains preparing for his oil painting “Fire’s On, Lapstone tunnel”, there’s no way I can work one subject exclusively through the whole sketchbook. I’m totally resistant to the concept of incorporating text because text “drains” attention away from the image.

Similarly, I’m not going to produce an album of Object Drawings, vignettes of things (such as native flowers) floating in the centre of each page. There is an inevitable aesthetic involved in viewing the double-page spread so one has to bow to book illustration principles at least in part; we are simply not able to look at each image as a single artefact, it’s always in relation to another on the opposite page. Being spiral bound means there is a jarring split in terms of any work going across both pages in a double-spread.

Today’s first sketch was another “impossibility”, another “risk”, another full of flaws, potentially fatal. Yesterday concentrated on the Built Environment, so in terms of the book’s character of creating an inevitable narrative through the physical act of page-turning, today’s sketches had to be about the Natural Environment. I chose bush-bashing through the north and south sides of the tiny village of Lawson. With just six hours on the Mountains today, I knew I had to walk for 60mins then draw for 60mins, repeating this cycle at least three times.

Five minutes from the railway station, I was getting lost in the tiny trails of the Lawson North National Park. I stopped to take reference photos of all the vigorously flowering native plants. Got lost because the trails are so vaguely signed.

After my first sixty minutes, I parked myself on the trail and aimed to sketch two White Gums with their parallel diagonals at odds with the strong verticals/horizontals of their surroundings. I know that the proper aim or goal is to simplify everything and make things as easy as possible for the viewer. For some reason, I’ve resisted that. Probably to my chagrin.

Exif_JPEG_PICTURE My main issue was not being able to block in the masses of vegetation with the dry media to hand. But at least some color was injected into a series of otherwise drab-looking black-and-white sketches.

I have a new-found respect for Fred McCubbin, the only Australian painter who dared to paint the Australian bush. Others before and since have only ever dared to paint riverscapes with portraits of gum trees (Hans Heysen) or have only ever painted cultivated land (Arthur Streeton). McCubbin was the only one to tackle the complexity and dark drabness of the natural bush.  Conder limited himself to the sinuous line of graceful white gums.

 

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draw on the mountain 3

 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.

draw on the mountain page 1 draw on the mountain page 2

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.

More work on forearms and portraits. Tackling long-standing weaknesses in my figure drawing repertoire. Sharing drawings online makes me accountable to a ‘greater’ or ‘more public’ self – it forces me to ‘move forward’. I appreciate how time-consuming all the scanning and commentary is, at least references to same by sketcher colleagues with weblogs. These are all pages from the Glenys Mann The Artist’s Notebook Project event (Fibre Arts Australia); the A5 visual art diary notebook is slowly filling up and my deadline is end-February 2011. Since Glenys’ colleagues are in the textile/art cloth community, my sketchbook is somewhat outre. No ideas for surface design of textiles there. Ultimately of course my sketchbook is due for filing on the shelf along with all the other earlier ones, so it has to be essentially ‘me’, part of that long personal journey.

Additions to the sketchbook have been desultory over the last few months because priority has been given to temari balls and most recently yubinuki. The notebook however includes my current preoccupations: male portraits, male figure drawing, male cellists, foreshortened arms/fists, with the odd reference to analysis of patterns for temari balls thrown in. Since I have retained all my photographic reference material, I may end up simply repeating the same subject matter over and over (to see if and by how much I improve, perhaps). I could always mirror-image the entries of the first half of the sketchbook, copying from the same sources in the second half of the book in reverse order. No-0ne would know except me.

Not included in my sketches has been my ‘holiday’ of stitched biscornus while I give temari balls and yubinuki a bit of a break. The current searing heat of midsummer and a week away from work/commute – the metro/bouleau/dodo routine – is traditionally a time when I ‘do something else’. I am slowly getting back to Riven Phoenix’s Structure of Man, which I know lies at the heart of my future progress in figure drawing and will mark a revolutionary step away from the tonal copying I am doing to a decent structural underpinning in what I do. The inspiration of USK will make itself known eventually too, especially since my workplace is so close to a large Sydney cemetary.  The Brooklyn Artist’s Sketchbook Project, and other Net references, seem to prefer the small 3×5 and larger 5×8 moleskines/visual art diaries. I have a 3×5 moleskine to hand which should become my ‘public’ face (I show no-one my sketchbooks normally because of the contempt in which the public/strangers hold male figure drawing); it might become the vehicle for pen & ink and form a springboard to w/colour and work with markers. The moleskine I’ve always considered somewhat too small (for the sort of work I normally do), but I experienced a life-changing moment and a profound new respect for this size notebook, when I saw a group of them, with sketches of clouds no less, all done by J.M.W. Turner (or was it Constable?) at a blockbuster art event at the National Art Gallery in Canberra some years back.

So, the idea is that I post out to gay artist colleagues a blank Visual Diary, the recipient fills the artist’s sketchbook, posts it back to me for a temporary exhibition of all the books here in Sydney Australia and then I re-post it back to the artist so s/he can shelve it alongside all their other sketchbooks.

Yep, it’s been done before, but the basic idea is a good one: to get (gay or GLBTQI) artists to share their sketches and ideas, to assemble primal, unstudied/pre-studied, visual responses to their environments, to revive lost or discarded drawing skills, to play in an otherwise serious, cataclysmic world. Participants don’t have to be professional artists who create every day for a living. Those of who have been around the block a few times know the value of daily drawing. This isn’t a competition or intentionally an exercise in glorifying the lost art of pencil drawing. Ideally it will appeal to those who draw infrequently or doodle but spasmodically who yearn to improve, to develop accuracy or fluency, submit to the gentle discipline of daily drawing as part of their life’s routine – manga artists, comic drawers, textile artists, potters, designers, those who have never put pencil to paper before but are intrigued by the simpliciyt of the act.

The original American model for this exercise was of course Someguy’s 1000 Journals and involved A4-sized hardbound sketchbooks. I’m currently involved in a similar ‘event’ involving a A5-sized sketchbooks, which personally I’m finding cramps my own particular drawing or sketching ‘style’; I prefer A4 to get a good pencil or sanguine/conte pencil drawing session going and for large gestural hand movements A3 is a minimum.

In terms of logistics, I’ll start looking around for buying sketchbooks in bulk and work out the cost of postage (twice) domestically within Australia as a guide for covering costs. The guiding financial principle will certainly be to cover costs; this not a profit-making exercises or a drama queen’s status-climb to Become Known. A post office box address seems the way to go, if only to lighten the load of my poor postie, as well as the obligatory blurb and Fine Print (timeframes, don’t return empty books, don’t turn the book into something it’s not). A small exhibition in February 2012, ideally in time for Sydney Mardi Gras, with a double-page of each on view, Chrissie Cotter Gallery Marrickville perhaps (though I’d need cabinets rather than the standard wall space), will put our joint efforts out there for other would-be sketchers to get inspired, to perhaps include drawing as part of their daily life.

In terms of personal commitment, I’ve yet to set a timeframe. December 2011 sounds too far away; it shouldn’t take participants twelve months to fill a 120-page sketchbook. People interested though should have a good chance to join in after the word gets around a bit. Finishing the book completely sounds not unreasonable. Returning it in its original size is a proper principle too, since this is not an exercise in the book becoming transmogrified into a bookbinding project or installation. Media remains without constraint (pencil, pen, pastels, chalks, mixed media); the same goes for content, respecting those laws which routinely govern sexual content, race, ethnicity, religion, &c. and generally sticking to the principle of Doing No Harm. In terms of risk analysis, I have to give thought to those who will abuse the process and develop contingency plans. The “gay” isn’t meant to be restrictive, but more of an indicator of how we see the world – the whole post-modernist thing about community and hybridity and the local and personal history and private journey.

I’ll post my own drawings here on a regular basis. There’s nothing like ‘going public’ to galvanise the mind.

References

1000 Journals (Someguy), 2008 DVD. Direected by Andrea Kreuzhage. Region 1 only. 88Mins.

1000 Journals Project by Someguy. Chronicle Books, 212pp. ISBN-10:0811858561.