I added to my collection of loose A4 photocopy paper sketches, figurative, anatomy, urban environment,  with six pages done at a gathering of the Urban Sketchers Sydney group on the occasion of several overseas visitors, from the UK and Singapore. The location was the Museum of Contemporary Art on Circular Quay, overlooking the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge.

I arrived twenty minutes early and that gave me a chance to do a closeup of the new MCA extension to the original 1952 building. I want to return sometime to differentiate between the blacks and whites of the facade.

As a group, we sat for three hours in the Museum cafe, out of the sun, by turns talking and sketching. This was one of those sessions when everyone is seated together, eating and drinking, when sketching becomes a secondary priority. Sketching food and drink as a meditation on transubstantiation or on contemporary consumerism is fine by me, but normally I’d be on the move looking for more interesting compositions; today was a matter of drawing everything directly in line of sight, regardless – a new page every thirty minutes.

The heads and figures are a result of privately mulling over issues raised recently by artists whose work I am inwardly digesting: Stan Prokopenko’s work on heads and figures and Marshall Vandruff’s expertise in perspective. I wrestled with the enormous gulf between working indoors with reference photos and squirming, agitated people in real life, obscured by furniture. Trying desperately not to be noticed was also difficult. I come away from this sort of session wanting to do more draped figure work.

In my rushing out of the house to arrive on time, I forgot my camera, sunscreen, eraser and Exacto knife. And I was the only one without an elaborate Moleskine full of exuberant watercolours. I wanted to do some work in gouache today on Smooth Arches 185gsm watercolor paper, but that would have required much more interesting subject matter.

Two pages scored a Chinese chop, in honour of our Singaporean visitor.



mca 1mca 2



sydney mortuary station 1

Location sketching and plein air painting is something I’m trying to keep on the back-burner at the moment. Summer weather can be difficult, but I’m trying to take advantage of social sketching opportunities as they arise.

This building is one I’ve had my eye on for a while, even though it’s closed to the public. There’s a lot of “guessing” involved because it’s hidden behind a lot of vegetation.

Often with a particular architectural destination in mind, I try to do my research online beforehand. There are so many pics taken by  amateur photographs (90% of the time they will match where a potential sketcher will sit) and historic photographs (often taken just after the building’s completion and before any landscaping has gone in). Having pre-visualised the location takes off that initial layer of wondering what location to pick and the time and effort in sizing up the architecture and streetscape.

Alas, I spent three hours merely coming to grips with the building’s structure instead and the first sketch here was done in the last twenty minutes. I was sitting next to a building site entrance with a lot of trucks coming and going – the truck drivers were not happy about someone sitting so close to ‘their’ kerb. You’ll note the heavy shadows – it probably looks a lot better in the afternoon when the facade is hit by the western sun. For the record, the three sketches below were the warm-ups.

I really came along today to capture the gesture of the building, its main volumes or “blocks”. I want to return to take in its Venetian Gothic characteristics, a style I’m not familiar with. What I particularly enjoyed about the morning was the intricate geometrical shapes of the interior – the stand-alone sandstone Ticket Office under the vaulted ceiling of the main tower.

These were done on A4 photocopy paper in graphite 3H, with detailed picked out in 4B. Everything I’m doing during the current 10-week summer break from Art School is being done on loose A4 photocopy paper, which I’ll later hand-bind into a ‘vacation sketchbook’ of sorts. It’ll be submitted for student assessment, as secondary material done outside class, on 19 June 2015.

My next post will be about its 13th-century Venetian Gothic features in more detail.

mortuary 1mortuary 2mortuary 3


Alphabetical Sydney

November 29, 2013

In time for Christmas, a children’s abcedary which deals in the main with aspects of everyday life (e.g. C for Cicadas, S for Sunburn) rather than Sydney landmarks or architectural icons.

The illustrations link small amounts of freehand drawing and watercolor to large amounts of clever photomontage.

alphabetical sydney

Pesenti, Antonio and Hilary Bell, Alphabetical Sydney. Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, Univ. of NSW, 2013.

In response to the challenge of sketching the Sydney Harbour Bridge, I decided to square up an historic black-and-white photo taken in 1932 and transfer it to my sketchbook. I see this sort of activity as a form of subconscious “mind training”: I’m conditioning my visual memory so that when I draw it in the flesh, on site, on location, spatial relationships might come more easily. Plainly a lot of detail simply wasn’t visible in a photo taken at night, so I just drew what I could discern from the floodlit Bridge and nothing more.

sydney harbour bridge 19oct13

I turned up at a North Sydney USk Sydney event with no agenda in mind. I took the opportunity to wander down to Bradfield Park having seen the Arthur Streeton painting of Circular Quay where he stood as close as he could to the water of the harbour. With the night photo drawing and Grace Cossington Smith’s views of the eastern side of the Bridge in mind, I found a vantage point off a footpath. Because of bushfire backburning, the Harbour was full of Sickert-like fog, only really suitable for black-and-white. The end result seemed to have been that I was channelling Norman Lindsay – he would have sketched it in an almost identical way.

sydney harbour bridge 2nov13

To the immediate right of the iconic Luna Park entrance is a very steep staircase and the next two sketches use it: the first looking down and the second looking up. I would have liked to launch myself into some color work, but I seemed to have all sorts of problems getting the measurements and proportions right. I worked on the ground plane first but veered so far off course from the original Albertian veil measurements, that I had to improvise. The first photo shows the full page of the sketchbook, the second shows what I wanted to edit in terms of the Albertian veil. Apparently while I was sketching, a massive cloud of smoke blewn in and obscured the entire area, left of the tower. I need to return sometime to see what I was missing.

luna park entire page

Not conveyed here were the glorious greys inside the stucco of the scallops. I would have liked to have captured that, but the 240gsm Fabbriano Academmia paper was a bit too rough for that.

Today’s key lesson was how important it is to stick with the content inside the Albertian veil or frame. Once I go outside the frame, I run the very real risk of downgrading or watering down the impact of the subject matter inside the frame. The visual impact will probably become diluted.

sydney luna park 2nov13

Undeterred and determined to return sometime to do the color some justice, I took in the foreshortened view of the staircase with the modern building behind. As usual, I’d bitten off more than I could chew, but persisted nevertheless. I liked the contrast between the 1935 Art Deco brick staircase and the contemporary high rise behind. It seems to epitomise Sydney.

milsons point

sydney opera house 2nov13

The last sketch of the day was the Sydney Opera House. Interestingly it went from shades of grey (1pm) to warm up with some yellow after an hour or so (2pm). What attracted to me the building was not the large sails but how the smaller sails nestled or dovetailed into the larger ones – I liked that sequence. Architect Utzon liked the idea of the Opera House floating on the harbour, given its position on a peninsular. Particularly valuable was working beside a colleague and comparing what we both saw and how we interpreted exactly what each of us saw – in entirely different ways, of course!

Coincidentally it’s the 40th anniversary of the completion of the Sydney Opera House. I can say I’ve grown up with the building – here’s a photo I took in 1967 from the observation deck. I can’t recall the deck exactly, but it must have been a temporary construction in the Royal Botanic Gardens. The anniversary has rekindled emotions about the building’s original vision and its implementation; the stifling of creativity by Tory governments seems to be a never-ending refrain in Australia.

sydney opera house 1967

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.

6 bolton st st peters

A4 Milini 150gsm, graphite pencil H, early morning

I dashed off sketches of two building facades the other day, based on old photos. I was trying to get general proportions right, then infilling with details. One was strictly symmetrical, the other very slightly asymmetrical. As complex, elaborately modeled facades, I decided I needed more practice with simpler buildings. It’s a bit like going to a life drawing class followed by some anatomical study.

newcastle 1

newcastle 2

A4 Milini 150gsm sketchbook, graphite pencil H, half a page each. 

Two sketches today, the first (right) on location and the second (left) later at home. For color scheme, see Google Streetview for 6 Bolton Street St Peters NSW 2044. There was no tone to speak of because the weather was overcast and the facade faced west. I would like to return to sketch both the patchy paintwork on the brick facade as well as the massive tree in front.

I chose as simple a facade as I could possibly find in my local area. I wanted to get the symmetry and proportions accurate, which led to ever closer observation of architectural detail. Normally I don’t view building facades perpendicularly “head on” but I need the practice, the mind-training. There’s a parallel with figure drawing: one draws the figure head-on before tackling the three-quarter view.

I ignored the parked car and large tree in front of the building. The level of concentration in closely observing a building facade is not unlike the focus on anatomical structure and detail when observing the figure.

At left, the purple is the field of vision delineated by a 5×4″ Albertian veil, making sure the whole facade fitted on to the page. Green is the eye line (and assumed horizon line) but the only hints of linear perspective were in the parapets on the roof line.


In terms of proportions, the liver-red brick facade is broken into three. There are areas of decorative brickwork of identical size at the roof line. The original sash windows have been replaced by aluminium ones. These in turn have been overlaid with security steel grills. Lastly, I paid attention to the position of the Art Deco terracotta brick finials, glazed and colored vermilion, and their relative size.


With more practice of this sort in mind, I spent some time today photographing other buildings ” head on” in my local area which would be impossible to sketch on-site – either because I’d have to position myself in the middle of a road, on a busy footpath or on private property.



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.

draw on the mountain p13

draw on the mountain p14draw on the mountain p15

draw on the mountain p12draw on the mountain p11

draw on the mountain p10