Thursday, October 22, 2015

Urban Sketching and the Dilemma for the Studio Painter

I find myself in a rather enjoyable state of mild perplexity. This happens to me after weeks of isolation in the studio getting deeper and deeper into my work, hopefully gaining a bit more mastery over my materials, reading, thinking and going yet deeper.

What is it I am saying in my Brisbane paintings?
What is it I am trying to say?
Can it be better?
Can it or even should it be articulated in words?

A superficial celebration of the the quaintness of the surrounding worker's cottages and "Old Queensland" houses will not cut it. The artist has to provide a more immersive quality of experience. Otherwise it is unconvincing.

I am in the fortunate position of having a local following, and the response to my recent quick sketches done outside, has astounded me. The best outcome for an artist like me is an unexpected response. One's audience can be very discerning.  Never underestimate them.

I guess I am talking about different approaches to my urban subject matter. This is where time becomes a factor. As my regular readers will know, I am a big advocate for the Urban Sketching approach, something I have always done without its being named as such. My dilemma arises from trying to reconcile the two disparate approaches of a sustained studio practice and the enormous value of a spontaneous sketch approach. Obviously one can spend more time in the studio, one can build up layers in washes and impasto, one can allow the painting more time to stew in its own juices so that risks can be taken and changes made.

The sketch approach has a directness, an honesty, and for the discerning it can capture an essence of a place or event that the more laboured studio paintings often lose.
You lose the looseness.

I want to do both, in fact I crave one, after time spent on the other, and I want to combine them more meaningfully.

When I say time is a factor, it is not only time spent on an actual work (which could be weeks or months) but also it takes time to develop the skills and confidence to do the quick sketch with some degree of success.
Q. "How long did that take"?
A. " 40 years, give or take"

In my next show (June 2016) I am planning to do things differently.

Jacaranda Season Brisbane

Alongside my more "finished" pieces such as the one above, I am going to show some of my quick urban sketches.

This is not as straightforward as it sounds as in the time honoured  "preliminary sketch" and "finished work" , because to be perfectly honest, sometimes the sketch was done after! As if I didn't quite capture something and had to go back in. Or else I was getting annoyed with the painting and wanted some fun with the subject.

Jacaranda Season Brisbane, Urban Sketch

The sketch above is a case in point. The sketch really is a separate thing in its own right, nothing preliminary about it and it was done about a week after the painting was finished (if I can trust my own Instagraming.)

And will the exhibition work like that? I'm not sure at this stage.

I know making artwork is not all about money, but I have to make a living from my artwork so that has to be a consideration for me. I do whatever works. I can't sell drawings stuck in my beautiful hardbound Moleskine, so I have started carrying sheets of paper instead. They can be displayed without framing (200gsm) blue-tacked up. Most galleries are OK with that. There are other advantages to this. You can do 2 or 3 wet ink things without worrying about the dryness needed for sketchbook page-turning.

The two approaches do feed each other.

Paddington Brisbane Street scene

The one above is a bit of combination. It is on paper not canvas. It was done in the studio but much more quickly than my usual canvas pieces. It is a bit smaller also.
I can take more time in the studio creating the accidental mark, provoking it even, letting things dry before coming back for another layer even if it is watercolour. In the outside sketching I can work just with tone or colour and not be so reliant on line, or alternatively, enjoy the freedom of a twig or bamboo pen and all the splotchiness that involves. (Think linear like a Brett Whitely drunk self -portrait or window view).

As a serious artist I am trying to put it all together. - Do something that really is an interpretation of a place, filtered through my own sensibilities, that distils the essence of both approaches. I guess one's modus operandi has to continue to evolve. The formulaic is the death of creativity.

I guess the answer to my initial dilemma is - continue to show up, keep on producing, paint and draw your way out (and blog, - this has been therapeutic!)

After all you have to have an immersive experience to be able to share it!


  1. You wrote yourself to the point where you found a very eloquent answer to your dilemma. The Buddhists state it like this 'no mud, no lotus'.

    1. Oh, Thanks heaps Wayne. What a great saying! Good on the Buddhists.

    2. Just back from yoga and guess what? It was all about the lotus emerging from the mud! How about that for synchronicity!

    3. Apophenia....a nice word, rarely get a chance to use it.