Thinking, planning, making notes and sketches all go into the development of an idea for an artwork, but the process of each one is unique. I was asked to show the process that led to the two Natural History drawings I recently completed (see here and here). The very beginning was in my travel sketchbook from my long trip through the Flinders Ranges, Yorke Peninsula and Kangaroo Island, South Australia in October 2013 (see October archives for images from the sketchbook). I have been keeping dedicated travel sketchbooks, which double as journals, since a trip through the Kimberleys in Western Australia in 2004, but having said that, I have kept sketchbooks sporadically for many years – I recently found one with drawings from a trip to France in the 1970s.
People often ask if I intend to use these drawings for artworks, and generally the answer has been no, I have seen them as complete in themselves, but this time I decided I would take them on to another dimension, but still retain the sketchbook feel. It is the intricacies and detail of small objects that appeal to me rather than the big picture, so making these into a kind of documentary made sense. However, I really didn’t want to copy the drawings too precisely – I am not someone who can do detailed preliminary drawings then reproduce them precisely, each iteration loses something for me, but use these as a jumping off point.
So, after thinking through the ideas (I won’t bore you with all the side alleys and dead ends I went down before settling on the approach I finally took, but believe me, it took a while!) I started to plan the artwork. I wanted it to be large, expansive but detailed. The pages from my sketchbook had already been scanned, so I chose pages that had interesting images on, printed them off, same size as the originals, and cut them up roughly. My printer is black and white, and for my purposes that was good, I wanted to just see form and not be distracted by colour. Next, these cutouts were arranged on the actual sheet of drawing paper, moved around until I was satisfied with the composition, their positions marked and numbered and the drawings numbered. I used the old technique of scribbling on the back with a soft pencil to transfer the images, again not being too particular about accuracy. Each one was then drawn up with a fine waterproof pen before I transferred the next, to minimise smudging.
By the time I got to the stage of using pen I had decided to use pen and watercolour, as I had in the sketchbooks. My original plan was to use coloured pencil and no pen, to differentiate from the sketches, but after doing some tests, with both dry and water-soluble pencils I realised I wasn’t going to get the result I wanted, it was too soft. The next concern was whether the paper would take watercolour, as it was specifically a drawing paper, so more testing and to my relief it was fine. When I am doing the original drawings, usually time is limited, often I am drawing in an awkward position so the drawings are quick and loose, and the paint is put on quickly as well. With these drawings, the initial drawing was a bit tentative, then I went back in and added detail, tone and texture. At a quick look they are quite similar to the originals, but ultimately they are more solid and more developed, but still fairly loose.
With the second drawing, Yorke Peninsula to Kangaroo Island, by the time I had finished drawing up the images the paper looked too empty for what I wanted, so then I turned to my collections of odds and ends that I brought back with me because I didn’t have time to draw them on the spot – a couple of crab claws, a tiny cuttlefish and one or two little shells – and added them to the composition, drawing directly onto the paper without initial drawings. Once I was satisfied, then came the colour. I used my little travel paintbox, the colours are artist quality and so familiar, I didn’t want to use anything else.
The final task was adding the notations – mostly these were exactly what I had written in my sketchbook, with minor changes for clarification.
In the first photo below you can see my sketchbook, paintbox, pens, travel brushes and the paper I used for testing pencils, colours etc. Next shows the cut outs arranged on the paper, then the pen drawing, before the extra images were added. Finally a few close ups of some of the images.