Thursday, 24 December 2015

Drawn to Life

Image via iStock

By Evelyn Tsitas

The humble pen is having something of a revival in the face of the digital. Adult colouring books are bound to be popular stocking fillers this Christmas. They make up four of Amazon UK’s top 10 books, a trend that has been embraced by stressed Australians. Melbourne neuropsychologist Stan Rodski’s Colourtation books have been incorporated into mindfulness and wellness initiatives in such organisations as ANZ Bank, Wesfarmers and Bupa.

Amsterdam's recently reopened Rijksmuseum launched a campaign called #startdrawing to discourage photography in its galleries, asking visitors to draw instead. The Rijksmuseum will provide free sketch paper and pencils to museumgoers, and even host a drawing class every Saturday.

The National Gallery of Victoria hosted its popular Drop-by Drawing Sunday events during its recent Masterpieces from the Hermitage: The Legacy of Catherine the Great exhibition. After viewing the works in the exhibition, visitors could join portrait artists in informal drawing sessions inspired by the European masters in the NGV salon galleries.

But even several years ago former NGV director Dr Gerard Vaughan observed that drawing in galleries had not been common in Melbourne for about 25 years.

So, why take up the pen, when everywhere we see a sea of faces bent in worship to the mobile device? Margaret Graham, reviewing David Hockney’s recent exhibition of early drawings at the Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York, wrote that “drawing is about a charged, unending exchange, a continual transformation that thrums with curiosity, vim, and the insatiable desire to describe.”

I draw. It is how I make sense of the world, how I look at art, and how I remember. The act of drawing, be it ever so old fashioned, holds time still – still enough for me to be a slow moving dot in the fast moving universe. I am a writer but trained first in visual art. When I want to sink deep into life, I take up the pen to carve a line into a form and not a word.

I discovered the special love of drawing in museums when I was 22, on my first trip to Europe as an adult. I had only recently graduated from my visual art degree and it seemed logical to take with me a sketchbook and assorted ink pens and range of pencils. Then I stood enthralled in the British Museum and drew Egyptian sarcophagi I had only seen in books.

I stood for at least an hour, as tourists shuffled quickly past me. I was entranced by the carving of a young man on gleaming, black marble. In profile, he had a strong jaw, elegant cheekbones, and the curve of his shoulder was definite but delicate. What most impressed me was the undulation of the snake chiseled down his arm.

How I envied the locals and the children to whom this was just an ordinary weekend excursion. I wanted to say to them – don’t you know how lucky you are? To have the vast array of antiquities within casual observation seemed a dream.

For me, knowing a place is drawing a place and art is the best way I know of understanding a culture and its history. That’s why, when in a new country, I always head first to the major public art gallery.
Unlike taking a photo these days, drawing is a unique and very public act. As you draw, people are drawn to you. You claim a special ownership of the space that is totally different from just sitting, or talking to someone, or reading or texting.

Nowhere was I pulled back in time more powerfully than standing under the shadows of the Parthenon for the first time, sketching in order to understand the profound beauty and importance of this one building that has had such an impact on western architecture. It wasn’t hard to imagine – in my writer’s mind – that I was a Regency lady on a Grand Tour, and there were no smart phones to click and file the image I was seeing.

Drawing is the ultimate act of time travel, propelling you back to the craftsmen and artists and architects who made and conceived the objects and buildings that you are trying to capture.
Taking a photograph speeds time and displaces you; drawing centres you takes you into the heart of the story. The sensuality, the pathos, the beauty, the horror – art conveys all this and more about the human condition.

I have found that when I draw, I pull in people around me. Those I am with tend to stop and see more clearly as well. Conversation happens, everything slows down. Or I feel someone behind me in a gallery and it is a tourist (usually American) posing and having their photo taken with me.

My most recent drawing binge was in July in Europe, when I realized the power of the pen and the respect standing in front of sculpture and trying to capture the essence garnered from museum guards. In Paris at the Musée Bourdelle, I spent hours at an exhibition, desperate to capture the experience of what I was seeing. No photos allowed, so I pulled out my sketchbook.

I didn’t realise I was still in one room well past closing time until I closed the sketchbook and put my pencils back in my bag and looked up – a security guard was waiting for me, patiently, and apologetically said it was time to leave. I in turn apologised for keeping her but she shook her head and pointed to my sketchbook and smiled. Time stops for those who bother to stop for art.

The kinetic energy used to draw imprints you on a place, person or object in a very powerful way. I actually stopped and cried out in recognition when I saw the same sarcophagi in The Louvre three years ago that I had drawn all those years ago in The British Museum after I just finished my art course.

We were old friends, and I could feel every part of his shoulder and chin under my fingers. It was a powerful moment one could only achieve by drawing.

Dr Evelyn Tsitas is the Media, Education and Public Program Coordinator at RMIT Gallery.