On space, bodies and encounters – a sketchbook review

I haven’t posted more than a handful of drawings here so far. Today, looking back over my field sketchbooks, It’s interesting to note the different ways I’ve attempted to approach drawing in the field. Field drawing, at this stage of the project, is a mode of engagement – a way of observing and learning, orienting and focusing. It sits alongside drawing from archives and in the studio – what I aim to do in the longer term is to explore ways of bringing these materials together in productive collision. For now, though, these drawing are a form of notation, or the traces of a process of encounter in the field.
At a glance, the drawings seem to cluster loosely under three headings: space, bodies and encounters. The first, space, is an attempt to engage with the wider spatial architecture of the valley, its depths and breadths:

Bodies is centred around trying to learn the form and movement of the cranes (and their various cohabitants) – the distribution of their collective and individual bodies:

Encounters begins to combine bodies in space – to look at the relations between cranes and other human and nonhuman animals, or cranes and the spatial architectures of orchard, field and plantation:

The experience of drawing here is overwhelming, making me very aware of my limitations as an artist and the enormity of my task. I don’t have a clear set of resources to draw on, but instead try whatever comes to hand, to keep drawing and learning.

An obvious inspiration and point of reference is the tradition of wildlife art exemplified by such masters as Eric Ennion and John Busby. Indeed, the Artists for Nature Foundation, working in this tradition, themselves hosted two highly productive international sessions in the Huleh in 2008 and 2009. There is of course no single, homogeneous genre here, but the discipline I look to is one of close observation and attunement to the liveliness of nonhuman animals, plants and landscapes.

Despite having benefited greatly from working with the Seabird Drawing Group, however – and from a small bursary from the Society of Wildlife Artists – these skills are not mine. For one thing, I am far from having a developed and matured set of skills for observational drawing of wildlife in the field. For another, neither representation nor abstraction are core aspirations in my work. Rather, drawing for me is a mode of encounter – a way of engaging more intensely with the landscape. This is partly a matter of coming to know what is around me, and partly a process of navigating my own uneasy relationship(s) with(in) that ecology. Thus, it is both sensory and cognitive; observational and personal.

Ideally, drawing becomes also a way of sharing that process of engagement beyond the event – or perhaps more accurately, the drawing becomes itself an event or series of future events through which myself and others can encounter the landscape in some meaningful sense. These encounters sit in tension with the representational conceits of acquired skills in landscape and wildlife drawing. In tension – because it is difficult to say where and in what ways these conceits help or hinder my work.

Certainly, it seems unhelpful to be overly self-conscious about distancing myself from a set of skills and practices devoted to observational sensibilities and to cultivating a heightened bodily, sensory and cognitive attunement to landscape or its nonhuman constituents. Nevertheless, the tradition of wildlife art is historically aligned with practices of field science and biology, and also with colonial exploration and hunting. As such, it potentially brings with it its own set of attitudes, assumptions and blind spots – following too closely in its footsteps I risk reproducing these. For now, I am content to bear this in mind and keep experimenting – but this is likely to be a central consideration as the work develops, and I expect I will have to push the process – and myself – further, to find new ways of working its process.

[Edit 8 Mar 2016: details of Artists for Nature event corrected to include a second session in 2009]

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