47 FOREST LANDSCAPES IN COLOURED PENCIL, PEN AND INK
This was my first solo exhibition, held at Rhumbarallas, in Melbourne from 28th May to 17th June 1986. It was a large show, moderately well received, and consisted entirely of coloured pencil drawings, some, panoramas on multiple panels. It was the culmination of three year’s work, from 1983 to 1985, although it was only in 1985, once I had returned to Melbourne permanently, that I really concentrated on them and began to think of myself as an artist seriously again. The gallery was virtually a rental space, but well placed and the show announced this new ambition. However, in retrospect, for all my industry (the series ran to around 80 works, only a fraction were shown) the work was ultimately rather cautious and amounted to no more than a first tentative step. Perhaps it had to be that way. I certainly didn’t see it that way at the time though.
The landscapes were based on a brief camping holiday I took with my old high school friend Ed Kraa (see Juvenilia and his own direction) and his wife Julie, in the South West Rocks National Park, a small coastal camping spot in northern NSW, early in 1983. I’d never been that far north before and the semi-tropical bushland with vines and creepers and a low, thin canopy were new to me. I borrowed Ed and Julie’s camera and photographed a series of dappled glades and thickets, impressed by the labyrinthine spaces and sparkling light.
The photographs were unremarkable in themselves, but as was my custom, I thought I would produce watercolours or drawings from them, accenting the things I liked, once I returned to London. Initially, they were to be just more droll sketches, simplifying scenes in a playful way, as I’d made of Paris or Tivoli. But for various reasons, I kept returning to them, studying the photographs more carefully; making more detailed coloured pencil drawings. Coloured pencils were just more convenient, given my irregular work routine as a freelance film editor at the time.
The dazzling light on foliage naturally suggested a form of Impressionism and I adopted a more vivid palette to register the dazzle. But drawing also meant that simple brush dabs or blobs of colour necessarily had to be formed as shapes. Foliage in the pictures duly took on a tessellated, jigsaw-like construction – Pointillism by shapes. This was the modest start to my departure from photo-realism.
Taller Trees 1985 45 X 30cm coloured pencil/paper
Treetops 1985 75 X 110cm coloured pencil/paper
What made it slightly more than just an amusing diversion or dilettante response was how much further I was prepared to take such departures with this series. Highlights and shadows – now deliberately maintained outlines or shapes – did not always correspond with the visible trees or undergrowth. Shadows may be cast upon them from above or beyond and introduced more ambiguous shapes that added a veil to scenes that already challenged a comfortable navigation of the flora and distance.
Quality of light equally announced a time of day – a direction and hue to the sunlight. From this I began to imagine night scenes as well – obviously I couldn’t photograph them with cameras in those days – but I had cautiously plodded along little paths to the toilets there at night with a torch, sometimes turning it off to be surprised how much I could make out just by moonlight, after a suitable pause, even in unfamiliar terrain. The night scenes again called for some invention in palette. Along with tessellated foliage, the shape to trees and vines took on a more exaggerated, sinuous line, simplified textures and gave the first pictures a kind of comic animation. These are still really the work of the dilettante, stylish but undemanding.
Morning Glade 1983 45 X 30cm coloured pencil/paper
Afternoon Glade 1983 45 X 30cm coloured pencil/paper
Late Afternoon Glade 1984 45 X 30cm coloured pencil/paper
Day Moves 1983 45 X 30cm coloured pencil/paper
Night Moves 1984 45 X 30cm coloured pencil/paper
Spiral Tree 1985 45 X 30cm coloured pencil/paper
Night Glade 1984 45 X 30cm coloured pencil/paper
So the pictures became about how these groves offered complex and puzzling spatial orientations, how they quickly dissolved into shimmering walls rather than comfortable or convincing distance. Depth could surrender to a more abstract, decorative ground, while foregrounds remained anchored or located through greater detail. Following works became larger, more elaborate, closer to a photo-realism in their attention to over-exposed or bleached-out shapes, but at the same time introducing ‘pure’ contrasting colours in foliage and gently emphasising the linear, sinuous interweaving lines to branches and vines. I also began to select and combine elements from various photographs. These are a more subtle, ambitious formulation, although still not much more than illustration. They were the most popular works shown.
Glade 1 1984 75 X 110cm coloured pencil/paper
Glade 2 1984 75 X 110cm coloured pencil/paper
Glade 3 1984 75 X 110cm coloured pencil/paper
Glade 4 1984 75 X 110cm coloured pencil/paper
Glade 5 1984 75 X 110cm coloured pencil/paper
South West Rocks Road 1985 – 4 panels 102 X 54cm each, coloured pencil/paper (click on image for enlargement)
Days and Nights in the Forest of a Thousand Dances 1985 – 10 panels, each 75 X 55cm coloured pencil on paper. (Click on image for enlargement, then zoom window into around 400%)
The panels are assembled here digitally; do not quite link because of unavoidable cropping to each photograph. This may be remedied with future documentation.
But contrasting views of a scene under different lights/times did not simply remain a matter of key and chromatics, as in say, Monet. The work soon moves to combinations of lights/times within a single scene as in
Glade 6 1985 75 X 110cm coloured pencil/paper
Here times and places do not always share the same objects, or offer merely differences in time/light, but occasionally extend one to the other. An object sometimes blends into a time or light as a line to either, a light sometimes runs into a place and object as just a line. This is a more daring formulation, even for remaining on the fringes of illustration. The additional linear intersections, part shadow, part object, then suggest more stylised handling for trees and vines, for a greater abstraction or decorative field, for a bolder integration. A great many sketches explored these options, amongst them –
Decorative Forest 1 1985 30 X 22cm pencil/paper
Decorative Forest 2 1985 30 X 22cm pencil/paper
Decorative Forest 3 1985 30 X 22cm pencil/paper
Decorative Forest 10 1985 30 X 22cm pencil/paper
Decorative Forest 11 1985 30 X 22cm pencil/paper
Decorative Forest 8 1985 30 X 22cm pencil/paper
Decorative Forest 5 1985 30 X 22cm pencil/paper
Decorative Forest 9 1985 30 X 22cm pencil/paper
Decorative Forest 6 1985 30 X 22cm pencil/paper
Decorative Forest 7 1985 30 X 22cm pencil/paper
But at a certain point tone or shading then invite their own linear treatments, so that density of line, as some expanded form of cross-hatching, perhaps, seamlessly shifts between outline for an object and modelling or tone. Yet not all outlines achieve tone, not all tone remains within outlines. The work shimmers between objects as much as light. In these, bolder examples the forest retreats more smoothly to a decorative field while maintaining lines built only from outlines to trees, vines, undergrowth or grass.
Linear Forest 1 1985 – 75 X 100cm felt-tip pen/paper
Linear Forest 18 1985 – 59 X 42cm pen/ink/paper
Linear Forest 5 1985 – 59 X 42cm pen/ink/paper
Linear Forest 6 1985 – 59 X 42cm pen/ink/paper
Linear Forest 23 1985 – 59 X 42cm pen/ink/paper
Linear Forest 15 1985 – 59 X 42cm pen/ink/paper
Linear Forest 2 1985 – 75 X 55cm brush/ink/paper
Linear Forest 7 1985 – 75 X 55cm brush/ink/paper
Linear Forest 8 1985 – 75 X 55cm brush/ink/paper
Linear Forest 9 1985 – 75 X 55cm brush/ink/paper
Linear Forest 10 1985 – 59 X 42cm brush/ink/paper
Linear Forest 13 1985 – 59 X 42cm brush/ink/paper
Linear Forest 11 1985 – 59X 42cm felt tip pen/paper
Linear Forest 12 1985 – 59 X 42cm brush/ink/paper
While formally the most elegant solution, a starkly linear approach had obviously reduced the pictures to just drawings – even when done with a brush. One further, final option lay in identifying slices or areas of the picture with separate, variously non-naturalistic colours, so that some areas would simply contain objects or content and serve as a kind of colour filter to the scene, while others would connect or interact with the content so that they provided part shapes, part filter. At the same time, not all areas connected smoothly with one another, not all content was strictly realistic or without some degree of stylisation. Not all filter colours were necessarily arbitrary or unnatural. My tentative relativism advances a little further.
Forest Hours 1985 – 100 X 75cm brush/ink/coloured pencil/paper
Prism Glade 1985 – 100 X 150cm coloured pencil/paper.
Serpentine 1985 – 150 X 100cm brush/ink/coloured pencil/paper
These more formal schemes are now some distance from photo-realism, obviously. Yet the initial inspiration – the dazzling confusion to these dense forest glades, the intricacy of navigating them by eye, remains consistent, if anything, more explicit. Significantly, the theme of a transition or blending of form and content; remains throughout later work. Although at the time it was by no means clear that my brief camping experience would translate at all to other subjects. That remained the challenge for the next body of work.
Waldeinsamkeit was a term I found idly reading about German Romanticism – it translates as something like the solitude of the forest – although I hadn’t been in the forest at South West Rocks by myself and I don’t think the works imply some kind of soulful meditation. It was just a cool, vaguely remote title I came up with after the gallery director vetoed my original, off-hand title – Gerry Bell: Nature Boy – as “too gay”. Nevertheless, the works are essentially Romantic, as is the whole tradition of Australian landscape, by necessity. But I won’t go into that. It’s enough to trace how the work developed, to notice how it avoids the contemporary fashions of Neo-Expressionism and further Post Modern revival and pastiche, shuns allegory and irony for something more formal, sadly more peripheral, even in Australia.