Today I attended a one day workshop with Gria Shead at the Art Gallery of NSW. The class description: “In this workshop you will focus on drawing fabric as a starting point for exploring the heart of an interior. You will be focusing on tone and line, the bare minimum, in order to create a tactile aesthetic, representing form while understanding what it feels like. This workshop is suitable for all levels of experience.” Learning to draw while focusing on fabric and suitable for beginners – yes please!
On the right is a photo of recent work by Gria, which spent the day on an easel at one end of the room. It’s one of a series she has done of interiors of Vaucluse House. My phone camera comes nowhere close to doing it justice! Apart from other considerations, you could see the sofas were covered in velvet, that the curtains were sheer, that the floor was covered by carpet not linoleum. The texture is lovely. Look at those little highlights on the seats and top edges of the sofas!
The workspace is in full public view on the main entry floor of the art gallery. You might be able to see a display case at the entrance of the Upper Asian Gallery at the back on the left, and the escalators leading to lower levels through the glass behind the easels. You might also be able to pick up the stunning view reflected in that glass – beautiful Sydney in full spring splendor!
Then we came back to the studio to draw – handkerchiefs. First one handkerchief, in willow charcoal on cartridge paper. You can see in the workroom photo above a handkerchief artfully arranged on the floor (not my hanky though). The instruction was to focus on getting the shape and size right – basically life size. I found this hard.
Then we graduated to two handkerchiefs. As the day progressed I wished I had arranged my hankies in a more simple way, or stuck to one. I tried to concentrate on drawing the negative space and not what I thought I was seeing. I found this hard too, but I was enjoying trying in a somewhat frustrated sort of way.
Next step was some better quality paper, still trying to understand that shape. Gria had given us soft brushes to remove some of the charcoal when lines went astray. You might be able to see just how often I had to use mine! At least this time I was getting the concept of focusing on the outline, not thinking about the inside of the shape too much. I didn’t get the shape right, but I was more certain about where I was wrong.
This is what I ended up with. It works best if you stand well back and squint. I’m sorry now that I didn’t take a photo of my handkerchiefs – I didn’t get it right, but it’s not all wrong. But what I want to record and remember is the process, not my results on the first try.
After all our preliminary work becoming familiar with our shapes, Gria gave us a sheet of craft paper that had been roughly painted with gesso. On this we drew our outline in charcoal one more time. The early sketchwork made this so much easier, plus any problem lines were easily brushed from the gesso.
Next we painted the entire shape in grey acrylic paint. Just a single big blob of grey. That would become the darkest areas of our fabric. The process was then to add light and highlights – first by sponging off areas of the still damp paint, then with white paint (gouache and acrylic), and white pastels, and some people went a bit further with some more willow charcoal and some touches of colour.
Starting dark and bringing in light is such a great system. Doing the preliminary work meant that while painting I got closer to what I wanted, but also that I knew what I was painting so much better and was much faster at figuring out where a problem was. One big issue was the light direction changing as the day wore on, making painting shadows tricky – but as Gria pointed out to me, that always happens so you have to learn to deal with it.
Looking at a small piece of fabric with such intensity over hours and working so hard to really see it was … so many words – exhausting, satisfying, frustrating, enlightening, absorbing… I absolutely must make sure I follow up this with lots of repeats in my regular sketchbook work.