Today I visited Robert Hannaford’s exhibition at the South Australian Art Gallery. Hannaford is described as one of Australia’s most ‘revered’ portrait painters. Despite this rather pompous reference, he’s actually a very down to earth fella who loves drawing from life, and has devoted his life to the process. The first two galleries were filled with his casual sketches from life as well as a number of more finished ones, while the other rooms featured his official oil portraits as well as a large number of self portraits, both painted and drawn. It was refreshing to see an exhibition that embraces the art and practice of looking, as opposed to conceptualising. Best of all was the final exhibit: the Drawing Room.
According to the Art Gallery’s website, this is a special exhibit linked to the Hannaford exhibition, but I hope they will continue to promote this activity. It was wonderful to be handed a drawing board, paper and pencils and invited to sit down and draw. This active encouragement is becoming a rarity in art galleries and museums, where the crowds are becoming so problematic that artists have in some cases been forbidden to sit in front of exhibits as they would be obscuring other people’s views.
I was very impressed with some of the examples on the wall. Most people seem to have dutifully drawn the William Dobell sculpture on display, although it says on the website that visitors are encouraged to sit for each other as well as draw. I decided to try drawing the sculpture, as it was beautifully lit and made a striking subject. The brown paper, graphite and white conte pencils were ideal tools for rendering the dramatic lighting. I hadn’t drawn a sculpted bust since my art school days, so I wondered how easy it would be, compared with drawing from life.
The strong lighting made it much easier to define the contours, and the rough modelling of the sculpture was almost like a sketch itself, so I found I was able to sketch a reasonable ‘likeness’ in about 15 minutes. I discovered the white conte crayon did not make a mark on top of the graphite, so I was careful to leave gaps for where the white was going to go. I enjoyed the process, and would recommend this exercise to anyone – try drawing from a number of different portrait busts in different styles, and focus on bringing the sculpture to life rather than trying to replicate the stone or bronze texture. The lighting is very important, and this level of intensity is hard to replicate at home or even in an art studio.
I would love to meet the man himself, to see how closely he resembles Dobell’s portrait of him – and also to see if he looks anything like my drawing!