Great Southern Land

I acknowledge the traditional custodians of country throughout Australia and pay my respects to their elders, past and present, and extend my respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples today.

I’ve been spending quite a bit of time re-acquainting myself with, and journaling about, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultural history. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people are part of diverse and complex cultural histories that span at least 65,000 years. I could fill a few sketchbooks with the amount of cultural evidence that exists, but sharing all of it would feel like a trespass on what is often sacred, personal and private – not to mention a massive undertaking, since Aboriginal people across Australia were, and continue to be, culturally and linguistically diverse within and across regions. Instead, I’ve chosen to share three pages of some of the oldest evidence for human habitation in Australia. By no means is this exhaustive, and some things are not included out of respect. For example, I decided not to include sketches of human remains, such as Mungo Man, who has been the subject of much debate, and whose removal from his ancestral home 40 years ago caused distress to local Aboriginal communities. Even though I was trained in forensic anthropology, and I was happy studying old bones during my studies, I am aware of the ethical issues of removing ancient human remains from burial sites. I believe the consideration of indigenous communities needs and wishes should take priority over scientific knowledge.

Point of interest: Mungo Man’s remains were returned to his ancestral home for reburial in 2017 in a casket made from 8,000 year old red gum wood.

Further reading: Two of my university text books from almost two decades ago.

All shapes and sizes

 “To really feel a forest canopy one must use different senses, and often the most useful one is the sense of imagination.”

– John Maloof

Playing with my favourite pen and subject

Claudia Nice is the first artist that inspired me try working with pen and ink with several books, including Drawing in Pen and Ink. I like to engage fully with what I’m doing and ink requires a level of commitment that appeals to my nature. I like detail and I enjoy how tight and clear I can get with ink. Which is probably why it is a common medium for scientific illustrators, especially botanical. But pen and ink can also be very flexible. True, you can’t rub it out once its on the page, but that doesn’t matter if you’re sketching loose drawings for practice or wanting to capture the shape of a species of tree. Ink also plays nice with a lot of other mediums, especially watercolour. Claudia Nice has also written many books on creating texture with pen and ink, and watercolour.

European silver fir – Abies Alba

The Lamy Joy, pictured above, is my favourite tool for sketching in pen and ink. The nib glides smoothly across the paper, depositing ink evenly and the tapered style feels good in the hand. I use fountain pens for 80% of the inked artwork I create. I use an ink converter, with De Atramentis Archival black ink. I have had no problems with it drying it our clogging the pen.

Do what you love; love what you do

I’m loving working in this sketchbook. Of course, the subjects are engaging, personally significant and keep me interested and motivated, but I also like the no fuss approach of limiting colours and not worrying about “ruining” an expensive sketchbook (this is an economical brand from my local office supply store). Most pages have sepia ink with only the shading of a sepia coloured pencil. They take anywhere from less than an hour to several hours or more if I’m really engaged and reading up in between drawing. Occasionally I’ll throw in another coloured pencil for emphasis. The rules are simple with this one: do what you love and love what you do. It doesn’t have to mean anything to anyone else.

Art prompt: Back to beginnings

Coloured pencil and ink go well together, especially in sepia. I decided to test them out in a sketchbook by sketching some artefacts – things that got me started in archaeology and human prehistory that still inspire me. The UNESCO World Heritage site of Catalhoyuk was a game changer for me when I first read about it in the 1990s. The site was discovered in 1958 and was excavated between 1961 and 1965. Those summer seasons of digging revealed a lot about ancient Anatolia that wasn’t previously known. Unfortunately excavations were halted until 1993 due to controversy. In 1993 archaeological excavations reopened and continued to 2018. While it is not the oldest Neolithic site, its excellent state of preservation and long occupation period has facilitated a better understanding of the transition to settled life and how people occupied the spaces within.

The site of Catalhoyuk is a settlement in Anatolia, Turkey. It’s almost continuous occupation spanned a period of almost two thousand years, making it one of the most important and abundant early settlements in human history.

Stepping much further back in time I decided to sketch some of the earliest evidence of stone tool-use. It’s a good way to refresh the memory and practice ink and pencil sketching techniques. I quite like the old school look the sepia colours imbue.

Make ink and see what happens

In this day and age computers are kind of hard to avoid. I saw my first computer when I was about nine years old. It was a Commodore 64. In those days all you could do was type and print using a dot matrix printer and play rudimentary games. Even then I knew I wanted to write and could see the benefit of typed notes, because I hated my own handwriting. At 12 I commandeered my mother’s typewriter and started hammering out page after page of stories. By 16 I had my first computer, which was given to me by my uncle because he knew I wanted to be a writer and my current electric typewriter had kicked the bucket. It was a time when home computers were still relatively rare so I felt pretty grown up. The computer was bootable from a compact floppy disc and I remember having to insert one disc to boot the operating system and a second which contained all my files. I only had a finite number of space for saving the screeds of writing I was doing every day after school. I was in heaven. Most of the time I would scribble out notes on paper in my own shorthand scrawl, and then type them in long form, checking for spelling and grammar as I went. I have never been without a computer since, but I always kept a free-form notebook too. I now realise those notebooks were where the real magic was, not the pages of printed matter. My notebooks were dogeared, messy and organic, with its pasted clippings, and folded and half torn pages. Nevertheless, at the time I was embarrassed by them and kept them to myself; eventually I threw almost all of them out. Whatever remains is still hidden in boxes of ephemera in the garage.

This way of working served me well when I was younger – I could handwrite for extended periods of time without much fatigue, and most of my essay’s for university were handwritten before they were typed. After graduation I worked as an editor and proofreader for a medical research centre, where everything was digital. From then on it was easier to forgo the notebook and surrender to the speed and efficiency of the computer. I suppose that is one of the computer’s greatest attractions. Unfortunately, quick and easy isn’t necessarily creativity’s best friend, complexity is.

The digital world can be a trap if we let it.

It was only when I took up art that I returned to hard copy notebooks and sketchbooks and rediscovered the magic of the pen. I still don’t keep as many handwritten notebooks as I used to, though I carry a small one with me in my handbag and keep one on my desk for story notes. Nowadays I rarely use paper for doing drafting bigger art pieces. I use Procreate first or a similar app because it saves on a lot of paper and for the very appealing undo button. I keep gigabytes of information in databases, folders and storage devices, all easily searchable and accessible with a few clicks. Admittedly that is one of the greatest appeals of having computers – no untidy filing cabinets or masses of paper, and everything is at your finger tips. It’s all very easy and convenient, but I have to admit, all those files and folders and fancy apps don’t spark joy quite like a book of hand-drawn scribbles or handwritten notes. I’m not an either/or kind of person and believe in balancing digital and analogue, but sometimes I need to rest one and favour the other. This week I decided to rest the computer and show up with my pens and pencils to my notebooks and sketchbooks. Somehow brainstorming feels more organic and thus more gratifying with a pen. It’s a good way to refresh the creative reservoir.

When you have a piece of paper and a pen/pencil and your imagination, you have everything you need. It’s just the three of you. No distractions, no complications, nothing to click. Just make ink and see what happens.

Armchair journaling

Due to a minor injury I haven’t been in my studio/office much this week, but as long as I have a trolley of art goodies, some blank pages, a steady supply of coffee, and a comfy armchair, I’m still able to create. It’s hard not to.

These are uncomplicated pages, nothing that can’t be accomplished with fineliners or fountain pens and coloured pencils. The paper is only 80 gsm and the notebook was reasonably priced, but there are advantages to this. I find I have less hesitation because the notebook itself didn’t cost a king’s ransom. I don’t have a particular plan for this notebook except that to give it to my daughter because she loves these sorts of things and it’s a great way to communicate with her on the things that are important to me.

I don’t keep traditional diaries for a few reasons – my handwriting is unlovely, I don’t enjoy chronicling key moments of my life and I lack the discipline to maintain them since I already have enough projects. But I do love to art and I do think it’s important to do this as a shared experience with my daughter as a sort of conversation with her. This style of journal is a kind of compromise. I think the thing I love the most about this style of journal is there are no rules, and the urge to be a perfectionist is greatly reduced. As much as I try not to strive for perfectionism in my practice sketchbooks, I’m regularly frustrated that pages don’t come out looking like I’d envisaged. In this one I’m not troubled by the idea of perfect design and aesthetic. Of course I want the pages to be at least a little bit pleasing, but it’s the content and the act of creation that counts the most, those are the things I want to be important.

I’ve included a three photos of pages below.

A universe of ideas

As a child, at least as early as I can remember, I believed ideas were absorbed from the universe, that our brains were receivers, picking up on the tangible experiences and events of real beings who lived beyond our solar system or in another dimension. What it meant, basically, was that somewhere in the universe there were elves, gnomes and dragons, but also vampires, werewolves and trolls. In my mind Middle Earth was a real place, which Tolkien had the honour of viewing remotely and the genius of portraying in exquisite detail. I don’t know where this notion came from or how I developed it, but I was so confident with this idea I never questioned it; I always had a conveyor belt of ideas rumbling through my mind and I couldn’t comprehend how my small mind could create it all. As an adult I now realise the hypothesis was quite ingenuous. It couldn’t work. Consider all the half-baked or silly ideas any of us has ever had – the universe would be a mess, with half-baked beings and silly scenaros.

I’m still fascinated with where ideas and innovation originate, but I’m now further away from understanding it than I ever was as a child. I want to understand, but do I need to in order to continue “receiving” ideas?. In my wanderings around the internet, trying to gather information on theories of the origin of ideas, I came across the wonderful Ted Talk by Eat, Pray, Love author, Elizabeth Gilbert. I read Eat, Pray, Love when it came out and enjoyed it, and I recall seeing this talk ten years ago. It resonated with me then and it still does today. In the talk, Gilbert discusses the almost “paranormal” feeling of the creativity process and so it seems appropriate the talk here.

If Elizabeth Gilbert is right, and we “just need to show up”, then I’ll keep showing up for however long I can.

The Sense of Wonder

Do not grow old, no matter how long you live. Never cease to stand like curious children before the great mystery into which we were born.

Albert Einstein

The sense of wonder is a theme that comes up often when I read about creativity or biographies and memoirs of creative thinkers. Awe and curiosity drove Albert Einstein’s scientific and philosophical thought and led to some of the most inspired insights in our understanding of the world. He understood the importance of a sense of wonder and advocated it often. Leonardo Da Vinci definitely possessed a developed sense of wonder. His skill in artistic rendering were matched by his enthusiasm for observation and note-taking, which themselves inspire a sense of wonder in modern readers.

A sense of wonder is not only the feeling of being amazed at something, it is a whole body reaction, which can bring on goosebumps and shudders, leave you breathless or speechless and lead to feelings of reverence and even a sensation there is a magical quality to the experience. D.H. Lawrence described the sense of wonder as the sixth sense, “the natural religious sense”. There is little doubt humans have been experiencing the sense of wonder for many thousands of years, at least. We can see it in prehistoric rock and cave art, in the architecture of the ancients and in their writings. It is why we still cherish those ancient places, ruined though many of them are. Consider the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; this list has been around since antiquity, despite the fact that only one is still standing – the Great Pyramid of Giza. Modern lists of wonders of the world include both human-made structures and natural wonders, but they have much in common with those of antiquity: they awaken in observers to a sense of curiosity, awareness and delight. The feeling is magnetic and in this we are still very much like our ancestors who lived millennia ago.

Many years ago I visited Newgrange, and was quite enchanted by the place. However, not everyone felt so enamoured. Some visitors complained the site lacked authenticity and that it had been ruined by modern interpretations and aesthetics. I had a degree in archaeology and palaeoanthropology and had read up on megalithic sites in Europe, but even I wasn’t sure what an authentic Newgrange was supposed to feel like, after all, we were all 21st century tourists, with sensitivities and expectations specific to our time and world views. I had suspended my expectations before arriving at Newgrange, but I began to feel as if I was being naive, romanticising the experience. Yet as I wandered around and through the monument, a sense of wonder and curiosity kicked in and I began to enjoy the experience without micromanaging it. While others questioned the guide on the ugliness of the facade, I gave in to reverie. I understand that some people felt no connection to the monument, or indeed the surrounding area, but does that mean connection is impossible for others? Newgrange, like many ancient monuments, is a commemorative place, but it doesn’t mark a single moment in time or represent a single person. It is a place with special meaning for people in the past, and though we might not agree on the nature of the meaning, we are predisposed to honour it. It’s human nature. The fact that Newgrange has been part of the Boyne River valley landscape for over 5,000 years is enough for my unpretentious sense of wonder. For me it’s about continuity, and a confirmation that we are part of something greater than ourselves. The sense of wonder is an intuition that engages the mind, but it’s also an affirmation that there are still mysteries in the world. A great many things would not be possible without it. The sense of wonder begets creativity.

On the summit of the precipice, and in the heart of the green woods . . . there was an intelligence in the winds of the hills, and in the solemn stillness of the buried foliage, that could not be mistaken. It entered into my heard and I could have wept, not that I could not see, but that I could not portray all that I felt.

James Holman
From A Sense of Wonder: How a Blind Man Became History’s Greatest Traveler, by Jason Roberts