Seeing Henry

By Vita Forest

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Reclining Figure: Angles 1980, by Henry Moore

Joan Didion said, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.”

To this I would add, “I don’t know what I see until I draw it.”

Today at sketch club we fanned out to find a subject from the steps of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.  The weather forecast was iffy – rain was predicted, but the sunny skies contradicted that certainty.  The art gallery is a good standby – lots of scenery outside, and easy to duck inside if the heavens open.

Some artists went straight for the interior, borrowing the handy stools that the art gallery will lend a sketcher and searching for a subject in the cool inside.  The sun was shining, the breeze was gentle, so I decided to stroll around outside and see what I could see.

I didn’t walk far before I came to the large Henry Moore sculpture on the lawn of the gallery.  It’s a female figure sprawling casually on a rectangular plinth, like a sun bather on a beach towel, or one of the many picnickers you will see in the parklands around the gallery.  She leans back on her elbow, glancing over her shoulder, feet bare.

I have always liked the monumental solidity of it, the way the folds of the skirt are captured in the hardness of bronze.  I have walked by it a million times.  But when I started to draw, I realised there was a lot I had never noticed.

If you stand close (which I did to do a study of the face) you can see the imprint of Moore’s tools leaving scratched lines in what I took previously as smooth metal.  As if he sketched over the whole body.  You can see how the weather has streaked the bronze with green, so again, that smooth colour that you register from a distance, is fact rather painterly, with contrasts of icy mint green and deep chocolate brown.

I moved from the shade of one tree and into that of another – a new vista appearing.  I could now see that the figure, rather than being a bulky simplification of forms, had some quirky character details – there were toenails on the feet, and the left foot was turned in, slightly pigeon-toed, with the toes raised from the solidity of the plinth.

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She is wiggling her toes.

I could record the lines of the hair pulled back off the face, the eye peering behind as if in surprise, the thin indent of the lips and again the patina of the weathered bronze which suddenly made the face so vulnerable.

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Detail of her face – notice the lines of her hair

I guess that is what happens when you spend an hour or two looking at the one object, unpicking it, discovering its secrets.  You learn how it fits together, how the light and shadows move over it, you appreciate the way the parts make up the whole.  So, as various sightseers stepped in for a quick photo and were then on their way, I stayed with her, luxuriated in having one focus, and made a friend out of an old acquaintance.

Later, I moved back to the steps and tried drawing some passer-bys and a fellow sketching pal who was across the road.  (He caught me at the bottom of his sketch too – hat and all!)  Then I turned and saw another bronze sculpture – a gallant soldier on a horse and began doing some quick sketches of the pair.  This time I noticed that despite having on a rather solid looking helmet, the soldier had bare legs and bare feet!  I wonder how he fared in the battle…

Soon it was time for our Show and Tell, we trickled back to where we first met, crossing the road, walking up the hill, back out into the light after the dimness of the gallery.  We compared and praised and marvelled at our different styles and what a range of subjects caught our attention in the same place.  It’s comforting to realise how individual we all are.  And what secrets are illuminated if we take the time to stop and look.  Thanks Henry!

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The folds in the fabric of the skirt is the main feature that I used to notice.

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7 thoughts on “Seeing Henry

  1. Thanks for posting this. It reminded me of a happy time I spent sketching a Henry Moore in the Tate Gallery in London. I love your description of the sketching process. Please could post your sketch, I would love to see it!

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