Possessing the Beauty of a Place

"I have not been trying to teach you to draw only to see" - John Ruskin

I read a book a while back called the Art of Travel by Alain de Botton. One chapter in particular impacted me from the book (you can read my full review here). Essentially the chapter examines beauty and the human desire to possess it. People often take pictures and buy tacky souvenirs in an attempt to hold on to a place or a moment. But The Art of Travel offers a different suggestion lifted straight from John Ruskin and that is to attempt to draw the beautiful, particularly while traveling. I was never one to draw or paint or really even doodle - so this idea really struck me with its freshness. A few months ago I met Mary-Anne Bartlett, a British woman who leads art safaris. Her groups travel around Central Africa and they draw and paint with Mary-Anne teaching and guiding as they go. This sounded like the perfect way to gain the new discipline recommended by Ruskin and de Botton, so when I heard she was leading a trip to South Luangwa National Park in Zambia while Claudia was in Los Angeles I jumped at the opportunity.

The only trouble with all of this is that I was starting at absolutely zero, thankfully Ruskin reassured me:

"A man is born an artist as a hippopotamus is born a hippopotamus; and you can no more make yourself one than make yourself a giraffe."

So I didn't need to aspire towards art, but just to learn how to observe through the process of drawing. Mary-Anne agreed and assured me that my inexperience would not be an obstacle.

And it was great! Spectacular even. Our group, including Mary-Anne, consisted of just six of us. Everyone else had quite a bit of experience in drawing and painting, but they were extremely encouraging. Every evening we shared our work by candlelight offering suggestions, critiques, and most importantly encouragement - which was a bit scary at first, but I found it all really helpful and readily applicable the next day as we did it all again.

We were also helped along by an absolutely stunning week of animal sightings in the park. We had elephants wandering through our camp and a massive thunderstorm to provide flashes of intense scenery. It was the Africa of the Lion King and the menagerie of Eden. I couldn't help but look for a just landed Noah's Ark unloading all of God's creatures for my viewing pleasure.

Previous safaris have been great, but once we had checked off the animals and enjoyed the Gin & Tonic at sunset I was pretty much ready to go home. This safari was different. It takes hours of looking at an elephant or an impala before you know the bumps and stripes and the shades and how the leg bends or the tail attaches - and this information is critical for drawing them. But these animals don't pose for an hour, so every animal sighting is a new opportunity to see something new in these creatures. Mary-Anne had us do various exercises, like drawing an impala in 30 seconds, or making an elephant with only straight lines, or drawing a zebra without lifting your pencil from the paper. These constraints provided freedom to just get something down and not focus on my inabilities - and it worked. When I look at my drawings I return to the moment - the impression, of the scene. My scribbles aren't anatomical studies, but they have definitely captured something, a movement or a particular shape, and most often a bit of the beauty that I experienced.

I haven't worked out how I am going to make all of my future wildlife excursions and travels into "art safaris", but I am resolved to try.

1 Response to Possessing the Beauty of a Place

  1. [...] al? Okay, so here you go. I mentioned some of the exercises that Mary-Anne taught us in my previous post, and I wanted to show you what the results were. The first [...]

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