When her eyesight began failing, Betty Churcher - a trained artist, art critic, academic and former Director of the National Gallery of Australia - undertook a project to draw her favourite paintings in order to etch their details in her mind's eye. She writes in her wonderful Notebooks:
'The act of drawing is a transforming device where I'm able to track down (and tie down) my visual enthusiasm.'
The purpose of drawing the work is not a personal interpretation of the art, she says, it's more like creating a 'shopping list' of what a great work contains.
believe that anyone can draw in this way, provided they are prepared to
submerge personal ambitions and attitudes and become totally lost in
the painting as it has been presented to the world by the artist.'
When I went to see the NGV Winter Masterpieces show, Monet's Garden, on the weekend I had Betty Churcher in mind.
'Too many visitors to galleries broad-scan a picture for its subject matter only before moving on to the next picture' but, in fact, 'we should always look at important works of art long and hard, with undivided attention'.
So I avoided the impulse to get value for money by studying each piece and slavishly reading the accompanying text, but instead, I walked into each room, scanned the paintings and then settled on a few which drew me to them. Then I spent some time with those ones.
This approach was fairly new to me and one I will definitely try again. While I did consider each painting (after all, when again will I see so many Monets in one place?) I didn't think it my duty to stand at length in front of each one, or read each word written about them.
This depth approach (rather than breadth) meant my viewing experience was much more meaningful, and I didn't once think about the gift shop or my post-exhibition coffee. (Hey, we've all been there ;)
I was unable to sit and draw in detail because of the sheer crowd attending the show. So I stood back from each painting I had selected, making a quick thumbnail and some notes about what drew me to that work.
Doing this led me to a deeper contemplation of each painting as well as the body of work presented. And while I sketched, my mind wandered to thoughts of what Monet was trying to do (especially with light, reflections and water) which led me back to my own art practice and what I'm trying to do.
Observing how many times Monet painted waterlilies (a lot) and how many years he dedicated to painting his own garden (many) I became a little more comfortable with my own obsession with trees and, in particular, suburban trees.
While they still hold interest and mystery for me, I will continue to paint them.
Monet said, 'It took me a while to understand my waterlilies'. That thought is comforting to me.