Last year I made a small book of drawings of early twentieth century criminals, (see here) using images inspired by photos from the Police and Justice Museum in Sydney, and now I’m continuing the theme, but with larger drawings. Every face tells a story – some aggressive, some cocky, some dapper, others beaten down and sad.
Photographs of some Sydney criminals were taken in an almost casual way between about 1910 and 1930, some sitting, others slouching against a wall with their hands in their pockets before more formal mug shots came into use. It seems that these photos were quite random, not all criminals were photographed, some were named and their stories can be found, others were quite anonymous, but to me every one of these has a story written on his (or her, there are women too) face.
There is a book published by Sydney Living Museums which has a lot of these photos, and this is what I have used as my inspiration. I have not tried to copy the photos too accurately, but I’ve tried to gain an essence of who these people were.
Each drawing is 15 cm square, on Arches watercolour paper, drawn using water-soluble graphite. I do a loose sketch with an HB pencil, wet it with a brush to get in some tones, then when it is dry work into it more with a 4B pencil, wet it again, and so on till I’m satisfied.
After drawing the miniature versions of men with beards I decided it would be interesting to explore them in a much larger format, but keeping the shapes simple and graphic. As I drew them, I found that my focus was drawn to the men’s eyes, and the beards became almost peripheral, although their moustaches remained an integral part of defining the character in each face. Too much detail of clothing, or even hair became unnecessary, so I put in just enough to anchor the face down without distracting from the main objective.
As I worked, I was surprised at the difference from the miniature versions, which are much more complete portraits, I feel these are more about capturing emotion – and this has turned out to be quite dark, no smiles.
The main tool I used was a Pentel Brush Pen, which makes wonderful, sweeping, almost calligraphic marks, and can be controlled to make marks as fine as a hair to a heavy, thick brush stroke. The shadow detail was made using an extra fine Rotring Art Pen for consistent fine hatching. Each drawing is roughly 33 x 25 cm.
The impetus behind these drawings was an upcoming miniature exhibition. The title is “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow” and it will be held in Juniper Hall, a beautiful historic house on Oxford Street in the centre of Sydney. Oxford Street and Paddington in general is an area where the young men you see are frequently beautifully turned out, with immaculate, chiselled beards. When I started thinking about subject matter, I realised that if they were simply reclothed in the outfits of a bygone era, they could easily travel back in time a hundred years and no-one would bat an eyelid, yet still be part of today, and even tomorrow.
The more references I found, the more fun it became – I did large, loose drawings, not trying to be too literal, then scaled them down and redrew them till I was satisfied with the character that emerged. Only one is intended to represent a real person and that is the one at top right (above), who is based on an old photo of Ned Kelly, one of Australia’s most notorious bushrangers.
Three of them will be framed and submitted for the exhibition – in the main image, the top left (1916), bottom left (2016) and probably the top middle for 2116, but I’m not quite sure about that yet. I thought about adding colour, but in the end have pretty much decided to leave them black and white … I think … (Click on the images below to see more detail.)
The next development of the idea is to draw them again very large, bigger than life size, with a lot of detail, and maybe let them develop into something more abstract.
I used a Pentel brush pen, with permanent ink, on drafting film. It glided on beautifully, very satisfying to use.