Those of you that read my blog here regularly are probably aware that one of my big loves of sketching is so-called reportage drawing, that is the process of reporting news or events or activities of general interest through drawing. I was therefore thrilled to be able to visit the Imperial War museum towards the end of August, with the Manchester Urban Sketchers group, to draw at Salford Quays (the sun shone!) and to attend a talk by the talented George Butler, war reportage illustrator and journalist.
The basis of his talk and exhibition was the time he spent out in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of British troops at the end of 2014, recording, through exquisite ink and watercolour drawings, the everyday lives of the Iraq people. Through his drawings, he offers a unique and extraordinary insight into the lives of those living with conflict. Actually, I was doubly lucky as I was able to go one week to hear the talk and see George’s drawings (as slides) and then, the following week, to attend again and see the images themselves, displayed in frames, at the entrance to the cafe. I was glad to get two ‘helpings’ of this experience. It is powerful stuff.
Since I started urban sketching I have been interested in the curiosity and fascination that people have with those of us drawing out on the streets. People will engage freely in conversation about what you are drawing and how you are going about it. In his talk, George talks about the value of illustration, as a viable and powerful alternative to photography and film in recording today’s news. He describes how the openness and non-threatening nature of drawing, standing with a board and pen and drawing onto paper, where anyone can look over his shoulder, enables a unique insight and an opportunity to capture emotional subject matters.
In his talk, and though study of his drawings, it is clear that there are a number of fundamentals that drive him in his reportage work and I am going to try to consider these in my own work too. He mentions firstly that often what you leave out of a drawing is as important as what you leave in and he does seem to be a real expert at paring the scene down to the most important elements. I need to get better at this and think more and draw less! I probably need to be more disciplined perhaps using the idea of time constraint to force selection. Here’s an image I did recently with only a short time frame. You can see the focus and the selection, with windows just outlined and the lines of the buildings drifting away. Similarly on the left hand side there is white space. George seems to be a master at white space in his work too!
Another key comment related to the need to tell the story and to have something to say (and say it!). I think this is quite critical for reportage work and its something that takes some exploration and development. It’s not just about recording what you see, its about an interpretation, an angle, a visual statement. It is this, I believe, that holds people’s attention. Linked to this is the way in which the drawing is created.
It is fascinating to look at a number of his stunning drawings because they all seem to have this special way of leading you through and ‘up the garden path’!. The line work together with the sensitive and selective painting are clearly very well thought through. The eye is led through the drawing, either across or up or however the drawing is laid out. Colours and the addition of colour is a very deliberate and carefully considered, albeit subtle and often muted and there are places to rest the eye before moving on through the scene. I think I am going to have to study these types of painting much more to gain more insight and understanding of this approach. Here is an image that I produced recently. If we ignore the perhaps overly detailed nature of the scene and rather messy colour application, I have tried to use colour to pull you into the market place and through into the central area.
Overall, this was an inspiring insight into the processes and approach of this Reportage illustrator whose images have given me much food for thought.