MYANMAR SKETCH BOOK (geddit…?!) An article for the travel section of the Artist and Leisure Painter magazine
‘Mingalalaba’ (hello) watercolour on khadi rough paper
Back in February I boarded Malaysian airlines with my trusty (indeed trusting) art group, one of whom had only read about the trip in this magazine a couple of weeks previously! Packing skills were tested to the limit because three internal flights were required on this tour of Burma (from now on known as Myanmar- pronounced mee-an-mar) As always with these trips, the difference between sight-seeing and actual sketching opportunities is quite blurred. It is important to look at your itinerary and make room for painting moments. Due to the fact that we were often on the move, we had not taken seats or easels, so found some plastic stools in the market which turned out to be invaluable. The Burmese do not like getting sunburnt, so they anoint themselves with ‘thanakha’, a yellowish-white cosmetic paste made from ground bark. Luckily for us, our guide was only too happy to stand guard with an umbrella/parasol for protection - otherwise, it is imperative to wear a sunhat.
Local girls with traditional face paint. Indein
If you have truly experienced a place and immersed yourself in the culture (albeit for a short time) then you can always re-capture the essence in a painting with the aid of good drawing observation and some photos. Here are some sketches of the famous ‘leg rowers’ on Inle Lake, Shan State - an experience which will live with us forever.
Fig 5 a) The shape of the hats were difficult to get right; not as obvious as they look! They are slightly built men, strong and wiry - often squatting on their boats for hours on end, with nothing but a cheroot for company.
Fig 5 b) Here I used a lot of water so that the Blue and the Burnt Sienna merged - particularly in the reflection. These sketches are all about the reflection. I also wanted to emphasise the whiteness of his shirt, so used more blue around his torso.
The fishermen were fantastic ‘models’ but you barely had time to think with the listing boats and the appreciative audience of wives and children lurking behind us. However it was an opportunity not to be missed, so we sketched away flat out, constantly turning the page and starting again, in order to keep the energy and achieve some sort of spontaneity. You have to try and keep the pencil moving or go in with paint straight away; otherwise the figures look too wooden. A brown pen on a blue wash worked quite well. Alternatively I used a pale violet wash (ultramarine and rose madder) which accentuated the colour of the trousers.
Don’t worry about extraneous detail, like facial features. I kept colour to a minimum and just drew as much as possible in the fading light. “When the mist was on the rice-fields an' the sun was droppin' slow….” (From Kipling’s Mandalay, although apparently he never went there!)
Fig 6 a) A golden pagoda in Nyaungshwe village
Our journey started and finished where the Yangon and Bago Rivers converge in the ancient city of Rangoon (lit. “end of strife” and now called Yangon) It assails you in every way with its extraordinary chaos which seems to work on several levels, although for how long, no one quite knows. One oasis of calm is Kandawgi Park, where there is a beautiful view of the iconic Pagoda from across the lake. There are a couple of nice cafes where you can base yourself, thereby supporting the local economy and your own backside. In these situations you have to plunge in and get something down on paper. Don’t even attempt GOLD! I find Green Gold goes a long way towards a gold effect – the tone is after all, what matters. I even did this viridian version for fun. Fig 7 The Shwedagon Pagoda in viridian and violet watercolour on posh banana watercolour paper.
Don’t worry if you do not get as much done on a big trip, as you had envisaged. It will all be swirling around in your head and if you don’t come back a better artist, you will certainly return a better person! (Which is the same thing really) The physical act of keeping some sort of ‘travelogue’ is what seals the images in your memory and inspires some great paintings back home.
Fig 8 a) ‘Too hot to move’. Pencil and wash and 8 b) pencil sketch. I couldn’t resist this Brahman Bull who was having a well-earned siesta when we passed by in our bus.
A Word on Equipment: This was by definition, a sketchbook tour, so art kit was kept to a minimum. We even put some clear tinted washes into the sketching pads before we left the UK, in order to save time later on(e.g. sienna or ultramarine) I never worry about water containers because you can always cut the top off up a plastic bottle. However, beware getting your paint and drinking water muddled up - NOT GOOD! In Myanmar they are very solicitous and give you sealed and bottled water everywhere you go (plus a free cigar should you wish…)
What we took: A tiny paint box; I love my Winsor & Newton travel box and invested in pans of pigment that I really wanted instead of the ones they give you. Lemon Yellow; Aureolin Yellow; Raw Umber; Burnt Umber; Burnt Sienna; Winsor Red; Rose Madder; Brown Madder(monks robes!) Winsor and Cobalt Blue.
2 large 37ml tubes: French Ultramarine and Raw Sienna.
1 x large brush (size 12-16) and a smaller retractable one. (Da Vinci Kolinski have sable ones)
Watercolour paper moleskine sketchbook 8”x5”
A larger A4 ring bound ‘Posh Banana’ Bockingford watercolour pad. (300gsm)
Plus, I couldn’t resist a lovely textured and bound book made out of elephant dung which seemed appropriate, although we never actually spotted a live one. www.elecosy.com
A water cartridge brush pen is useful – they are cheap and easy to use.
Pencils and water resistant drawing pens.
A light art bag, which doubles as your hand luggage. (with pockets for every kind of mosquito repellent, although we did not actually see these either!)
Sun cream, drinking water, suitable shoes (which kick off easily when visiting temples)
Sunhat (with chin tie – very useful on windy boat)
Camera - I took a big digital – but I did envy my friend’s fantastic point and push, Nikon Coolpix s9700, and the quality of her photos are a testimony to it. In fact I would go as far as to say that a big camera is a hindrance and does not endear you to the general population. That said, we never experienced any aggression of any sort and felt safe and welcome at all times.