Drawing in Antarctica

Antarctica is a visual overload for an artist — photographs, documentaries and books fail to adequately prepare you for the place. It’s bigger, bluer, brighter, harsher and more intriguing than I had imagined, and many of the memories I have are of landscapes I never contemplated seeing.

These experiences of Antarctica will form the foundation for a body of artwork made in my Melbourne studio for an exhibition in late 2008. As well as the practical making of paintings and drawings, I wanted to give an insight into the artistic process and my reactions to the continent. To do this I photographed a selection of my drawings and published them on a purpose-built website during the course of my journey. The website was followed by schools, educators, artists and a global online audience and will be complemented with classroom presentations and discussions.

Over many years I have developed a process of working which involves first building up a large body of drawings from direct observation. I was very fortunate to spend a significant time in the field, at all three Australian Antarctic stations, which allowed me to engage with the landscape and elements first-hand.

Near Casey, I made many drawings of the abandoned Wilkes station, finding it a fascinating combination of landscape and man-made structures. I found myself interested in the slow absorption of the old station buildings back into the landscape, the relentless attack of the weather on the wood, the bitumen and steel of its construction, and bright colours reduced to subdued tones.

The days spent getting to Mawson station and then travelling around in the surrounding mountain ranges was a truly inspiring experience. The sense of anticipation gained on the journey was wholly matched by the drama of the place. From the edge of the fast ice many miles out at sea, mountains floated above the plateau. Details emerged as the ship made slow progress through the ice until the faces of the peaks, crevasse fields and flow lines in the ice, became visible. Finally, from a field hut perched on the side of Mount Henderson, I stood and looked down over the vast expanse of white and out into the berg-scattered ocean. It was an extraordinary opportunity to journey into a landscape this way: glimpsed from far off, emerging gradually and then being immersed in the detail of the terrain. It afforded me a much greater understanding of the processes involved in the formation of the Antarctic landscape.

I travelled south with few preconceived ideas of what drawings I would make whilst there and what shape the work would take once I got back to my studio. My challenge now is to try and capture some of the Antarctica I have experienced in my work: huge vistas, ribbons of landscape, shattered peaks, the imperceptible drift of vast sheets of ice, and hidden landscapes, such as the rock and mountains under ice and the mass of icebergs beneath the water that we never see.

Australian Antarctic Arts Fellow 2008

View Nicholas’s drawings and paintings