Ever since Kodak invented film and cameras became portable, the human compulsion to witness travel through a lens has grown unabated. The cassette tape and camcorder made it an obsession for some; with the advent of fast and furious touring, greedily snapping the scenes we hurriedly encountered seemed a necessity, in order to prove – to ourselves, as much as anyone else – that we were really there. Then, the digital age rendered it an addiction, and with the selfie, turned the perspective inwards. It has become a case of place as witness to us, rather than us observing place.
Chris Johnson has an old-fashioned – and in that, perhaps radical – approach. The former New South Wales Government Architect and now CEO of the developer representative group, Urban Taskforce Australia, is by no means a man without time pressures. He is a prolific writer on urban planning and architecture and has held adjunct professor roles at three Sydney universities, just to name a few of his irons in the urban fire.
Yet, when on the road, he takes great joy and solace in finding a quiet moment to sketch. He says it connects him to a destination in a richer, deeper way.
"When studying architecture in the late '60s (at the University of Sydney), Lloyd Rees was one of our lecturers," explains Johnson, who counts works by Rees, the acclaimed Australian landscape painter, in his personal art collection alongside originals of Brett Whitely, Peter Kingston and Reg Mombasa. "He would take us off to wharves, timber lumber yards or Redfern Station, to sketch. If I was too careful with my drawings, I didn't do too well, but if I loosened up, smudged them a bit, got a bit of character in, he'd be supportive. He encouraged me to try and get the essence of the place through and not just a photographic image. I loved it."
In 1970, Johnson and his wife, Davina, did the hippie thing and explored India in a Kombi. "I did drawings in Varanasi from a little boat on the Ganges of the ghats and people being cremated. That's where it began: I then started to draw a lot when travelling."
Continuing that today means "escaping the rigours and formality of normal life. A photograph is instant and quick, whereas drawing beauty, you start seeing things differently." However, Johnson never takes longer than 15 minutes in his attempt to capture the "essence" of place, as Rees so emphasised during those uni days. "I quite often do drawings while in a vehicle or bus and later when I get to the hotel, I get out my watercolours and enrich the work," says Johnson.
Many a wellness expert has expounded the virtues of slower, more meditative activities. Drawing is said to not only calm the mind, but help concentration and attention to detail. As the world gets faster and the onslaught of information even faster, it's an antidote to all that – and for Johnson, who deals in big, vital projects, that's important.
"It's a bit meditative: to focus on a place and structure and start drawing. That takes you away from other activities to a new space. It's calming, relaxing, you're not on edge because your mind and eyes are exploring and trying to balance."
ABOUT THE DRAWINGS
VIEW FROM A LONDON HOTEL ROOM
"Because I was in the hotel room, I had a bit more time. The drawing picks up the framing of the window and the very classic proportions across the street, you can see a London cab, but I really focused on the red buses, which are a fabulous London-type thing. They are the only things I put colour on, apart from the frame. So this separates the front view from the back view."
PONT NEUF VIEW, PARIS
"Another from a Paris window, looking at Pont Neuf. I tried to pick up some of those Japanese wood block prints where they use a 45-degree view. It was autumn and everything was quite bright."
VIEW FROM PARIS HOTEL ROOM
"It was night time and I tried to pick up the frame of the window as Matisse did in his earlier paintings. At night time Notre Dame is spot-lit so I tried to capture the lovely feeling that creates."
VIEW FROM HOTEL, LA PAZ
"La Paz is the capital of Bolivia and our hotel room looked out over the jumble of houses that climbed up the sides of the valley with the cathedral in the foreground. There are many narrow alleyways between the houses."
FROM SACRED VALLEY HOTEL
"The Sacred Valley is on the way to Machu Picchu and we stayed in a small hotel that looked across the fields to the village church."
VIEW FROM ROOM, INLE LAKE
"Inle Lake is in the Shan Hills of Burma. Our room looked right onto it."
TWO VIEWS: OF THE PAGODA IN YANGON
"This was in 2015 and our hotel luckily had this incredible view to this amazing pagoda. At dusk, it's covered in gold and looks amazing. I also drew it in the daytime It's this incredibly revered structure in Burma."
VIEW OF THE POOL, CHIANG MAI
"I was staying in a room in this beautiful town with a moat, looking out to a swimming pool surrounded by lovely trees."
LISE LODGE VIEWS
"Lise Lodge is in a village in northern Thailand surrounded by rice fields and it is run by the local tribespeople. The accommodation is in large wooden and bamboo structures that look over the tropical landscape."
VIEW FROM ROOM, RIM HOTEL
"The Rim Hotel is in the magic city of Chiang Mai, next to the moat that surrounds the city. From our room we looked across roofs, trees and the swimming pool."
Chris Johnson's advice for would-be sketchers:
"Be loose about it. Trust your eye. Don't look too closely at what you're drawing. Look not so much at the paper but at the view and let the lines do their own thing. Rodin did a lot of drawing of male and female figures and he would never look at his drawings and somehow they look amazing. There's a little bit about that: don't be too rigid and let it happen."
Interviewing Chris Johnson for this piece inspired the writer to pull out her pencils and sketchbook and start drawing again, for the first time in decades.