”. ~ Pablo Picasso.
Like Picasso, Khalil Ibrahim understands the value of the first attempt - the quick sketch or the initial drawing. For it is frequently within that first observation that the artist captures the essence of the thing observed through his/her ‘feel’ of, or reaction to, the subject they are observing. It is this initial relationship (to the subject) which often proves to be the most profound, for an artist.
For artists such as Khalil Ibrahim, it becomes necessary not just to look - but to see. Sketching enables an artist to re-train his/her hand-eye coordination through placing physical marks on a surface and feeling the effect an instrument – pen, pencil, scribe etc has when making its mark through the pressure of the artist’s recording hand.
An artist has to observe his/her subject, note the interplay of light and shade, the subject’s peculiarities – those things which make the subject unique, its curves or straight lines, solidness or its porosity.
Sketching is often a short-hand, a brief way of recording what the artist observes and feels about his subject. Often sketches have enough emotive power to stand alone as art works in themselves but frequently are also used as memory recall, in developing other works.
American sculptor David Smith, in a talk (1954) remarked ‘Drawings remain the life force of the artist...’ giving emphasis to the notion that artists quickly come to learn the value in the freedom of sketching and drawing – Malaysian artist Khalil Ibrahim is no exception to this.
Khalil Ibrahim is renowned for his superb watercolour painting, atmospheric oils, delicate batiks and intriguing acrylics. He was born in 1934, at Kubang Kerian, Kelantan, on the East Coast of what was then Malaya (now Malaysia). As a young boy his burgeoning artistic talent surfaced in a love for making wayang kulit (traditional Kelantanese shadow play puppets).
The wayang kulit was the main form of entertainment, at that time, in Kelantan. In his early teens, Khalil would draw directly onto a big leaf and make the wayang kulit with the addition of cardboard, to play with his friends. Khalil mentioned - ‘I wanted to imitate the dalang (master)’. The wayang kulit was a big thing for the rural Khalil, there were competitions and different shows almost every month. At that time his father was in Mecca but his mother watched over Khalil, and didn’t approve of his copying the wayang kulit. She would crumple the puppets and throw them away, but Khalil would retrieve them or simply do another.
Khalil’s father wanted him to be a teacher. Most of his friends, on leaving school, studied to be teachers in the Middle East. His path deviated when he began attending art classes held every Sunday, in Kota Bahru, Kelantan. It was there, from 1945 to 1947, that Khalil absorbed the fine arts of watercolour and oil painting techniques from Malay school art inspector (Cikgu) Nik Mahmud Idris.
Khalil was encouraged by his own creativity as well as sales to army officers and civil servants. Later Khalil Ibrahim painted in his spare time from primary school teaching. Khalil would travel from Kelantan, two days by lorry, to be able to sell his work at the annual MAHA (Agriculture and Horticulture Association trade fair) in Kuala Lumpur, and travel the two days back again. It was difficult, but it proved his determination to make a living out of art.
Khalil Ibrahim originally wanted to go to Bandung, in Indonesia, to study art (1954) but was not successful in his application; instead he achieved his artistic breakthrough some years later - in Pahang, 1957. It was then that Khalil was introduced to the District Officer Claude Gibb Ferguson, previously a District Officer in Perak. Ferguson spoke good Malay and got on well with the local people. Ferguson invited Khalil to his house and later asked him to paint an image of his house, in Temerloh, Pahang.
It was a challenge, but soon after Khalil successfully completed his task and other commissions came. This eventuated with him adopting the Temerloh Rest House as an impromptu art gallery, because of the many travelling dignitaries who tended to stop over at the Rest House, and would see Khalil’s work there. (Rest Houses (Rumah Rehat) were a colonial concept, intended to provide a place to stay over for weary travellers, but more specifically travellers who were also government servants.)
It began to be a busy time for Khalil - other work in that year included oil paintings such as Bachok (1957) Pahang River (1957) and one referred to as Pahang Series (1957) - of fishing boats, the river and thatched houses. One notable commission, in 1957, was to paint the portrait of the Sultan of Pahang – Sultan Abu Bakar Ri’aytuddin Al-Mu’adzam Shah, for the Sultan’s birthday. It was the impetus that the young artist, Khalil needed and never looked back from. In 1958, Khalil painted the evocative oil painting – Sawah Padi (Paddy Field), an unusual painting of rice harvesting, painted on cloth then laid upon canvas. It featured some of the structural elements found Bachok. Coastal Scene was also painted in that year (1958).
Under guidance from Claude Gibb Ferguson, Khalil studied English at the Clifford School, Kuala Lipis - to gain the necessary language qualification to study art in England. While studying at the Clifford School, Khalil entered some of his work, last minute, into The Malaysian Way of Life – the Lever Brothers art competition, and received second prize.
Before he left Malaysia for London (1959) Khalil painted Malaysian Scene (National Art Gallery) oil on canvas. He was sponsored by the Pahang state government and Khalil left Malaysia to study art at the important St. Martin’s School of Art, London. It was the same year that the infamous art critic Clement Greenberg visited London and Cornwall, witnessing contemporary works of art.
A year later, British Pop artist Peter Blake joined St. Martin’s (in 1960), after returning from a study tour of Europe and was lecturing in the school at the same time Khalil was studying there. David Hockney used to drop by to give the budding art students lectures, some of which Khalil attended. While in England, Khalil studied English in evening classes and met the woman who was to be his future wife (Judith Hürzeler) in 1963.
Because of his sponsorship from Pahang, and due to money he had saved before leaving for England, Khalil was considered quite well-off by his Malaysian friends in England, and even managed to buy a transistor radio – the then equivalent of a MP3 player today.
Khalil’s ‘English’ works reveal a very different style from his earlier landscapes and portraits. Influenced, no doubt, by his peers, lecturers, and the general atmosphere of both the foreign country and the school of art, the early 1960s saw Khalil experimenting with abstraction in works like Destruction and Destruction II (1960-1965) and Abstract I (1968).
In Geese (1965) and Figurative Study (1965) - works of gouache on paper, there are distinct influences of Italian Futurism, both in the movement of the subjects and in both works’ colour style. However the brief fascination with Futurism seems to dissipate when Khalil paints his own Self Portrait (1965) in acrylics, and the Temerloh Girl (1966) also in acrylics. His love for Expressionism comes to the fore with Portrait of a Balinese Lady (1975). In his 1980s sketch book, Khalil took great pains to copy a paragraph concerning Expressionism from an art book, in Switzerland - such was his liking for the subject.
There is an interesting colour pencil on paper drawing, from 1970, which also shows the artist’s leanings towards Expressionism, and/or the German Blue Rider group (Der Blaue Reiter). The drawing is untitled, but the intriguing use of primary colours suggests Khalil’s fascination not only with form, but also with colour too.
Khalil’s interest in painterly abstraction surfaces in other ways throughout his career as an artist. This is noted specifically in such works as the airbrushed oil painting Airbrush Abstract (1981) and Shadow XX11 painted in acrylic (1981). Over the length of his artistic career, Khalil’s abstraction is somewhat overshadowed by his other, more naturalistic, works until the 2000s – when he produced paintings such as Pembicaraan III (2002),Velocity IV (2003), Tangtu (2003) Pura (2003) Padang Galak (2004), Pabean (2004) and the intriguing ink on paper set of images from Bali, Indonesia, entitled The Spirit of the East Coast and Sanur (2003-2004).
After receiving his National Diploma of Design in Fine Arts from St. Martin’s, in 1966 Khalil continued his education at the University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur and qualified as an art teacher. It was at this time (1966), that Khalil painted an oil study reminiscent of the Post-Impressionist works of Paul Gauguin – Temerloh Girl. This work is an acrylic, on board, which has all the feel of Gauguin’s oil paintings from the South Seas.
It was at this point in time that Khalil had already become close friends with one of Malaysia’s most successful contemporary artist – Ibrahim Hussein, while visiting Malaysia Hall, in Bryanston Square, London. Khalil also met another famous Malaysian painter/poet, at the University of Malaya - Latiff Mohidin.
In 1968 Khalil met with Frank Sullivan, former Press Secretary to independent Malaysia’s first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj. Sullivan was a champion of the arts in Malaysia and was instrumental, along with the Prime Minister, in the creation of Malaysia’s National Art Gallery (1958).
Sullivan – the first administrator of the National Art Gallery, had set up the Samat Art Gallery in 1966 with his partner Samat Silat, and encouraged Khalil in his painting and batik images. Sullivan enabled Khalil to exhibit his first solo exhibition at the Samat Art Gallery. At this time Khalil Ibrahim also experimented with batik ‘painting’, one result being Kelantanese (1968).
In 1970 Khalil filled solo exhibitions in Jakarta (Indonesia), the Gallery of Fine Art, Singapore and again at Samat Art Gallery. The following year (1971) he exhibited at the Galeries De la fontaine in Geneva and two years later (1973) at the Raya Gallery in Victoria, Australia. In nineteen seventy-seven Khalil had his work touring New Zealand as part of a University of Malaya exhibition.
Throughout his personal artistic history Khalil Ibrahim has been drawn to observe and depict the hard working lives of ordinary people influenced, no doubt, by his East Coast of Malaysia upbringing. From his earliest works – of Pahang fishing villages, thatched roof dwellings, fishermen hauling their catch, to more enigmatic and stylised beach works Khalil is in touch not only with his own humble origins but with the heart and soul of the country he loves.
Khalil is one of the few Malaysian contemporary artists, in a short list including Chuah Thean Teng, who have successfully worked using batik as a medium. Kelantanese, already mentions and Gadis (1968) – a portrait of a young girl, are clearly a good early examples of Khalil’s batik work, made shortly after his return to Malaysia, while Pantai Timur II (1985) is a very provocative and strong piece using muted colours, but demonstrating the artist’s command of line and detail, in his chosen medium. Pantai Timur II (East Coast II) is in the Bank Negara Malaysia Collection.
As well as alliances with MAS (Malaysian Airlines), in the 1980s Khalil became actively involved with the Malaysian Watercolour Association, which had many successful exhibitions around Asia, including Hong Kong, Japan and Korea. He continued producing watercolours, like Beach Vista (1990) Sunset (1991) Berserah (1994) Kota Bharu (1995) and the East Coast Series (1995), well into the nineteen nineties.
Dr Muliyadi Mahamood, in his brief look at Malaysian art, in Modern Malaysian Art – from the pioneering era to the pluralist era (1930s – 1990s), suggests that ‘The early 1990s also witnessed a revived interest in the watercolour medium that was first introduced in the 1930s’. He goes on to remark that Khalil Ibrahim was amongst the ‘serious’ watercolourists who used ‘spontaneous brushstrokes’ and ‘...many thin and transparent layers of colour through the wash technique’. This can be witnessed in Khalil’s Turneresque and calmly russet-hued Highland I (1993).
Along with abstract figures, the past two decades – 1990 to 2010 (inclusive) have seen Khalil Ibrahim produce set after stunning set of brightly hued watercolour images, acrylics and oils which have updated his familiar theme of East Coast beach, and young girl groupings. In the last few watercolours the viewer is treated to the gaiety of the girl’s sarongs and the brightness of their lengthy Malaysian blouses, while they stroll or stand on bleached out beaches. The oils and acrylics lean towards the abstraction mentioned earlier - Abstract II (oil -1996), East Coast Series VI (acrylic – 1998) and Velocity IV (acrylic - 2003).
There is a continuance of the East Coast series of works, not only in watercolour but also in acrylics and others in oils. Paintings such as Malam di Pantai (acrylic - 2007) are semi-abstracts inspired by life on the East Coast of Malaysia, while Pantai Melawati (acrylic - 2004) takes that abstraction one step further and Pericaraan VI (acrylic - 2002), a much earlier painting, sees Khalil’s leaning towards a purer abstraction.
More recently, Khalil has exhibited around Malaysia and has had a number of his works held both in private and public collections including Hilton Hotels, Maybank, Petronas, Bank Negara, Bank Bumiputra, the KL Lifestyle Collection, Telecom and the National Art Gallery collections. But wherever his works are held and whichever medium he chooses to use, at the base of his form and colour is drawing - more specifically the sketches he has always done from life, culminating in a large number of sketchbooks filled to the very covers with fresh, vibrant sketches.
Of Sketches and Sketchbooks
‘I emphasise drawing in my creative life. My passion for drawing has remained unabated. It continues to be the foundation of my work in the studio and I am never without a writing instrument I can use to sketch ideas’. (Khalil Ibrahim – A Continued Dialogue, Galeri Petronas, with Shireen Naziree, 2004)
‘They are part of my work, just like the paintings’ Khalil said to me, in an interview. He had learned the value of sketchbooks early on at art school, where he realised that other students retained every little scrap of the work they produced, no matter how small. “It was in my second or third year (at art school) that I saw one South African artist keep every single piece of her work, even the small ones...and from that I learned that (keeping the works)was very important.’
‘Being an artist is being a recorder’ Khalil said, while also demonstrating sadness over the lack of sketching done by modern day Malaysian art students. Khalil said that he had learned many things about his art works through the physical act of sketching, and he worried about the younger artists lack of skill in that direction.
It is because of his love for sketching that Khalil Ibrahim has filled countless sketchbooks with quick studies. The artistic and fiscal values, of these sketch books have been very quickly realised. Some of them have been bought and preserved by Malaysia’s National Art Gallery; some remain with the artist while others are in the hands of private collections.
Put simply a sketchbook, or sketch pad, is a collection of paper pages bound and suitable for sketching in one of its many forms. They range from the cheaply purchased pad to the iconic, and pricey, ‘Moleskine’ which was created in modern times (1997) to emulate those little black notebooks so frequently used by artists, and writers, in previous centuries.
Generally, there might be two different forms of sketching – the observational and the inventive. Observational sketching focuses upon recording the artist’s exterior world, the world he/she sees around them and interacts with - this might include nature sketches, architecture, travels, nude sketches etc.
Inventive/creative sketching records the artist’s inner mind, creativity and the development of ideas. Aside from that an artict’s sketchbook can be anything the artist wills it to be. Artists over many centuries have practised the art of sketching - from Dutch artist Rembrandt van Rijn (1606 – 1669) to the best loved modern artist, the Spanish Pablo Picasso.
Sketchbooks and sketchbook paper come in all sizes and kinds, but generally are designed to be portable. Some are made out of high quality paper, others from cheaper stock. Sketch books or sketch pads are available for specialist watercolourists or for the casual ink sketcher. They might be suitable for pencil, coloured pencil, oil sticks etc and maybe found with startling white paper or paper of a wide variety of yellow tones.
Once considered the base material for a mere recording tool - sketchbooks, often because of the energetic and formative work they hold, are increasingly sought after for display and exhibition purposes. Many major museums now have collections of artists’ sketch books.
The most impressive list includes the British Victoria & Albert Museum, originally built for budding artists to study, includes sketchbooks by John Constable used in 1814, as well as the UK’s Tate Collection, which includes Joseph Mallord William Turner’s sketchbooks from the 1780s. The Harvard Art Museum in America has a large collection and there are many, many other collections of artists’ sketch books in some of the most important art collections in the world.
Such is the importance of artists’ sketches, and sketch books, that British artist David Hockney, in conversation with Karen Wright (Brushes with Hockney in Intelligent Life Summer 2010) said ‘I draw everything I see. I always have a sketchbook on me.’
Recently, to emphasise the special place that sketchbooks have in his artistic life - David Hockney produced a DVD of fifteen representations of his sketchbooks. They have been produced, along with another ten not included on the disc, from the period 2002 to 2003. The DVD sketches include still life images of his studio, home, travelling, landscapes, friends, family etc. The sketches are reproduced digitally, as close as possible to their actual and physical size. They give good insight into the artist’s way of working, his choice of line, materials, colours and subjects.
It should be no surprise then, that Khalil Ibrahim too treasures his sketchbooks. In his vast collection of sketchbooks there, between dark covers, lay the artist’s visual foundations to many of his later studies and paintings. The Malaysian National Art Gallery has nine of Khalil’s sketch books, two are with the KL Lifestyle art collection, while some remain with the artist and others are with private collectors.
Within the pages of his sketchbooks themes, ideas and creative notions may be charted from initial marks on paper to the stunning canvas, batik or watercolour paintings Khalil has produced over his artistic decades.
The Sketch Books
1960 – 1968
The era of these early sketchbooks is a time covering Khalil Ibrahim’s stays in London and in Kerdau, Pahang. Within these early sketches, and preparatory drawings, the diligent viewer will notice the young artist ‘taking a line for a walk’ (ref. Paul Klee) in much the same manner as his forbears Picasso, Jean Cocteau and David Hockney would simplify their line-work to better capture the essence of their subjects.
Between the black covers of his every handy sketchbook, Khalil is in the habit of quickly rendering snapshots, brief images of friends, models and associates either sitting deliberately or candidly. There is, briefly, a study reminiscent of the American comic book artist - Gene Colan, but the similarity vanishes never to resurface (Khalil’s - Dahlan’s Friend from Cairo).
Gazing at the sketchbook pages, looking at the stretched out, slightly emaciated nudes, the viewer can feel how Khalil grappled with the curvatures of those bodies, whisping graphite to approach roundness, form, shade and to give the impression of a girl’s weight upon welcoming cloth (Figure Study in Lying Position – Nude Composition Study 3).
A long-legged male slouches in a chair, his legs outstretched, his face quickly rendered, the quick marks for his eyes and ovals of his cheeks resembling a clown (Figure Study in Seated Position – Composition Study 2). Other - more detailed sketches portray a slumped body, but gives more detail to the non-English face (Figure Study in Seated Position – Composition Study 3). A fuller figured, almost Rubinesque studio model eases her aching back while still attempting to retain the position she has struck for the students of life drawing (Figure Study in Seated Positition – Nude Composition Study). Khalil approaches his sketch of her image with care, light pencil strokes, just enough to give her form, marks enough to give her a recognisable face and typical 1960s hairstyle. He encapsulates her in her time, preserving her countenance for posterity.
On another page, the very same woman is sketched quickly, yet deliberately, with lightning pen stokes, her face more pronounced with the ink, her body less so. There is a harder quality about the pen and ink work, starker, more deliberate than the earlier, lighter pencil work. Khalil is seen experimenting with different mediums, including watercolour, for these are his artistic tools, he wants to witness their effect on the paper and on him as an artist and interactive recorder of his environment.
Gradually, perhaps a little slated with the constant figure drawing, Khalil drifts to sketches of landscapes – images of parks (Hyde Park London), then an ink landscape reminiscent of his earlier oil paintings in his beloved home and another, this time it is Malaysia (Imaginary Scene of the East Coast drawn in London). The new national Mosque, a woman wearing a sari, young boys seemingly caught unaware, are all captured by Khalil’s eye and improving drawing hand.
In 1968 Khalil is seen working with a more traditional medium – batik, the wax resist method of staining cloth. The portrait – Kelantanese (1968), measuring 36 cm by 45cm respectively, is the artist’s initial foray into batik painting as a fine art medium. The work is essentially a dark line sketch coloured through the traditional batik process, featuring a young Malaysian East Coast boy, his head wrapped in cloth, in turban style, and the whole given a golden glow by the yellow background and hue to the over picture with minimal ‘cracking’ to the whole.
The following few sketches cover the time when Khalil had freshly arrived back in the East, from his artistic sojourn at London’s St. Martin’s school of art. The spiral bound sketches, held between imitation black leather cover a span of time between Malaysia and Indonesia, a instance of growth both for artist and his country.
It is there, in the pages of the 1970s sketchbook that we see, for the very first time, abstract images which occur and reoccur throughout the next three decades of Khalil’s painting– the brief watercolour sketches (Abstract Figures) which eventually form the basis of works like Abstract 11 (1996), Velocity IV (2003) and Figurative Celebration 1(2004), which was seen in the Islamic Arts Museum Malaysia’s Merdeka 50 book, A Celebration of Malaysian Art.
The quick watercolours and sketchy line work capture enough movement to be drawn upon later, in powerful abstract, revealing the very essence of movement, the sensuous swaying of hips and cloth as young women walk or stand on the sand, observed by the astute young artist.
More figure studies grace these pages, but this time it is not the posed studio models but the people around Khalil, the forms of faces he is familiar with (A Local Native Woman at the Endau Rompin Johor Jetty). Some of these images he has captured in delicate watercolour half in shade half in light (Imaginary 1). It is the strength of contrast in Imaginary 1 which encourages Khalil to return to that notion some thirty years later in three paintings of Portrait of a Lady in Red (2003 – acrylic, 2003 - oil and 2007 - oil) and Portrait of a Lady (2003) with the contrast less defined.
In this sketchbook Khalil renders line work featuring young women in sarongs (East Coast Study of Composition), quickly sketched as they take a few moments for gossip, on the beach and the ladies resting after marketing, slightly slumped and weary but nevertheless stoic and maybe a little wistful with their gaze (Kota Bharu Market Scene).
It is still the 70s, disco era, and Khalil records the gyrating of Western young girls in the pages of this sketchbook. Tank-topped, wearing three-quarter length jeans the Western girls move very differently from the local girls. The Westerners appear more boisterous in their dance, thrusting their young bodies to and fro, lost in their dance and a world distant from the gentle swaying of the local Asian girls (Street Scene Recreated in Switzerland 2).
The old and the young fishermen too, are captured by Khalil’s keen eye. He shows the viewer how the fishermen keep their sarongs short, so as not to interfere with the labour they must engage in to bring home the catch or mend their nets. They too have their own dance, but it is a dance of labour, born of need and responsibility (Study of Composition for Batik).
In this, 1970s, sketchbook Khalil’s nudes are heavier than the slight girls from the school of art; girls with genuine and generous proportions, honestly weighted around their rears and naturalistic in their bosoms (Study of Nude Figure for canvas). They stand naturally, leaning slightly as do we all, perhaps somewhat bowed at the shoulders, backs to viewer, standing sideways or giving Khalil the opportunity to sketch the sheer beauty of the full female figure – their forms sharing more with Gauguin than they do with either Klimt or Schiller.
The red cover of this sketchbook sets it apart from most of the others Khalil Ibrahim has used; it also nicely demarks the artist’s growth and maturity as an artist.
The same love for figure sketching shows through in this book, but it is countered by a slight return to landscapes, albeit in miniature. Many of the landscapes included within this sketchbook are curiously solitary, devoid of human inhabitants. From his Landscape Study – Village Narathiwat, Thailand, to Landscape Study – Village Scene in Kota Bharu, Landscape Study Enroute to Kuala Terengganu, Landscape Study in Kota Bharu, Landscape Study – Road Enroute to Kuala Terengganu, Landscape Study – Boathouse in Kota Bharu, Village near the Pahang River, Waterfall in Kuala Kubu Baru and Study of East Coast Landscape people are conspicuous in their absence. Where figures are present, in this sketchbook, they are dominant – purposeful studies of men and women.
There is the distinct feeling that this red sketchbook is deliberately used in preparation for paintings. Khalil is toying with views and the dynamics of his subjects, framing them, choosing which angle suits his purpose, before laying brush to canvas.
In the 1980s Khalil revisits watercolour and begins a series of watercolour studies featuring East Coast fishermen, and women relaxing. There is the necessary beginning of abstraction in those watercolours, but still the play of sun and shade pull through, making this series - finished over a twenty year period, a stunning set of figure painting and an evocative record of East Coast life.
It is intriguing that Khalil Ibrahim uses his sketchbooks not just to record life which presents itself to him - study figures, images which drift through his recollections, but sometimes the artist finds himself revisiting old sites, whether through his imagination or in physical reality. The sketch in this red covered sketch book - Bachok in the 80s refers back to his 1957 oil painting (mentioned earlier). In the sketch the fishing vessel is turned to face the viewer, the reeds previously carried by the sea-going boat, have gone, replaced by a cover weighted down by logs. The original oil is a proud piece, celebrating the honest toil of East Coast life. The sketch demonstrates beached memory, a little forlorn, underused and somewhat desolate on a comparatively empty beach.
With this new sketchbook there are a number of sketch studies for future batik works, perhaps inspired by the batik works of Chuah Thean Teng and Tay Mo Leong. There is Batik Study, Figure Study for Batik, Imaginary Movement for Batik and Watercolour, Imaginary Sketch for Batik, Imaginary Movement for Batik, and Imaginary Movement for Batik Sketch.
Towards the end of the 1970s – 1978, began a series of batik ‘paintings’ beginning with East Coast 1, a batik piece measuring some 111cm by 126 cm, featuring groupings of East Coast of Malaysia fishermen heaving, hauling nets, while young women (their wives?) work or gossip on the beach. It is a beautiful piece, itself standing between figurative art and abstraction. The spectacular East Coast II (1985 – in the Bank Negara Malaysia Collection) – is a continuation of that series and is, perhaps, the most startling of Khalil’s batik paintings to date - in both its complexity as batik and its superb line work.
With these sketch book sketches Khalil observes the interaction of form and figure in a variety of group studies from kneeling, to standing or sleeping shapes. Some, depending upon the nature of his purpose, are lightly sketched, others more detailed in the patterning of the women’s sarongs. It might be seen that Khalil is wrestling with the dynamics of his groups, testing how lines might flow and how figures might interact – some bending, some sitting some in repose. He seems intent to capture interaction, but always wary of his artistic parameters and conscious of the need to engage his viewer’s eyes, leading them through the works he presents.
The quick figure sketches, in this sketchbook, become a valuable record of life as it was lived. Every idiosyncrasy, every nuance of daily life seems delicately captured by Khalil Ibrahim from the tired sleeping woman (Capturing Old Woman Sleeping), to people eating at a food stall (Study of Figure – Patron at a Food Stall in Kota Bharu), roadside hawkers (Hawker in Kota Bharu) and one enchanting sketch of people attending to their daily chores in Study of Figures – Fishing Village Scene. Maybe it is because of the artist’s East Coast beginnings that he is able to so accurately capture the simple life he witnesses around him, on his return.
Blue and Black Cover
My immediate thoughts, on lingering over Khalil’s images in this sketch book, were of that classic student’s book - Rendering in Pen and Ink by Arthur L Guptill. Many of the images found in this sketch book, by Khalil, could have been used to demonstrate the classic ink line and rendering approach taught throughout the 1950s and 1960s, when the Guptill’s book first came out, and Khalil was at art school in England.
This sketch book features line work executed in Sweden and Switzerland as well as those in Malaysia. There are many sketches in Switzerland, where Khalil’s brother-in-law was staying, town views, views of the castle and of the lake, as well as views from his wife - Judith’s family home in Lucerne (Luzern) Switzerland (Another view..., Castle in Luzern, Lucerne Switzerland, Neighbourhood in Lucerne, Scene along the lake..., The Old Wooden Bridge... and View from Family Home..). Khalil renders the Chapel Bridge (Kapellbrücke) in Lucerne – the oldest wooden bridge in Europe and depicts some of the surrounding buildings. He also drafts village views and images of an artist’s colony in Stockholm, Sweden (Village of Artist’s Colony.., Villages in Stockholm) during his travels.
In the pages of this sketch book there is a head and neck ‘portrait’ sketch of a young girl, executed in a popular style of the 1970s/1980s, her eyes are wide and full of fun (Daughter of an Indian Friend...). It is a quick clean sketch, reminiscent of line work used in advertising at the time. Khalil, once again demonstrates his mastery over his medium and his ability to neatly render ambience and emotion.
In this sketch book there are many development and preparatory sketches, used for his later series – The Spirit of the East Coast & Sanur (2003/04). There is line work of groups of young women, as well as those of fishermen, gathered on beaches, quickly sketched but capturing the essence of their movement and the flow of form, as well as a study for an oil painting in Khalil Ibrahim’s East Coast series.
Whether it is Lucerne, Switzerland, Kuala Lumpur, Kemaman or Dungun Terengganu, Khalil records what he sees and feels in his sketch books, both to practise his art and to record for future use.
In this particular sketch book Khalil records sketches for future batik work, a watercolour sketch for the East Coast series, as well as studies of head gear and street traders going about their daily business. When he is not out roaming the countryside recording what he sees on paper, Khalil draws from images he sees in the local newspaper (at least one from the New Straits Times) - badminton players, hockey players and people bowling. It’s a familiar technique for an artist to keep his hand/eye coordination active.
You can see that this sketch book really is a collection of studies, from the architectural studies through to the compositional studies helping to keep the artist’s hand in, this includes the few nude studies within these pages. Khalil has sketched a number of standing nudes, either alone or in groups, to keep in the fore-front of his mind the shapes, contours and curves of the human form, helping his drawing when it comes to working with figures clothed or in movement. It is the nude study, the understanding of human muscle groupings and how they interact that informs the artist’s work, and give credence to his drawings.
The final set is taken from one of Khalil Ibrahim’s black Windsor & Newton sketch books, used during the 1990s. This sketch book measures 21cm x 29.7cm or 8¼’ x 11¾’. A label on the front of the book exclaims that the paper is suitable for pencil, pen & ink and watercolour.
There are twenty-nine watercolour sketches in this book, and two ink sketches. The ink sketches, one of nudes and the other of sarong clad women, fit nicely in with the watercolour work in this book.
Some of the watercolour sketches are more detailed than others, but most are concerned with groups of people, nude and clothed, on clear ground/beaches. There is little doubt that this series of watercolour sketches are preparatory works for the larger East Coast Series of works.
There are the familiar forms of fishermen working at their catch on the beach, young women, sometimes topless, interacting upon a beach, clad only in their brightly coloured sarongs. There are imaginary groups of naked people sitting, squatting, playing, or strolling upon a beach with water in the fore and background, mountains in the distance. Some pages feature groups of nude men, as the artist plays with their form. Other groups are more modestly clothed, swaying hips, standing feet slightly apart, covered. Still the emphasis is not upon what clothes are, or are not, worn but on the visual relationships between the ‘characters’ and the shapes their bodies take in their interactions.
The two watercolour sketches which do not appear to form a relationship with the others, are Impressionist-like pictures of Terengganu – Kuala Besut (painted on site) and Kuala Terengganu.
Khalil Ibrahim continues to paint, both in abstractions and in a more naturalistic way as well as sketch. His latest ideas and drawings are first rendered, quickly, in sketch form in his current Windsor & Newton sketch book. Sketches have a beauty of their own, as well as capturing detail or form for later development sketches, because of their quickness, frequently the essence or core of a subject. That is their value as pieces of art. They represent the very first ideas the artist has of the subject in fresh, exciting ways which abound with the artist’s energy.
The beauty and ability to capture the immediacy of life, is something that students of art need to learn quickly. The practise of constant sketching not only sharpens the eye, coordinates the hand and the eye, but also records the subject and how the recorder felt about the subject, on that special day, at that special time when the recording (sketching) took place. Sketches and sketching holds a special place in visual art, and its practice is invaluable to the student who learns it.