Into the depths

In a recent Sketch of the Week, I showed you a drawing I'd done of shadows being cast by water on to my carport wall. Perhaps it's because I'm living in an area where water is a scarcity, but lately I've been discovering the beauty of water in unexpected places.

Take my recent nocturnal sketching adventures, for instance.

In downtown Roswell, right by the Museum, runs the Spring River recreation trail, a concrete path that leads users alongside the Spring River (or, more accurately, trickle, at least until the recent rain we've had). It's about five minutes from my apartment, which makes it a convenient path for walks, bike rides, and leisurely strolls. For the most part this path is above ground level, but when you go underneath bridges, such as the one by the Museum, you pass through concrete tunnels.

On the trail, looking into the tunnel.

Inside the tunnel, looking east.

Looking out west toward the Museum.
During the day, this tunnel is nothing spectacular. On the contrary, it resembles all of the banal concrete constructions you'll find throughout the country. It's designed to be a pass through, after all, a place of transit, not a destination in itself.

At night, however, it's an entirely different story.

One evening, when I was coming home from a bike ride or a walk, I can't remember which, I happened to be passing through this tunnel while the sun was going down. I noticed that the street lamps above had illuminated the stream beside me, and that the water was casting these rippling, phantasmagorical shadows across the walls. The raking light of the streetlamps, furthermore, had divided the banal walls into planes of angular shadows. Triangles of extreme light and dark were placed beside one another, turning the once bland surface into a brilliant exercise on chiaroscuro.

I was so taken with this tunnel's transformation that I returned with a sketchbook and drew it from different perspectives over the course of several evenings. I haven't been down there since it's been cooling off, but during the warm summer nights it was a compelling setting. Perhaps I'll turn these sketches into aquatints when I have the time and materials.

Here are a few of my sketches:

This is the first tunnel drawing I made. Since it was my first night down there, and was unaccustomed to the low light and nocturnal setting, I was tentative and sat outside the opening to sketch. The angles of the shadows reminded me of the sets of the iconic 1920 film Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari, one of my favorite movies. I liked how the shadows could transform the tunnel into an abstract composition, with concrete walls dissolving into lines and values.

This drawing was made the following night, and I was now feeling comfortable enough to actually venture inside the tunnel. This time we're looking west, back toward the Museum. Whereas on the first night I focused on the bold, angular shadows on the wall, this time I looked more closely at the amorphous water ripples fluttering across the concrete surface.

This is the third drawing I made. Rather than look up the tunnel to gain a sense of place and perspective, I concentrated exclusively on the wall in front on me in order to focus on the rippling shadows. Of the three sketches, this one feels the most nonrepresentational to me.

Drawing in the tunnel has been a fascinating experience. When I walk into the space, I feel that I am passing into a liminal zone that hovers between the very ancient and the very modern. On the one hand, the idea of drawing in a darkened tunnel, with only the raking light of streetlamps to illuminate my wall, reminds me of the prehistoric cave paintings of Chauvet Cave and Lascaux (for an excellent film on the former, I highly recommend Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams). Given the limited light, moreover, drawing becomes a highly intuitive experience, as the light is too poor for me to double-check details and make corrections.

At the same time, however, my time in  the tunnel makes me think of modern life, because the fact that I can see the rippling shadows at all is the result of the electric streetlamps outside. My drawings may hearken back to prehistory, but they are also the product of modern technologies.

Then there's the water itself, the thing that attracted me to these walls in the first place. Sustaining a 21st-century population that consumes natural resources with abandon exhausts them. Modern life may have enabled me to see the beauty of the water's nocturnal dances, but it's also quite literally draining it.

In any event, I was mistaken in my initial dismissal of the tunnel as banal. When dusk falls, it is no longer a mere pass through on a walking path, but a portal to other worlds and frames of mind.