Travel Sketching at the Khmer Temples: Ta Prohm and The Bayon
Welcome back for part two! Traveling further afield from Siem Reap, visiting the distant temple complexes.
As you head outward from Siem Reap, the various temple complexes become less ostentatious. Some are as small as a single building in the forest, or an empty reservoir moat with a fallen down tower.
Probably the most well known from film and photography is Ta Prohm. This exotic site is overgrown with giant trees whose roots are often bursting through the stone walls. It’s probably my favorite of the temples – though it does not have the most impressive sculptures or architecture.
The place is bustling with workers setting up scaffolding and carrying on reconstruction. But with the constant encroachment of the trees and vines it seems like it would all vanish if they took a week off. Swallowed up by the forest.
It makes you want to rush around, sketching everything madly. Like you have only a limited time to capture everything because once you leave it’s going to be gone for good.
In fact, the experience might well be gone for a different reason. This is our second time visiting. The first trip was in 2002. We could see what tremendous difference the reconstruction makes. Things become safer. No more heaps of disembodied figures waiting to be sorted and re-stacked. No more scrambling over mossy stones and into leaning corridors that might easily collapse on your head.
Sorry to be ‘that guy’ saying how it’s never going to be the same. But really – you should just get out here and see it soon! The sites have gone from a few thousand visitors a year, to over 2 million of us playing Indiana Jones. One way or another, that much attention is changing things.
To talk about painting for a moment. In general with these sketches, you’ll see me working to simplify.
To distill the immense complexity of the carved structures and surrounding vegetation into a painted impression. A set of silhouettes.
With this one, I knew I wanted to record the complete feeling of the place. This was the one image I’d planned to get from the start. The whole trip was made to get here.
I probably spent over two hours at this spot. Not that long for a plein air painter, but quite a while for a sketcher.
I think of the mass of the tree canopy almost the same way I might paint clouds. It seems ‘all in one shape’ now, but it was grown out carefully from the edges of the buildings.
I had the most fun leaving out the negative space for the tree roots, then coming back to paint them into the reserved white. It brings the image suddenly into focus when you drop in the final puzzle piece.
Painting in the rain. There was a lot of that this trip. One day I will work out a way to wear an umbrella on my back, in the manner of the soldier’s flags in a Kurosawa samurai film.
For now I’m just tying it onto my backpack straps (Flimsy). Or holding it in the same hand as my drawing board (Very awkward). I’ve also tried lashing it to a monopod and holding it in the crook of an elbow. That works, but you have to carry the extra monopod.
All these jerry-rigs are highly susceptible to wind-gusts. So nothing is perfect.
By the way, this also works for painting under intense sun. I did a few sketches in Italy with an umbrella sticking out of my shoulder bag.
I’m starting to hate sun screen, but I also worry about melanoma. If you’re going to be out in the sun for weeks at a time, that’s getting to be a real concern. Something on the list, to be worked out in the future.
This is the South Gate of Angkor Thom. The rows of stone soldiers on the bridges reminded me of Chinese Terracotta warriors.
They are meant to be holding up a giant serpent, but the horizontal sections of the snake have fallen away. Probably to be restored soon.
When we were last here years ago, there were classrooms of kids being taught stone carving. I’m sure the idea was to plan ahead, to grow the craftspeople that are stewards of these national treasures today.
Finally, The Bayon. This tower is the best location for 4 face heads. You can climb up to the top and get eye to eye with the giant stone faces.
From a distance, if the lighting is not right (midday, or overcast), the place is really just a jumble of rocks. You have to be conscious to create organized blocks of color and value. Work to separate objects which in reality are camouflaged together.
That being said, this painting is very much ‘artistic license’. Not really a faithful representation. But who is to say? It doesn’t look like photographic reality – but the sketch will be how I remember it :)