Rob van Doeselaar
Translation in English

The earthly paradise is where I am. (Le paradis terrestre est où je suis.)

Voltaire (1694-1778)

Page 9

In the beginning

I initially resisted the desire to sketch my garden, mostly because plants and trees have been drawn and painted so often in so many different ways. What could I possibly contribute to bring a fresh perspective to the garden as subject? Would I be able to elicit new responses from viewers? What part of myself could I express in the sketches? Despite my hesitation, there came a point where I decided I just had to go for it. This was my garden for only a little while longer, and I wanted to document the place before I had to say farewell a year later. I sat down in my garden with an iPad in one hand and a stylus in the other, and I began sketching.
There were times when I felt like Claude Monet, who spent many years painting the paradise he had designed himself. My intention is not to compare myself in the slightest with his artistry or great stature. But the resemblance is that trees and plants prove to be an eternal source of inspiration. Nature is extraordinary, both on a large scale and in the smallest details. If you give yourself the time to look closely, you will constantly discover new aspects. Nature provides endless variations.
It was exciting to explore my observations through my hand and stylus. You become aware of so much more when you sketch a scene. However, reproducing precisely what I saw was not the goal. That would be boring, too. Moreover, it would seem somewhat impossible to represent everything accurately. The word ‘sketch’ already suggests a rough drawing; it is the opposite of complete and precise representation. You must make choices about which elements to represent and what details you will leave out or emphasise. And you must work swiftly. If you bide your time, you risk falling to repetition and the sketch will lose any potency or spontaneity. I transformed my observations into stripes, strokes, colours, and plane surfaces. The only question was how far I would deviate from my observations for my artistic expression.
Each contact with the iPad’s screen became an imprint of my state of mind in that moment. Those moments cannot be reproduced. Just like each single leaf on a branch is unique in its own way. And there were times where I could relate with such a leaf. Was I not like this one special leaf, not at the centre of the world and, thus, easily overlooked by everyone? Or would I rather be that blossoming flower amongst the greenery?

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My paradise

My garden served as a second living room, so to speak. The only time of day that was better spent inside, was after sunset as the dusk set in. That was when swarms of mosquitoes arrived, attacking my legs and arms, and bats would skim past my head.
Each morning at dawn, an orchestra of birds would herald a new day with a morning concert. The acoustics were crystal clear in the subtropical climate. The pleasant sounds, reminiscent of an aviary, alternated with grating caws from crows. It was a coming and going of birds throughout the day. Some of them had the most extraordinary colours. Many were quite small, however, and concealed themselves in the greenery of my garden. The rudest birds were the crows and pigeons. One crow would always chase away the pigeons from their spot and bathe in the swimming pool fountain.
The jardineiro (gardener) would pass by three times a week. Communicating with him was not easy, as his Portuguese was as poor as mine. Normally he wore a dark green hat and a communist-style suit. He walked on flip flops. The legs of his trousers were mud-stained and torn around his knees. He smelt of sweat. The jardineiro did most of the trimming with a large hedge trimmer, of which he frequently had to tighten the central bolt that held the blades together. For more refined trimming, he used pruning shears we had brought from the Netherlands. For the more laborious work, he used a machete, of which the hilt was well-worn. I could tell he enjoyed swinging the machete as he cleared the garden. But unfortunately, despite his best efforts, the plants he cut down would grow back again just as quickly. The jardineiro also swiped clean the stone paths in the garden and around the pailotte (a straw roof on four wooden stakes), where we could shelter from the sun and rain. The jardineiro’s last task of the day was to water the garden with the garden hose. He liked spraying so much, I had to put to his attention that the authorities in Maputo demanded people kept their water use to a minimum (we had even received written notices about this). The garden hose was worn-out. Some spots had rubber knots to attempt blocking the leaks in the hose. Despite the fix, there would still be some water sprinkling out from under the knots.
I did not (and do not) know much about plants. Even on occasions where I have tried to learn about them, I am really poor at remembering the different species. Only the most memorable names would stick. When my wife and I had just moved in, there were five...

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...or six small papaya trees at the back of the house. I witnessed them grow. The empregada (the housemaid) and the jardineiro would be on the lookout, waiting for when a papaya would turn from green to yellow. That was the moment they would quickly pluck the fruit from the tree using a broomstick, before the birds could devour it. Nearly each week we ate papaya from our own garden or gave them to our empregada or jardineiro. The orange-rose flesh of the fruit, sprinkled with lemon juice, was a real treat every time. Unfortunately, a heavy storm in 2016 knocked over the papaya trees like a house of cards. They could not be salvaged and our attempts to grow new papaya trees bore no fruit. From then on, we had to buy papaya’s from the street vendor outside, which were usually imported from South Africa.
At the edge of the garden, against the garden wall, a beautiful hibiscus flower would blossom on occasion. In the area of the swimming people there was a Bougainville with dark rose flowers. In front of the house stood two small trees that the jardineiro would cut in a nice round form, and try to maintain it that way. Next to those stood Kenya palms, that are too small to be called a tree but too big to call a bush. In the Netherlands they are kept as house plants. The green from the palm leaves contrasted strongly against the blue hue of the sky. In another corner there was a larger palm tree. Its large leaves rustled and rattled in the wind. Its trunk had an interesting texture that builds up as the branches fall off, as is characteristic of most palm tree species. Nearly each day, a yellow and dying branch would tumble to the ground. Behind the house there were a group of banana trees. A couple times each year, they would produce large bunches of bananas.
After dark, the garden lost its appeal. Despite the street lighting and the lights in the garden, little could be seen of the trees and plants. Other than the rustling of palm branches, you could occasionally hear something move through the bushes. Probably a rat or mouse. I never saw a snake, and there was no apple tree in the garden either. My paradise was different to the biblical version in that aspect. But for me it was still a special place. I felt privileged that I was allowed to spend four years of my life here.

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How do you draw on the iPad? This is a question I get asked by nearly everyone who sees one of my prints. Apparently it is a more mysterious process for people than drawing on paper or manipulating photographs with Photoshop. I tell people that I draw with a stylus and use a simple drawing app. I could draw with my finger if I wanted to, but I find the experience uncomfortable. So, it is very much like drawing with pencil and paper but now on a digital device. The result – a drawing, sketch, or painting (I am still not sure what to call it) – can be saved as a digital photo file for printing on paper. My questioners tell me after this explanation that they understand, but they usually continue to look a little puzzled.

I was trained in the fine arts before computers started to take over our lives. My classical background has been useful in adapting to drawing on an electronic screen. I could see the obvious advantages of the new technology, such as being able to choose different ‘brushes’, working in ‘layers’, the ability to undo mistakes, drawing on black backgrounds, and much more. The way the electronic screen renders lines was (and is) very much to my liking, as well as being able to use very few lines to portray something effectively. The decision to work on an iPad is more than just embracing new technology. It is also that my history as a graphic artist is inextricably linked to the emergence of the computer.

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The printmaking workshops at the academy taught me about woodcuts, etching, and lithographs. These types of graphic art required a different approach compared to drawing or painting on canvas. Now I had to cut my drawing into a piece of wood, engrave it on a metal plate, or paint it with ink on polished stone. Only after printing the graphic, was I able to see the resulting image. Aside from their unique characteristics, these graphics have the great advantage that they can be printed in large quantities – see Rembrandt, who was very successful with his etchings.
I learnt much about paper and ink through the process of printing, as in: how moist the paper had to be, and understanding concepts of weight and smoothness. Furthermore, it was important to achieve the right viscosity of the ink, determine the amount of transparency, and decide how I would layer colours. Much of what I learnt cannot be expressed in words, but something you work out by doing and sensing.
All this experience helps me now. I approach drawing on the iPad as a form of graphic art. I draw or a paint with transparent layers of colour. I save the resulting graphic as an image file and print it on paper. Just as with traditional printmaking techniques, the end result can be unpredictable. The colours and the experience of the material are clearly different on a small screen than on a large sheet of paper.

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When the first home computers were introduced at the end of the 80’s, I was immediately interested in the possibilities. I decided I would do everything I could to become ‘computer literate’. So, I bought my first computer with the little savings I had. It was a very simple machine, it did not even have a hard drive disk. The small screen could only show white letters on a black background. I could type simple commands such as save, copy, cut, and paste.
In 1990, I moved to India and so did the computer. With help of ‘copy and paste’, I was able to write the same letters to all my family and friends back home. How efficient! I printed the letters out with a matrix printer and posted them with air mail.
When I lived in New York in 1993, I bought a computer, this time with a hard drive, a mouse, and a colour monitor. Quite quickly, I discovered I could use the mouse in paint software to make drawings with the computer. This was fantastic! That way I could make sketches for myself and experiment freely, such as trying out a new composition for a painting or researching which colours complemented each other. At a print shop nearby, I would sometimes make colour prints via my floppy disk.
After the mouse, I transitioned to a pressure-sensitive stylus and an accompanying Wacom tablet. Connected to the computer, whatever I drew on the tablet would appear instantaneously on the monitor. For years I would draw using this process, but I primarily used the tablet to pre-visualise ideas and to retouch photos. At the time, I did not consider this a serious tool for making art with a computer.
That changed in the noughties, after I had bought a fine art printer. Suddenly I was able to print on paper without the colours fading over time. The manufacturer guaranteed that the lightfastness of the ink was at least a hundred years. I started to use photographs and made collages of them in my paintings on paper. It gave a new dynamic to my artworks.
Although it had now become technically possible, I still did not make art on the computer intended for exposition. My hand drew on the tablet and the result could be seen on the computer monitor. But what I drew and saw on the screen would not be at the same scale, because tablet drawing area was smaller than the monitor. This didn’t...

Page 25 well, particularly if I was drawing from reference. My hand-eye coordination would get confused. This was not something I particularly enjoyed or thought of as fun.

When the iPhone was launched, my first thought was drawing on its touch-sensitive screen. But the screen ended up being too small to make it a serious tool for sketches. Not much longer thereafter, the iPad came like a calling. I installed the app Brushes (version 2.0, which has been obsolete for quite some time now). I loved its simplicity. It nearly made the iPad a real sketch book. And you were able to make massive prints using its export function. Other apps did not provide the same functionality.
My old iPad and the old Brushes-app continue to work.

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Light and shadow

The direction of light in my garden changed quickly. It was as if the sun moved much faster at this latitude. I could barely keep up while sketching. The conditions trained me to rely on my memory. Although, sometimes I would wait for the same conditions on another day. Or I would take a photograph to use as a memory aid.
Each place in the world has its own light. The position of the sun is just about slightly different everywhere. The colour of different soils, the humidity of the air, and the reflection of water surfaces all have an effect on the quality of light. I experienced the grey of the Netherlands, the saffraan yellows of India, the dark greens of Ghana, the earthy orange in Mali, etc. The differences can also be more local. For example, the quality of light along the coastline is unlike the light much further inland.
Crystal clear is how I would describe the quality of light in Maputo. There were barely any grey tones. The deep blue of the sky was dominant. The green of the plants had a plastic quality, especially after the gardener had sprayed with water. The intense subtropical light did not only shine in my eyes, but I could also feel it in my stomach.
The harsh light cast hard, defined shadows. They became the thematic basis for my more abstract paintings while I lived in Mozambique. I was fascinated by the shapes and patterns that were formed, as if they were paintings cast by the heavens.
Shadows are transient. They turn and change according to the position of the sun. Their colour is simultaneously dark and transparent. Shadows can look like flat objects with physical properties, but in reality they only exist because of a lack of light.

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Not far from my house, I was taking a walk and passing over a road that had recently been paved for the first time, with cubic-shaped blocks of cement. The sun was shining brightly. To my right was the Portuguese school, and to my left, a construction site where they were building a hundred new houses. The compound walls had already been completed. There was a big sign at the entrance of the compound, where guards were conversing and playing cards, that said: Condominium Bela Vista. I continued to walk until past the walls of the gated community. This is where the pavement would stop and a small sand road would continue. Puddles of water were scattered across the sand road because of rainfall the previous day. I took a left turn and crossed over the fairway of a golf course. Holes 6 and 7 had been appropriated by the locals, with paths criss-crossing over the dried-out yellow grass, like wildlife paths. Apparently, the golf course was owned by the former minister of Defense. Occasionally it would be used by golfers (except those holes 6 and 7) even though the course was run-down and poorly maintained. The former minister was waiting for the right moment to develop new houses on the land. That was probably a more lucrative opportunity.

After I had crossed the golf course, I would enter the neighbourhood Polana Caniço B, where the houses usually consisted of a single room and a small front terrace. The roofs were covered by corrugated sheets and the walls were made of stacked concrete bricks. Usually there was not enough money left to complete the construction of the house. A maze of crooked streets demonstrated a lack of forward planning. The buildings were skewed and irregularly placed adjacent to each other. This gave the impression that the settlements were illegal and would be displaced one day. Food – such as corn, sweet potatoes and sorghum – was grown on small plots of land that by chance had been left open between the houses. Sometimes the streets became merely narrow passages with little room for daylight. Many of the trees standing in the neighbourhood seemed significantly older than the buildings. I occasionally had to jump over puddles or slip through mud. A woman sat next to a pile of tomatoes she was selling that day. She took no notice of me. People that did, however, greeted with modest words: “Bom dia". Or ignored me. I felt the residents tolerated my presence, but given I was a strange white passer-by, I was not really welcome either. I was an intruder, a voyeur.

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A large weathered block of concrete lay in a stream of water. People queued to jump across the block one by one so they did not get wet. I made the jump, too. Everywhere in the water and on the banks lay the remains of plastic bottles and other waste. Children would play there. It was a mess. A few months earlier the place was no different, except that at that time the block of concrete, before it had eroded to its current state, functioned as a normal bridge.

This part of the city had no houses like in rural areas, made of branches, leaves, reeds and loam. Families would save money from the little income they had and would use it to gradually buy more cement, concrete bricks, and corrugated roofing sheets to improve their houses. For many Africans, buying a piece of land with the idea of building a house on it was like opening a savings account. It could take a long time for a house to be finished. But finished or not, people adapted to the circumstances. Life was already adequate in a half-finished house.

The next day, when I walked from home to the other side of town, toward the city centre, I saw tall apartment buildings. The road climbed up to near the presidential palace, where the national parliament was located as well. The modern complex, from which you undoubtedly had a wonderful view, was financed and built by the Chinese only a few years earlier. As a foreigner, I was not allowed to enter or even be near it. In addition, it was expressly prohibited to photograph or film the outside. It was even forbidden to walk directly past the complex walls, where many trees cast inviting shadows. If I did, I would risk being arrested by the military police.

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My house was part of a compound called Sommershield II. Like Bela Vista and Polana Caniço B, the compounds were built on the same marshland not far from the sea and beach, to the north of the presidential palace. In all my years in Africa, I had never lived in a compound. It always seemed to me like a terrible idea, to live in a bubble this way. Fortunately, my initial fears dissipated soon after we moved in.
Our compound was relatively small. The guards at the gated entrance were relaxed. The houses were not placed in boring straight blocks, and there were many trees and plants. All the houses had a sizeable garden and a small swimming pool, and each of them was unique. Our garden was slightly larger because the house was situated on a corner. The compound came across as a friendly villa neighbourhood for the well-to-do middle class.

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For four years, I was a guest in one of the poorest countries in the world. This became especially apparent once you left the city. The differences between the rich and poor were enormous. Mozambique is a very young country, it only declared independence from Portugal in 1975. The struggle for independence was followed by a traumatising sixteen-year civil war. When I had just moved to Mozambique in 2014, I heard that the country had one of the fastest growing economies in the world, in spite of widespread poverty. The country was regarded as a role-model for other African countries. The skyline of Maputo was dominated by construction cranes – hotels, apartments, and office buildings were being built all over the city. The whole world was knocking on the door, offering to support various programmes and projects. The Dutch government was happy to participate in programmes regarding food supply, water management, and health care. The latter is what concerned my wife’s work. And that is why we came to live there.

My garden and the compound were hidden away from the public roads of Maputo, in the north of the city, which in turn is situated in the southern tip of the country. The compound felt like a safe space, unaffected by the societal problems playing elsewhere, outside the compound walls. That left me with feelings of guilt. It is impossible to justify having so many privileges while others toil in poverty. But what can I do about it? I have no idea. Even if I would give away everything, share my wealth with all the poor Mozambicans, and express my solidarity with the residents of Polana Caniça B by building and living in a shack amongst them – this would probably cause more problems than lead to solutions.

Mozambique is a surprisingly large country. The nearly uninterrupted coastline stretches across 2500 km from north to south. An enormous reservoir of natural gas worth many billions of dollars was discovered a few years ago in the far north of the country. Large reserves of coal were mined near the border with Zimbabwe. There were also diamonds and other rare earth materials in the ground. The rivers in the central region of the country provided fertile soil for agriculture. But like many countries in the world, only the elites profit from the abundance of natural resources. In fact, after it was...

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...revealed that the government had failed to disclose loans worth 2 billion dollars – made possible by that natural gas reserve – it was inevitable that the poor had to pay for the interest. A large portion of those loans disappeared into unknown bank accounts and the national debt increased sizeable. The economy, as a result, tanked. Mozambique nearly went broke. Food and fuel prices spiked while wages stagnated. Meanwhile Members of Parliament increased their own salaries and retirement benefits.

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When I lived in Ghana, long ago, I visited a banana plantation. The owner explained to me some things about bananas and the production process. She told me that new shoots would constantly grow in the shadow of a banana tree. Most of these were removed to ensure all the nutrients in the soil were reserved for the one shoot that would allow to continue to grow. After a cycle of three years, the banana trees lose their productivity. I had the impression our trees were older, and we also did not intervene in their development.

A banana tree does not have a bark made of ‘wood’. That is why it is technically not a tree but a kind of grass – the largest of the kinds of grass, in fact. There are no strong roots, making the ‘tree’ vulnerable to strong winds. It was a miracle that our banana tree survived that heavy tropical storm in 2016, unlike the papaya trees.

The banana is one of the most sold items at supermarkets, but despite this, most people do not realise what a special fruit it is. It is easy to peel and you can eat it whole, because there are no seeds or pits that get in the way. Moreover, it is exceptionally nutritious and healthy. It contains potassium, which is good for you heart.
As easy as it may be to consume a banana, the growth process of the banana tree and the fruit is very complex. A banana shoot first develops into a kind of bark and then from within, leaves emerge and grow so large we end up calling this plant a tree. After an extended period of tome, the large leaves develop into something resembling large curtains. The edges of the leaves eventually turn yellow and shrivel. But before that happens, it is possible for a banana heart to develop out of each shoot. It is probably called like that because the shape resembles a human heart. Out of the heart, clusters of flowers will grow.

I would see a new cluster each day when the outer leaves opened like a hatch to reveal the heart. The flowers would transform quickly into a group of mini-bananas. This would continue until a full-grown bunch formed. In the banana heart the process continued, but after some time, the flowers stop developing into bananas. In that phase, bats would come in the night and suckle the flowers. I would encounter a wine-red coloured leaf on the ground each morning, scattered amongst the leftovers of the flowers.

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When I was sketching the banana bunches, I noticed that they always stayed in the shadow. How peculiar! It took nearly nine months for a bunch to mature. It would weigh tens of kilos by then. The jardineiro placed supports for the banana tree twice already, because the weight threatened to break the tree’s stem. It was a special moment when it was time to cut a bunch from the tree. The jardineiro would use a small ladder to climb up the tree to cut the stem, and the empregada and I would catch the falling banana bunch. It was important not to let them fall to the ground. It would be a shame if they were to be damaged after such a long process.
The small but thick bananas in my garden were firm and sweet. My wife’s colleague, a former doctor, loved them. So we often gave her a large bunch, just as with the empregada and jardineiro. We made a kind of sorbet ice cream from what we kept for ourselves.

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Black and white

I first learnt about the power of black and white graphics when I started making wood cuts at the academy. It was an adventure, carving out an image that existed out of nothing more than black surfaces. Pressed onto a white sheet, the black ink created the maximum contrast for the image. The result was raw and direct. Moreover, I found new means of expression that I had not thought of previously. The absence of colour directs attention to shapes and forms. Texture, such as that from a grain or notch in the wood cut, also becomes more noticeable.

From the very beginning, the tropical environment in Mozambique invited me to use colours in my work on the iPad. It was impossible to do otherwise. The colours felt so essential to the ambience. So when I started making sketches of my garden, using colour seemed obvious. Nonetheless, I became curious if I could reproduce the character of my garden without colour, drawing only the shadows and the light. With that in mind, I made a few sketches in black and white. They stand in marked contrast to all the other sketches. It makes for a short break from all the violence of colour.

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Trees and plants are beautifully constructed. How do shrubs achieve their form? What pattern do their intricate system of twigs follow? How do leaves and flowers develop from branches? There are so many species and varieties. Just in my garden, there were already too many to count.
The neighbours behind us had something entirely different: rows of cacti. Their tops reached out just above our garden wall, the arms and pads of the cacti resembling characters in a puppet show. We could see them because the neighbour’s garden was raised by at least a metre compared to ours. The whole compound was on a slight incline, sloping down to the sea coast. That is why, in turn, our house would be positioned higher than our neighbour’s house across the street.
The cacti behind our house were wonderful plants. They had no branches, stems or leaves like most of the plants in our garden. Instead the cacti pads looked like leaves filled with air, stacked on top of each other with industrial glue. The pads had many spines sticking out and occasionally a flower would blossom. What struck me most was how the cacti appeared to change colour, like a chameleon. At dawn they would look chilly blue like the sky. At dusk they would become dark green, appearing like silhouettes against the orange sky.

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Swimming Pool

Next to the swimming pool, near the large palm tree, there was a plant with narrow leaves like grass and funnel-shaped yellow flowers. A friend told me it was a yellow oleander, known as a lucky nut in the Caribbean. Searching online, I found that the plant produced small amounts of poison, occasionally used to treat heart disease. What made the plant special was that its flowers bloomed for just a single day. They would then fall off and, in this case, land in our swimming pool. The day after, new flowers would blossom and those, again, would fall into the swimming pool. And this process continued day in, day out. That meant we constantly had to fish out the flowers from the swimming pool with nets. In addition, there were also leaves and twigs that polluted the water. A few times we even found little frogs.

The bottom of the swimming pool was kept clean by an apparatus that worked like a vacuum cleaner, connected to a long hose at the edge of the swimming pool. With the power of a water pump, it followed a specific route, so that after some time the complete floor was vacuumed clean. Sometimes the machine would get stuck in one of the swimming pool holes and the water it had sucked away would come rushing back in. It would sound like it was choking. If you gave it a little nudge, it would return to normal and continue. Whenever I took a dip in the swimming pool, I would switch off the pump, so that I didn’t get into a tangle with the hose.

Besides the dirt, I kept a close eye on the water quality in the swimming pool. It had to be clear and appear light blue. That colour indicated that the total chlorine, the pH value, and the alkalinity of the water were at the right levels. The blue shade could sometimes quickly turn green, for example after a heavy storm or a hot day. And once it had turned green, it was a painstaking process to magically return the water to a blue colour. Otherwise I would have to dump bucket-fulls of alkaline fluids and chlorine in the swimming pool. The water could also become cloudy, so that you couldn’t see the bottom anymore. That could not be remedied without drastic measures either. Once everything had stabilised, I would keep the water nice and blue with a monthly dosis of chlorine tablets that I would place in a floating cylinder we called a bobby. Whenever I took a dip, I would remove the bobby, otherwise I would constantly bump into it while swimming.

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A swimming pool probably instils in us a desire to return to the womb. Our swimming pool makes the association even more apparent. The L-shape of the basin, the rounded corners, and a narrow exit point make it easy to visualise. Moreover, the vacuum hose that moves through the water reminds me of the umbilical cord.

I never really enjoyed swimming. In contrast to walking or cycling, I found swimming exhausting. The mechanics of swimming were apparently not suited to my physique. It would make my muscles sore. So, whenever I swam I would try to exercise as little as possible. In addition, I always kept my head above water so I could breathe normally and regularly. With vigorous movement, relatively large waves would form in our small swimming pool. That would make me anxious, frightened to choke on water by accident. This was probably the result of trauma: years ago, I had a period where I spontaneously and unexpectedly would fall short of breath. I have done my utmost to avoid such situations since.

To meet my daily exercise needs, I would usually go hiking or walking. But in the summer, walking was regularly replaced by swimming because of the heat. It took me about seven strokes to swim from one side to the other. I would gradually build up to fifty shuttles before I became too tired. It was not an olympic achievement by any means, but I could feel my heart rate rise significantly nonetheless. After a work-out like this, I felt satisfied. At the end of 2015, one day in December, I had to moderate my already...

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...leisurely tempo even further. I felt short of breath and my chest was heavy. After only five shuttles! I had not even reached one-tenth of my target distance. Perhaps it was because I had had too much for lunch. However, the next day I had the same experience. I was finished after five shuttles again. I did not want to force myself, so I stopped.

I told my wife about my experience. She then told a close colleague of hers, the former doctor who loved our bananas so much. She, in turn, immediately made an appointment for me with a cardiologist. From thereon, things picked up speed. That same night the cardiologist told me to go to the hospital for catheterisation because he had diagnosed angina pectoris. Due to a narrowing of the aorta I would get a heavy chest when exercising. That was probably why I was afraid to swim too vigorously.
Three weeks later I was in a hospital in Johannesburg, where I underwent an operation. A heart surgeon made some bypasses around my heart. Thank God I had not yet experienced heart failure, let alone a fatal heart attack. The swimming pool, in hindsight, was a place I would now associate with saving my life.

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The lawn grass on both sides of our house was kikuyu grass. That is the sturdy, rough grass you see in every African garden. It is not ideal for playing tennis or golf, but it is stronger than European grass and it requires less water. It also needs less mowing.
Although when that was necessary, our jardineiro would use the lawn mower that we shared with Barry and our other neighbours. The edges of the lawn were cut with grass shears. In the corner where the Kenya-palms stood, the grass had difficulty growing. You mostly saw the dark earth beneath the blades of grass. The grass would often turn yellow, but with some watering the right colour would return quickly. That is to say, until that would not work either. That was when we would have a small truck pass by and deliver a mountain of horse fertiliser. Our jardineiro, with the help of a ‘brother’, would spread the fertiliser across the lawn. The fertiliser provided extra nutrition for the soil. The grass visibly profited from the boost.

It was challenging to sketch grass. What would I do with all those blades of grass? Would it not be boring, so many blades of grass? Such a theme restricted me to a more or less flat surface making use of rhythms and subtle variations in colour. It required a different mindset than representing an object or landscape. That is something I found appealing. I did not have to worry about concepts such as horizon or perspective. The action of drawing itself became more important. All the parts of the image demanded equal attention. I would look closely at every single blade of grass. Each and every one. A momentary lapse in concentration could land me in a state of ‘auto-pilot’ drawing. I would not be focused properly in that scenario, and my hand would lead its own way. That would also mean losing the essence of what it was about for me: to muster the concentration and energy to represent the diversity of nature. What I gained in return was valuable. The variation and harmony that nature offered, was not something I could conjure up using only my imagination.

While looking closely at blades of grass, I discovered a lot visually. They pointed in all directions and they appeared both big and small. The grass did not cover everything. I could see past and in between them and guess what lay beneath.

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The iPad proved to be a useful tool for this subject because I could draw the foreground and background in separate layers. With watercolour painting, for example, representing the lawn accurately would be a complicated and time-consuming process, because you would have to paint the background while leaving empty space for all the blades of grass in the foreground.
Another challenging aspect of sketching grass, is that you have to keep the whole picture in mind and not lose oneself in the details. There was more to the lawn than just individual blades of grass. I had to consider what parts of the sketch had to draw the attention of the viewer. Some spots in the lawn received more sunlight, some parts were not as dense, and in other parts there were other plants. The viewer’s eye had to be invited to wander around the whole sketch.

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Nature and art

Simões, my good friend and artist sculptor from Mozambique, uses leftovers from tree barks to create his fantasies. He saws, chops, sands and burns the wood to make art out of what once belonged to nature. He engraves part of himself in how he sculpts the roots and twigs. It develops a human touch. As a viewer, I can relate to him. I ask myself what moved him and what I would do in his place. Art is also a way to communicate with people.

The natural world can evoke the same emotions as a great artwork. A beautiful rock in the mountains does not have to be less beautiful than a stone carved by humans. But when I see an imposing mountain, an impressive tree, or hear birds singing – I do not feel I can emulate such beauty. How such things have come to exist are beyond my understanding. Mankind played no part in their creation. Natural material and the laws of nature are what make them. I may find it beautiful, or be impressed, but I do not think nature is concerned with such matters. Nature is not a human and does not contemplate about what is beautiful and what is not. No, it is a chaos within which humans try to find harmony.

I looked closely at the plants and trees in my garden, studied their colours and shapes, and tried to translate that onto a flat two-dimensional electronic screen. They became sketches of nature. And we call it art. The difference between art and nature is essentially a distinction between what is human and what is nature. These concepts intersected while sketching my garden. I am human but also a part of nature.

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What kind of paintings do you make? That is a question I get asked a lot. It is difficult to give a short, simple answer as I have made many kinds of paintings over the years in different circumstances. I usually direct everyone to my website because it shows a complete overview of my work.
What kind of response do people expect from me? Do they want to know whether I paint landscapes or indulge in abstract fantasies? Whether my work belongs to a minimalist, impressionistic, or photorealistic tradition? Whether I am ideologically motivated? Whether I seek to shock? In short, to which category of artist do I belong?

The more interesting question for me, is to ask what I want to make in the future. I have always wanted to continually reinvent myself. To never make the same painting again. I want to surprise, be adventurous, and pursue freedom. In reality, this remains elusive, of course. It is difficult to escape convention. Just like a writer cannot escape his or her culture and its language while writing, I am limited by colour, technique, tradition and whatever is currently in vogue. At the same time, those limitations provide the conditions for developing a meaningful, unique voice amongst all the noise. A sense of freedom can sometimes come from transcending categorisation.

The jardineiro kept the garden within its designated limits. He cut, cleared, and chopped his way to make more room for a plant to blossom, and sometimes he uprooted plants to make others grow better. The garden blossomed and continued to grow exuberantly, but eventually adapted according to the will of the jardineiro. Shrubs and trees were placed at the perimeter against the stone fence. They concealed the garden from outsiders, so that they could not see me sketching. I would be too easily distracted otherwise. It gave me the freedom to do what I wanted.

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Why paint

Another possible question is, why do I make paintings? That, likewise, is not easy to answer. It started as early as in primary school, making drawings. For some inexplicable reason, I felt very self-confident doing it. I felt like I could draw whatever I wanted (which was overconfident, in retrospect). I loved drawing people. I also drew cars, trees, houses, all sorts of things. And I made designs for murals that existed out of geometric colour patterns. That gave me pleasure as well. That interest voor abstraction and colour was there from the start, other than the desire to draw from reference. The simplest explanation for why I paint is that it gives me great satisfaction to be able to create own worlds with just a few basic materials. It is incredible how you can make a vast landscape with only a few simple brushstrokes. It is like magic, to create the illusion of depth and movement on a flat surface. It is as if a form of life is conceived out of nothing. As if I am the creator. Very much similar to how nature goes about in my garden.

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Most of the time I could feel a gentle breeze in the garden. But sometimes the coastal winds would be more aggressive. Other times it was too hot and the thermometer would reach 40 degrees Celsius, but those days were exceptional. I would rarely feel too cold in my garden. By far the majority of the days, the garden was a pleasant place to sit.
This particular morning it was very wet. Our empregada arrived late and was completely soaked. She held a plastic bag over her head to cover her hair. She lived on the edge of the city, about an hour and a half away, like many others working in Maputo. She preferred travelling on a My love (a pick-up truck) than with the packed chapas (mini buses). In the My love people would stand in the open loading area and hold each other tight in corners. She said it was harder to contract diseases in the open air.
I had not seen her arrive so drenched before. It did not happen often that it would rain so heavily in Maputo. The showers had cleaned my garden. All the dust on the plants and the lawn had been swept out. Green radiated brightly from the leaves. The dark clouds had not yet disappeared. The air was moist. The birds had been quiet for a while, but slowly started singing, tweeting, and chirping again.

The year in Mozambique is characterised by two year-tides, a dry season and a rain season. Until now I had noticed little difference between the seasons. The locals said the climate had been ‘upset’ in recent years. The change in climate seemed to be more extreme in Mozambique compared to other countries in the world. The last rain season was pretty much dry. In contrast, during the dry season there could be days with heavy showers. Like this day. It was difficult to make any sense of it.

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The last sketch I made in my garden was just under a year after starting the project. It was not my intention to stop, but I had to focus my time on preparing an important exhibition in Maputo, where I would exhibit a new series of ‘shadow’-themed paintings. In addition, I had been asked to make illustrations for a book and I had two new portrait assignments as well. It was at that time that everything went awry in my garden. A weed with many small rounded red leaves had invaded the garden. After the jardineiro had expunged the weed, dead spots formed. And it became worse. A portion of the shrubs and bushes in the garden were infested with a tiny white pest. We got all sorts of advice from friends and acquaintances about how to deal with them. The jardineiro also suggested a pesticide to combat the pests. But nothing helped. We were left with no choice but to hack and cut down the infested shrubs and remove them entirely, stem and root. That turned out to not be so straightforward either. The roots had spread across a large area over the course of the years. After two days hard work, the garden had become a battlefield of strewn heaps of earth and many holes.
My beautiful tropical garden had lost much of its allure. Only the trees, some palms, and the bougainvillea were left standing. Now and then a small offshoot of a shrub would sprout up in a barren spot. The jardineiro would place new plant cuttings and assured me the garden would recover before I knew it. He was right that it would regrow fast, but in the summer, when we left Mozambique for good, my garden had still not fully recovered. It all still looked a bit sad. I never tried to sketch the misery of my garden. It did not inspire me.
Can nature be ugly? Of course. There can be no such thing as beauty without ugliness in the world. But I do not think nature is concerned with such matters. She is busy living, surviving, and reproducing. Decay, rotting, and disease may be considered ugly, but they leave space behind for something new. How many of those ugly processes signal the beginning of what will later become that beautiful hibiscus flower?

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About the sketcher

Rob van Doeselaar (Goes, 1958) was educated at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam (1983). Since then he has produced a diverse body of work. He paints with oil paint on canvas, and with acryl paint or mixed media on paper. He also makes digital drawings and paintings on his iPad, which he regularly publishes on his blog. Over the years, Rob has lived in many different countries across the world, and produced work and held exhibitions in: India (New Delhi), USA (New York), Senegal (Dakar), Ghana (Accra), Mali (Bamako), Mozambique (Maputo), and currently shares his time between Switzerland (Geneva) and the Netherlands (the Hague). The impressions and experiences from travelling all over the world are integral to the themes of his paintings. Each country and place brings with it exciting new stories, leading to different insights and interesting questions. The study of colour and use of material is a constant factor in his work. Using paint to create illusion of movement and depth on a fixed, flat surface, continues to fascinate. Rob van Doeselaar also paints portraits in commission, having accrued extensive experience over the past decades. In 2013 he won an award in the competition ‘Leve de Koning’ (Long Live the King) for the best portrait of King Willem-Alexander.

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The sketches in the book are available in large sizes.

If you like a sketch on your wall, you can order certified prints with pigment ink in limited edition on Hanhnemühle Photo Rag Satin paper 300 g.


9. In the beginning
13. My paradise
19. Pad
21. Printmaking
23. Computer
28. Light and shadow
37. Surroundings
40. Home
43. Mozambique
46. Bananas
57. Black and white
58. Cacti
61. Swimming pool
66. Lawn
73. Nature and art
75. Freedom
77. Why paint
78. Rain
81. Ugly
82. About the sketcher

All the sketches are made on an iPad 2