Bridges of Paris in the rain

"Pont au Change"

After my Central Park series of bridge drawings, I decided to continue my interest in architectural drawing in Paris. These are "proper" bridges, as opposed to decorative park bridges, and many of them have some serious history to them. But what I was mostly focused on was the design and beauty of the constructions.

I didn’t necessarily pick the best time to travel to Paris. Such heavy rainfall had just struck the north of France that the Seine had breached its banks in early June. The rain was still present and the river high, compromising many parts of the walkways along the Seine.

There are many bridges in Paris, but I concentrated my attention on the ones connecting to l’Ile de la Cité. This is the island where you will find Notre Dame cathedral, where lines of tourists are queuing to witness this gothic masterpiece with its rich interiors and precarious walks up above its flying buttresses.

View of "Pont au Change", with sketchbook

Five years ago, I sketched a small view that captured three bridges in one view. It was an unusual viewpoint, where the riverside walkway breaks into a set of stairs, creating an interesting path into the distance. I headed straight to the same spot, knowing that whatever inspired me once before would hopefully inspire me again.

One thing that changed since last time, was the size of my sketchbook, but also my approach: I was now stretching my drawings across the paper regardless of the midway stitching. This current view was different as well: half the walkway was under water!

"Pont au Change", with the imperial "N" of Napoleon.

This drawing was interrupted by rain. At first I thought it would pass, but once the large drops starting landing on my pages, I quickly closed my sketchbook to protect what I had done so far. So I had to seek shelter under some tree, along with another Parisian having his lunch. I took this opportunity to have my sandwich and once the rain had passed, I moved to another bridge near Notre-Dame cathedral. The rain came back, so I took shelter under "Pont double".

Sitting under "Pont double", looking at "Petit pont-Cardinal Lustiger", and "Pont au change" just beyond it.

Fortunately, the Seine pathways have a small wall at a convenient sitting height. I could also rest my sketchbook down in front of me on this wall. The water rushing past just below my feet was sometimes distracting, but its presence was important in these compositions. I had to address it, and draw this moving mass from life. Drawing water is an interesting exercise. It obviously demands concentrated observation, but with an understanding of rhythm and movement.

My technique here is the same as with my central park drawings. No sight-size approach, but rather favouring a more inclusive panoramic stretch. I will turn my head towards the edges of my subject to include a fuller impression of my environment. What I lack in colour and atmosphere, I compensate for with a wide scan.

"Pont Royal" with sketchbook

My whole stay in Paris was cursed with rain, but this led me to adapt. The option of NOT drawing isn’t part of my work ethic. I persist, even if it means failure, or under-par drawings. This meant that I had to take shelter under the very subjects I came to draw. This brought me to become quite intimate with these constructions, as I would be protected by one bridge while I drew another.

"Pont Royal" from the banks of the island of "La cité", with "Pont du change" in the distance.

The rain was particularly persistent one day, and it luckily coincided with spending time with painter friends, Kate Lehman and Travis Schlacht. In their home we drank tea, chatted about art, discussed their current joint gallery exhibition…then we started work.

As Kate pursued a small self-portrait on copper in the entrance hall where the light was best, and Travis painted upstairs, I sat on the wooden stairs leading up to one of the bedrooms. From here, I chose to capture a painter at work, from a distant and sort of voyeuristic vantage point.

Painter friend Kate Lehman working on a self-portrait

Back to the outdoors, to finish off the Notre-Dame/bridge view that I started the day before. I had chosen a view where the bridge was not in charge of the composition. The cathedral was a dominating presence, and the challenge of drawing this complex building was a drive in itself. How must one deal with all this visual information, without making it overbearing?

Pont au double, with Notre-Dame Cathedral to the left.

Careful selection is required with any subject, but here it is essential. Draw too much and the image is heavy, clunky, lacking in depth and becomes ”journalistic”. Draw too little, and the effect of transparency lacks mass and solidity and leaves us with an insipid impression. That subtle middle ground where we encounter “poetry” is elusive; suggesting just enough without saying too much is the eternal pursuit. It’s that question that many people ask artists: “when do you know when you’re finished?” You don’t know it; you feel it. Only with practice does that feeling become clearer.

Pont Alexandre III, sketch from May 2011

Departing from the Ile de la Cité, I am drawn to the legendary Alexandre III bridge. It was built for the “exposition universelle” of 1900, which also saw the building of the Eiffel Tower. It’s an exquisite arrangement of ironwork, columns and sculptures that I also sketched on my previous visit. Pont Alexandre III refers to the Tsar Alexander III, who concluded the Franco-Prussian alliance in 1892.

Pont Alexandre III with sketchbook

However inspirational this flamboyant bridge could be, I wasn’t able to quite find the view I wished for. So, half way through my drawing, I erased everything. I decided to concentrate on one of the many sculpted faces that lined the underlying supports along the ironwork. Alternating but repeating heads, male and female, would draw the eye along the bridge. I was drawn more to the ruggedness and strong personality of the bearded male faces that seemed to push themselves out from the bridge into the oncoming current of the river.

Sculpted detail on Pont Alexandre III

This was more like a portrait drawing: blocking in the large shape for head and hair and wreathes, before moving into the smaller shapes of features, beard rhythms, etc. To place the head into context, I draw the connecting garlands, and the supporting column with a simple linear indication. This is to avoid over-cluttering the drawing, while helping the eye to focus on the principal subject.

While drawing, I was once asked: “why don’t you just take a photograph?” I didn’t see the point of burdening this innocent passer-by with my answer. There is an argument that suggests that drawing, instead of snapping away with a camera, allows the “tourist” to engage and connect more deeply with their experience. 

Whatever your level of drawing, you shouldn't be afraid of having a go. Just give yourself 10 or 20mn, and just capture your impression. Just look at the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum initiative, where photography is restricted in favour of sketching. You see more when you draw. This means that instead of casually gliding past a painting, with arm outstretched, finger on trigger while iPhone lens is pointed, the museum would rather have you sit and observe, and experience culture through more than just a lens.

A blog post by Jen Miller @ covers other aspects of how drawing can help brain plasticity.

A 20mn sketch will imprint the experience in your brain in such a way that you will have a permanent impression that you can share without relying on electronics. You can actually “talk” about it, using language to “share” your experience that people will “like”. There's an idea: applying modern social media expressions to real-time experiences.

toby wright