Over a large part of her artistic career between 1910 and the early 1950s, Grace Cossington Smith filled 51 sketchbooks with nearly 1400 drawings. Drawing for Cossington Smith was a highly prized medium and embedded in her practice: in fact, during her first two years in art school she did not paint, later reflecting ‘because I was so set, you see, on drawing. I loved drawing.’1 As she progressed into painting, drawing continued to be significant, but largely as a tool through which she captured and planned her coloured compositions. Held at the National Gallery of Australia in its entirety, her corpus of sketchbooks tells a valuable part of her story as an artist. From finely rendered sketches of familial scenes, household objects and interiors, lively pages of pastel, coloured pencil and watercolour tests, through to a large volume of sketchbooks documenting her travels to England and Europe, the wealth of material in the national collection allows us to glean insights into her art, life and character.
A particular facet of these sketchbooks worth examining is Cossington Smith’s annotated drawings, or studies, which she often did in pencil before undertaking her final compositions in oils or watercolours once back at her studio in the garden of her family home (later in her life she would move her studio indoors). Tracing this practice alongside key events, artistic peers and influences, a series of examples drawn from the National Gallery and other national collections tell the story of Cossington Smith’s artistic process: her systematic approach to colour and sense for dynamic, rhythmic compositions. In unravelling these preparatory drawings, what is revealed is her idiosyncratic method imbued with both the spiritual and the scientific, refined and developed over a lifetime to elicit heightened emotional states and moods.
From the early 1910s through to the mid-1920s, Cossington Smith studied under Antonio Datillo-Rubbo at his Rowe Street atelier in Gadigal Nura/Sydney, alongside a number of like-minded artists including, among others, Nora Simpson, Roland Wakelin and Roy de Maistre. It was here that Cossington Smith became gradually acquainted with a series of new artists, including Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Camille Pissarro, Georges Seraut and Paul Gauguin, whose works were beginning to be reproduced in Australian journals and imported art books. On these works’ new outlook, Wakelin would note: ‘Colour was the thing it seemed — vibrating colour, and there were new ideas in composition — unorthodox.’2 In 1916 Datillo-Rubbo shared a letter written by van Gogh to his brother as part of a lunchtime reading at the atelier. The letter foretold of the Dutch artist’s plans to paint his renowned work Bedroom in Arles 1888, elaborating on its intended mood and colour scheme:
This time it’s simply my bedroom, but the colour has to do the job here, and through its being simplified by giving a grander style to things, to be suggestive here of rest or of sleep in general. In short, looking at the painting should rest the mind, or rather, the imagination.
The walls are of a pale violet. The floor — is of red tiles.
The bedstead and the chairs are fresh butter yellow.
The sheet and the pillows very bright lemon green.
The blanket scarlet red.
The window green.
The dressing table orange, the basin blue.
The doors lilac.
And that’s all — nothing in this bedroom, with its shutters closed. 
As a response to the colour notations in this letter, Cossington Smith produced the painting Van Gogh’s room c 1916, writing in pencil on its bottom margin: ‘the wall – violet / floor red / bed cover yellow green / furniture orange’. Although only a student exercise, the study represents a key moment of breakthrough for Cossington Smith as it is the first known example of her adoption of a systematic approach to making notes about colour.4 From this moment on, colour notes became a significant part of her process: Study for ‘Candle-light’ c 1918, for example, is half pencil sketch and half planning list. Meticulously considering the colours planned for each object, the study notes areas of ‘subdued light’ and ‘warm shadows’, as well as the overall compositional effect as a contrast between areas of ‘brown yellow’, ‘pink mauve’, ‘lemon yellow’, ‘greenish grey yellow’ and ‘cream green’. Later on, these notations would become highly abstracted and more shorthand, such as in not titled [Sketch for 'The winter tree'] c 1935. Here, lowercase D’s denote dark areas, L’s note light areas and S’s are semi-light tones. The letters are noted across both the background and foreground, which are flattened in the final composition due to broad-brush applications of colour.
While Cossington Smith’s interest in and systematic approach to colour was deeply her own, it was also a reflection of modern times. Both in Europe and across the globe, the frenetic pace of industrialisation of the mid to late nineteenth century had made the experience of early modernity feel dystopian and spiritually devoid of meaning. Seeking to break away from this outlook, a number of artists, intellectuals and scientists active during the turn of the century brought about a rich pollination of ideas across the fields of philosophy, religion, painting and literature, as well as science and medicine. Leaning towards a more naturalistic and, therefore, ‘authentic’ understanding of human consciousness and ephemeral ‘moments of being’ in the world5, colour — as a ‘natural’ phenomena perceived by the human senses — became a topic of much discussion.6 Reawakening one’s awareness to the wonders of the world through colour thus became not only an intellectual and aesthetic quest, but a religious and spiritual one.
In Australia, Cossington Smith — alongside Wakelin, de Maistre and a number of their contemporaries — was drawn to theosophical ideas which investigated these phenomenological concepts. Incorporating elements which were considered the ‘essential truths’ of religion, philosophy and science,7 Theosophy presented a compelling unifying system which was widely embraced by artists around the world, including figures like Piet Mondrian and Wassily Kandinsky.8 Cossington Smith was particularly drawn to the theosophical writings of Beatrice Irwin’s The New science of colour, first published in 1915. Adopting the quasi-science of chromatology to convey the spiritual message of the soul’s evolution, Irwin argued colours held deep psychological effects, stating that ‘if certain colours can induce certain states, is it not reasonable to suppose that certain states can induce certain colours?’9 Irwin’s colour system posited that colours fell within three natural divisions — physical, mental and spiritual — which were ‘dominated by’ sedative, recuperative and stimulant colours, respectively.10
Attracted to its ideas, Cossington Smith transcribed Irwin’s book almost in its entirety around 1924.11 Evidence of Irwin’s influence is further present in many of the artist’s sketchbook pencil studies, where colour descriptions often resemble the colour names found in Irwin’s ‘colour systems’ — with ‘emerald green’, ‘lead gray [sic]’ and ‘mauve’ featuring frequently. The chosen palettes also seem to approximate Irwin’s sedative, recuperative and stimulant categories to evoke physical, mental and spiritual experiences or states of being. In Study for 'The Eastern Road, Turramurra' c 1926, for example, Cossington Smith intricately enumerates colour possibilities. Under ‘darks’, she considers a rhythmic combination of blue, silver and emerald greens for trees and paddocks, while under ‘lights’, blue, green-reds, white and red-pinks illuminate the road in the foreground at its edges and banks. For the sky, she notes a gradation of cold mauve greys and mist blue; for the clouds, a cold silver. Examined against The New science of colours system, Cossington Smith’s choices seem to bear strong resemblance to the colour groups under ‘mental recuperatives’ and ‘spiritual stimulants’ which, when experienced, were supposed to induce at once a mental sense of ‘change, balance, expansion and cohesion’ and a spiritual feeling of ‘dispersion, joy, peace, spiritual renewal and fresh growth’12. Indeed, Cossington Smith later stated that her notes for the Eastern Road study meant a lot to her, ‘more than they seem’.13 It becomes clear that colour carried many subjective meanings to her: spiritual qualities, personal feelings and perhaps even private stories she was then able to articulate out in the open through the symbology of her own inner world.
Many of Cossington Smith’s contemporaries were also experimenting with associative concepts involving the senses, colour and emotion. In her immediate circle, de Maistre and Wakelin had become influenced by readings which discussed new art movements like Synchromism, where colour was described as nothing short of ‘the totality of art, the one element by which every quality of a canvas was to be expressed … any quality of a picture not expressed by colour is not painting.’14 As a classically trained musician, de Maistre had also studied music theory, and his cross-disciplinary thinking eventually led him to develop a colour theory which associated the seven colours of the spectrum with the seven notes of the octave. De Maistre and Wakelin even produced colour wheels which, when spun, selected harmonising colour combinations based on major and minor scales.15 In August 1919 de Maistre and Wakelin held the exhibition Colour in Art in Sydney, applying their colour theory across 11 paintings. Though not directly in Cossington Smith’s circle, Margaret Preston’s sketches of differently coloured major and minor scales further illustrate the central part the human senses played in investigating the nature of perception and, likewise, the prevailing sense of dynamism and rhythm which buoyed the artistic mind of these young Australian Modernists.
In her many studies and subsequent paintings of the Sydney Harbour Bridge under construction, Cossington Smith’s sketch notes moved beyond colour and began to consider qualities of line which would help her compositions achieve a sense of movement and rhythm. The art historian Andrew Sayers pointed out that she had always done this, noting down phrases that reminded herself about the overall direction or goal within a specific work.16 While this may be true, in examples like Study for ‘The curve of the Bridge’ 1928–29 the reminders become more precise and less urgent, evidence of a growing sense of orchestration and systematic thinking. In this study, circled like a thought bubble, Cossington Smith considers line direction in the remark: ‘Perpendicular light lines following through [with] shadows’. Right above, in larger handwriting, she also considers tones: ‘sky very light’. To the right, in close proximity to the Harbour Bridge’s geometric steel bars, she then thinks about a repetitive tonal pattern: ‘bars light [then] bars dark [then] mid until light lines’. Underneath, and circled, she concludes: ‘rhythm of bars’. Had she been born in a different century, Cossington Smith’s fascination with the geometry of man-made structures may have led her into a career in architecture, so keen was her draughtsmanship: yet, it is precisely her offbeat choice of angles of the Harbour Bridge, and the fact she liked it most as a subject while it was half-finished, which made her so appealing as an artist.
When explaining the expansion of his own colour theory into a theory of ‘colour orchestration’, de Maistre described it as a ‘combination of tone quality, colour, harmony, and rhythm.’17 In her arrangement of these very elements, Cossington Smith’s sketchbook studies manifest as an orchestration of her own; a vital in-between space for her to transcribe her ‘impressions’ of the world. As she stated in 1970:
'Yes, they were not actually finished drawings, they were more notes. I found it was better to make a note of things and then for painting do what you had in your mind guided by the notes, so that it wasn’t a copying affair... I never liked copying a drawing, actually copying. I like to paint what I have in my mind guided by the lines which I’ve made and the writing notes.' 
Grace Cossington Smith painted the way she saw and felt the world. Her understanding and manipulation of the fundamental principles of colour and line enabled her to convey an outer world which was in fact so intimately experienced. Her sketchbooks and drawings are a testament to her artistic process, full of idiosyncratic notes and reminders which draw us closer to this innovative figure of modernist Australia.
Know My Name: Making it Modern is on display from 5 August to 8 October 2023.
Grace Cossington Smith features in Know My Name: Australian Women Artists, a National Gallery Touring Exhibition supported by the Australian Government through Visions of Australia and the National Collecting Institutions Touring Outreach Program.
- Grace Cossington Smith, interviewed by Alan Roberts, 9 January 1970, transcript, National Gallery Research Library, artist file, p 2.
- Roland Wakelin, ‘The Modern Art movement in Australia’, The Art of the Year: Art in Australia De Luxe Edition, third series, no. 26, December 1928, accessed 28 July 2023, https://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-368275332/view?sectionId=nla.obj-370245270&partId=nla.obj-368280190#page/n34/mode/1up
- Vincent van Gogh, letter to Theo van Gogh, Arles, Tuesday 16 October 1888, accessed 28 July 2023, https://www.vangoghmuseum.nl/en/highlights/letters/705
- Deborah Hart, ‘A room of her own’, Grace Cossington Smith, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2005, p 15.
- James Luchte, Heidegger’s early philosophy, Continuum International Publishing Group, London and New York, 2008, p 28. The phrase ‘moments of being’ was used by Woolf to describe such experiences. See Viginia Woolf, ‘A sketch of the past’ in Jeanne Schulkind (ed), Moments of being, Harcourt Brace & Brace, New York, 1985, pp 70–72.
- See Dr H Schellen, Spectrum analysis in its application to terrestrial substances and the physical constitution of the heavenly bodies (1872), available at https://archive.org/details/spectrumanalysi01hugggoog/page/n14/mode/2up; Thomas Preston, The theory of light (1901) available at https://archive.org/details/theoryoflight00presrich/page/n5/mode/2up; Alexander Wallace Rimmington, Colour music: the art of mobile colour (1912) available at https://archive.org/details/colouartof00rimi ; and Walter J Kilner, The human atmosphere, or, The aura made visible by the aid of chemical substances (1911) available at https://archive.org/details/humanatmosphereo00kiln/page/n3/mode/2up, among others.
- James A Santucci, ‘Theosophy’ in Olav Hammer and Mikael Rothstein (eds), The Cambridge companion to new religious movements, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2012, p 234.
- Heather Johnson, Roy de Maistre: The Australian years 1894–1930, Craftsman House, Roseville, 1988, p 31.
- Beatrice Irwin, The New science of colour, Kensington Publishers, London, 2004, second edition 1916, p 51.Irwin, pp 32, 42.
- Hart, p 18.
- Irwin, pp 40–41.
- Hart, p 30. In the essay ‘A room of her own’, Hart makes the breakthrough connection between Cossington Smith’s interest in Beatrice Irwin’s writing and ideas and this somewhat cryptic statement, which is quoted in Daniel Thomas, Grace Cossington Smith: a life from drawings in the collection of the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 1993, p 247.
- Willard Huntington Wright, Modern painting, its tendency and meaning, John Lane Company, New York, John Lane The Bodley Head, London, 1915, p 304, accessed 30 July 2023, https://archive.org/details/modernpaintingi00dinegoog/page/n14/mode/2up
- K McDowell, ‘Colour music’, Sea, Land and Air, vol. 2, no. 19, October 1919, pp 417–22. Johnson pp 30–37.
- Andrew Sayers, ‘Grace Cossington Smith’s sketchbooks’, Art and Australia, vol. 24, no. 4, 1983, p 516.
- McDowell, p 422.
- Grace Cossington Smith interviewed by Alan Roberts.
Art & Artists
not titled [Horse and cart for 'The Eastern Road, Turramurra'].
Study for 'The Eastern Road, Turramurra'
Eastern Road, Turramurra
B b minor
Arrested phrase from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in red major
Study for 'The curve of the Bridge'
1928 or 1929
Self portrait outdoors
My dear sister Diddy
not titled [Basket, bottle and billy can].
A passageway at Church Cottage, Bowral
not titled [Still life; colour tests].
'The "garage" - it was an old stable', Cossington, Turramurra
Fabric swatch card
Study for 'Candle-light'
not titled [Sketch for 'The winter tree'].