Charcoal drawings are characteristically grey, but Hasala Jayarathna’s drawings are not just black and white in colour but also evoke feelings. All his drawings are an intriguing mix of light and dark invoking sadness and mystery.
“I was drawn to sadness, gloom and doom because they are unpopular subjects that most people are reluctant to deal with,” says Hasala. “Everything has a bright side as well as a dark one. I choose to bring out the dark side. Art is pain, innocent pain. It’s the smile that is born out of this pain that becomes the drawing,” philosophises Hasala.
As for his infatuation with the nude female figure, pronounced in most of his charcoal work, Hasala says that the female figure is charcoal-friendly.
Hasala admitted that he has no formal education in art. He attended Aluthgama Maha Vidyalaya, Kalutara but studied music for OL and arts subjects for AL.
“My father could draw a little. He used to show me how to draw animals using Sinhala letters,” recalled Hasala.
Later he learned to draw by copying photographs. “My father used to have a collection of books called Rasa Vahini, full of picture stories and I made a habit of copying the pictures from them,” says Hasala.
His earliest memories are drawing a picture of a Vedda (aborigine) sharpening an arrow when he was in the seventh grade.
His first attempt at art was to draw using colour pencils and moved up to charcoal six years ago when he was 18. “When I was surfing about international artists I realised that charcoal is a predominant medium,” said Hasala.
He then left his village and headed for Colombo in search of his charcoal pencil on the suggestion of an artist friend and thus began his love affair with charcoal.
Also being a cameraman his photography and charcoal drawings are worlds apart. His love for the great outdoors has resulted in a penchant for wildlife and nature photography. He is a wedding photographer by profession and when asked why his photography and drawings are poles apart, Hasala contends that sceneries are rarely done in charcoal. He explained that charcoal utilizes highlight and shadow, consequently charcoal drawings almost always of human figures where highlights and shadows are utilized to maximum effect. “With charcoal it’s easy to depict the gamut of human emotions. And charcoal is also the preferred medium for nude art,” he says.
Speaking about his preoccupation with the nude female figure, Hasala explained that it has to do with the curves and angles in the female body as opposed to that of the male. “This is ideal for artistic rendition,” he contends.
Speaking of highlights and shadows, when asked if photography helped him to hone his drawing skills, Hasala says that it was quite to the contrary. “Drawing helped me to learn photography. Artists look at photography as if looking at a work of art. Highlights and shadow are more important for art than photography. In art you draw in highlights and shadows, so when you’re an artist first and a photographer second you have already learned all you need to know about highlight and shadow and photography becomes easy,” Hasala explained.
When asked whether he has been influenced by international artists, Hasala admits that he hasn’t a vast knowledge of art enough to know from whom to gain inspiration but says that he likes Guy Denning, Ben Slow and Elly Smallwood.
Hasala says that although he doesn’t believe in copying artists, he believes that aspiring artists should appreciate and make themselves familiar with international artists of repute. “Only then can we do something of our own,” he adds and reiterated that drawing inspiration from an artist is different from copying an artist. “There can be only one Mona Lisa, the one by Leonardo da Vinci but you can still replicate it.”
Hasala believes that when amateur artists copy reputed artists, they at one point invariably develop their own style.
He notes a lack of creativity in Sri Lankan artists as opposed to foreign artists. “For example if someone is doing a portrait, it is done so there is hardly any difference between the photograph and a portrait. There is no creativity in that,” says Hasala who also says that a portrait or any other art work should be able to depict what’s said in several papers worth of words.
Hasala didn’t want to be an artist by profession because art is not lucrative in Sri Lanka. He pointed out that it’s difficult to price art in the country as few know how to truly value or appreciate art.
“Plus there should be people who know how to appreciate art. There are many good artists, but Sri Lankans don’t know how to read a work of art. Some people ask me why I draw bodies without faces, because they can’t appreciate that kind of art. But drawing the face would mean taking the attention away from the expression of the body,” he says.
According to Hasala people don’t know how to appreciate art partly because they don’t have the time to appreciate it. “One should be granted full freedom of mind to appreciate and enjoy art. But all we have time to do is get up in the morning, go to work, eat, sleep, that’s all. It’s cyclic. In foreign countries any day of any individual’s life is different from the previous day. Sri Lankans are so used to this cyclic life that they are reluctant to get out of the cycle. This mentality should change and people should be taught how to appreciate art,” he said.
Hasala says that people don’t get out and enjoy much and as a result their appreciation of art is blunt while admitting that he doesn’t want to go through the hassle doing the gallery rounds.
Hasala claims that he has never done art with the intention of making money and usually draws on half of an A4 sheet of paper. His drawings are an average of five inches on anything he lays his hands on. When asked what inspires him, Hasala says that anything out of the ordinary, such as a special feature in someone’s face or a certain angle a light reflects on the face, inspires him to draw.
He uses the eraser and his fingers to smudge and bring out the lighter shades and reveals that he rarely uses white charcoal. “There are no hard and fast rules in art. In fact, art is born of breaking boundaries,” says Hasala who hopes to conduct an exhibition of all his sketches sometime in the future.
Although by profession Hasala is a wedding photographer, he prefers landscape, photography and would like to try his hand at wildlife pictures with the right equipment. For him taking a photograph of a wild animal is not wildlife. “A wildlife photo should be the highlight of a certain behavioural trait specific to that animal; be it a mating ritual, or feeding pattern. Some birds feed in mid flight. This is the photo opportunity. And to spot this specific characteristic the photographer has to be familiar animal behaviour. Merely clicking the button is not wildlife photography,” declared Hasala.
He explained that to engage in wildlife photography, the photographer has to be familiar with the animals feeding and breeding patterns, habitat and male and female characteristics of the species as behavioural patterns depend on these factors.
Hasala also maintained that a wildlife photographer should learn to respect wildlife and pointed out that sometimes even the click of the camera disturbs the animal’s secretive nature and photographers who are not sensitive to an animal’s need for privacy invade them in noisy safari vehicles.
“If the photographer goes into the wild and litters the camp site he is not a wildlife photographer,” said Hasala.
He noted that Sri Lankan photographers have not displayed any enthusiasm for nature photography. “Most photographers focus on a single animal, but nature photography involves photographing groups of animals in their wild habitat. There’s great scope for this in Sri Lanka that photographers have not yet tapped into”, he says.
His advice to aspiring artists is to think out of the box. “There is a world of art out there. Make yourself familiar with the work of international artists through Facebook and Instagram,” he adds.
As for photographers, his advice to them is to learn photography first. “Having the right kind of equipment is not enough if you don’t know how to use it effectively,” Hasala said.