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Video clip synopsis – Perhaps more than most painters, William Dobell's art relied on drawing so his sketchbooks are invaluable to our appreciation of his work.
Year of production - 2006
Duration - 5min 0sec
Tags - art, artists, Betty Churcher, drawing, painting, portraiture, sketchbooks, see all tags


William Dobell - Sketchbooks

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About the Video Clip


William Dobell – Sketchbooks is an episode of the series Hidden Treasures (15 × 5 mins) produced in 2006.

The National Gallery of Australia has more than 100,000 works in its collection—an extraordinary reservoir of creative vision and cultural history, from decorative arts to photography and sculpture.

Yet on a visit to the gallery, you’ll see only the tip of this iceberg. Carefully stored away are the things that can’t be placed on permanent display.

These unseen gems include works of exquisite fragility, from brilliant hand-painted fabrics to delicate works on paper. From Australia, the Americas, Africa, Asia, Europe, the Middle East and Oceania, there are masks and carvings, lithographs and linocuts, set designs and stage costumes, sketchpads and handprinted books, marionettes and maquettes, teapots and textiles, and much, much more.

Now in this series of micro-docs, former director of the gallery Betty Churcher presents an insider’s guide to some of these 'hidden treasures’.

In the entertaining, accessible style for which she is renowned, Betty Churcher takes us behind the scenes, sharing with us her passion and insights. From her unique vantage point, she makes intriguing connections between a range of different objects and artists, linking them to the stories that surround them.

These are fascinating tales—about the works themselves, the people who created them and the challenge of preserving them—and a tantalising look at some of the ideas and influences that have shaped modern art across the globe.

A Film Australia National Interest Program in association with Early Works. Produced with the assistance of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

Full program credits

Curriculum Focus


Outcome 1
Students should be able to develop a design process including visual research and inquiry to produce a variety of design explorations and a number of artworks.

Outcome 2
Students should be able to analyse and discuss the ways in which artists from different times and locations have created aesthetic qualities in artworks, communicated ideas and developed styles.

This material is an extract. Teachers and Students should consult the Victoria Curriculum and Assessment Authority website for more information.

Background Information


During his lifetime very little was known about William Dobell’s drawings; he considered them to be no one’s concern but his own. They were private aides-memoires to assist with his paintings and it was the paintings that were for public display.

Now, his sketchbooks are an important part of the National Gallery of Australia’s collection, revealing the artistic process of one of Australia’s most renowned painters.

Perhaps more than most painters, Dobell’s art relied on drawing so these sketchbooks are invaluable to our appreciation of his work. They allow us the privilege of seeing the artist’s private thoughts, as unformed ideas gradually taking shape. We can witness him develop an idea from first fleeting sketch to final painting.

Dobell never painted his portraits with the model in his studio. He liked to work alone, from drawings and studies that he made earlier.

In 1929, he won a scholarship that took him to London, where he stayed for ten years. By 1935, the money was nearly gone so he took a cheap basement room with a single bed, which he shared with a professional—but it seems not very successful—burglar. Dobell used the single bed at night while the burglar worked, and the burglar used the bed by day, providing Dobell with a sleeping model.

An examination of Dobell’s preliminary sketches and his finished paintings—such as The Cypriot, The Cat Lover, the iconic The Billy Boy or his Archibald Prize winning portrait of Margaret Olley—reveal a marked difference between the drawings and the final works, and tells us what Dobell wanted from his paintings. The drawing is particular; the painting is general. Dobell dramatises the image—suppressing details in favour of a theatrical pose and a riveting gaze, adding mannerist exaggerations, or turning a personal portrait into a generic type.

Classroom Activities

  1. Betty Churcher states, ‘Dobell wanted a shift to take place from his original drawings to the finished painting’. Dobell said, ‘The drawing is particular, the painting is general’. View several of William Dobell’s drawings and paintings and discuss or write about what he meant by this statement.
  2. In 1943, amid a storm of controversy, Dobell won the Archibald Prize with a portrait of fellow artist Joshua Smith. Research the issues around this event. Discuss those involved and their viewpoints. What is your opinion?
  3. Dobell investigates personality in his portraiture, both in his style and his use of aesthetics. Compare his portraits to those of another portrait artist. What are the main similarities and differences between the two? If you were going to create a self-portrait what approach would you take? What would it look like?
  4. With their permission, take digital photographs of other students. Select one photograph and place a grid over it, or draw the grid directly onto the print. On a larger piece of paper draw an elongated grid with the same amount of shapes as the original grid on the photograph. Transfer the image. This drawing could be produced in any medium of paint, pastels or pencil etc.

Further Resources


B. Adams, Portrait of an Artist: A Biography of William Dobell, Hutchinson, Richmond, 1983

V. Freeman, Dobell on Dobell, Ure Smith, Sydney, 1970

J. Gleeson, The Drawings of William Dobell in the Australian National Gallery, Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 1992

B. Penton, The Art of William Dobell, Ure Smith, Sydney, 1946

The Archibald Prize

Dobell House… the home and studio of Sir William Dobell

Australian Dictionary of Biography online edition: Sir William Dobell