Gerald as a Cartoon Dog (A5 ink and coloured pencil on brown wrapping paper 2015)
I can still get emotional thinking about our rescue greyhound, Gerald, who died a year ago yesterday. A survivor of the cruel sport of greyhound racing, he was dumped on the Dog’s Trust when his racing form no longer made financial sense for his owners. However he became a much-loved member of our household for five years, around four and a half of which he spent on our living room couch.
Greyhounds are wonderful subjects to draw and paint: their taut, angular bodies naturally fall into interesting poses. After a few hours spent lying on his belly, Gerald would flip himself over onto his back and his smooth, sleek profile would change to a peculiar tangle of limbs and bony paws.
Gerald (60cms x 40cms charcoal on Hahnemuehle Nostalgie paper 2013)
Greyhounds are also splendid animals to talk to. You don’t get much in return, but they’re excellent listeners.
My partner, Sarah, and others speak highly of morning pages, a concept invented some years ago by creativity guru Julia Cameron. It involves producing a prescribed number of pages of stream-of-consciousness writing first thing every day. I’d often wondered if the same concept could be applied to drawing.
Last weekend I had a couple of clear hours to paint, and I was determined to finish another troublesome little oil painting that had been sitting on the easel for a couple of weeks. I decided to start by filling an A4 sheet of paper with morning pages style sketches (above). This differs from the usual loosening-up exercises in a number of ways: the drawings must come from the imagination (even if I did fall back on chilli peppers more than once!); the pen should keep moving – no over-refining or fine detail; there should be no attempt to produce ‘showable’ results (I wasn’t intending to include them here at that stage).
I found the exercise supremely liberating. It didn’t matter what I drew or how well I drew it: the only goal was to fill the page. At the end of it I felt in a creative frame of mind and my hand had been moving in a drawing way rather than, say, a making coffee way or tidying the weekend newspapers way. After a short piece of displacement activity (slapping gesso on a couple of panels in the garage) I was able to confront the nectarine painting without the usual period of self-doubt and indeed managed to finish it (apart from some minor adjustments, when it dries, to the shadow on the tablecloth):
Nectarine (15cms x 15cms oil on board 2015)
I’m sure it’s only a variation on practices that full-time artists use constantly, but I’m eager to try it again and also see if it works for those times when nothing goes right.
Let’s have something of a break from my work this week and turn our attention to a real master.
Forty years ago, when I was a young student hoping to become a book illustrator, I wrote to the great Edward Ardizzone for advice. Tactfully, he didn’t say anything about the couple of drawings I’d sent to him for appraisal, but instead took the time to send me this handwritten letter full of useful tips about improving one’s technique. The closing sentence never fails to move me: ‘I lived poorly just painting pictures & illustrating books, which thank god has payed [sic] off in the end’.
Ardizzone’s loose and flowing style is difficult to imitate. Last night I tried to copy his drawing of a woman who had fallen asleep in the corner of a bar, watched by her concerned whippet. In Ardizzone’s drawing it was a touching vignette of someone who was drinking to forget: her face, tucked into her coat collar, was just three lines – two for her closed eyes, and an inverted 7 for her nose. Trying to reproduce that was impossible for me: my version looked cartoonish where Ardizzone’s looked poignant, primitive where his looked delicate. I had a little more success trying to adapt a drawing he did of a wine connoisseur:
The Connoisseur, after Ardizzone (10 cms x 10cms ink on sketchbook page 2015)
Such freshness can be difficult to achieve: the apparent simplicity of Ardizzone’s style comes from a lifetime of practice.
Dimity & Other Stories (37 x 17cms ink on Farrow & Ball paint sample card 2015)
Click on image to enlarge
…but each one is only 3cms wide and 2cms deep.
The weekend before last, among the advertising inserts in my copy of the Saturday Guardian was a Farrow & Ball colour chart for their range of household paints. There are two things you need to know about Farrow & Ball: their environmentally-friendly paints have a lovely chalky quality and they give them weird names. You can paint your living room in Dead Salmon, if you wish, or Churlish Green, Elephant’s Breath, Down Pipe or Pale Hound.
These pristine little rectangles were just too tempting. At first I just drew what their names suggested – a bone for Bone, a piece of knotted string for String – but then tried to be a little more creative. Surely Cornforth White is a jovial old cove for whom the sun is always over the yardarm; Clunch is an enthusiastic hug in the middle of the day; and Blackened could only be a man with a comedy exploding cigar.
So here is part one of my Farrow & Ball colour chart drawing project, largely drawn with an old-fashioned dip pen rather than the Uniball Deluxe Fine I normally use. Part two depends on continued inspiration and, more important, stamina.