The refuge of the drawn line

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Blue, clothed I (A3 charcoal 2016)

There is no Chinese curse that goes, ‘May you live in interesting times’, probably because it’s meaningless. We may imagine that the current rise of populist right-wing politicians would qualify, but is it worse than living during World War II, or Stalin’s Russia, or anywhere during the medieval period?

In our own personal sphere, things are always ‘interesting’ in the sense meant by the bogus Chinese curse. Without the lows, as they say, how would we enjoy the highs? We are complex creatures in a world buzzing with activity and sensation – it couldn’t be anything else.

Yesterday I returned to work after a short illness. Inevitably there were the crises, deadlines and demands that pile up while you’re away from your emails. Although I’d had a delightful weekend – lunch with a dear friend on Saturday followed by a visit to the Edward Ardizzone retrospective in London, some therapeutic leaf-raking on Sunday – by the end of the day I felt like my head was full of chattering birds. Two hours of life drawing and a 15 minute meditation at home did the trick: soon the avian throng were quietly sleeping on their perches again!

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Blue, clothed II (A3 pencil 2016)

At the moment life seems to offer me an intriguing opportunity with the right hand and slap me on the back of the head with the left. Through all of this, there is the refuge of the drawn line. As long as there is time to sit, switch on Astral Weeks and draw dogs or quinces or Carly Simon’s imaginary friends, adversity can be defeated. It’s a privilege, I know.

And if the drawing goes wrong or the quinces don’t live up to their promise then I have the advice of my good friend and author, Bálint Varga: ‘Insecurity and dissatisfaction with one’s work is part and parcel of being an artist. It would be tragic if you were perfectly happy with what you are doing: you would have no incentive to search and experiment further.’

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The art of the dealer

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Kasmin (15 cms x 10 cms ink and watercolour 2016)

John Kasmin is an art dealer, small of stature (under 5’6”) but not of reputation, who is perhaps best known (to me at least) for launching the career of David Hockney.

He discovered Hockney at the Royal Society of British Artists’ 1961 show, Young Contemporaries, where he bought one of the painter’s most striking early works, Doll Boy, for a mere £40. Kasmin’s interest was unexpected as he specialised largely in American colourfield painters. “I liked the young Hockney’s cheekiness,” is how he described the attraction in a recent interview.

But why have I drawn Mr Kasmin naked instead of wearing one of his elegant suits? It’s the first tentative step in a series of drawings celebrating the wonders of the older body, both male and female. The media’s obsession with physical perfection – as well as causing all sorts of problems around body image among young people – means that the middle-aged and older body, even in art more often than not, is sidelined. Yet the body can be as revealing as the face in charting life’s journey and the curves and folds have a beauty of their own: our life stories are written on the skin.

I’m not the first to have had this idea, of course, and it might well remain in my head rather than on paper like my ‘plastic in the seas’ project. In case you were wondering how I persuaded a legendary art dealer to strip off, I must confess that Mr Kasmin’s chest is based on my own, drawn in front of my bedroom mirror.

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The prince and the quince

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Three Quinces I (A4 mixed media 2016)

Longer-term followers of this blog will know that I have something of a weakness for the noble quince.

Apparently (Wikipedia informs me) some ancient texts maintain that the fruit Eve plucked from the Tree of Knowledge was a quince rather than an apple. I’d rather not contemplate that such a beautiful fruit could be instrumental in our fall from grace.

To me it feels more like the sort of thing that would appear in fairy tales. Its sensuous shape, wonderful colouring and aromatic scent would be ideal for an enchanted fruit given to a young prince by his evil stepmother. One bite of its bitter flesh would be enough to put our sensitive hero into an endless sleep. Until, that is, some ten years later when a beautiful young princess from a neighbouring kingdom passes by with, unusually, a jar of quince jelly about her person. She rubs a little on the prince’s lips and his eyes flicker open, focussing slowly on the lovely features of his saviour. The wicked stepmother is fed to the bears (there are always bears in these stories), and the prince and princess live happily ever after, not having to bother with any of the things that make our lives so challenging.

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Three Quinces II (A5 ink and watercolour 2016)

So there you have it, the beautiful quince as poison and antidote. It does seem a lot for a harmless fruit to carry.

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‘If I’m a storyteller it’s because I listen’

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John Berger (23cms x 30cms charcoal and pastel 2016)

Saturday was the 90th birthday of writer, artist and thinker, John Berger. I first encountered him in the 1970s, as the hip presenter of the television series on art, Ways of Seeing, by which time he’d already had a career as an artist and a Booker Prizewinning novelist.

He’s one of those people – like Parker J Palmer, Joni Mitchell and Arvo Pärt – whom you want to go on forever. The world feels like a better place for their being in it and you know that when they go it’ll seem a little poorer, a little less varied. His novels are something of an acquired taste, (I’ve never managed to finish one), but his books of essays contain riches beyond compare. Of The Shape of a Pocket, Berger himself writes

a pocket is formed when two or more people come together in agreement…The people coming together are the reader, me and those the essays are about – Rembrandt, Palaeolithic cave painters, a Romanian peasant, ancient Egyptians, an expert in the loneliness of certain hotel bedrooms, dogs at dusk, a man in a radio station. And unexpectedly, our exchanges strengthen each of us in our conviction that what is happening to the world today is wrong, and that what is often said about it is a lie.

Doesn’t that make you want to rush round to your local bookseller or click on your non-exploitative online retailer without further ado?

One always longs to meet one’s heroes and I did meet John Berger when I worked in a London bookshop in 1979.

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The shop hosted a launch party for his novel, Pig Earth, but sadly I knew him mainly as a TV presenter and I was over-awed by his presence. If I knew then what I know now, there are so many things I would have asked. Perhaps I would even manage a better portrait than the one above. However, we are lucky to have his books, which are like hearing a master storyteller describe his travels beyond the mountains, to the countries of the mind where you follow because he leads.

Happy birthday, John.

 

Face Time

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Finding ourselves without a model in yesterday’s life drawing class, we decided to draw each other. Our teacher warned us at the outset that drawing portraits from life was difficult: it’s certainly very different to drawing someone from a photograph (Jenny Saville, for example, will only paint from photographs, finding the presence of the model a distraction).

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I can only be glad that none of you, probably, know the three gentlemen pictured here. You might pick them out of a police line-up using these ten minute sketches but I doubt if their loved ones would want them framed and hanging on their walls. It’s interesting to consider how close a resemblence needs to be: an artist I admire enormously, Tom Phillips, has painted the Monty Python team which – to me – fails to capture any of them. As Tom Phillips is a remarkable and innovative artist, I don’t feel quite so self-conscious about posting my three portraits.

On the subject of the importance of a likeness, Lucian Freud, in his only artist’s statement, written for the Venice Biennale in 1954, wrote:

The artist who serves nature is only an executive artist. And since the model he so faithfully copies is not going to be hung up next to the picture, since the picture is going to be there on its own, it is of no interest whether it is an accurate copy of the model. Whether it will convince or not depends entirely what it is in itself, what is there to be seen. The model should only serve the very private function for the painter of providing the starting point for his excitement.

For some other interesting takes on the art of portriature, see Rosie Scribblah‘s collection of baby boomers and Laura’s stylistic experiments over on Pict Ink. My three are all A3, drawn in charcoal or pencil.

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