Axel Scheffler, perhaps best known as the illustrator of the Gruffalo, once said in a radio interview that if you can draw, people think you can draw anything. There are, he continued, so many things he wouldn’t even attempt.
As a young man this used to bother me enormously. Why can’t I draw a passable bicycle? If I can draw a dog why do I struggle to draw a horse? These days I simply avoid drawing bicycles or horses, but if my life depended on drawing a bicycle for some odd reason then I’d draw it like Quentin Blake.
I’ve also regretted never learning to play the guitar – or the acoustic bass. Why didn’t you then? you might ask. The answer, I’m afraid, is that I never wanted to be a mediocre musician and I was daunted by the amount of practice required to become proficient.
This is all rather sad, isn’t it? Worrying about what one can’t do instead of celebrating what one can. Not doing something that would have probably given me enormous pleasure and provided great comfort down the years simply because I would never be John Renbourn or Stefan Grossman.
My good friend, Bonny Mayer, recently decided that she’d like to draw and enrolled in a class during an extended stay in Thailand. After a couple of hours the teacher returned her money and advised her to try something else. Most of us, hearing that evaluation of our skills, might never pick up a pencil again. Not Bonny. On her return to the US she enrolled in another course and frequently posts her wonderfully vivid, lively drawings on Facebook (see above).
Let’s celebrate our own potential then, draw wonky horses and raise one of Bonny’s characterful glasses to the art of not giving up. We have one life and it’s frustratingly short, so not filling it with as much as we can would seem to be something of a shame. Wouldn’t you agree?
Entre chien et loup – between dog and wolf – is simply a term for twilight or the golden hour in photography, but what an evocative phrase.
I feel it could apply to any transitional stage when things are lacking in clarity, don’t you agree? That point on the path from agnosticism to faith, perhaps, when you want to believe but still entertain doubts. Or playing a musical instrument when you can’t quite get through a piece from beginning to end without pausing to re-arrange your fingers on the keys. Or, as this is an art blog, a point between one stage of your development and another when you can’t quite throw off the old or fully embrace the new.
For some years now I’ve tried to loosen up my drawing and painting style. I’ve enrolled on courses at places like Seawhite Studios, where I’ve been taken firmly by the hand and pulled outside my comfort zone; attended life drawing classes, where the teacher would tell me – 20 minutes before the end of class – to rub out my dreary charcoal drawing and start again, producing something rushed, yes, but also free-spirited and dynamic.
In the end though, the decision to take the next step has to be one’s own. Like a baby bird on the edge of its nest, you have to make that leap and expect to fly. With me it works intermittently: a year ago I sat in the autumn sunshine in the gardens of Versailles and drew crows pecking around for crumbs. As crows don’t stay in one place for long I had to draw quickly and the resulting sketch was lively and bold by my standards. A few hours later I did a drawing of a rotting pear (which moves less often than a feeding crow) and fell back into my old ways.
But once you’ve made that leap the results are wonderful to behold. A few weeks ago I watched painter and printmaker, Rosemary Vanns, drawing artichokes. Barely looking at the paper, her hand moved with confidence producing firm lines that suggested rather than reproduced the vegetable in front of her. Of course this is practice, but it’s also confidence, knowing you can do it before you start. It’s recognising – intuitively perhaps – the path you want to take and boldly moving one foot in front of the other.
That is the secret you need to know to take that important next step on whatever journey you’re engaged upon. That belief that you can do it, that you can keep your gaze fixed on the artichoke and allow your fingers to move and they’ll produce something that suggests what you see before you. Believe, just believe.
So from where you’re standing, is it a dog or a wolf?
“When disaster strikes, so does inspiration,” wrote Bryan Appleyard in the (London) Times earlier this month, “Art is what humans do in spite of, often because of, catastrophes.”
I’d been planning a rather grumpy rebuttal of this for the past couple of weeks. Personally, I was finding it difficult to create much of anything at all. My company had asked everyone to work from home so the room I use for drawing and painting now had to be shared with my office computer. After working in there all day, I felt less inclined to spend my evenings and weekends in the same space. But most of all, what was the point of painting fruit or drawing dogs when thousands were dying of Covid-19, and the US and UK governments seemed to be trying to outrank each other in ineptitude? Nobody asks for a story when they’re struggling for breath, as the novelist Sarah Perry said recently.
Then spring arrived. During my officially-sanctioned lockdown daily walks there was birdsong, the smell of fir trees warmed by a strengthening sun, butterflies rising from hidden places underfoot. The climbing rose outside my bedroom window was heavy with buds, the lavender took on a rich green sheen, tulips came and went, bluebells the same, the fruit trees are in blossom.
I started to draw. Then paint – a series of small, stylised flowers: a wild orchid, a rosebud, a sunflower, a poppy. There they all were if I just had eyes to see. An illustration for a friend’s story, a drawing of an old piece of pottery. The blinds were open and the sun was shining in.
It’s easy to feel discouraged. Who knows how long it’ll be until we can hug one another, travel somewhere, sit in a garden with friends and food and wine? And yes, people are dying out there, not surrounded by their family but only by the hissing of ventilators and the beeping of monitors.
I read this quote from writer Olivia Laing on songwriter Mary Chapin Carpenter’s Instagram feed at the weekend. Laing is perhaps best known for her study of loneliness, appropriately enough, but this is about the role of creativity in troubled times:
“It’s a feeling of being inducted back into hope, a restoration of faith. It’s easy to give in to despair. There’s so much that is frightening, so much that’s wrong. But if this virus shows us anything, it’s that we’re interconnected, just as Dickens said. We have to keep each other afloat, even when we can’t touch. Art is a place where that can happen, where ideas and people are made welcome. It’s a zone of enchantment as well as resistance, and it’s open even now.”
I’m still not sure about the role of small paintings like the one above in the general scheme of things. I just know I have to do them.
A couple of years ago, my beloved and I were having lunch in Chicago with her parents.
“Susie tells me you’re an artist,” said her father.
“It’s not a word I’d use to describe myself,” I replied.
“And a modest one, I see,” was his answer.
I can’t think what possessed me to give such a pompous answer to a man I was desperately hoping to impress, except that I truly do have a problem with the term, artist.
I’ve always believed that an artist is someone who operates on a sustained level of inspiration. Someone with curiosity, a need to create, and a way to tap into that almost mystical property that makes the thing we call art. Cezanne, certainly; Picasso, of course; but also Maurice Sendak and Wolf Erlbruch. I’m not being elitist here: it’s not to do with the number of your works in the Metropolitan Museum or the Tate Modern but rather how you draw up your inspiration.
Now, I’m sure even Cezanne had times when he couldn’t be bothered: having spent the best part of a week arranging apples and pears on a tablecloth until their positions made perfect sense to him, did he occasionally sit there and think, “I really don’t care” and spend the afternoon in his favourite cafe? But most, if not all, of his still life paintings burn with an inner life – you feel they had to be painted and painted exactly like this.
You know what I’m talking about. Sometimes the urge to create is so strong it almost hurts. There’s something in you that begs to be expressed, and that’s when you’re an artist creating art. When you’re doing it simply because you feel you should you’re drawing or painting, but you’re probably not producing art.
Where does it come from, this urge to create? Some of you will say it comes from God, others from that elevated place in your mind that can only be reached when the stars align. Wherever it comes from it isn’t always on tap, which is what makes it so intriguing and frustrating and rewarding when it finally happens.
I’ve recently been reading a wonderful book by Ross King calledThe Judgement of Paris, in which we learn of the early career of Edouard Manet. As we know, his work was repeatedly rejected by the organisers of the Paris Salon, but when he exhibited privately not only did he sell nothing but the public dropped by to actually laugh and jeer at works we now consider masterpieces, such as Olympia or Le Dejeuner sur l’herbe. Yet he continued to paint, and paint the subjects he wanted to in a style he knew was his own.
So how does all this relate to the little picture at the top of this post? Well, I had these tulips on my desk because I thought I should paint some flowers. I did the occasional sketch and tried an acrylic painting but it didn’t work out. The subject didn’t call to me. After a few days the flowers began to wilt, their energy expended, their beauty still intact but in a different way. Now with broad brush strokes I filled in some colour, drew the outlines in ink with a scratchy piece of bamboo, and lashed away at the background to define the shapes. It had to be done. Somehow these flowers, past their best and drooping in their vase became an embodiment of something I felt in my heart. I had thought I might ‘tidy it up’ but in the end this is what it was meant to be. I’d venture to say that this is art and while I was making it I was an artist.
Unfortunately these moments come too infrequently for me to seriously call myself an artist, hence my evasive answer over lunch on that happy day in Chicago. When the fire burns though, oh how warm the inner glow.
“Every love story is a potential grief story.” Julian Barnes, Levels of Life
“This was meant to be.” That’s what we believed.
Susie and I had known each other for 15 years, first as colleagues, then as friends. We’d found ourselves in oddly romantic situations on business trips – a moonlight walk on Venice Beach, watching the snow fall on 5th Avenue from a room full of Rembrandts at the Frick Collection – but we both had other commitments and we lived 3,000 miles apart.
Then she became seriously ill. We met in a favourite bar in Rochester NY during her treatment. This once athletic woman looked pale and thin, her cheeks sunken, her eyes tired from medical interventions. When we hugged goodbye her body felt like a fragile bird’s inside her winter coat. I felt sure I wouldn’t see her again.
Then the wheels turned and the machinery moved. Susie survived, she put on weight and returned to work. My relationship in England collapsed and my company decided I should spend extended periods in the U.S. Now there was nothing to stop us being more than friends. “This was meant to be.”
My days in the U.S. were full of marketing plans, sales forecasts, strategy meetings, forward planning. Evenings and weekends were ours: a trip to Sodus Point on Lake Ontario, a B&B in Canandaigua, a weekend in the Adirondacks, Christmas in Michigan, New Year in Chicago. We were unbearably cute: holding hands while watching TV, cooking together, sitting on the porch reading and drawing. Most of all, we embraced this wonderful and unexpected love.
In September she came to England. We were talking about getting married and living in Yorkshire, a part of the country she loved. We stayed with friends in Paris and Cambridge, visited Versailles and Kettle’s Yard. We went to Evensong in St George’s Chapel on her final night before her flight back to Rochester. It was an idyllic time and the two weeks passed too quickly – we wouldn’t see each other again until December.
The following weekend we Skyped as usual but she seemed weary and in pain. That night her parents took her to A&E and were told that she had an infection that her immune system – still weakened from her illness three years earlier – couldn’t fight. I flew to the U.S. and arrived in time to whisper something in her ear before she died.
Before she died…
Her family are fortunate enough to share Susie’s religious faith, something I can only glimpse through a half-opened door. Instead, I try to find meaning in C.S. Lewis and Julian Barnes: “You tell me ‘she goes on.’ But my heart and body are crying out, come back, come back. Be a circle touching my circle on the plane of Nature,” Lewis wrote. His rage is refreshing in a world of consolation.
Lewis and Barnes remind me that I’m not alone in this, but their grief is not mine and they can only vaguely signal a path through it. My former father-in-law recently lost his wife after sixty years of marriage. Yesterday I met someone whose wife had died of cancer some years ago and his partner of a similar disease a few months ago. They both carry on, even though, as Barnes tells us, “what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there – this may not be mathematically possible but it is emotionally.” We are diminished by the death of a loved one: our hopes and joys are taken as well. We carry on though, with our empty hearts and our futures full of blank spaces where the loved person should have been, and, as Lewis writes, ‘there is spread over everything a vague sense of wrongness, of something amiss.’
So I lie low and wait for the acute pain to become a chronic ache, trying not to become a grief bore to those around me. One friend who knew Susie even longer than I has taken the full force of my despair and stood up to it well, but I don’t feel I can impose that on everyone. Cutting back to essentials means that I’ll have to leave this blog for the foreseeable future: I feel it’ll be some time before I can engage with my fellow bloggers and even longer before I have anything to say which isn’t about loss.
In the meantime, I long for a picture-book heaven where, in future, I’ll find Susie again, sitting under a tree in a landscape reminiscent of the Cotswolds in my mind’s eye, probably reading Adam Bede, and we’ll hug and kiss and everything will be as it was for the rest of time.
I’ll leave you with an interesting thought from C.S. Lewis which he mentions in his book, A Grief Observed: “They tell me [she] is happy now, they tell me she is at peace. What makes them so sure of this?…Why are they so sure that all anguish ends with death? More than half the Christian world and millions in the East believe otherwise…Why should the separation (if nothing else) which so agonises the lover who is left behind be painless to the lover who departs?”
So forgive my absence for however long it takes, Susie and I need to grieve her passing together.
For those of you who are interested, here is an obituary compiled by her family, and here a beautifully moving tribute from one of her nieces.
Sally Mann is probably best known – to those without an interest in contemporary photography – as that woman who took pictures of her kids naked or, perhaps, the one who photographed decomposing bodies at a federal forensic anthropology facility.
She is that Sally Mann, as well as the one who documented her husband’s muscular dystrophy in a series of deeply moving images; who published pictures of the Deep South, “haunted landscapes, battlefields, decaying mansions…and the site where Emmett Till was murdered” (according to Newsweek); who wrote a remarkable, award-winning memoir, listed as one of the twenty best in the New York Times, called Hold Still.
It’s worth reading for its beautiful prose and often candid photographs, including ones that Mann thought hadn’t actually worked. One of the book’s many charms is this Gagosian-represented artist’s admission that some of her work, y’know, wasn’t up to scratch. That happens to me. It happens to you as well, I imagine? Well, it also happens to those whose work is on sale in one of the world’s leading galleries.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise. It’s unlikely that even the most accomplished photographer will produce spun gold every time she points her camera. Yet how satisfying to read that:
Writing came first. I was frequently the poet on duty when the Muse of Verse, likely distracted by other errands, released some of her weaker lines, but that didn’t stop my passion for it.
Maybe you’ve made something mediocre – there’s plenty of that in any artist’s cabinets – but something mediocre is better than nothing, and often the near-misses, as I call them, are the beckoning hands that bring you to perfection just around the blind corner.
It’s that passion, those beckoning hands, that keep us moving on. We probably shouldn’t seek perfection as such (and Ms Mann points out elsewhere that this is something with which she struggles on a daily basis) but it’s the moving forward that matters. It’s not just a case of the grass being greener over there, but the passion in creating something is requited more completely when you achieve something like the image – or the piece of writing – you had in your head.
I’m not sure I really needed Sally Mann to tell me that, but I’m somehow pleased that she confirmed it in this very special memoir.
I never understood Eraserhead or Mulholland Drive and I wasn’t much of a Twin Peaks fan. His drawings are baffling and his music isn’t really to my taste, despite having titles such as “In Heaven (Lady in the Radiator Song)”.
But how can you not admire his creativity? It seems to burst out of him. He’s best known as a film director, but his musical output consists of – Wikipedia tells us – three studio albums, two collaborative studio albums, six soundtrack albums, two spoken-word albums, one extended play, twenty singles and six music videos. That’s more than many people whose day job is music.
You’ve often described creative ideas as fish. Are the fish biting at the moment? Well, as you know if you ever fished, you have to have patience – some days you catch some, some days you don’t. I am fishing now, and I’m gathering fish together, but I haven’t started cooking them. Right now, I’d say the ideas are in the world of sculpture and painting.
When asked where these ideas came from, his answer was equally charming:
I don’t know where any of them come from. That’s why I don’t think I can take credit for anything I’ve ever done. They’re all little gifts and they string themselves together, and stories come out or a painting comes out. They just come into your head and it’s like Christmas morning.
Or, to quote the Urban Dictionary’s definition of Lynchian (as told in a recent Big Issue interview), “You have no fucking clue what’s going on, but you know it’s genius.”
I know, from reading blog and Instagram posts, that many of us feel that way – to such an extent that it might as well be one definition of creativity. Why does a painting you start on a Saturday come to nothing while the same subject on a Tuesday might be your best one yet? What makes you do that abstract thing in the background of a still life? Where did that doodle come from while you were sitting on a slow-moving train, your mind a complete blank?
I don’t know about you but I would be wary of probing into that too deeply. “We murder to dissect,” wrote Wordsworth and he had a point. Explanation is one thing, but thrashing it until its life blood seeps away is another, and frankly I’d rather not know what lies behind a successful creative act. It would almost be like a pact with the devil if every mark you put on paper, every note you played on the piano, and every sentence you scribbled down was an enduring creative experience.
Better to see it like Lynch does: It just comes into your head and it’s like Christmas morning.
First, the publishing company I work for recently distributed a book – now sold out – called Stuff, a photographic record of some of the objects retrieved from the bed of the river Amstel when it was drained to enable a new subway line to be built. The objects range from medieval daggers to pocket calculators. I briefly considered taking a series of photographs of meaningful or interesting objects to make a Stuff of my own, a sort of personal archaeology in pictures.
Secondly, the notes accompanying an exhibition of work by Oscar Murillo at Kettle’s Yard discuss the Japanese concept of mono no aware. This, we’re told, translates as ‘the pathos – or melancholy – of things’ – a deeply-felt emotion as we realise everything is transient and exists in its own time and space.
Have you ever picked up something belonging to to an elderly relative and been touched by a sudden sadness; or found a child’s toy, long discarded, and remembered how it used to lie on their sunlit bedroom floor; or taken a book from the shelf and discovered a photograph used as a bookmark, and remembered that you once loved that person but now, no longer?
These two photographs have their own melancholy. The shoes belonged to a friend of mine who died last year: I photographed them as she had left them before she went into hospital. The other is of the afternoon sunlight slanting across a stretch of wallpaper and an old-fashioned light switch in my Mother’s house as I packed up her belongings shortly after her death. It was the last time I would visit a place I’d known for forty years.
But what about this? A solitary cloud in a perfect blue sky, like a drawing by Shaun Tan. I saw it as I strolled through a field close to my office during a lunchtime break and had no real feelings about it other than remarking its solitary existence in an otherwise cloudless sky.
But consider clouds for a moment. What comes to mind? Joni Mitchell, perhaps. Summer holidays? Sitting in the sun enjoying the peace to read a book from start to finish without interruptions. Or the last day of the vacation, flying home tomorrow. Something that happened in 1967. The summers of your youth. The soul of someone long departed looking down on you with love. Waiting at the station to be collected, wishing you’d worn lighter clothes for the journey. Nothing is perfect, and the presence of the cloud makes the sky even more beautiful. Italy. California. The rugged coastline of north Wales. Melbourne in 1998. That distant weekend in Seville with —-, drinking cava in the square, looking up and seeing a single cloud.
It’s a beautiful concept, isn’t it, once you start to explore it? Mono no aware. What things induce mono no aware in you, I wonder?
My previous post, way back in April, was all about drawing and featured an image of St Margaret and the dragon. It was based on a medieval French oak carving in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Apparently Margaret was swallowed by the devil who appeared to her in the form of a dragon. Fortunately for her, the crucifix she was carrying got caught in the devil’s throat and he threw her up again. I had such fun drawing that improbable situation I thought saints and martyrs might make an interesting occasional series.
I next came across St Vitus. He was only 12 years old, and had already been tortured by his father, when he was asked to expel a demon from the son of the Roman Emperor Diocletian. This he did but made the foolish error of not joining in the pagan celebrations that followed. Rather ungratefully, Diocletian had him thrown into a pot of boiling oil, along with a rooster to ward off evil spirits. Vitus died of his injuries the following day. The fate of the chicken is unknown.
The dancing (St Vitus’ Dance) came much later when medieval Germans believed that throwing shapes in front of statues of the hapless boy would ensure a year of good health. Since then, Vitus has become the patron saint of entertainers, Methodists, epileptics and, oddly, oversleeping.
These are irresistible stories, I hope you’ll agree. In case anyone is concerned about the practice of throwing mystical youths into boiling oil or virgins being swallowed by dragons, neither of these stories can be historically verified, deadpans Wikipedia.
These drawings originally appeared on my Instagram feed: both were drawn in ink and coloured pencil.
Last week’s Observer Review devoted six pages and its cover to drawing.
Published to coincide with the Draw Art Fair at the Saatchi Gallery in May – yes, the home of sharks in formaldehyde is staging a drawing show! – the Observer’s art critic, Laura Cumming, took us through a short history of the drawn line and illustrated it with examples by Hokusai, Leonardo, Paul Klee, Frank Auerbach, and many others.
Drawing is a wonderful gift – anyone can do it – and the drawn line is a thing of true beauty. Make a mark in charcoal on a piece of textured paper, load a dip pen with ink and pull it across a blank white sheet, take an old piece of soft pastel and draw a rough circle – those simple marks are beautiful in themselves before they’re combined to make a still life or a portrait of your mother. I have one of those old printer’s glasses that you lay on the paper and look through a powerful magnifying glass to see things in staggering detail. Using that to look at a line drawn by hand – with the edges disintegrating, the solid black actually many shades of dark grey – is to appreciate the wonder of small things.
Laura Cumming reminds us that drawing is a thing in and of itself, not just the prelude to a painting. Conceptual art tried to do away with the need for drawing and life classes were phased out of many art schools. As conceptual art was revealed for the naked emperor that it was – no-one would ever be moved by a light going on and off but a drawing can break your heart – drawing came back to claim its rightful place as the most democratic of artforms.
The life drawing class that I’ve been attending for the past two and a half years came to an end last week – our teacher discovered that her own work was suffering and needed some time to re-calibrate – and it’s as if I’ve lost a friend. It was a journey of discovery, truly, from my initial wonder at how liberating it was to draw on a large scale, through months of overly pretty but rather lifeless drawings, to the revelation in the second half of last year that drawing with a piece of charcoal on the end of a 30 cm stick was the way to loosen up, to a series of drawings over the past couple of months that I finally liked – it was a thrilling experience. Looking back down the years I attended Annabel Mednick’s classes, drawing the same skilled model week after week, I can see the way stations of learning and development stretching back to that first thrill of charcoal marks on a really big piece of wallpaper backing paper!
Thomas Fluharty, in his essential book, The Joy of Drawing, writes: “Drawing is the coolest thing I do as an artist…I am amazed how I can forget my problems and be transported to a place of joy just by drawing…It is the one thing that grabs me and keeps me excited as an artist.”
So let’s celebrate drawing. Let’s celebrate the beauty of the drawn line – a person, you, me, making a mark, on a surface, with a thing! – and remember Picasso’s famous remark that it took him only four years to draw like Raphael but a lifetime to draw like a child. That’s not a bad life in my view.
[If you’ve got out of the practice of drawing there’s a fun way to get back into it going on at the moment: Karen Abend’s free online course, Sketchbook Revival 2019. A number of different artists demonstrate something and you can join in if you wish and post the results to Facebook.]