Just serotonin?

Silver white light (42 cms x 59 cms charcoal and pastel on Hahnemuehle Nostalgie paper 2017)

Recently, during a difficult period, I took enormous comfort in drawing. In Peter Steinhart’s book, The Undressed Art, I found the following passage:

Artists frequently compare the way they feel when they’re drawing to the sense of heightened awareness reported by practitioners of meditation….Jim Smyth, who has taught drawing for twenty years, says, “I believe the drawing process produces serotonin and endorphins in certain individuals. I see people who are not aware of their arthritis pain when they’re drawing. When they stop drawing, it comes back. Smyth once let someone monitor his brain-wave activity while he drew. “When I was drawing I would get alpha waves,” he said.

Alpha waves are electrical impulses in the brain that are associated with calm and focussed attention, Steinhart reminds us. Similar studies of meditation practitioners have revealed increased alpha, theta (these are associated with imagination and creativity) and beta waves (highly focussed attention).

Smyth believes the chemically induced sensation of pleasure is what keeps many people drawing. “There must be some physical reward for some people,” he says. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t do it.”

Well, it might have been a need for serotonin that urged me to draw when I was feeling low – certainly lack of it can result in depression and insomnia – but I like to feel it’s more than just a neurotransmitter ‘fix’. Isn’t any creative act – whether making lines on paper or following notes on a musical stave – a way of imposing order on the world by creating another world where you are in control (however much it might sometimes feel that the line is controlling you!). The end result, a unique piece made by your own hand, is a bonus: something to remind you of that time when you had your hand on the wheel.

The above drawing is one of the ones I completed during this time. Based on a rough sketch of the excellent model in the life drawing class I attend, I drew the figure in charcoal and dissolved some of the edges into the pastel background. I’m trying to get away from enclosing everything in a black line and this approach, I think, worked well. The addition of white pastel produces – I hope – a mystical feel, as if the figure is conducting some sort of energy. And not just serotonin!

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‘A day which lay sly and unseen’

Life drawing (A1 charcoal 2017)

The London Book Fair starts today and my mind is on meetings and future publications and sales forecasts. I therefore offer you a recent life drawing and three excerpts from The Book of Barry*.

First, from Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles:

She philosophically noted dates as they came past in the revolution of the year. Her own birthday, and every other day individualised by incidents in which she had taken some share. She suddenly thought, one afternoon, that there was another date, of greater importance than all those; that of her own death; a day which lay sly and unseen among the other days of the year, giving no sign or sound when she annually passed over it; but not the less surely there. When was it?

My admiration for novelist Colm Tóibín knows few bounds. He was one of the many who paid tribute to the painter Howard Hodgkin, who died last week. Unlike most of the other obituarists, however, Tóibín, understood that

[Hodgkin] found a style as a painter that matched who he was as a man, and he stuck with that. There were times, he must have known, when the emotion in the work seemed to exceed its cause. That was part of the risk he took. Each painting was a balance between released emotion and something coiled, concealed, withheld.

And finally, two quotations from writer Ray Bradbury, who died in 2012:

Looking back over a lifetime, you see that love was the answer to everything.

“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies,” my grandfather said, “A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched in some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you’re there.”

* The Book of Barry is a small Moleskine filled with newspaper clippings and things I read and enjoyed in books or magazines and wanted to keep. Some are mean, some are moving, many are funny – at least to me – and some turn a light on human folly or pretension, while others are simply weird or just too good to forget. I once gave it to someone as a gift but she found it less engaging than I, and kindly let me have it back. Really, everyone should keep a book like this for all those fleeting things one reads online and in print.

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The invisible Mrs Hopper

Blue 1602 blog

Life Drawing (20 cms x 30 cms charcoal 2016)

Cultural history is littered with examples of men falling for women with similar artistic ambitions but who, as the wedding day approached, suggested their future wives may want to leave the work of being the family genius to them. Gustav Mahler, for example, insisted that his wife Alma cease composing when they married. It wasn’t until some years later, when Alma began an affair with the Bauhaus architect Walter Gropius, and sought advice from Sigmund Freud, that Mahler realised that perhaps he’d been unreasonable and helped Alma orchestrate and promote her songs.

In Olivia Laing‘s compelling and revealing book, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, we encounter the sad story of Josephine Niveson. Jo, as she was known, was  ‘tiny and tempestuous: a talkative, hot-tempered, sociable woman…doggedly making her way as an artist’ when she met Edward Hopper. After they married, Laing writes, ‘her own career, previously much fought for, much defended, dwindled away to almost nothing’. She became Hopper’s business manager and muse, posing for most of the usherettes, waitresses and pensive women sitting on beds in their underwear that populate Hopper’s paintings.

A model, yes; a rival, no. The other reason Jo’s career foundered is that her husband was profoundly opposed to its existence. Edward didn’t just fail to support Jo’s painting, but rather worked actively to discourage it, mocking and denigrating the few things she did manage to produce, and acting with great creativity and malice to limit the conditions in which she might paint. [The Lonely City, p.37]

Little of Jo Hopper’s work survives. Her husband left her everything, asking that she bequeath his art to the Whitney Museum.

After his death, she donated both his and the majority of her own artistic estates to the museum, even though she’d felt from the moment of her marriage that she’d been the victim of a boycott by the curators there…After her death, the Whitney discarded all her paintings, perhaps because of their calibre and perhaps because of the systematic undervaluing of women’s art against which she’d railed so bitterly in her own life. [The Lonely City, p.39]

I illustrate this post – somewhat ironically – with two drawings from Ed Cooper‘s inspirational life drawing classes earlier this year. Being a model is one area where women have had little trouble carving a niche through the ages. The subject of these drawings, Blue King, is a highly creative woman in her own right and an active participant in the process, making life class a true partnership between the tutor, the model and the person drawing.

Blue 1602 1 blog

Life Drawing [Re-drawn] (A5 pencil 2016)

I have to wonder what we’re missing when women’s creative contributions are repeatedly consigned to drawers, cupboards, attics or – in the case of Jo Hopper’s work – the refuse bins outside the back of the Whitney Museum.