Celebrating the drawn line

My drawing of St Margaret and the Dragon (Uniball Micro Deluxe pen with Faber-Castell coloured pencils in an A5 sketchbook 2019). Based on a C15th French oak sculpture in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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.]

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Simple Gifts

Autumn Leaf (A3) mixed media

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free…

I sometimes think that the Autumn, knowing what’s coming over the next few months, gives up little gifts as a kind of consolation. Winter’s coming, and where I live it’ll be grey and soupy. Sorry about that, sighs the Autumn, here’s a damaged quince, here’s a leaf containing more shades of red and green than you can name, here’s a late flowering rose.

Last Sunday – after a delightful, celebratory evening with a friend – I walked down to a nearby petrol station to buy a newspaper and a croissant (surprisingly good, believe me). On my way home, the wind blew a dried and twisted leaf in my path. The thing about following most creative journeys is that simple things can mean a great deal: the rotting fruit that I posted last week, for example, and now this leaf – a colour chart of Autumn shades. Almost anything can inspire, it seems.

I took it home and used it as a starting point, painting the colours much brighter than in nature and using broad brush strokes of watercolour. Only after the basic shape of the leaf was laid down did I draw the curling edges of the leaf in ink and add all the rest of the embellishments it now contains.

The leaf – my simple gift from a passing gust of wind – now sits on the table, growing ever more brittle and slowly losing shade after shade. If I had a German-speaking cleaner, no doubt (s)he would ask, “Ist das Kunst oder kann das weg (Is that art or can it be thrown away)?” The inspiration for this remark is said to be the famous incident around the Fettecke (Grease Corner) by Joseph Beuys. It consisted of 5 kg of butter installed in the corner of a room. On the day before a visit from a VIP, a janitor removed and disposed of it. As the result of a court case, the German state of North-Rhine Westphalia had to pay 40,000 DM in compensation to the owner.

So beware what you throw away. It might just be art after all.

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A Quince’s Tale

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Quinces (31 cms x 22 cms mixed media 2015)

We’ve harvested the first quinces from the tree we planted when we moved house a couple of years ago. They’re beautiful, like fairy-tale pears: great golden Maurice Sendak fruits that look like they might make the woodcutter’s daughter fall asleep for half a century after one bite. But too perfect to draw.

So when my beloved told me that she’d seen a boxful outside a cottage for passers-by to help themselves, it was worth the drive of some miles into the countryside to investigate.

They were splendid: misshapen, bruised, speckled, downy, knotty things, like angry little fists. I’m sure they’ll make wonderful quince jelly later this week, but in the meantime they’ve been willing models for a series of drawings.

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Quinces on a hand-made plate (32 cms x 24 cms pastel on Hahnemuehle Velour paper 2015)

The sheet of twelve started off as a sort of morning pages exercise, but I decided to ink over the original pencil sketches and paint them with watercolour and watercolour pencils. The plate of three on Hahnemuehle Velour (above) was more challenging for me, being unused to the intriguingly soft texture of this paper.

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Quinces on a hand-made plate 2 (30 cms x 23 cms pastel on watercolour paper 2015)

So I did a third on watercolour paper. This is probably enough quince drawings for one day, but I would just like to try one more after supper…

PS I was thinking of calling this post ‘An artist formally knows his quince’ but happily for all concerned decided against it.

Sixty drawings in one week…

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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.