Just like starting over

Angels: Christmas Card Design (15 cms x 15 cms ink and collage 2022)

Times flies. I’ve written nothing on this blog since last March – nearly a year ago. If anyone is still listening, let me explain.

For most of 2022 I suffered from a chronic, non-life-threatening illness, one that has not only sapped my strength but also drained my creativity. I simply had no inspiration. My attempts at drawing and painting were scuppered by the tank being firmly on zero: something I’d never experienced before. I’ve been able to create even in the depths of grief, of loss, of stress – but not during this debilitating ill health.

I was going to post something a few weeks ago about if you want to get back into your creative stride, try an online challenge. Whether your thing is drawing, painting, music, or writing, there are projects on the internet to kick start your creativity. I did one – a delightful drawing challenge about folktales (my contributions are on Instagram) – which really kindled the flame: the research into folktales inspired by a simple key word, thinking through the scenario and the composition, doing the actual drawing – but once the challenge was over the inspiration seeped away once more.

The only thing that combats lack of inspiration caused by ill health is, in my experience, getting better.

However, returning to the art you love gives you a helpful nudge. I looked again at The Art of Richard Thomson – my hero on high, plucked from us so early – and luxuriated in his linework and his humour. I read books by the recently deceased German illustrator, Wolf Erlbruch, and marvelled at his invention in each new project. We visited the Tate Modern Cézanne exhibition with friends not seen since the start of Covid and once again I was thrilled at his way with the humble apple. “Even for Cézanne the apple would only matter if it called up a breast in the painter’s mind…art’s subject is always the human clay,” writes New Yorker writer Adam Gopnik in his wonderful book, At the StrangersGate.

Slowly, the flame started to sputter into life again. I drew a card for a friend’s significant birthday. A building in a nearby town. Then the Christmas card design above and the angels’ heads below. Pulling in influences and transforming them, feeling creativity flow again as my health improved.

In retrospect, I wish I’d performed some sort of daily drawing exercise, even during the most challenging months of my illness. Taking one object and drawing it every day – no pressure, no expectations, no need for inspiration, just flexing those drawing muscles. It would have kept the spirit buoyant, like the scent of a familiar room, a cocktail on a warm summer’s evening, a conversation with an old friend.

So that’s the story of my non-blogging ten months. Hopefully now that I’m drawing again I can also think of something to say about them. Fingers crossed!

Angel Heads (20 cms x 20 cms ink 2022)

Art in wartime

Orchid (detail) (2022 acrylic and graphite 30cms x 20cms)

A writer who, as a child, didn’t like vegetables much, remembered her mother saying, “Eat up your greens! Think of all the starving children in Africa.” “How does my eating sprouts help the children in Africa?” asked the young writer-to-be.

I was reminded of this as I read Jay Rayner’s restaurant review in the (London) Observer newspaper recently: “On the morning my train to Liverpool pulled out of London Euston, the media was full of images of other trains: crowded ones, filled with terrified people, fleeing for their lives, an invading Russian army at their backs. I, meanwhile, was going to lunch.” Rayner followed this with four paragraphs of justification for writing about brown crab rarebit while the suffering continued in Ukraine. He quoted counsellor and agony aunt Philippa Perry’s advice, tweeted in response to a question on this theme, “Stay in the present and not the hypothetical mythical future. Deal with what is, not what might be. Remember to enjoy yourself as much as possible. It doesn’t help anyone if you don’t enjoy yourself.”

Recently, artists on Instagram have also been questioning the point of making art during wartime. Why draw these apples on an antique plate while the bombs fall on Kyiv? Is painting frivolous, irrelevant, even disrespectful when families are huddled in basements, fearful of their lives?

The artist and teacher Nicholas Wilton explained his reasons for continuing to create during these troubled times in a recent blog post: “Making our art is all about making connections — it moves us towards a connection to ourselves and others. Non-artists are also connected to our cherished vision when they experience…our art. This shared experience of what we make helps create a more connected and, as a result, a safer, kinder world. Making art is a practice of showing the world what truly matters. And it makes a difference.”

One of the many supportive comments on Wilton’s blog post, from a woman who had trained as a physician before switching to painting, underlined this point: “embodying what we are for is more powerful than opposing what we are against….Art heals. Living from that place, there is no inclination towards violence, harm, neglect, disrespect. Only love and celebration…generosity and gratitude, and so much more.” A recent clip on Twitter showed a young woman in her Ukranian apartment, the windows blown out, playing Bach on her piano before she left the room for ever, becoming a refugee from the place she called home. It was important for her to play that final piece amongst the devastation, on the brink of her unknown future, dressed in a warm coat in the ruins of her former life.

Painting a picture, writing a poem, playing the piano – all help us make sense of the world we live in and perhaps go some way towards helping to create a better world, one where “love and celebration, generosity and gratitude” are more in evidence. If we don’t do these things, it won’t help the people under fire in Ukraine; doing them, however, might just be a small step forward into the light.

Simeon and the Magic Fish

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine called Tom Dykstra sent me a story he’d written for the children’s sermon at his Dutch Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan. It was a re-telling of the Grimm brothers’ story, The Fisherman’s Wife, although in Tom’s version the fisherman is the architect of his own downfall rather than being able to blame a greedy spouse. Sending me the piece, Tom wrote “I have no intentions to publish and am not asking you to illustrate the story.  I just thought you might be interested in reading it and…visualizing wizened old Simeon scurrying over the dune.  If you are moved to a sketch or two, I would love to see them!”

From time to time I put together an idea and sent it to Tom and his wife, Lois. They seemed to enjoy seeing them which encouraged me to continue. It became a fun thing to do, and I sent Lois a birthday card with Simeon holding a chubby fish which I hoped would cheer her up a little during a long and difficult series of medical interventions which, tragically, she didn’t survive. In February of this year I was halfway through another drawing for the story when Tom, too, passed away unexpectedly.

Tom and Lois’s daughter agreed to let me publish the story here with the handful of drawings I completed as a tribute to them both. I should say at the outset that I’m not a skilled illustrator of children’s stories but it was a great pleasure to do them, even with my limited expertise. I should also mention that Tom had thought of changing the ending – removing some of the religious references in the final paragraphso that it could be read by those whose faith was not as central to their lives as his own. However, whether you share Tom’s faith or not, the story is a delightful one with a simple, honest and compassionate message. I’m thrilled and honoured that Tom shared it with me.

So, here it is, the story of Simeon and the magic fish that he found in his net one day:

In a time long ago and a place far away there lived a poor fisherman named Simeon.  Simeon was so poor that he did not have enough money to live in a house like the other villagers.  So, behind a dune, away from the wind and the sea, he put together a small shack made from the wooden timbers of wrecked ships that had washed up on the beach.  Simeon’s little house had no door and no window, but only a small space where he could crawl in out of the weather.  And, because it was made from the timbers of ships, it looked like a boat turned upside down.

Simeon earned a few pennies each day by taking his net over the dune and down to the seashore.  All day he would throw his net into the sea.  The few fish he caught he would take to the village to sell.  Though Simeon had very little money, he was rich in other important ways.  He was kind to other people and always willing to help them and had many friends among the local people.  And the children, they loved him.  When he came to town he would play games with them, and they would always crowd around him as he told them stories about when he was a child. 

Simeon was not happy being poor, but he had long ago given up hope that things for him would ever be any different.  Then one day something happened that completely changed his life.  He was fishing as usual when his net happened to snare a large, strange looking fish.  Simeon had never in his life seen that kind of fish before.  And imagine his surprise when the fish began to talk!  And as if that was not enough, Simeon was even more surprised by what the fish said.  The large, strange fish begged in a loud voice, “If you will let me go instead of selling me in the village, I will give you whatever you wish.”  

After Simeon got over the shock of hearing the fish talk, he said to himself: “I have to make a decision.  This fish will certainly earn me more than a few pennies in the village.  And what if the fish is not telling the truth and does not grant me my wish?  I will lose the extra money I could have earned by selling it!”  Then he had an idea: “I will make a wish and let the fish go.  If my wish doesn’t come true, then the next time he comes I will catch him and then sell him in the village!”  So Simeon said to the fish, “My boat shack is open to the outside weather.  If you can, I would very much like to have a door and a window in my little house to keep out the wind and the rain.”  “It will be done,” said the fish and he swam away.   Simeon pulled in his net and sailed to the shore, running as fast his short skinny legs would take him to the top of the dune.  And guess what?  He looked down, and there was his shack fitted with a nice little door and a large glass window!  He was so happy and thankful that he ran down the dune and opened and shut the door and window several times just to make sure they were real.  It was an amazing thing:  he had been blessed with a fish who could grant his wishes.

The next time the fish landed in his net, Simeon asked if he might please, please have a well for water and a small tree for shade near his house.  It would be oh so nice not to have to walk all the way to the spring, and to have a cool place to sit when the sun was hot.  And, of course, as you can guess, these wishes were granted.  Simeon decided then and there that he would never, ever sell the fish; he knew a good thing when he saw it.

Weeks and months and years passed.  Whatever Simeon wished for came to be, and he began to wish for more and more.  Slowly his little upside down boat shack grew into a magnificent estate.  There was a large, fancy mansion filled with fine furniture and large closets to hold his fancy clothes, a carriage house with several carriages, fields of corn and wheat, herds of cattle, horses, and pigs; and large barns to hold all of his crops and animals.  Simeon became very rich.  Soon he needed help to do all the work on his estate, so he went to the village to hire those people who used to pay him pennies for his fish.        

Through all this time, it was not only Simeon’s house that changed, but Simeon himself became a changed man.  Instead of humbly asking the fish for things, he started to demand them; he began to think he deserved them and had earned them. And Simeon became very proud and very vain.  He bought fancy clothes; he got a fancy haircut which showed his large ears; he grew a mustache and had it curled into fancy swirls.  Simeon’s eyes were no longer soft and gentle as they used to be but became hard and narrowed.  His face became anxious and red.  (The children thought it was because his new designer clothes were too tight!)

Although he was rich, he became poor in other important ways.  He lost his friends in the village because he was no longer generous and helpful, but selfish and always greedy to get more things for himself.  He became grouchy toward other people because he thought they were after his money.  He began to yell at the children not to bother him.  And so, when the children saw him coming, they didn’t flock to him as before but crossed over to the other side of the lane.  Simeon thought that because he was rich he was important.  And because he thought he was important, he thought he could boss other people around.  The villagers began to dislike him and began to think he was just a boring old man who only thought about, and always talked about the things he owned.  A few of the villagers felt sorry for him because he had lost the very things that had made him truly rich. 

One day this rich, unhappy man, bored with all his stuff, had a crazy idea.  He thought, “Because I am the most wealthy and important man around, I deserve to have a house like God has!  I will go to see the fish.”  Simeon hitched up his best horses to his chariot (he never walked anywhere anymore.) and drove to the seashore.  He was surprised to see the fish already there, waiting for him. The fish said to Simeon, “I can indeed give you a house like God had.  But this will be the last wish I can grant you; because in God’s house there is everything anyone could ever want.”  Simeon let out with a nasty laugh, “That’s just fine with me.  Be gone and don’t come back.  Who needs a stupid old fish anyway, when he has a house like God’s?”  And with that he drove his chariot as fast as he could to the top of the dune to look down on his wonderful prize.

But when he got to the top of the dune, he could not believe what he saw.  It sent him into a panic which stopped his breath and seized his heart.  Everything he owned was gone! His magnificent house with all his precious possessions, his barns, his fields, his orchards, his crops and herds of animals, all gone!  The only building was a ramshackle shed that looked like a place where animals lived.  Instead of the fruit orchards there was a single dead tree with two branches that stuck out sideways, sort of like the arms of a cross.  There were no fancy clothes; just a single large piece of cloth caught in the tree and fluttering in the wind.  In place of his animal herds there was just one small, skinny donkey standing patiently by.  Well, Simeon was so angry that his red face turned purple.  He leaped out of his chariot, jumped up and down, screamed, and shook his hands at the heavens.

Then a very loud voice said, “SIMEON!  WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM?”  It was so loud that Simeon was stunned into silence and the six white horses ran away with the chariot.  When Simeon finally got his voice and his courage back, he shouted, “I asked for a house like God’s house and the fish said I could have it!  All there is here is this stupid old shack, a dead tree, and half-dead donkey!”  There was a long silence.  Then the voice said, “Simeon, Simeon, you did not know what you were asking for.  When I came to live on earth I was born in a stable like that.  My clothing was a simple cape.  I never rode in a chariot, but on a donkey.  And in the last hours of my life I hung on a tree like the one you see.  And Simeon, … I did it all for YOU.” 

Simeon realized that the voice was the voice of Jesus.  The poor man did not know what to do!  He wanted to escape the voice but he knew he never could.  He wanted to make excuses for himself but could not think of any good ones.  He wanted to blame others for what he now realized was his own very bad behavior, but there was no-one else to blame.  At last, he was overcome by a feeling of deep, deep shame, and guilt, and sorrow.  He realized he had become a terrible person:  greedy and jealous and grouchy and unkind and proud and self-centered, and on and on.  In the end, all that this miserable, lonely man could do was to lie face down in the sand and cry.  He cried so hard that his tears formed little mud puddles in the dune.  And then the voice returned, more gently now:  ”Do not cry Simeon.  I came to forgive and to heal all those who have a sin-sick soul.  And by my Spirit I have come to live with such people in shacks even worse than the one you see.  I have come to live with them in caves and trenches and foxholes, in hospital rooms and jail cells, under bridges and in sewer pipes.  And if you will have me, I will come to live with you in that little shack below the dune.”  Slowly, very slowly, Simeon raised his head from the sand.  His voice was weak and wavering: “Oh please, please, if you would, I would like very much to have you come into my house and live with me.”

And thus began the happiest days of Simeon’s life. He was a new man.  The villagers welcomed him back as a long-lost friend, and the children once again ran to him for games and stories.  He whistled his way through his days of fishing and was happy never to see the magic fish again.  One evening as he lay on his cot, there came to his mind the tune of a song he had learned long ago as a child.  As he hummed the tune the words of the song slowly came back to him; and he sang: “Into my heart, into my heart; come into my heart, Lord Jesus. Come in today, come in to stay; Come into my heart Lord Jesus.”  It was a song that would become Simeon’s theme song all the rest of his life. The very next morning he hurried into the village and instead of telling the children a story, he taught them his song.

Text (c) Estate of Thomas Dykstra; illustrations (c) Michael Richards

The Carnival is Over

The Carnival is Over (A4 ink and coloured pencils 2021)

We’re told that we have ten years to slash the emissions that lead to climate change before it will become impossible to reverse the process. The pollution of the world’s oceans disturbs me more than any other environmental crisis, possibly because it’s easier to observe its effect than rising temperatures or melting polar icecaps.

This drawing was inspired by two events. Recently I walked along a holiday resort beach at the end of a sunny day, when families were packing up to go home. The amount of rubbish they left behind was unbelievable: polystyrene food containers, plastic wrappers and carrier bags, all sorts of junk they could have taken home. Some helpfully put all their garbage in a plastic bag and left it on the beach for seagulls to tear apart and the tide to wash away.

The other event happened 25 years ago off the coast of Mumbai. I was on a boat with about 30 others when the engine stalled. As the crew tried to fix it and the boat drifted aimlessly, I wondered if we might have to swim to the shore. The water was brown and uninviting, dotted with the untreated detritus of a large, densely populated city.

The micro and the macro.

I can draw a cat

Mickey (A5 Prismacolor indigo blue pencil 2020)

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.

Bonny Mayer: Glasses

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

Summer Rain (A5 sketchbook page, ink and watercolour, 2020)

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.

Versailles crows (A5 sketchbook page, pencil, 2019)

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.

Rosemary Vanns’ charcoal drawings of artichokes on her studio wall,
September 2020

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?

Fishing with David Lynch

David Lynch (A5 Prismacolour indigo pencil in sketchbook 2019)

I like David Lynch.

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.

In a recent interview in the Observer newspaper, Lynch spoke about his creativity:

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.

Oh when the saints…

Detail of St Margaret and the Dragon (see previous post for the complete image)

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.

St Vitus (ink and Prismacolour pencils in a Stillman and Birn Gamma sketchbook)

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.

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.]

A creative partnership

Blue King (A1 charcoal on paper 2019)

On Friday March 8th I posted the above drawing on Instagram – with some trepidation – in honour of International Women’s Day. The point of my post was that a good life model works in creative partnership with the artist. I’ve looked at the relationship between artist and model before but it’s intriguing enough, I think, to return to it.

Art history is littered with cautionary tales about (male) artists and (female) models. The beguiling model attracts the eye of the painter and soon captures his heart too, but his heart is a fickle as his eye and before long she emerges as a broken shadow of her former self. Or two artists fall in love and the male half of the relationship decides he’ll paint his lover and somehow her career becomes subservient to his: she is no longer an artist but his muse. Camille Claude, an astonishingly talented artist in her own right, but during her lifetime known only as Rodin’s model, is one of the more tragic instances of the latter.

I say I posted my hommage to the life model with trepidation because there was another hashtag around on that day, #refusetobethemuse. At first sight, there could well be confusion between the model and the muse, especially as they are often the same person. However the connotations of the word muse run deeper.

“As women, for centuries we were not allowed to be artists but we were muses,” artist and self-described muse Coco Dolle has told HuffPost. “We were always venerated in that sense. And I feel that legacy is still prevailing. It’s part of the romantic idea of the art world.” The mythical origins of the word ‘muse’ keep it firmly planted in a fantasy world, perhaps, enabling the exploitative or the unscrupulous to take advantage of blurred lines.

Blue King – 10 minute gesture drawing (A1 charcoal 2019)

The professional life model, however, should never be confused with a muse. He or she might inspire but it’s more of a collaboration, a joint effort to produce a finished piece, at least with the best life models. Certainly in the three years or so I’ve been drawing Blue King, the model in the above pieces, it has been a process of discovery, a dialogue, so to speak, between pose and drawn line. My development to a looser style of drawing, as I mentioned in my previous post, has been encouraged by the teacher, Annabel Mednick, but enabled by Blue’s fascinating, and sometimes challenging poses, which seemed to demand something beyond direct representation. It is that partnership that I was celebrating on International Women’s Day.