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.

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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.]

For the birds

For the birds blog
The AGM of the American Acclimatization Society (A5 ink and coloured pencil 2019)

On one of those leisurely disengaged days between Christmas and New Year – you know, you’ve just finished an extended breakfast at around 11 and have no particular plans for the day – a few of us started discussing murmurations of starlings. I wondered aloud if starlings were common in the U.S. and it transpires that they are, all thanks to the American Acclimatization Society and especially a man called Eugene Schieffelin.

It is said, though not proven, that Eugene insisted that as an aesthetic goal the organization should introduce every bird species mentioned in the works of Shakespeare (of whom Eugene was an avid admirer). Whether you think Eugene was a hero or a villain depends on your view of Victorian scientists playing God. One could argue that if the Deity had wanted there to be starlings in North America, He, above all, was well-placed to put them there. Whether it would be wise to wait for a rather obsessive New York pharmacist to get the itch seems rather hit and miss to me.

It’s usually the case that if you introduce a foreign species into an ecosystem things start to go wrong in a Sorcerer’s Apprentice kind of way. Sure enough, the 100 or so starlings that the Society let go in Central Park now number over 200 million across North America. They have endangered other native species competing for nesting places and food – especially the delightfully-named sapsucker – and have even been blamed for the spread of English ivy throughout the continent. In 2007 the San Francisco Chronicle called Eugene’s Society “the canonic cautionary tale of biological pollution.” That’s a high price to pay even for some pretty spectacular murmurations out west.

It’s not recorded whether the members of the AAS dressed up in comedy bird beaks, indulged in avian puns and got up to the sort of high jinks  pictured above, but I like to think they did. You had to make your own entertainment in those days, after all. They strike me as an idealistic, sentimental and innocent bunch, but as history as demonstrated time and again, those are probably the most dangerous people of all.

The art of baseball

Baseball (A5 sketchbook page/ ink/ 2018)

I have a theory about baseball: I don’t think it’s a sport at all, but rather a type of performance art.

At the risk of offending readers in the US, as a sport it’s pretty unexciting: there’s a lot of standing around, no-one ever seems to hit the ball and, if they do, it’s nearly always caught or they get run out.

Seen as performance art, however, it’s fascinating. The costumes, the many rituals, that weird rule that someone on first or second base can run unless the pitcher spots him, the movements of the individual players, the organ accompaniment that offers an ironic musical commentary on the action (or lack of it) – all of this adds up to a rather ritualistic type of performance.

Have you ever seen a field full of rabbits? It has a similar dynamic: the rabbits appear to move in a predestined way which might appear random at first but soon suggests a bigger pattern. Are they being controlled or do they know when it’s their turn in the game?

I’ve developed this theory after seeing one game. I was fortunate enough to be invited to a baseball game the last time I was in the US, and I expected to enjoy the hot-dogs and beer thing but be bored senseless by the actual play (I’d seen it on TV once and it made drying paint look edgy…). In fact the game was compelling: seeing the field as a whole, instead of just close-ups of the players as happens on TV, was what suggested performance art. What’s more, at one stage I went downstairs to the men’s room and hundreds of people were waiting in line for food and drink – it was like a parallel event down there: a festival of deep-fried food, perhaps?

I drew the two batters (never batsmen, I was informed) above from photographs I took at the game. I would like to thank Jim and Susie for introducing me to this new and unforgettable artform, masquerading as a sport.

You say potato…

Things Americans Say
Things Americans Say (A4 Moleskine Storyboard Sketchbook spread) 2017 [Click to enlarge]
Recently I came across a book of American colloquial phrases and sayings from the 1940s. It made the perfect birthday present for one of my dearest friends, an American who – despite having lived in Paris for nearly forty years – still refers to ‘candy’ and ‘gas stations’. I drew a birthday card highlighting some of the differences in our common language (the meanings of ‘vest’ and ‘derby’) and included a couple of these superannuated phrases.

They were such fun that I carried on, not attempting to illustrate them in any way but simply drawing Richard Thompsonesque characters saying them to each other. I also added a contemporary one: the ubiquitous and deeply annoying ‘reach out’. The result was the drawing at the head of this post. It was meant as an affectionate hommage to our various Englishes, in case anyone is feeling overly teased.

A few days ago, I was drinking Californian Shiraz with some Americans, one of whom asked me the following question, inspired by The Great British Bake-Off: “If you British say ‘bluebriz’ for blueberries and ‘guzzbriz’ for gooseberries, why do you pronounce the cook’s name on Bake-Off Mary Berry rather than Mary ‘Bree’?” It’s a good question.

Last week I went to an American supermarket. A simple shop took the best part of an hour as I tried to translate my mental shopping list from British English into American: chicken stock was found to be broth, sweet potatoes appeared to be yams, not to mention the whole aubergine and courgette confusions (luckily peanut butter is the same in both languages so my breakfast was assured). Were matters of nomenclature not enough to confuse this Englishman abroad, you Americans contrive to store eggs in the refridgerated section. Is there no end to this?

I have nothing profound to say about all of this, except the obvious point that we’re different, you and I. Even if you don’t chill your eggs or talk about ‘razzbriz’, we’re still different. If you hate or fear those who are different, then you have to include members of your own family in all probability: my brother thinks it’s important to wash your car every week whereas I just leave mine out in the rain.

Ultimately such fears – perhaps even starting over something as trivial as the way we speak – leads to hatred, even civil war and genocide: to Rwandans who lived side by side for years suddenly turning on one another; to Bosnians who co-existed for decades in the same city, the same streets, being marched up into the hills outside Srebrenica.

The Germans have a saying – possibly the subject of a future series of drawings – that we’re all foreigners, almost everywhere. If we could only keep that thought in mind when someone walks into our local bar and talks funny. In the meantime our respective governments encourage us to point the finger and exploit the differences between us for their own ends. In that way at least, British and American people are alike.

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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Ships that pass

Head Over Heels (A4 mixed media with collage 2017)

This isn’t a blog about my life but some background is necessary to this, I feel.

When I was a teenager I was in love most of the time. I nourished myself on a rich diet of Romantic poetry – Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, those boys – and Pre-Raphaelite painting (lots of women staring wistfully at pomegranates). Teenage girls, it seemed, allowed you just enough of themselves to break your adolescent heart, or they were aloof, hanging out with the cool boys.

One reasonably constant object of my teenage desires was Veronique Smith*. Her exotic name – French mother and English father perhaps ? – was only the start of it. She played the violin, she read poetry, she was shy in a way that only self-assured people can affect, she knew about things I didn’t comprehend, she drank red wine.

Veronique and I would often meet at parties. When she walked towards me the angels sang and surrounded us with clouds of joy. We’d talk about this and that. I would look her in the eye to try and keep her engaged or watch her beautiful lips moving as she spoke. I was conscious of the imperfections of my skin and wished I’d worn something different. All too soon she moved on and left with one of the cool boys while the angels wept tears of frustration.

Life went on, I moved to London, and then, during a visit ‘home’ before I left England for a twenty year spell in Europe, I bumped into a mutual friend of mine and Veronique’s from those earlier years. I asked how she was. Married and expecting her second child, said the friend. Of course, she was never meant to be alone for more than a few moments at a time.

A mischievous look came into the eyes of our mutual friend. “You know something,” she said, “Veronique had such a thing about you. She thought you were adorable – but you never asked her out.” Clouds covered the sun, leaves fell from the summer trees, the angels stared at each other and shrugged their heavenly shoulders.

So here’s the love boy, head over heels for the object of his teenage passion, scattering pieces of his heart around him as he turns in confusion and indecision. If only I could reach back down the years and give my younger self some fatherly advice. Follow your heart, I’d tell him: it may not always lead you where you want to go, it may not always be the best choice for you or those around you, but at least you’ll live your life to the full and it’ll rarely be dull – it’ll ring to a glorious music that you’ll never forget.

Veronique Smith wasn’t her real name, of course.*

 

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