Taking the ladder away

1934 – work in progress (42 cms x 60 cms charcoal and pastel 2017)

“Drawing…can get you through things. It’s like in an old Portuguese joke, in which a man is up a ladder painting a wall with a large brush. Another man comes along and wants the ladder, so he says to the first ‘Hold on tight to the brush, I’m just taking the ladder away…’ This is what drawing is like – it grounds you, it connects you so intensely to the paper, through the pencil or the nib or whatever you use, that it’s a lifeline when everything else is taken away. Things can go wrong, but if you just hang on tight to the paper and pen everything will be OK.”

Paula Rego, reported in Paula Rego by Fiona Bradley (Tate Publishing) p.42

 

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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 naked and the nude

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Life Drawing (A3 charcoal 2016)

In his seminal book, Ways of Seeing, the great – and now late – John Berger attempted a new way of looking at art. His low budget television series of the same name (which can be found in its entirety on YouTube) had one eye on Sir Kenneth Clark’s much better funded Civilisation when it turned its attention to the matter of having no clothes on.

‘To be naked is to be oneself,’ said Berger, ‘To be naked is to be without disguise…To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude…Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display.’

The nude is a commodity, often commissioned by men, which Berger captured succinctly when he said, ‘You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting “Vanity,” thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.’

Today, if we want to look at naked people we no longer have to surround them with cherubs or call them after one of the seven deadly sins. Perhaps in response to this, painters have changed their view of the body: Lucian Freud made a career out of painting naked people that turned a harsh light on to the flesh, removing eroticism from the equation almost completely.

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Life Drawing (A3 pencil on newsprint 2016)

Where does that leave life drawing? It’s partially an exercise in seeing and the coordination between hand and eye. The living life model in front of you could just as well be a vase of flowers or an arrangement of apples and oranges then? Not really. There is something different about drawing the living figure, as I discovered when I first started attending classes. It was difficult, for a start: the arm exists in relation to the shoulder, in relation to the hip on which the hand rests, in relation to the backdrop, in relation to the negative space formed by the shoulder/elbow/hip triangle. There is more though: you may have a relationship to a vase of flowers, but I believe you must have a relationship to the fellow human standing naked, not nude, before you.

In The Undressed Art: Why We Draw, Peter Steinhart addresses the matter of looking at life models in this way: ‘You would quickly feel a human connection, a kind of compassion with them. You might also begin to feel that there is an immense dignity, energy, beauty in them. And somewhere along the line you might realise that you are more or less abandoned to your gaze, that there is something fundamentally human in your curiosity.’

I came across these two life drawings recently while searching for something else. You produce a lot of drawings in a term’s worth of classes, and many end up in the recycling. These two remained in the folder, however, largely because they conveyed something of the humanity of the model. Both were obviously quick poses, but both, I think, captured the dignity, the energy and perhaps even the beauty of the sitter.

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The refuge of the drawn line

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Blue, clothed I (A3 charcoal 2016)

There is no Chinese curse that goes, ‘May you live in interesting times’, probably because it’s meaningless. We may imagine that the current rise of populist right-wing politicians would qualify, but is it worse than living during World War II, or Stalin’s Russia, or anywhere during the medieval period?

In our own personal sphere, things are always ‘interesting’ in the sense meant by the bogus Chinese curse. Without the lows, as they say, how would we enjoy the highs? We are complex creatures in a world buzzing with activity and sensation – it couldn’t be anything else.

Yesterday I returned to work after a short illness. Inevitably there were the crises, deadlines and demands that pile up while you’re away from your emails. Although I’d had a delightful weekend – lunch with a dear friend on Saturday followed by a visit to the Edward Ardizzone retrospective in London, some therapeutic leaf-raking on Sunday – by the end of the day I felt like my head was full of chattering birds. Two hours of life drawing and a 15 minute meditation at home did the trick: soon the avian throng were quietly sleeping on their perches again!

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Blue, clothed II (A3 pencil 2016)

At the moment life seems to offer me an intriguing opportunity with the right hand and slap me on the back of the head with the left. Through all of this, there is the refuge of the drawn line. As long as there is time to sit, switch on Astral Weeks and draw dogs or quinces or Carly Simon’s imaginary friends, adversity can be defeated. It’s a privilege, I know.

And if the drawing goes wrong or the quinces don’t live up to their promise then I have the advice of my good friend and author, Bálint Varga: ‘Insecurity and dissatisfaction with one’s work is part and parcel of being an artist. It would be tragic if you were perfectly happy with what you are doing: you would have no incentive to search and experiment further.’

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The invisible Mrs Hopper

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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.

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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.

Life Drawing

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All images are A3, charcoal or graphite on paper or newsprint 2014-15

There’s something about life drawing that seems to connect you to the heart of mark-making. Perhaps it’s the intensity of the looking, the unusual connection between the model and the person drawing or the particular challenges in interpreting the human body in graphite and charcoal. I searched for years to find a good life-drawing class locally, and finally found one taught by the excellent Ed Cooper. These are a selection from last term’s sessions.

There are some that prefer not to have the model in the room, however. Jenny Saville, surely one of the most impressive figurative painters working today, finds it distracting to have a model present. Yet I’d be pushed to think of anyone who can draw and paint the human body better. The Times’ art critic, Waldemar Januszczak, has written ‘Saville is the best painter of the female nipple I have seen…She gets them perfectly.’ I’m pretty sure her ambitions stretch beyond that though.