I can’t judge from personal experience, of course, but I imagine that during these summer days a blue linen dress is a wonderful thing. It certainly is to draw.
Following my Seawhite course last week, a portrait I’ve had in mind for a few weeks has changed somewhat in the planning. This pastel drawing of a blue dress is an essential element in the composition and I wanted it to be larger and looser than originally conceived. It has, I flatter myself, some of the feel of Jim Dine’s bathrobes about it if Dine were to entrust his work to a much less talented studio assistant.
I posted this on Instagram last week and it has attracted a positive response which, along with my own feelings after the Seawhite workshop, encourages me to continue with this looser approach. I used about eight different blues from four different pastel manufacturers in this, plus a couple of reds and greens to bring the blue alive, and every one of those off-white Unison pastels I can’t resist whenever I go into Cornelissen in London ‘just to look around’.
So this is the dress. Once I have the opportunity to photograph the subject of this portrait and consider some other elements in the composition I can move ahead. In the meantime consider this an element in a work in progress, larger and looser than before.
Last week I heard and read two contrasting attitudes to growing older.
First was an interview with the late Roger Moore’s publisher, Michael O’Mara, talking about a book that the actor had delivered shortly before his death. It was a “humorous meditation on old age”, O’Mara explained, and he read a passage in which Moore goes into a coffee shop and works himself up into a lather because all he wants is a simple black coffee.
Secondly, on the Quaker educationalist and writer’s Facebook page, Parker J Palmer reproduced a poem by Rilke which “urges us to live life to the fullest, fearing no danger and ‘flaring up like flame’.”
“Go to the limits of your longing,” Rilke writes, “Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror./ Just keep going. No feeling is final…Nearby is the country they call life…Give me your hand.”
There’s so much going on in those lines. Essentially, though, the poem urges an engagement, as Palmer says, “to take life-giving risks as opportunity arises”.
For those of us in middle age engaged in creative activity – this is a blog about drawing and painting so I’m afraid all trains will stop at this station – the lessons here are clear. Let’s look again at the Japanese master, Hokusai: both his wives and two of his children predeceased him, he was struck by lightning, suffered a stroke in his 60s which required him to relearn his art, he had scarcely any food when he produced his masterwork Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, and five years before his death a studio fire destroyed all his work. Hokusai lived until he was 89. His last words were “If heaven will afford me five more years of life then I’ll manage to become a true artist.”
So what’s it to be? Pushing on to the “limits of your longing”, feeling your life crackling with “beauty and terror”, forever striving to become “a true artist”, or standing in your beige slacks in Cafe Nero ranting about the names of the coffee?
This week’s image celebrates my dear friend and colleague, Caroline Palmer (no relation to Parker J), who, after 25 years as an editor of medieval history and literature books, is having her achievement honoured by some of the academics she’s published over this time. One sent her a lavish bouquet of flowers of irresistable colour combinations and tonal qualities, which she kindly allowed me to babysit over this holiday weekend. As a woman and an editor very much in her prime, no doubt she’ll continue to publish young scholars and established academics for many years to come. I wish her more beauty than terror along the way.
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!
It’s always the children, isn’t it? It’s always the kids who get it.
When the strutting despot, Putin, decides to help out his old pal, genocidal tyrant Bashar Al-Assad, before too long hospitals and schools and aid convoys are bombed; the UN Security Council gets angry and the usual suspects play their veto cards like this is some bizarre game where the person who wins is the one who does the least. Before you know it, Iran is implicated. The EU discusses sanctions but somehow nothing happens. The British government says it’s OK to sell fighter planes to countries where human rights mean even less than women’s rights. Refugees pour over borders and citizens panic: far right-wingers make a play for government by stoking up fear and dread in the electorate. Desperate people cram boats made of scrap metal and hope and drown in the Mediterranean, their bodies washed ashore in Greece and Italy. For some reason we cannot remember the lessons of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, or the killing fields of Cambodia.
Then, in a town called Khan Sheikhoun, government aircraft drop bombs one Tuesday morning while everyone sleeps. Mohammed Rasoul, the head of a charity ambulance service, tells the BBC that his medics had found people, many of them children, choking in the street. Blue lips, foaming from the mouth, eyes reddened and sore: it seemed certain this was a chemical attack. Putin condemns the ‘groundless accusations’ of Syrian government responsibility. Trump slams the stable door knowing the horse left long ago.
Once again, there they are, wrapped up in blankets torn from someone’s unmade bed or held in a weeping father’s arms – the children. The collateral damage. Twenty-seven short lives lived in fear snuffed out, just like that.
Some time later, Bashar Al-Assad wakes up with a start in the middle of the night; all around his bed are the pale, ghostly faces of all the children he caused to be murdered in order to cling on to power. They do nothing but stare, the room feels airless with pity.
Last week I bought a celeriac. Supermarket celeriacs are washed, topped and tailed and shrink-wrapped in enough plastic to kill a dolphin. I bought mine from a greengrocer: it was a knobbly, earth-encrusted thing with rather unpleasant roots dangling like dead tentacles. Ideal for drawing, in fact.
I find myself buying things to draw which I either don’t know what to do with after the event or don’t have the time to make into jam or chutney. Happily, I always know what to do with a celeriac. It can be made into a very tasty remoulade which really needs to be eaten almost immediately as it absorbs the mayonnaise and becomes a claggy mess. Or it can be made into a wonderful soup – ideal for this time of year – as in this recipe from Thomasina Miers.
Finely chop an onion and sweat it in butter on a low heat for a few minutes, along with a bay leaf, fresh thyme leaves and a pinch of salt. Peel and chop a large potato and the celeriac into chunks, stir into the buttery onions and add one litre of good quality – home made preferably – vegetable stock, bring to the boil and then turn down to a simmer.
Allow the vegetables to cook in the stock for about 45 minutes until tender and then blitz with a hand blender until smooth. Season to taste.
Add 100g of crème fraiche, the juice of half a lemon and about a tablespoon of Dijon or wholegrain mustard. Stir to combine and add water if you prefer a looser consistency. The soup should be served with a few more fresh thyme leaves scattered on top and grilled cheese toasts on the side (smoked cheddar cheese is especially tasty).
You can’t say you don’t learn things on this blog.
A few weeks ago I received an email which began “We had an unprecedented number of entries…and the competition for space was fierce”. What usually follows, in my rather limited experience of entering curated exhibitions, is disappointment. I was therefore delighted to see that the next sentence started with, “However…”
The two pictures are my paint sample chart drawings, Dimity and Other Stories, above, and a pastel drawing of swedes (rutabagas) – below – which marked the end of a rather frustrating period when every new project seemed to run into the rough.
The Draw 16 exhibition runs from October 3-15 (closed Sunday 9 October) at the Menier Gallery, 51 Southwark Street, London SE1 1RU.
There’s no real story to tell about this week’s drawing. It was inspired by a review that I read of A Beginner’s Guide to Bear-Spotting illustrated by David Roberts; a demonstration by Lynne Chapman on how to illustrate a children’s book in pastels; and this photograph of shoes in a designer shop that I saw on Easter Saturday in London’s Burlington Arcade:
Put them all together and you have a brown bear in cool shoes.
PS When I win the lottery, and I can enter shops that don’t have prices on items in the window display without fear of humiliation, I’m going to treat myself to those lime green suede brogues third from the left. They represent the height of frivolous materialism to me and the exactly the sort of thing you should wear when you’re eight million pounds richer overnight (after that you can start doing good deeds). A colleague of mine once sent me an SMS to say that he’d seen Simon Schama in the Nordic Cafe in London in something like the ones pictured fifth from the left, so I’ll be in good company.