Faces and bodies

Clinton by Nicole Fahri (A5 pencil and watercolour 2019)

I recently visited Thomas Gainsborough’s house in Sudbury, now a museum with a delightful small garden, to see an exhibition of sculpture by Nicole Farhi.

In case you don’t know, Ms Farhi was a successful fashion designer who began her professional career with French Connection but went on to found, and later sell, her own label. Mentored by the sculptor, Eduardo Paolozzi (“He is in my soul, I still hear him”), she began to sculpt in her own right, something which she now does full-time.

One of my favourite blogs here on WordPress is The Sculptor’s Wife. Written by Tamsin, the partner of Sam Shendi, it details the trials and achievements of a successful artist through the eyes of his wife, along with her own attempts to draw and write while bringing up a young family. In one post, she quotes someone saying that sculpture is “the thing you bump into when you step back to look at a painting” – I’m ashamed to admit that has often been my view.

Nicole Farhi’s work is wonderfully tactile: knobbly heads of friends and celebrities such as Dame Judi Dench and Bill Nighy, the wide expressive hand of Paolozzi, the eggshell-smooth expressive arm of a dancer. Resisting the urge to touch and feel, I could have spent hours in that room – and I’m sure I’ll return before the exhibition closes in June. My friend and I both stood in front of our favourite pieces and explored their intriguing contours by drawing them in pencil in our sketchbooks (mine is above). It was wonderful, inspiring work to see and contemplate on an unseasonably warm February afternoon in Suffolk.

Faces and bodies have occupied me for the past few weeks. Most Wednesday evenings I attend Annabel Mednick‘s life drawing classes in Ipswich. They are a fascinating collaboration with her model, Blue King, and cruising is not an option. Close observation and energetic mark-making are the order of the evening: Annabel pushes you out of the secure womb of your comfort zone into the world of taking chances. Two years ago I told her I wanted to draw more loosely, more freely, less prettily, and over the past few weeks I finally feel I’m getting there. It has taken that long to summon the courage to let go and not feel I’ve failed if I haven’t produced something you might want to hang on a wall.

Gestural drawing of Blue King (A2 charcoal on lining paper 2019)

I realised last week, standing in front of a particularly engaging head by Ms Fahri, that what I was trying to do was to achieve in charcoal and paper something of the energy that she teased out of clay and bronze: “I talk to the to the clay, and eventually a recognisable form emerges… It’s a miracle!” In my own small way, I think I’m getting there.

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Edward Gorey’s Great Simple Theory

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Rosie (Prismacolour Indigo Blue pencil on Stillman & Birn Gamma sketchbook page 14 cms x 21.6 cms) 2019

Mark Dery has bravely published the first full-length biography of writer and illustrator Edward Gorey, who died in 2000. It runs to over 500 pages which, bearing in mind Gorey did little except go to the New York City Ballet and draw, is probably too long. Dery is an astute interpreter of Gorey’s art and writing, but spends far too long speculating on Gorey’s sexuality and his shortcomings as a fully-rounded human being (show me a great artist who is).

I used to be mildly obsessed with Edward Gorey, ever since a good friend showed me a copy of The Doubtful Guest, which had been given to her by a New York gay couple who were friends of her father. I started buying his intriguing little books in the pre-internet days when one had to write letters to the Gotham Book Mart in NYC and send them international money orders as payment. I’ve no idea how many hours I spent in my twenties just cross-hatching like the Master.

Mark Dery is also insightful on his friendship with author Peter Neumeyer which was largely conducted by letter, and has since been published as a beautifully-illustrated book. He reminds us of Edward Gorey’s Great Simple Theory of Art, which is basically:

Anything that is art…is presumably about some certain thing, but is really always about something else, and it’s no good having one without the other because if you just have the something it’s boring and if you just have the something else it’s irritating.

He continues that things ‘that on the surface…are so obviously’ about one thing make it ‘very difficult to see that they are really about something else entirely’ (unfortunately Mark Dery then goes on to say that this demonstrates Gorey’s ‘Derridean-Beckettian awareness of the limits of language’ and ‘his Asian-Barthesian belief in the importance of ambiguity and paradoxes as spaces where readers can play with a text, making their own meanings’).

I’ve spent a long time on this blog trying to pin down the ‘something else’. I think we can agree that whatever we are inspired to draw or paint, that object or landscape is more than just that picture on the paper. Take the drawing of Rosie, the retriever-samoyed cross, above. On one level it’s a drawing of a dog using a Prismacolor indigo pencil on Stillman and Birn gamma paper. The ‘something else’ might well be my affection for Rosie and her owners, my enjoyment of my time with them all, my drawing Rosie as an expression of my feelings about being welcomed into someone’s home and family life over Christmas, how much I miss my own departed greyhound, and so on. What it isn’t, ultimately, is just a drawing of a dog.

Gorey has it spot on that ‘if you just have the something it’s boring’. Have you ever started drawing or painting something and you feel you’re just going through the motions, that what you’re doing is so superficial that you simply can’t face taking it any further? You might be surprised to learn that I’ve occasionally started drawing a piece of fruit and have abandoned it because it simply bores me to death, and if I don’t like drawing it why should you like looking at it? I believe that’s just having the ‘something’ in Gorey’s Great Simple Theory.

I once met a painter who gave his landscapes titles like ‘Heartbreak is the end of all of love’s journeys’. That might well be true but it had the effect of not letting you see his paintings of nature as anything other than symbols of his inner turmoil. This is, perhaps, an example of when you ‘just have the something else [that’s] irritating’. It’s frustrating seeing or hearing something that you think is simple and its creator telling you it’s actually incredibly profound. Van Gogh did inner turmoil to a tee, but he called his paintings “Starry Night” or “Crows Over a Cornfield” not “I’m so wired up I’m going to punch Gauguin in the face any minute”, allowing us to form our own interpretation.

That, at least, is my take on Gorey’s Great Simple Theory. You might see it very differently, which is fine with me. And with Edward Gorey, I’m sure.

The forest at dusk

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Olivia (A1 charcoal, pastel and graphite 2018) Drawn over an existing charcoal drawing which was partially rubbed out

Can you remember your childhood? Sometimes you’d rush into things – where angels might fear to tread, perhaps – without a second thought about the consequences of your actions. Yet I bet there is no child in the entire world who could be encouraged to enter a dark forest alone as dusk became night.

I feel like that on the morning of Seawhite Studios‘ workshops. Not because there’s anything scary about Katie Sollohub or Emily Ball, but because when you sign up for their courses you know you’re going to be encouraged to stray over boundaries, perhaps into the dark forest of your creative fears, and challenge your own preconceptions.

Earlier this week I was fortunate enough to attend Katie’s one-day workshop on drawing the human head. Katie and Emily work closely together, so anyone who was at all familiar with Emily’s wonderful book, Drawing and Painting People: A Fresh Approach, would know this wasn’t going to include a three-hour portrait session on the precise representation of the model in pencil.

We were guided through some liberating exercises – drawing our own faces with eyes closed, drawing the model without looking at the paper:

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(which resulted in the rather pleasing abstract above) – and producing a drawing by gently spreading crushed charcoal and coloured chalk over paper, completing it with a few lines. I’ve done this before – it’s discussed in Emily Ball’s book – but not with such a light touch, which made all the difference to the finished drawing:

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The image at the top of this post looks reasonably conventional. However it was one of two drawings that we were asked to do over existing ones. It was a pleasure to rub out a very dull drawing I’d done earlier in the day and concentrate on Olivia’s astonishing profile and her remarkable ear-rings. Little of the original drawing remains except for a few faint lines and the tint of the rubbed-out charcoal on the paper.

I’d had a rather difficult January, creatively: the lingering effect of flu over New Year and some demanding issues in my work life left me drained and uninspired. I’d done a bit of messing around with acrylic paint and sat in front of empty sheets of paper thinking, “I haven’t a single idea in my head…” The gentle explorations of Katie Sollohub’s workshop, however, cleared a path through the undergrowth as they have before – especially in that charmed space between the figurative and abstraction, which for me has all the wonder and terrors of the forest at dusk!

 

The Blue Dress

The Blue Dress (A2 pastel and charcoal on paper 2017)

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.

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Election Special

Not Quite Jeremy Corbyn (A5 pencil on sketchbook page 2015)

“The British people are biologically programmed to defy those who threaten them and do not buckle under stress.”

This jingoistic twaddle comes from the Comment page of the Daily Mail website the day after the terrorist attacks in London. The piece also invokes the spirit of the Blitz, ‘Jeremy Corbyn’s friends in the IRA’, the shortcomings of Muslim leaders in Britain and a number of other buttons that, once pushed, send the blood pressure of the typical Mail reader shooting off the scale.

This is everything you’d expect from the Daily Mail and its editor, Paul Dacre [WARNING: this link contains strong language]. Little of it really hits the target and none of it is helpful. The British people are no more programmed to defy terrorism than anyone else and if anyone buckled under the trauma of living through such an attack they should be helped, not have the Dacre finger of blame pointed at them with all the contempt of a man unable to empathise.

The British people bleed when they are wounded and grieve when they lose the ones they love, just like Palestinian mothers when a school is bombed or Israelis when a bus explodes. Adopting a tone of self-righteous indignation and searching for someone to blame will not stop another atrocity, here in England or anywhere else.

Until all that stops and solutions are found to long-running problems, until we substitute understanding for military might, until we cease trying to impose our imperfect political systems on unwilling nations, until we realise that bombing the hell out of somewhere and then walking away from the resultant chaos is counter-productive, there will always be angry young people willing to sacrifice themselves and innocent others for their cause (however misguided that cause may be).

It may soothe the readers of the Mail to think that the problem lies with Jeremy Corbyn and ‘his ex-girlfriend Diane Abbott’ but I doubt even the most dim-witted and right-wing of their readers truly believes that nonsense. If all else fails, alongside this spittle-flecked Comment on the Mail’s website one can find good old comforting sexism in stories such as ‘Holly Hagan flaunts her assets in a VERY skimpy bikini top as she parties in the Ibiza sunshine with hunky shirtless pal.’

The world still turns.

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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Dreaming

Darling (A4 mixed media and collage 2017)

I dread people telling me their dreams. I never quite know how to react: of course they’re surreal and strange, they’re dreams – not reality.

So let me tell you about one of mine…

I hardly ever remember my dreams unless I wake up in mid flow laughing or in a state of utter terror. A couple of nights ago I was putting the finishing touches to the picture above when I realised that its subject could in fact be a ghost or a corpse. With that thought I went to bed, read a few pages of Stacy Schiff’s book on the Salem witches and awoke a few hours later, disoriented by the following dream which I’ve tried to convey in the chopped-up way that I remembered it:

Where would the path have led us if we’d followed it to the very end?

You, holding my hand as the sun rises over the tree tops, the start of a new day that I sensed we wouldn’t see through to its conclusion.

Paper, a pencil, just a few lines before the effort became too great.

A book face down on the floor. A telephone ringing somewhere deep inside the house. And the corners of the room are still dark as soot from smoking candles.

What was the point of all those words, I wonder, if so many of them weren’t true? Your hair spread over the pillow, notes of blue and grey amongst the brown.

We’d always assumed I’d be the first to leave.

Birds sing like it’s any other day. A door slams. A car drives down the hill.

I was pleased to wake at that point. Even now I’m not sure what was part of the dream and what rushed in to fill the gaps when I awoke.

Later, in the morning sunlight the picture seemed less sinister: a pale-skinned woman thinking of past loves, travels and her childhood, nothing more unsettling than that.

A last, lighter word on dreams. A 12 year old British comedian called Grace the Child won an award for the following joke at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015: “People say to me, you’re young, live your dream! But I don’t want to be naked in an examination I haven’t revised for…”

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