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!

 

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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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An everyday angel

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Bar fly 1 (A5 coloured pencil 2016)

Friday was a busy and somewhat challenging day, so when I found myself at an airport with four hours to kill before my flight home to London I decided to enjoy a salad and a glass of wine in one of the bars.

Sitting at the counter of an airport bar can be fascinating, listening to the conversations between the other customers and trying to determine their relationships. Are they colleagues, friends or strangers? Has it been a successful business trip or a Christmas present-buying binge? Do they interact with the bar staff to a greater or lesser extent?

It soon became clear that there was a drama going on to my right. A woman was trying to discover if the man seated next to her – who clearly wasn’t on his first cocktail – knew when his flight was boarding. He, on the other hand, was doing that thing that inebriated people on high bar stools often do – trying not to fall off. The bartender – let’s call her Janila – discretely replaced his cocktail glass with one filled with water and pushed a basket of bread rolls in his direction.

Eventually he stood and weaved unsteadily towards the door. Janila told me that one of her colleagues would be happy to serve me with anything else but she had to see the customer to his gate. They disappeared into the airport crowds.

Ten minutes passed, then ten more, and Janila hadn’t returned. When she finally did, she sighed, “His flight was at the furthest gate…” “You didn’t have to do that,” I said as she brought my check, “It was so kind of you.” “No,” she said, “I had to – I couldn’t just leave him to find his own way – his flight was already boarding.”

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Bar fly 2 (A5 coloured pencil 2016)

This random act of kindness was inspiring. My own frustrations fell away witnessing her going the extra mile to help the man. After all, who knows why he was drinking alone in an airport bar? Perhaps he’d failed to close the sale that would save his job two weeks before Christmas; maybe his wife had left him for someone he once trusted.

Had this been a movie, the shadowy figure at the far end of the bar would have left her a $1,000 tip and slipped away quietly. But this was real life: the man made his flight thanks to the kindness of a stranger and Janila finished her shift and went home tired but, I hope, knowing that she was an angel of sorts.

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The art of the dealer

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Kasmin (15 cms x 10 cms ink and watercolour 2016)

John Kasmin is an art dealer, small of stature (under 5’6”) but not of reputation, who is perhaps best known (to me at least) for launching the career of David Hockney.

He discovered Hockney at the Royal Society of British Artists’ 1961 show, Young Contemporaries, where he bought one of the painter’s most striking early works, Doll Boy, for a mere £40. Kasmin’s interest was unexpected as he specialised largely in American colourfield painters. “I liked the young Hockney’s cheekiness,” is how he described the attraction in a recent interview.

But why have I drawn Mr Kasmin naked instead of wearing one of his elegant suits? It’s the first tentative step in a series of drawings celebrating the wonders of the older body, both male and female. The media’s obsession with physical perfection – as well as causing all sorts of problems around body image among young people – means that the middle-aged and older body, even in art more often than not, is sidelined. Yet the body can be as revealing as the face in charting life’s journey and the curves and folds have a beauty of their own: our life stories are written on the skin.

I’m not the first to have had this idea, of course, and it might well remain in my head rather than on paper like my ‘plastic in the seas’ project. In case you were wondering how I persuaded a legendary art dealer to strip off, I must confess that Mr Kasmin’s chest is based on my own, drawn in front of my bedroom mirror.

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