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.]

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The creative everyperson

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The last rosebuds of autumn (A5 ink and watercolour on Daler Rowney Ivory sketchbook page 2019)

Some years ago I stopped drawing and painting: I wasn’t developing, it took up time I could be spending with my new girlfriend, and it was proving to be more frustrating than rewarding. When I married and had children it was fun to draw with them and make them birthday cards, but it wasn’t until I returned to the UK after nearly 20 years away – my personal life and career in tatters – that I started again, this time seeking out evening courses and workshops to help me progress.

In between I’d tried my hand at photography but the area that best satisfied my need to create was cooking. I’d always cooked – I nearly poisoned myself on instant curries as a student and then I lived alone for some years and, as I enjoyed eating, I thought it would be useful to be able to cook.

It wasn’t until I gave up drawing that I really started to improve. The process of cooking a daube de bouef or a good risotto was not unlike the practice of art: it took time, some knowledge of technique and a certain amount of skill, but in order to cook well one had to develop an instinct for the subtleties of flavour, to know when to stop, to feel a part of the activity itself. In short, I transferred my frustrated creativity from the art of drawing to the art of cooking, with the same intensity.

Recently I came across an article in RA, the magazine of London’s Royal Academy of Art, by Oli Mould, author of a book called Against Creativity, which argued against this concept:

Apparently everyone is creative….No longer is creativity an attribute we associate with skilled artisans and visionaries; every person, every job and every place must be creative to survive…The concept of creativity is now so ubiquitous in modern-day parlance that any semblance of what creativity actually creates has been lost.

Mr Mould gets the bit between his teeth after this, roping in the Uber app, the John Lewis Christmas ad, artisan coffee shops in Shoreditch, and high-rise residential housing for the super-rich to show how ‘creativity’ has been harnessed to profit and destroyed as a meaningful concept.

Personally I see no harm in a wider vision of creativity: isn’t your neighbour’s pleasing arrangement of flowerbeds creative? Isn’t a hairdresser creating a style that pleases her customer creative? I work in the marketing department of a book publishing company and I urge my colleagues to be ‘creative’, to go one step beyond their comfort zone, to think of innovative ways to bring our niche programme of academic monographs to the attention of their potential readership. Are any of those less creative than some of the artists I see on Instagram, churning out variations of their single theme time after time?

Let’s not rebrand creativity as the sole preserve of the professional artist or composer. Not all of us can call ourselves artists but we can all be creative. Frankly, if I had to choose between the perfect risotto and Jeff Koons’ balloon dog I know which I’d choose.

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.

Circling around the truth

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Jasper Johns (pencil on A5 sketchbook page) 2018

In February, I sat on a friend’s couch in upstate New York and read an article on America’s most prominent artist, Jasper Johns.

Johns can’t be the easiest person to interview: he famously said the book about his work he most enjoyed was by a Japanese scholar – he couldn’t understand a word of it. His renowned flag paintings, which the MoMA was afraid to buy in the McCarthy shadowed 1950s, can be interpreted as either patriotic or subversive. Make up your own mind: all Johns will say is that the idea came to him in a dream. And he won’t even tell you about the dream.

According to Deborah Solomon, the author of the New York Times article, his flag paintings were revolutionary because they didn’t turn private feelings into public statements but claimed public symbols for the realm of inwardness and personal experience. His goal was not to convey a truth, but circle cryptically around it.

I love that idea about circling around the truth. I suppose that’s why I admire those artists who can keep a foot in the figurative but bring a sense of abstraction or mystery to their work. To me, seeing a painting of a vase of flowers that gives, say, their colours prominence over form allows us privileged insight into the artist’s view of the world – not just painting – more than would be the case with a deliberate representation of the subject. If you follow this link and look at the images before you read the bio, wouldn’t you already feel that the artist’s philosophy is something like “living is not just surviving”?

Raye, over at Jots from a Small Apartment, shared this quote from Jasper Johns:

I think that one wants from a painting a sense of life. The final suggestion, the final statement, has to be not a deliberate statement but a helpless statement. It has to be what you can’t avoid saying.

That’s what makes some artists’ work so essential, I think. Not just Jasper Johns, but anyone making ‘helpless’ statements, statements that they ‘can’t avoid saying.’  I’ve written before about the compulsion to draw or paint, that feeling that it’s something that must be done and, more to the point, must be done in this way. It’s that creative vigour that separates art from picture making, artists from painters.

There is a truth in everything we see and perhaps the best way to tell it is to suggest it rather than say it, to circle around it instead of stating it directly. Just like Jasper Johns.

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!

 

A creative thanksgiving

Apples blog
Apples (A4 acrylic 2017)

“At times our own light goes out and is rekindled by a spark from another person. Each of us has cause to thank with deep gratitude of those who have lighted the flame within us.” Albert Schweitzer

Parker J Palmer opened his Thanksgiving Facebook post with this quotation. We don’t have Thanksgiving in England. We now have Black Friday, of course, another opportunity to acquire stuff we possibly don’t need, but we don’t have a formal occasion to sit and be grateful for what we already have.

Many times during this rather dismal year I’ve had cause to be grateful to friends and family who have helped me keep the flame alight. As I’ve mentioned before, there were times during the first half when that seemed an almost impossible task and I thank all of you who have helped with a well-timed spark. You know who you are.

But this is an art blog so let’s move over to that track.

There are times when you bump up against what might seem like an insurmountable obstacle to creativity. Over the past few months I’ve been struggling to consciously loosen up the way I paint and I have plenty of half-finished monstrosities to prove it. Yesterday evening I took three apples from the bowl, squeezed out some acrylics onto a palette and set about painting a simple still life. My ambition wasn’t to recreate what I saw in front of me but to intrepret those three apples with a complete freedom of execution. The result (above) is no masterpiece, but as with other experiments it got me over that hump.

There’s a fascinating blog post by artist Christopher Gallego entitled 5 unusual habits to keep you growing artistically that I urge you to read. His second piece of advice is ‘Do the impossible’ (the first, ‘Paint some crap’, is also worth trying): ‘Attack something, anything, that scares you to death’, he advises. So painting these apples with big, bright slabs of colour, buttered on with a square brush, was far from the usual way I paint. It was glorious. After an hour of that I felt exhausted and exhilerated, defeated and victorious in equal measure, and glad that I had just attacked the thing that scares me to death: looseness and spontenaiety. As Lorca described the Andalusian folk lyric, ‘a momentary burst of inspiration, the blush of all that is truly alive…the trembling of the moment’ – that’s what we should be aiming for!

So thank you, Christopher Gallego, for your timely spark. Thank you, Annabel Mednick, for making me look and draw what I see every week in my life drawing course. Thank you, Ingrid Christensen for showing us how to paint beautiful loose still lifes, and to you Stanley Bielen, John Button, Lisa Daria, Jennifer Pochinski, Karolina Gacke and many others who show what can be achieved just this side of abstraction.

That’s my creative Thanksgiving.

On the brink of everything

Mangosteens blog
Mangosteens (A4 acrylic 2017)

If you’d told me a few years ago that I’d eagerly await Facebook posts from a 78 year old Quaker educationalist I would have been, er – sceptical. However, I now do just that: I’ve yet to read a dull or uninspired post from Parker J. Palmer.

Last week he took us back to a piece he wrote for the On Being website in 2015 called On the Brink of Everything: An Early Morning Meditation. In it, he references another article on the site in which a mother writes about seeing the world through her toddler’s eyes, greeting everything with a sense of wonder and discovery. You don’t have to be a child to do that, PJP demonstrates:

It’s winter in Wisconsin, and the east-facing window was filigreed with ice. The horizon behind the bare trees was aglow with a crimson sunrise that, seen through the tracery of ice, turned the pane into stained glass. For several minutes I took in that scene as if I were admiring a great cathedral through a rose window.

Could anyone other than Mr Palmer write so eloquently about having an early-morning pee? I wondered.

The article ends like this. ‘I’m old enough to know that the world can delight me, so my expectation is not of the world but of myself: Delight in the gift of life and be grateful.’ Isn’t that superb? ‘My expectation is not of the world but of myself‘ – how often do we wait for something to happen, for things to improve, for someone to do something that will enable us to feel better about something else? And how often are we disappointed when the planets don’t align? Discovering one’s own delight in the world is a gift beyond riches, what the mindfulness gurus call ‘beginner’s mind’, I believe.

In the comments on PJP’s Facebook page someone quoted some lines from a Mary Oliver poem (not a writer I usually enjoy): ‘When it’s over, I want to say: all my life/ I was a bride married to amazement./ I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.’

The painting above grew out of a simple delight, finding a fruit I’d never seen before during a day out with a friend in Borough Market, London. It  was meant to be much bigger. It was going to have a table’s edge, a scrubbed out wall behind it. For weeks, on and off, I painted and re-painted, drew a cup and a vase and a cylinder and painted over them all. I was so pleased with the three mangosteens and how loosely I’d rendered them I was determined to finish the painting and not abandon it. Posting it as a work in progress on Instagram and sharing it on Facebook, the painter Karolina Gacke advised me that all it needed was some shadow on the tabletop and it was done.

Less is more…

 

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