Wednesday, 19 September 2018

Absence, emptiness and the void

Li Cheng: A Solitary Temple Amid Clearing Peaks 10thCentury

David Edgar's drawing conference presentation on the void left a lasting impression on me and set my mind to thinking about the various ways that we use empty space to help us come to terms with reality. It is as if we need to think about what is not there in order to get any sort of grasp on what is there. This is not then just about drawing, it is also about religion and philosophy. 
Chinese ink wash landscape painting had by the 10thcentury evolved to a point where clouds, mist, sky, and water were often left unpainted. Their presence was instead suggested by the carefully rendered edges of other elements such as the texture of rocks or foliage. These were treated so that their forms faded out into nothing and the way this was done could intimate the difference between mist and cloud, or water spray and sky. This approach reflected the Taoist idea of qi (chi), a recognition that the universe emanates or is constructed from some sort of formless originating energy. By leaving large surfaces of untouched silk or paper, the artist could help the observer think of the ink washes as forming representations of rocks, foliage and mountains, as well as facilitating an awareness of nothingness or the potential of the void to engender somethings. The bare surfaces of silk being the spaces out of which forms emerge. In the West we sometimes refer to this as “negative” space, but perhaps it would be a better idea to call it ‘positive’ space. The Taoist philosopher Lao Tzu in the Tao Te Ching expressed the idea like this in Chapter eleven:

Thirty spokes unite around one hub to make a wheel.
It is the presence of the empty space that gives the function of a vehicle.
Clay is molded into a vessel. It is the empty space that gives the function of a vessel. Doors and windows are chisel out to make a room.
It is the empty space in the room that gives its function.
Therefore, something substantial can be beneficial.
While the emptiness of void is what can be utilized. 

Below is a different translation and when centred rather than ranged left the gap between stanzas is a much more satisfactory resolution of the idea of the poem as visual form. 

We shape clay into a pot,
but it is the emptiness inside
that holds whatever we want
We hammer wood for a house,
but it is the inner space
that makes it liveable

From: Mitchell, S (2006) Tao Te Ching: A New English Version  London: Harper

Pine Trees: Hasegawa Tōhaku, Tokyo National Museum

In Japanese art there is a concept of 'yohaku no bi', (余白の美), sometimes translated as ‘the beauty of the remaining white’, or ‘the space left empty’. This is a concept that was borrowed in about the 12thcentury from Taoist influenced Chinese images of landscapes, such as Li Cheng's. 'Yohaku' describes the white space in a drawing as an unfilled space, a gap or in certain cases a margin or edge-land. In Japan these spaces were seen as related to the Zen Buddhist concept of emptiness; kū 空 (the void) and mu (absence or nonexistence). Space was central to the creation process, and was reflected in the Buddhist notion of emptiness as being the ultimate reality and therefore a field of infinite potential. Pine Trees by the 16th century artist Hasegawa Tōhaku is a wonderful example of how visual images could reflect this way of thinking. It is as if these images of trees emerge unaided from the stretched membrane of silk, their oscillation between solidification and dissolution being both a product of the artist's awareness of atmospheric conditions and a religious moment of contemplation on the transience of all things. 
It is interesting to look at Robert Rauschenberg's erased De Kooning in this context. 
Rauschenberg: erased De Kooning

Instead of a conceptual move, it could be read as a spiritual riposte to De Kooning's worldly success. By erasing the drawing he was removing the artist's ego. Ego creates desire and greed, which leads us to dissatisfaction and suffering. To eradicate ego, you need to practice non-attachment, to things, people or ideas and Rauschenberg, it could be argued was in making this gesture, demonstrating that it was possible to move beyond our attachment to the idea of art. 

Rauschenberg on the erased De Kooning episode

Absence can become very personal. A few years ago I found myself standing alone in the Polish pavilion in the Venice Biennale. It was 2011 and the Israeli-born artist Yael Bartana was exhibiting three films about Poland and the absence of Jews.

Yael Bartana: And Europe Will Be Stunned (2007–11)

I found myself staring at a video sequence that struck deep. I was suddenly caught up in a call for the return of 3,300,000 Jews to the land of their forefathers. Poland was empty of Jews and my father's family were of Polish Jewish heritage, my grandmother, Lily Lucy Singer dying when I was very young, too young to find out anything from her about her history. Bartana's films occupy a space between documentary, propaganda and fiction and as you watch them you become unsettled as to what is real and what is a construction. There was one sequence in particular that got to me. A young activist, played by Sławomir Sierakowski (founder and chief editor of Krytyka Polityczna magazine), was delivering a speech in the abandoned National Stadium in Warsaw. In this speech he speaks to all the Jews that have left Poland and urges them to come back. I was suddenly overcome with an existential loss. I was for a moment defined by a lost past, a past I had not experienced, and could only reconstruct by looking at old marriage certificates and one single photograph of my great great grandfather Shepsel Sanderwitch's grave in Manchester.

Shepsel Sanderwitch: Memorial stone

Sometimes when trying to open out possible pedagogic approaches or positions that can be taken in relation to art work I can forget that these things can get very personal and go beyond rationality and a balanced position taking.
The concept of representing empty spaces has been at the centre of Rachael Whiteread's work for many years and the void of negative casting was used by her to create a "counter monument" to the loss of European Jews because of the Nazi genocide. 

Rachael Whiteread: Drawing for Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial: Vienna

Rachael Whiteread: Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial: Vienna

This use of negative space was personally very poignant but I would hope it is also something that resonates far beyond my own personal feelings and illustrates how by working sensitively with absence, gaps and spaces, a void can become full of meaning. 

See also these related posts

On marks and stains and our need to get rid of them

Wednesday, 12 September 2018

Notes from the drawing research network conference: Loughborough

I was at a drawing research network conference this week and as always there were interesting issues that came out of what was being reported on. This year it was much more focused on presentations from PhD researchers, looking at the key issues behind their various practice led drawing research activities. 

My note taking was not very systematic and my thoughts ran off in whatever direction my various interests took me in. What value these notes may have to students is perhaps to give you an indication of the types of issues that researchers in drawing are looking at and an indication of what PhD study could be.  These notes could be useful especially to those of you now undertaking MAs and wondering whether or not to eventually move on to PhD level study. 

An event such as this attracts papers from various international practitioners and therefore another advantage of going is to get a feel for how things might be different elsewhere and one of the decisions you might have to make at some future point is where to study and this can be crucial in relation to what and how you might engage with research. 

These notes were made in response to each presentation as they were delivered and I was variously distracted, at one point my pencil lead broke and my attention span can vary, so if anyone is trying to use these notes as a verification of what was delivered I would advise extreme caution. I am not a very good researcher, my mind flits about all over the place, so don't take these notes as records of what was delivered, they are more about my own thought processes. 

Nikola Dicke from Osnabrück University in North Germany opened the presentations with; ‘Exploring the interaction between recipient and producer in a live light-drawing process through eye tracking and video analysis’. 
Nikola’s presentation was centred on the interaction between producer and recipient. She would look at what the producer or maker of the communication was doing and would then look at how the recipient or audience for the communication was reacting. Although this was all to do with eye tracking technology, my interest became more to do with the communication conundrum. So bare with me because this next part of the post wasn’t part of the presentation, it’s just my inner mind rambling, but readers of these posts should be used to this by now. 
In any moment of communication between people a lot goes on, we shift what we are about to say, we adjust our body language etc. simply because we have glanced at someone and decided in that glance that they are well educated, of a different class, of an age whereby they may well have a certain preference for this or that etc. all before we even open our mouth to talk. Once any information you produce goes out into the world and is perceived by others the Bauman room comes into operation. Zygmunt Bauman used to live in Leeds and was a well respected professor of sociology at the university, and he had a very useful way of expressing the problem of human communication. It sort of went like this; six people are all to be given the same room to experience. However each person wears a different pair of coloured glasses and also enters the room from a different entry point. One from a hatch in the ceiling, one from a trapdoor set into the floor and the other four from doorways corresponding to the four points of the compass. Each one is asked to describe what they see as they experience the room. 
The person looking through the ceiling hatch sees the room layout as a whole, but because they can only see things from the top the individual items of furniture are difficult to differentiate because only their top surfaces are visible. Because this person wears red filter glasses, all items of furniture that are coloured red appear bright and clear and those green or blue now become simply dark. 
The person entering via a trapdoor in the floor enters the room underneath a table. They can clearly see all the joints that hold the table together and how it is constructed; they can look out between the table legs and see other items of furniture but only from a very low angle so are unable to judge things such as the composition of surfaces etc. They wear violet filters over their glasses. You can imagine the rest of the story, each person entering the room sees things from a very different point of view and the information collected is therefore totally different. However the room itself remains a constant factor and gradually these participants can by moving around the room, meeting each other and sharing experiences and finally swapping glasses eventually get to ‘see’ what the other person was ‘seeing’. So I wondered was this situation similar to Bauman’s analogy?
Nikola was making complex diagrams of the interactions, producing lists of actions made by producer and recipient and then formalising her hand made annotations. 
The producer’s actions were focused on making light drawings using an overhead projector and the recipients were then asked to follow the progress of these drawings as they were projected into a particular room environment. Eye movement maps were then produced of how recipients were following the drawings made. Sometimes lines of tracking would slip away from the main event because something else had broken the attention focus, or there was some sort of shift in cognitive attention. The producer is of course always one step ahead in this game, but I wondered by how much? Going back to my initial reflections on communication in general, I began to wonder whether or not there was any residual pre-communication with the producer and recipient. I.e. why was the imagery chosen? Would a different image engage a recipient in a different way? 
I was a little lost as to how the producer was working, but it seemed as if the producer was initially producing a drawing by tracing from an existing image with a light pen and then at some point the producer would begin to look at what was appearing on the walls and would be able to respond to what was now there rather than just copying. Gradually the recipient would become more and more familiar with the moves being made by the producer and would therefore be able to follow what was happening much more closely, this gradual awareness being also signified by other things such as the laughter of recognition as the recipient ‘got it’. I could see that the process highlighted the fact that communication was negotiated and began to see that this related to ethnomethodology as an explanatory methodology but as with Tim Ingold’s worry about ethnography itself, I began to worry that the methodology’s measuring system was beginning to measure itself rather than anything outside of the situation that had been set up. 
The fact that the research was being supervised by two different university departments was I thought a very useful thing and this was surely going to help prevent the art/science divide, in particular the cognitive science department would, I would have thought, have been able to support bridge building between a more embodied art awareness and aspects of psychology, linguistics, philosophy, and computer modelling. Above all I was made aware of my own inability to grasp what was going on because I wasn’t able to experience the initial situation and no matter how well explained there is nothing as useful as an actual demonstration. Gaps in translation and how we/I attempt to make sense of what I/we don’t really understand, then became what I was finding more and more interesting. 

David Edgar 

David Edgar who had travelled all the way from Tasmania was the next to present. His paper ‘Agitating the void: phenomenology and its practical application in drawing’ was put together in response to his ‘facing the void’ that first of all appeared to him when looking at particular ‘sublime’ geographical Tasmanian locations and which then became more universal issues, such as how do we respond to the spaces and gaps that are everyday aspects of our experience of the world? 
David had begun the process of research by documenting particular types of spaces. This documentation it seemed was mainly lens and text based and I wondered why and if it had to be lens or text based how should this be done?  If you rock climb, the experience is one of holding on to a rock face, experiencing it face on, close to and then suddenly switching your gaze into the space below as you are forced to swing out and away from the rock face. You experience a compacted series of sensations in a way that would for myself mean that I would have to spend a lot of time thinking about how to develop a form for its documentation. (David did say that this process was quite complex but I wanted to find out more) For instance would I attach several cameras to different parts of my body as I climbed, or ran or swam through the space, would I abseil a camera over the rock-face? Why was the documentation lens based? Could drawings have been made on the spot? During the time when my old friend Patrick Oliver worked with Peter Lanyon, Lanyon wanted to make images that would make people get vertigo when they stood in front of them. In order to do this he went through a series of processes, beginning with inserting a physical ‘reality’ into an image and then suddenly removing it and then attempting to recreate the void left, and then moving on later to building in fixed moments, (such as the equivalent to the edge of his cockpit) and playing that off against sweeping paint strokes meant to evoke or re-create the swish of fast, disorientating, over the ground movement. Patrick took me on a fast ride on the back of an old motorbike through the Yorkshire Dales as a way of explaining it to me. Never mistake the space for the rocks he explained or you will smash right into those rocks and never live in space again. 
Edmund Husserl was cited by David Edgar as an important theorist, and I presumed that it was Husserl’s notion of kinaesthetic consciousness that had intrigued him in the first place.  Embodied movement and its consciousness as opposed to consciousness “of” movement, seemed to me central to this. Again I was drifting along on my own path, but so be it. I looked up again and David was showing a large image of mark making and this became my entry point into ‘embodied movement and its consciousness’. So I began listening more attentively again. David had asked himself, “How do we experience the void?” He wanted to create a materialisation of the void and had read Susan Sontag’s ‘The Aesthetics of Silence’ 
as a way into finding his own aesthetic language. 
There is a tension in Sontag’s text between the idea of ‘silence’ or ‘the void’ as some form of ultimate other worldly gesture and the fact that there is no such thing as pure silence or an empty void. As Sontag states, “If only because the art-work exists in a world furnished with many other things, the artist who creates silence or emptiness must produce something dialectical: a full void, an enriching emptiness, a resonating or eloquent silence.” 
In order to communicate movement Lanyon needed to insert a fixed point into his images. Any form of ‘aesthetics of silence’ or the void would therefore have to fill the void with whatever it was that made us aware of the void. This would I presume then be its materialisation.  But the representation of this void is filled with marks and these marks are being talked about as if they are also indicative of inner emotions. So were we now looking again at some sort of ‘other worldly gesture’? Something to do with the idea that drawing is, “broad and mysterious” as one member of the audience I think put it later in the morning. 
In my head two things were getting mixed up. The documentation of specific places and the making of drawings. The images looked as if they were derived from photographs or video stills because they had that fixed viewpoint problem, and even if they were stitched from several images, they were still tied to a coherent point of view. The marks were made using dry materials, itself interesting (see old posts on Mohs hardness scale etc.) these marks were made using certain types of gestures, and were clustered together to create atmospheric space and energy. David mentioned the fact he was male as being perhaps a reason the drawings were so big, but Emma Stibbon’s drawings are monumental as well, so I was thinking that it wasn't really about that, it was perhap more to do with a need to recognise the importance of scale. It seemed that the drawings were the scale they were because David wanted his audience to feel ‘sucked’ into the void of them. The void in this case being now an intense area of blackness. But as Phil Sawdon interjected during a plenary session, "what about the ‘illustration’ issue". Was this blackness an illustration of the idea of the void, what if it ought to be a recreation of the void? Was the phenomenological experience being lost in Badiou’s dichotomy of certainty and uncertainty? In order to highlight what he was getting at David then showed us an image of Käthe Kollwitz’s 1933 self-portrait, whereby she had drawn the arm between the hand and the head in such a way that the marks energise the space between rather than render the physical presence of the arm itself. 
Käthe Kollwitz

The marks that replace the arm in effect creating “a full void” or as Sontag had also put it, “an enriching emptiness”. David had clearly found the issue that all emptiness is in some way full, as central to an understanding of his research. Research regarded by himself as a way to gain tacit knowledge and understanding of experience and its interpretation and expression though practice. I.e. it’s complicated, but I was still getting lost in that gap between the illustration of concepts and the recreation of experiences. Was this really all to do with ‘the sublime’. The experience of experiencing things that we cant quite comprehend, of being confronted by something that is bigger than or outside of, my ability to measure it against myself?  Avis Newman had been name checked earlier and her ‘indirect representations’ as John Roberts* put it, are perhaps another way into this conundrum. 

*Roberts, J (1990) Postmodernism, Politics and Art : Manchester: Manchester University press

While still pondering these things we were watching Lucy O’Donnell trying hard to get her presentation onto the computer system, something that was proving very difficult so it was decided it was time for coffee. 

Lucy presented ‘All the thoughts I ever had’, a performance presentation, that explored drawing/writing hybrids. The accompanying handout also suggested that ’the balance between the verb and noun of drawing and writing’ was to be questioned. 
I was interested in the fact that Lucy had had a hard time getting her presentation started. Computers had been upgraded over the summer and as is often the case what worked before the upgrade wasn’t working now. But could this be seen as part of the performance, was this a ‘drawn out’ performance, existing over both sides of the coffee break? I had seen a version of the performance before in York, so perhaps these performances were all being drawn out. After all if drawing as a noun: such as a picture, a portrayal, or a sketch, was one side of this concern; how was it to be balanced as a concept with drawing as a verb; whereby actions and time are conjoined? Lucy drew and is yet still drawing, and will perhaps be also drawing in the future, because she will draw again. I have recently written a paper on drawing and different tenses and this had reminded me of the issues involved. Hybrids are though strange things and the experience of seeing a drawing in all its simultaneity is very different to reading a text that has a start and a finish. So how does the hybrid work? Was the filming of the performance a way of making the drawings produced linearly time based, as opposed to a drawing’s ‘compacted’ time? If we write on a drawing does this mean that we need to switch between being illiterate and literate in order to receive the communication in the way it is intended? I’ve just returned from Greece and when there all texts were for myself simply empty signs/marks across surfaces, but for everyone else the text mattered, they could read them but I couldn't. 
As Lucy began to talk to the video, her actions were now extending the situation into the space I was occupying. Was I in effect now part of her drawing, was she drawing me in? I was not sure about the noun/verb balance, little consideration was being made of the picture, the sketch or the portrayal, this all seemed to be about doing. Was this though the point? Drawing is always a performance and the objects that result from these various performances are not as important as we have historically thought. I was reminded of behaviourism and the fact that as we can never know what is going on in someone’s mind, we can only rely on observed behaviour as an indication of any internal mental function. The doing of the PhD therefore becoming what undertaking a PhD is all about. The modes of writing and methodologies of research used, will themselves define what is being done. Lucy is in effect re-enacting the processes of research as performance. Lucy was describing her activity as allowing her to build layers, layers that would allow for the emergence of new possibilities. I wondered if this was similar to the way that Daniel Libeskind drew, because he worked on transparent sheets, one image being placed on top of another until a new image emerged. Lucy was however talking about foresight and hindsight, so for her it was more about time. It was also she said a poetic dialogue, something that I decided was starting to become a theme, David had mentioned earlier that he was sometimes thinking of the relationship between drawing and poetry, but Lucy was also thinking about hermeneutic phenomenology, a practice that is centred on interpretation. So was this more like reading an old Bible? Old Bibles often come with inserted interpretive texts, (hence the original meaning of hermeneutics), but to interpret a phenomenological understanding, is to try to show how an individual makes sense of the phenomena of experience. Something that as I have already shown in reference to Bauman is very difficult to do. But these dualities have been with us forever, especially in an expanded field of practice. For instance Juliet Sorrell finds that “drawing becomes more interesting when it occupies a place between the binary positions established by art writers”, and quotes Michael Newman in stating that “drawing “enacts a becoming”. So was this what Lucy was trying to do, ‘enact a becoming?’

The project had started in her response to the restricted spaces of a prison cell, each rectangular piece of paper was becoming read as a restriction or a boundary, but why not a possibility? The prisoner dreams of not being a prisoner, does the artist dream of not being an artist? In creating the lecture as performance is Lucy dreaming of being an actress rather than an artist? 

Pooja Shah in ‘Lines of travel: drawing, movement and travel in architectural space’, presented research in relation to her practice as an interior designer. The first question she asked of us was, “What is home?” So how does a trans-cultural identity work for an interior designer? She initially presented an image of a traditional Indian drawing that used very particular drawing concepts in order to represent a design idea. This hybrid form seemed much more culturally appropriate than the plan and elevation driven technical drawing formats of Western interior design production. Pooja was also looking at the difference between an artist and an architect, again trying to find an identity ‘between’ things. She was also exploring the relationship between poetry and imaging a space. She had come across Carlo Scapa the Italian architect who had been trying to develop an architecture that was able to absorb stories of the past in order to build a new story in time. When she had closed her eyes in order to imagine one of his spaces, the sound of the building suddenly became central to its story. This got me thinking about my own interest in narrative as a driver behind visual thinking and I wondered if new forms of technical drawing could be developed that were much more directly inspired by the way that spaces had been depicted in Indian miniatures. Perhaps a hybrid form, such as a cross between a representational system that included people and plan and elevation drawings. As Pooja pointed out, you don’t get people in technical drawings.  
Trans global movement goes both ways. I used to work on the foundation course at Leeds alongside Desmond Lazaro. He was from an Indian background but raised in Leeds. He decided to go to India and learn traditional Indian miniature painting techniques. In order to train he had to study Pichwai art in Jaipur under Banu Ved Pal Sharma, one of the few living experts on this ancient tradition. Eventually Desmond studied for 12 years in order to fully learn this traditional craft. Like Pooja his work ‘explores the relationship between the self and the various places it inhabits’. His journey was though in the opposite direction.

José Miguel Cardoso

The idea of drawing as an indication of travelling through the world was further elaborated by the final presentation from José Miguel Cardoso. ‘Maps tailored to the body of spaces: Drawing strategies against the indifference of representation’José’s drawings were a response to the now ubiquitous Google maps and how they are dominating the way we now think about representing space.  He asks the question, ‘is there still a role for the hand drawn map?’  What was interesting about his practice was the use of representation and absence. He had made mental maps, and combined them with different types representation systems. Drawing from observation was used as a type of locator. For instance, if you find a high vantage point in a city or other space, you can make a series of representations from observations taken from a series of viewpoints related to the 360possibilities possible from your vantage point. However what happens if two observers begin to map the city from two different fixed observation points? Or what happens if an observer begins to move through the city and take up a series of changing observation points? José uses the idea of the reserve as a sort of holding mechanism for an idea, leaving out information and in doing so he creates space for reinvention. His work provides a way of developing and identifying the prevailing character or atmosphere of a place by picking out salient features and leaving spaces for other things to happen. This may be simply space for an alternative annotation, but may also be a space for imaginative drawing, whereby new possibilities are played out. He pointed out that his work was not about developing way-finding maps, which I found interesting because I had at one point looked at how these could help develop people’s ability to make navigation decisions. Kevin Lynch (if you haven’t read his work about urban planning you ought to) found that the memorable features of a place help people develop images about how those spaces can be navigated. Landmarks are by their very nature memorable locations, they help to orient people, because they can use them to make mental maps of a place much more easily. So I began looking in José’s work for something like the way memory theatres work. Places within which the mind could walk. The ‘reserve’ spaces were useful, but I wanted more.  José reminded us of Steiner’s observation that if you wanted to get an idea of the intellectual fabric of Europe, map out where all the coffee shops were. I’m not sure this is still true, but the idea is still sound. José also introduced us to Gemma Anderson’s approach to research through drawing practice, ‘Drawing as a Way of Knowing in Art and Science’. Essentially his work reminded me that there was a territory that sat between cartographic and observational drawing codes and that it was one that I had myself at times tried to inhabit. This was for myself at its most interesting when José proposed drawing from each side of a bridge. The implication was that one side might be upside down in relation to the other and in that very twist could begin a first step into a new way of describing space. 
In his wonderful short story, 'The Street of Crocodiles', Bruno Schulz describes a huge map that his father used to pin up on one of the walls of their house. Within this densely engraved map, the description of which at times mirrors José’s drawings, the area of the Street of Crocodiles was described as being empty. It shone with the whiteness of a polar region, or that of an unexplored country; it was as Schulz put it, "an El Dorado for moral deserters". The final paragraph of the story is an indictment of Modernity and suggests that in the empty spaces of abstraction lay the seeds of corruption. This area of the city is desperately trying to appear up to date and in doing so is engaged in putting on a front that suggests the dynamism of modern life has energised it, but when looked at in detail, modern transport systems for instance, are revealed to be paper surrogates. The spaces left in José's drawings are like David Edgar's, voids. But voids in cities are very different to those out in the wilderness; they can attract all that is unseen, hidden away and left out of the normal narrative and therefore can also be spaces from within which we write poetry. 

During the afternoon we had workshops to attend, but as we could only choose one each, I can only report on the one I attended, which was Patrick Brandon’s: ‘Delayed graphification: obscurity and emergence in drawing’. This workshop began with an introduction to the idea of using poetry as a way into thinking about space and surface in painting. Beginning with Patrick reading out a quote from Derrida’s ‘Memoirs of the blind’ he then read an extract from Barthes about the ‘punctum’ which I personally think of as an aspect of an image that opens up a way into thinking about what the image as a whole (not just a photograph) means to me. There might be for instance a detail that allows you to begin thinking about what the rest of the image means and this ‘entry point’ then can direct the rest of your reading, because it has already set the tone for, or direction of your thoughts. 
Patrick then read us some poetry, which is always lovely and in particular he read from W S Graham, who had spent many hours in Peter Lanyon’s studio, Graham’s poem ‘the Thermal Stair’ being a wonderful eulogy to Lanyon, written after he died in a gliding accident. (Patrick Oliver was apprenticed to Lanyon in the 1950’s, and was described by Barbara Hepworth at the time as one of the Teddy Boys of British art. Oliver was also Peter O’Toole’s best friend and in that friendship lay an interesting overlap between the best of late 1950s and early 60s painting and the best of the world of literature*.)

These lines were recited by W S Graham;

Yet this place finds me
And forms itself again

This poetic text can easily suggest the processes within which paintings or drawings are made. The becoming of an image being inseparable from the process of making marks on a surface, but in each case the finding process will be different because of the differing proclivities of the maker, and it was this I presumed we were to explore. 
Patrick Brandon had prepared three types of paper for us, one pile being fully acrylic gessoed, another prepared with a watered down gesso, and the third being just a good quality, thick, roughly 200lb weight cartridge. We were also given a variety of scrapers and mark makers and told to make marks. We then had to pass the drawings completed to the person on our right, (there were five of us), and they would then make another drawing on top. Therefore we were going to make fifteen drawing, spending about four minutes on each one. 
We were told we could have a line of poetry in mind while we did this but we didn’t have to. 
Once completed, we were given diluted inks and some watercolour tablets, and on taking three drawings of marks from the pile we set to making something from what had been done. 
The dilute inks when brushed onto the surface immediately bled into the previously hard to see textures, (which were white on white, effectively blind drawing) and the surface came to life. It was now our job to control this. My own inclination was to search out my previous contribution to the mark making and see if I could bring an image out of the mass of often conflicting directions and textures. This very soon became engrossing as I was beginning to ‘see’ what the images were about, which in my own case was about the emergence of ‘light’ coming through from behind marks that were establishing surface. Light was in my mind ‘breaking through’ the ground or surface defined by the marks. I had though lost touch with any literary starting point, but began to find older narratives in the shapes emerging, narratives that belonged to images that I had made earlier, sometimes quite a long time earlier. 

Images made in workshop

We finally walked through the studio looking at what each person had done and predictably all the images were different but of course also similar, as they were all made by scratching out surfaces and then picking these textures out using paint washes. It was an excellent reminder of how important surface is when working on paper or any other ground and it reminded me to make sure I was as in control of that as any other aspect of the image making process. I had been using gesso last year when I was making grounds for silverpoint drawings, so had a big pot of it in the studio and decided it was time to use some of it again. 

Details of surfaces

At times I was reminded of Hans Hofmann’s push/pull language. Hoffman ran some very influential painting and drawing classes in the states during the 50s and he developed a way of thinking about surface as a constantly moving membrane that you as a maker had to keep a close eye on. As each mark was made the surface would re-adjust itself and your eye movement or surface scanning action had to be protected from being caught in figure/ground pockets. For instance an enclosed form might become a trap, or a gap between planes become a hole instead of an oscillating space. Working with Hofmann’s language was something I had to do when I started teaching because his methods were still being taught and I was expected to be able to articulate them, even though at that time they felt to me to be rather old fashioned and more to do with abstract expressionism. 
Nothing though ever really dates when working with surfaces and grounds. Materials will always work in different ways and marks will always energise space and create visual appearances that will fool the eyes into seeing spaces, even when non are there. This illusion lies at the centre of the fascination we have with image making, be this figurative or abstract. 

I am very aware that there are a vast number of ways into thinking about research and drawing practices, but hopefully today's post can give you a flavour of possibilities. As to making a start on this type of research, if you are a student go to this earlier post. 

Links to earlier notes on conferences 

See also in relation to Nikola Dicke's presentation: Eye tracking drawing technology

I have for some reason mentioned Patrick Oliver two times in this post. He has haunted my thoughts about art education for many years, find some more mentions below;

Oliver on thinking about surface 

Oliver on how to carve a line into space

Issue #7 of the magazine Turps Banana has an appreciation of Patrick Oliver's paintings by Marcus Harvey, which also includes a contribution by myself. 

Thursday, 6 September 2018

More thoughts about paper

Auerbach: The ability of a paper's surface to withstand erasure is as much a part of the final appearance as the quality of charcoal used, type of eraser and intent of the artist

In one of my posts on erasure I mentioned that I would return to thinking about papers for drawing again at some point. Artists will often have a preferred set of papers and paper boards that they use for different media and I think it is worthwhile looking at why certain paper surfaces are chosen by artists for particular jobs, even if only to then decide that that is precisely why you would not use them.
The three basic types of Watercolour papers

There are basic differences between printing, watercolour and drawing papers. I have mentioned Mohs hardness scale before and once again this is important when considering what a paper is for. A drawing paper needs to have a hardness that will ensure that the graphite or other dry drawing medium will pull off onto what in effect needs to be a harder surface. I.e. drawing paper for dry materials such as pencils, chalks, crayons etc. needs to have a hard abrasive surface. Watercolour paper needs to be tough enough to withstand constant wetting, so it needs long fibres, is usually of a much heavier weight to minimalise warping when wet and is unlike several printing papers not kaolin coated because it needs to maintain a certain amount of absorbency. Printing papers can be soft and thin, as they have to be compliant with the surfaces that are laying down the inks onto them and they tend to be much smoother, which is why they are sometimes kaolin coated. All papers come with their individual histories, sizes, specific technical specs and associations with other things, (I have mentioned some of these before), so there is no one paper that can be singled out as the best ‘art’ paper, but certain papers are used over and over again by artists, many of which have now become central to the business of art. The fact that many of these papers are of archival quality can be very important when it comes to customers looking at a long term investment. It is up to you as an artist to decide what will be the determining factor when investing in papers, price being perhaps for a student a very important issue.

Bristol board

A lot of illustrators and comic book artists like to use smooth Bristol board. The 500 series, 4-ply, 100% cotton, smooth Bristol (vellum surface) by Strathmore comes in 23" x 29" sheets and when I costed it today on Amazon it was £15.59 for one sheet.
Closely related to this is the Strathmore 500 Series Illustration Board, heavy weight white vellum finish is 20" x 30" and costs £13.99. There is no information as to why the proportions are different, I presume there must be some historical significance though. (Read this post on paper sizes)
Both these surfaces are sold as ideal for graphite pencil, coloured pencil, charcoal, sketching stick, pen & ink, marker, soft pastel, mixed media, oil pastel, light wash and collage.
However Bristol board has two working surfaces, front and back. This quality separates it from illustration board, which has only a front working surface.
The surface texture of Bristol Board can be either smooth, plate, semi-smooth or vellum. Smooth finish is also called hot press, and has a satiny, hard finish. Plate finish is very smooth, like glass and is excellent for maintaining the consistent and continuous line flow that you sometimes want when working in pen and ink; it is particularly good for using technical drawing pens. Vellum (or kid) finish is a medium texture more appropriate to friction-based media, such as crayon, chalks, or charcoal. Semi-smooth is an in-between surface that isn't as smooth as smooth, and not as rough as vellum and has come about because of the need for particular surfaces that suit specialty pens and markers.
An alternative finish, engravers or wedding, is manufactured for formal engraved wedding invitations.
Bristol and Illustration Boards provide stiff, strong surfaces to work on without the need for mounting. Bristol generally describes drawing paper that is pasted together to form multi-ply sheets. Illustration board has 100% cotton drawing paper mounted on both sides of a heavyweight board.
Plate Bristol board is great for scratching details out of ink drawing with a sharp blade, as it resists gouging and tearing, therefore you can be very sharp and exact with your removal process. Bristol and illustration boards will withstand a certain amount of dampness and so you can often get away with not having to stretch paper when using small controlled amounts of watercolour or ink washes, but on the whole they are for dry materials, marker pens or pen and ink.
Historically Bristol board has been used by illustrators and is therefore very good at sitting in the background when being photographed, something that in a world of social media is becoming more and more important. However its association with illustration means that many fine artists don’t use it, simply because they see it as being illustration specific. This is a very interesting point, one that has a history that goes back to a time when fine artists were concerned with Greenberg's ideas about media specificity and therefore wanted to distance themselves from illustrators. One of the biggest insults you could at one time give to an artist was to call them an illustrator. Things have hopefully now changed, I’m sure Andy Warhol as both an illustrator and fine artist would have known exactly how to use Bristol Board and would have used it whenever he needed to. As it was he used Bristol Paper to print on whenever he could. Some artists would never dream of using what are called 'fine art papers' because of their association with a particular type of thinking about art materials. There are a certain range of qualities that are expected of drawing papers and these often overlap with the papers produced specifically for watercolour or for working on with a range of dry and liquid art materials but, and this is the point that several artists would make, if you use non art papers when you try and make marks on them the very fact that these papers might be non receptive or designed for other uses, might make the marks you can make much more interesting. 
If you compare some more 'fine art' drawing papers to illustration boards, the ‘grain’  of the paper surface will often be much more visible, therefore it will become a vital part of the look of the final drawing. It is often expected that the fine art artist should have a 'rough' look to their work, as this has at times been associated with the idea of an artist's individual expression and a certain 'raw' look. This is the very reason why some artists don't use these papers because they are too 'hot', too close to the art business. Everything has some sort of meaning and artists that want to tap into less or alternate types of expressive languages may well use commercial papers because of their association with non art languages. For instance some artists only use office stationary to work with, because they want to make a statement about the relationship between what they do and the majority of contemporary work being done in offices. However the older I get the more I use 'art' papers because they have stood the test of time in relation to what they are made to do and I get get less worried about the associations they might have with the fine art tradition and I can afford to. (I have just ordered two sheets of khadi paper that have cost £36.30 each). At some point someone will ask you, "Why are you using that paper?", all I am suggesting is that you need to have thought about it. 

When working on Arches hot-pressed watercolour paper using graphite it has a very tough surface that can withstand a lot of erasure and is textured enough to hold enough graphite to ensure blacks are very dense, but smooth enough to ensure that tonal gradations can be very softly and smoothly gradated. A 9H pencil will still pull off against its hard surface, so you can use the full range of H and B hardnesses. 20 sheets of 18 x 24in will cost about £88.00 and you can get these papers in hot pressed, cold pressed or in rough finishes. Cold Pressed paper is often referred to as NOT paper meaning it is "not hot pressed". The surface of a Not (Cold Pressed) paper has a moderate texture or tooth in between rough and hot pressed. (See image near the top of this post)

Rough and cold pressed papers have bumps and grooves that hold onto water and pigment. They are therefore a good choice when working in watercolour and if you want to emphasise texture.

Hot pressed paper is much smoother. It doesn’t suck up the water as fast as the rough and cold pressed papers, this gives you more time to re-wet edges of pigment when working in watercolour, but doesn't allow you to get the same subtle gradation that a more absorbent surface allows for. Therefore if you are working in mixed media such as pencil and watercolour it will be the combination of how both graphite and watercolour works with the paper that will be important. 

Stonehenge hotpressed watercolour paper in comparison is smoother but softer. It will mark or gouge if you try and use very hard pencils, and it is harder to work up solid rich blacks when using graphite, as you need to create several layers to get maximum density. Its softer surface means that erasure begins to break up the paper and gives you a fractured surface, which is interesting but not always what you want. However when it comes to watercolour it is excellent with both wet-on-wet and wet-on-dry applications. It has a good absorbency that ensures colours stay bright and watercolour stays damp and sits on the surface long enough to keep blending and lifting colour off, so that you can eliminate rough edges between washes. Hotpress surfaces are often used by botanical illustrators, being smooth enough to hold detail but absorbent enough to get good colour intensity with smooth gradations. The cold pressed papers are often used by landscape artists, the constant blending and lifting it allows can lead to very complex subtle and atmospheric surfaces.

Strathmore 400 series pastel paper has an interesting ‘tooth’ designed to hold pastel but which can also be used when using graphite. Very dark blacks can be made by building up layers of soft graphite. However because of its very visible surface it can often mean that when photographed the grain is very apparent and does not disappear into the background. This may be useful to you or not, depending on how you want the image to work.  This paper has a traditional laid finish that enables you to control light/dark transitions using the paper surface itself. (These surfaces are 'ribbed' textures imparted into the papers by the manufacturing process of using a regular mesh lifted through a vat of floating dissolved paper)  Perhaps the best historical example of this is Seurat’s use of Michallet laid paper, whereby he uses the peaks of parallel ridges in the sheet of laid paper to both add texture and allow for highlights to softly emerge from the paper itself. The black Conté crayon he used builds gradations of tone embedded into the textured paper, and by drawing in this way he could minimalise dusting or smudging, which would have taken attention away from the control of form and into more atmospheric or emotional registers. (Look at the difference between working in a hard Conté crayon on a laid paper and soft charcoal, the crayon is hard and catches the edges of the ridges, but unlike the charcoal, doesn't break up so easily and therefore far less dust is produced, dust which will fall from the edges of each stroke made and will fill in the surrounding paper fibres)


Cartridge paper is of course the paper usually associated with drawing using dry materials. I have posted on this before and will remind you that its ‘meaning’ is not just about whether or not it is hard enough or rough enough to draw upon. The making of Japanesepapers can at times be associated with an almost spiritual appreciation of both the processes of making and the various elements that go into the composition of each paper. 

It is time to remind you that from the most high tech industrial papermaking production methods to hand made papers put together on your kitchen table, paper not only serves many purposes it carries a wide range of ‘ur’-histories*. For some artists these histories will become more important than the media specificity of paper and you will need at some point to consider whether or not you need to take these types of issues on board. If you do, this can mean a lot of difficult background research. Research can though bring to light facts that can make for fascinating narratives. For instance the Montgolfier brothers who made the first balloon flights were paper manufacturers and they patented one of the first transparent papers. The Montgolfier family firm eventually became known through marriage as "Montgolfier et Canson", then "Canson-Montgolfier", then "Canson"; a name we still associate with fine art papers. "Canson" worked directly with Ingres to produce papers especially for him and many of the most famous artists of the 19th and 20th century used "Canson" papers. 
Capitalism is what drives so many of our ways of not only producing but thinking about business. The constant merging and buying up of companies means that it can be hard to keep track of what is going on behind the scenes of the products that we use. This is what has happened to Canson & Montgolfier over the past few years. The Arjomari company acquired Papeteries Canson & Montgolfier in 1976. In 1990, the Arjomari company merged with the Wiggins Teape Appleton group and became the Arjo Wiggins group. In 2006, the group Hamelin acquired Canson with all its subsidiaries. In 2016 Canson was acquired from Hamelin by the Milan based F.I.L.A. Group. The F.I.L.A. Group markets itself as being a leader in the provision of materials for creative expression. They now own brands such as Giotto, DAS, Daler-Rowney, Strathmore and Princeton, together with several others, supplying art materials and school supplies to world wide clients. The present Canson logo is a stylised hot air balloon that has been produced by a design team to symbolise both the history of the firm and its up-to-date Modernist credentials. 
The current Canson logo 

If you visit the current Canson company website you will find that heritage is very important to the brand and they run prestigious art competitions as well as showcasing a range of videos highlighting contemporary artists using their products. This is all very interesting because the status of the fine arts is in this case transferred to a company manufacturing fine art papers. This status will of course be partly used to justify the high prices of specialist papers. I am not trying to criticise this aspect of today's reality, simply referring to it in as a reminder of the bigger context. But as soon as this context is seen, further questions might be asked, such as, "How environmentally sensitive are Canson's manufacturing processes?". "What is it like to work for the company?" "How do they contribute to the F.I.L.A. Group's overall profit margins?"

Edward Allington often used papers from old ledgers to work on.  The specific nature of those ledgers providing a complex context that reflected his interests in the art of the past, the style of handwriting on old ledgers suggesting the importance of a trained hand for the production of legible script and the inescapable need for everything to be accounted for. 

Edward Allington
*Ur-history is a concept developed by Walter Benjamin, whereby all made things have 'material histories'.  Every paper will have a great number of people's stories locked into its production, some involved in forestation, some rag picking, some involved in manufacturing, some in distribution, some will be poorly paid, some will be high earning managers  etc. etc. each and every person involved will also be locked into an exchange of their time and labour for money. The stories of these people and how they have or have not reaped the various 'rewards' for their involvement in an object's production, ought not to be forgotten. 

At the moment I'm using some Indian papers, I like their unpredictability, they are 'hand made' and the amount of size in them varies a lot, even throughout a single sheet, so that as you drag a brush across a large surface you can get very different amounts of bleed. The paper is made from cotton sourced from scraps left over from the manufacture of T-shirts. I like the fact that this cotton was at one time destined to be something to wear. 

Obviously I could begin to list hundreds of different papers but that is really the job of a specialist, I'm sure you have got the idea by now that every paper needs to be treated differently, both as a physical object and as an object that has a particular background history. I think that all of these issues can be seen as stories, or narrative threads, and if you begin from this idea, 'once upon a time', you can develop a story by following what happens when you bring together a few different but associated threads. For paper is a term that can refer to a variety of papers. First of all ‘blue touch paper’ is that paper we all remember from our childhood as being the soft paper that extruded from the bottom end of fireworks. It was used to make a slow burning paper fuse by being soaked in saltpetre and then dried. It was always very soft to the touch and I presume this was the result of 'scrunching' the paper, twisting it and untwisting it in order to break the fibres down and make the paper more like cloth. 

Blue touch paper

However in current journalistic writing, a blue paper is now something akin to a government ‘white’ paper, but it goes into high levels of technical detail. Historically blue paper as a drawing material has a different set of associations, first of all made and used in Venice in the 15th century and made from blue cotton and linen rags, it was often a colour of choice when making prepared paper, especially for silverpoint and other drawings that would also require fine white highlights. Blue was associated with spirituality and therefore its other-worldly colour was perfect for images of saints and other spiritual beings. Making blue the colour of the ground also serves to give the drawing a particular tonal register and associated emotional range.

Durer: fine brush drawings on prepared blue paper

By the beginning of the 19th century use of "variegated" blue papers (made from blue rags) was extensive. There was an expanded use of uniformly coloured light blue papers (made both by hand and by machine), especially for elegant writing paper as well as for sketching and watercolours. Artists and writers such as Turner, Edward Lear, Delacroix and Victor Hugo encouraging their use and maintaining an association of blue paper with the arts and elegance. Writing papers such as Basildon Bond have carried on this tradition; in 1932 Basildon Bond became the bestselling notepaper in the UK and the colour of choice when it came to signifying an upper class writing paper was pale blue. 

Jacqueline Kennedy: Personal letter about paintings for the White House. 

When you think of technical drawings you often think of them in ‘blueprint’ form. The blueprinting process was developed in the mid-1800s, when scientists discovered that ammonium iron citrate and potassium ferrocyanide created a photosensitive solution that could be used for reproducing documents. A drawing on transparent paper was placed over a piece of blueprinting paper, which was coated with a wet mix of ammonium iron citrate and potassium ferrocyanide and then dried. The paper sandwich was then exposed to a bright light, the two chemicals reacting to form an insoluble compound, blue ferric ferrocyanide (also known as Prussian Blue), except where the blueprinting paper was covered, and the light blocked, by the lines of the original drawing. The remaining soluble chemical is then washed away leaving white lines. 

Blueprint of technical specs of a Browning handgun

We now use the word 'blueprint' as an idea or plan for something, even though we no longer make 'blueprints'. The photography department in Vernon Street offers introductory sessions in making 'cyanotypes' and the chemical process is virtually identical to the blueprint process, so if you want to experiment with the process just ask a photographic technician. 

Paper stained with litmus is used to indicate the acidity or alkalinity of a substance. Blue litmus paper turns red under acid conditions, and red litmus paper turns blue under alkaline conditions, because of this sensitivity litmus paper technology is used in pregnancy test kits.
Litmus 'blue' paper

Blue backed paper is used for billboard posters to stop images underneath from showing through. 

It's interesting to now add to this blue paper research that idea we were looking at a couple of posts ago; of making images or developing ideas by bringing together a series of previously unrelated elements. In this case everything is linked to blue paper, but the differing uses and existing meanings are normally unconnected. What type of narrative could a slow burning paper fuse, something that is deeply religious or spiritual, the concept of colour signifying class, a pregnancy test, and the need to cover previously posted up images produce?  

You might find that the leap from looking at particular drawing papers and their specific qualities, to trying to stimulate ideas by bringing together different concepts associated with blue papers difficult.  But ideas that can be generated by bringing together different historical and conceptual associations are interesting even if only as a disjuncture. Finding connections between things can reveal unpredicted directions for your work to take and may eventually reveal an underlying network of previously invisible connections that lie behind things that we have previously taken for granted. One of the things you can do as an artist is to reveal to others what has always been there but which they have not yet seen. 

There are several other posts about paper (see below), read these as well, the clustering together of different strands of blog posts is designed to eventually make for 'chapters' or 'clusters' of ideas that are meant to work together.