Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Holding time in action.

There is a wonderful image of a monkey reaching for the moon in water, by the Zen poet painter Hakuin ekaku. This image comes from a different tradition and culture to the Watteau (Post 21st March) and in many ways it is far more knowing, more sophisticated in its manipulation of time and materials. Hakuin comes from a calligraphic tradition and the text that accompanies his image is an integral part, the flow of lettering echoing the flow of the drawing, one form of communication, supporting and being part of the other. This is a rough translation of the text into English, but what it misses is the way the actual shape of the letterforms works with the drawing and there is no English typographic equivalent suitable.

The monkey is reaching
For the moon in the water.
Until death overtakes him
He'll never give up.
If he'd let go the branch and
Disappear in the deep pool,
The whole world would shine
With dazzling pureness.

Time and weight compact together in this drawing to achieve a delicate communication that transcends cultures. This drawing is made using a brush and ink. Brush and ink drawings are unique as they are like a seismic record of the body movements of another human being. There is no room for error, each movement of the brush leaves a clear trace of its passage, the speed of travel recorded in the amount of ink left and the size of the mark thickening and thinning as the arm is raised and lowered above the paper.

When you mix ink using an ink stick and a graded slab you can keep the ink dark and thickly saturated with pigment at the shallow end of your slope and if you don’t stir the water the main pool of liquid remains lighter in tone as it is less saturated with ink. Now imagine this pool of ink being touched by the tip of a long soft brush, as if the monkey’s fingers were themselves about to touch that delicate liquid’s surface.  Try and hold this image in your mind’s eye.

The drawing feels as if it was started in the top right-hand corner. Dark saturated ink forms the branch from which the monkey will hang, a single twisting movement of the brush establishes the slightly gnarly quality of the wood, this is followed by a stroke carrying less saturated ink which blends into the darker liquid while wet on the surface of the support, the artist’s arm now pulling down as the lighter ink makes the monkey’s arm, then looping and slightly increasing the pressure, the monkey’s body and head are at the same time made and caught between this falling line and a new much thinner line that falls down from the monkey’s left shoulder, this finally ending in the thinnest of fine brush drawn lines as the monkey finger touches the surface of the water.  As you see this single finger touch the water, try and re-visit your mind’s eye view of the brush tip touching the ink pool.

The finger as it touches the bottom of the support indicates the lower extremity of the tall thin rectangle, this tying the image between its top and bottom edges. It also looks like an extension of the bamboo itself, the monkey and its support now blending into one.

On the right-hand side of the monkey’s hanging arm we see the faint trace of a trailing branch indicated in parallel it feels with the written text that exists on the arm’s left hand side, both text and image fall into the space, and increase our sense of holding on, the text becoming part of the thin straw of support that lies between hanging and falling. As we read the text the secondary meaning of illusion reaches us, the moon in the water fascinating the innocent monkey, its image thought of as an alternative reality.

Finally two thin curved light lines are used to indicate the body and head, just enough of a mark to establish the boundary between support and image, between abstract mark and symbolic form.

Another visit is now made to that small pool of ink; the brush tip picks out a darker pigment saturated load and spots in two childlike eyes, a nose and a few toes.

This drawing is done within seconds. The ink remains fluid at all times, each stroke blends into another, sitting into the support effortlessly as the brush leaves its traces.

This type of drawing is controlled by the elbow. The fluidity of movement comes from years of practice, the elbow moving in two plains at once, horizontally, left/right and top/bottom as well as up and down. The up-ness and down-ness controls the thickness of the brush-stroke, together with the speed of movement, which allows for either more or less pigment to be drawn from the brush. The support is always laid flat and not vertical as with an easel held drawing, the artist’s hand holding the brush in a parallel plane above the support. If you try drawing in this way it takes a while to maintain control over the elbow, because western artists tend to work from the wrist, but once you are practiced, you will find that the rhythm of movements are far more flowing and that curves and straights are much easier to establish because you are working with the natural arcs and rhythms of shoulder to elbow, rather than finger to wrist.

We know this image is about falling because it relates directly to our experience, in proportion this image is more than twice as high than it is wide, the monkey’s body dangles in space, the top of its head exactly hitting the rectangle’s central division, this key point on the one hand holding the image up and at the same time taking the weight downwards and swinging it slightly off centre as the body falls to the right of the head. This starts a rocking, swaying movement within the fall, it is animate, alive and yet gentle. The soft curves and rounded nature of these forms suggesting that this monkey is young and inexperienced, the baby-like large forehead, head body proportion and eye placement further suggesting this reading.

The artist moving the brush with calm assurance over the support, has concentrated his time, has practiced these moves in his mind and now we as observers can re-play these moves every time we look at the image. Time is held within action.

The dry ink, we know was wet, the monkey is about to touch what we know from the text is water. Will he fall into an illusion or not? Will we as observers do the same? Do we echo the body movements of the artist as we become aware of his actions? Do we, like the monkey, never give up in our attempts to grasp the ungraspable? The age of this monkey is both ageless and an infant, young and old at once, like all experiences it is fresh but quickly frozen in memory, held between thought and action.

This simple image flickers in and out of the tick-tock of the mind’s eye, if we don’t attend to the way it was made perhaps we can’t really grasp the full possibility of what it means. The stroking of liquid ink is like the gust of wind in long hair, and in that moment it is breathing and without breath the image will not live.

Patrick Ford (an ex-student who has lived for a long time in China) has commented on related issues withIn Cantonese and how time is expressed, he comments, “sometimes a single word added to a sentence changes it from the present to the future tense. For example: 'Sik fan'  = 'eat' or 'eating' becomes 'I have eaten' simply by adding 'Jor' = 'Sik jor fan'. This jor changes many sentences into the past by its presence.
There are other examples of this notational aspect - every object has a signifier, you cannot simply say '1 cup', you must use a signifier for cup = 'go'. Yat = 1, 'bui' = cup, so whereas in English we would say 'Yat bui' in fact you must say 'Yat go bui. (One round shaped thing which is a cup)
'Go' is the signifier for round things, 'Tiu' is the signifier for long, thin things (like bananas for example). Sometimes the signifier is more recognizable, such as 'Doi' = 'pair'.
We relate sounds or marks to certain, accepted meanings. The difference between the tense structure in the examples I have given is actually very small, often a single extra word, so similarly in a drawing the addition of crucial marks, specific placings or particular relationships, compositions and so on could also affect this transformation of tense.

In the case of Hakuin Ekaku’s image the fact that there are signifiers for both round things and long thin things, and that small differences can change tense awareness, means that it is possible to argue that the oscillation between action and inaction as proposed by the poem and the image structure is further reflected in the syntactical make up of the Chinese language itself.

The monkey was hanging from the tree, is different to the monkey hung from the tree. The monkey has always been hanging from the tree and will always hang from the tree is of course what the image implies. The monkey continues to hang from the tree, every time we see the image we are re-affirmed in the fact that it still hangs and long may this be the case.

See also:

More thoughts on drawing time
Drawing and time
Richard McGuire's 'Here'  Using cartoon languages to articulate complex layers of time. 

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Drawing Exercises

Drawing excercises are a well honed tool for getting going when feeling stuck. They are also useful in that they point to various approaches to drawing that are fundamental. Therefore I shall occasionally post a few up as examples for anyone to try when stuck as to what to do.

These are a few suggested things to do which act as ice breakers whilst you are thinking about what your subject matter will be and what drawing processes you will use.

1.    Developing your sense of touch

Rubbings and textural mark-making
Materials for rubbings: Thin paper, such as newsprint and photocopy paper or brass rubbing paper. Charcoal, Chinagraph pencil, soft pencils i.e. 4B/5B, children’s wax crayons such as Crayola, blocks of brass rubbing wax.
Materials for textural mark-making: As above plus a good varied range of artist’s brushes, dip-in pens which are available in various nib sizes, black acrylic, Indian ink, Quink ink, sponges both marine and synthetic, black oil pastels, black and white chalks and pastels.

What to do
Take rubbings of various surfaces, thin papers will let you achieve delicate marks and thicker papers may be used for very rough surfaces. Each drawing material will leave different traces so use a variety of these too. Try using different hand pressures and changes in rubbing technique, such as loose open gestures, then careful controlled ones.

The next stage is to examine textured fabrics that you can’t take rubbings from. Try to create marks that respond to the patterns or weaves of your fabrics, Find ways to represent the differences between each fabric or surface examined.

Try and make rubbings of various objects, some will appear clearly, such as an outline of a pair of scissors but some will be almost impossible to recognise because they are too complicated. 

Look at the work of Ingrid Calame and read what she has to say about why she draws.

Try using tracing paper laid over the rubbings to discover images or make connections between the various surfaces you have produced. 

Cut up and reassemble the various rubbings, in order to make images or abstract structures.

 Drawing your face or an object by touch.

Materials: Use any of the materials suggested for rubbings and textual mark-making. You might also need masking tape, black tapes and other non-traditional drawing materials. For instance using a broken comb to make texture by scraping it through an area of black boot polish. You might want to gesso your paper beforehand, so that you can scratch into it. Paper might be large roll size or small units of paper that you add to.

Try to work on large sheets of paper, and make sure you have the ability to extend these in any direction by cutting out extra rectangles and adding them to the initial sheet of paper. Don’t try and check what your face looks like in a mirror beforehand. Before starting to actually draw, you can make a feeling test. Close your eyes and feel your head with the hand you do not use for drawing. Starting at the back, think about how the hair gives an initial textural set of information, then press harder to feel for the bone beneath. One texture replaces another. Do not take your hand away in order to move it to another area, keep it in contact with the head, moving slowly over your head’s surface, once the back of the head is explored, the top of your head should be investigated, then the front, then the sides, some areas being touched several times as the hand makes its way between other sources of information. You are encouraged to feel inside noses, mouths and ears, to think about how a pair of glasses extends out from the surface of the head or how an earring may suddenly change the textural world.

Then make a palette of marks, make tests and try outs using different media whereby you are trying to make marks that approximate to touched ‘feelings’. Try scratching into the paper, especially if you have gessoed it. 

Once you have made your tests, finally you can begin drawing. Try to forget what a head looks like (this is impossible but the idea is that this drawing doesn’t need to rely on your memory of what a head looks like), and to begin feeling again before drawing.

Again you are encouraged to start at the back of the head, remember that when collecting ‘touch’ information, there is no back and front, just a continuous surface and starting at the back might help you to get away from the 'look' of the head. As you start drawing you are to invent surface information as a trace of passage. If you are feeling an ear, how does a mark change from hair, hair over bone to the cave like entry for the finger, then how does the feeling tone shift from open to closed surfaces? Fingers might trace their way across the top of a head and down over the front, moving over one eye and missing another. Alternatively a hand may be moving up from the neck, over the chin and then move left once the mouth is met and go on towards an ear. Fingers may of course explore the inside of the mouth and as this is just a continuous surface, the information should continue to just spread over the paper as you draw. The implication is that your body is all one surface, and even though you can't follow the implications of touching the inside of the mouth down into the stomach, you might be able to suggest the idea that this surface has points or areas that change direction and become holes. 

Questions such as the nature of up-ness and down-ness in a world without sight could be explored.  Is this drawing now becoming more about distance positioning? One eye is perhaps ten thumb lengths from the other if the feeling is done around the back of the head but only a single thumb length, separated by a nose bridge the other way. How do you know it’s the same eye that you are coming back to? If you were feeling someone else’s head how would the information be encoded? You ‘know’ the fingers have reached the nose if it is your own, but if you were feeling someone else’s head you might perhaps mistake one area for another.

Once the first touching exercise is done another approach is to draw a continuous ‘felt line’; this is done by drawing a line that stretches from the back to the front and to the back and to the front again. Starting with perhaps the left ear, the fingers feel over the front of the face (or back), to the right ear, around the back to the left ear again and onwards to the right ear again. If there isn’t enough room on the paper for the marks you can add an extension. Try and make the texture visual, as these are not drawings that will be read by touch, they will be looked at and the link between touch and sight will be what becomes interesting.

Once the drawings are done, consider making relief images from them or embroidery or re make the drawings back into 3D shapes. 

Drawing an object/objects by touch

Get someone to place an object in a bag or box that you can put your non drawing hand into. Don’t look to see what it is and don’t let them tell you what it is. Then using touch alone draw the objects/objects, using everything you have learnt from the drawing your face by touch exercise.

Your drawings should show a sensitive response to touch and contain a range of interesting felt marks. You are making an abstract translation of how your object feels, not a literal representation of how it looks. What is important is the synchronised route of communication between both hands and the transference of one sort of information (touch) into another (drawn marks).

Look at the work of Margarita Gluzberg and read what she has to say about why she draws hair.

Make two sets of drawings and then try and use one set to remake the object as best you can, finally you are allowed to look at the object. 

2.    Drawing and Memory

There is always a gap between looking and drawing, in that gap you forget things. This gap is though of vital importance in the development of ideas related to visual importance and conceptual weight. Gainsborough used to test his visual memory by setting up a still-life in his basement and putting his drawing studio in his attic. He would spend time looking and then run upstairs and draw until he could remember no more. He hated climbing stairs so worked hard to develop his visual memory.

Here are two ways to approach this issue.

 Bridging the memory gap

 Using a drawing board, pencils and cartridge paper position yourself in relation to your subject matter, (this can be a still life, landscape, person etc. but if stuck the best object to draw is a stool or chair sitting in space) so that you can only see your drawing paper out of the corner of your eye. You should be able to see only your subject clearly, not your drawing. Hold your pencil in a relaxed and comfortable way between your forefinger and thumb of the hand you don’t draw with and position yourself at arm’s length from the paper surface.

Without looking at the drawing and keeping your arm extended at a comfortable full length, start to push and pull the pencil around, trying to synchronise the lines you make with what you are seeing.

Keep your pencil in contact with the paper and move it continuously. (If you get tired take a rest, your shoulder muscles will ache as the drawing progresses so do give yourself a rest). Work slowly and keep to one continuous line. Twist and turn the pencil, sharpen it to a chisel end, press lightly and hard. Try to produce an unpredictable, awkwardly interesting line.

Make sure you don’t concern yourself with the drawing. Concentrate on the looking. Draw until you can’t do it any more; then finally look at what you have done. If you have to have a break, don’t be tempted to look at what you did.

Check this out

Part 2

Repeat what you did for the first drawing, this time using your drawing hand. You will need to reposition your drawing board on the other side of your body, so that you can’t see the drawing, as before only what you are drawing.

This way of drawing helps you get the idea of drawing as a discovery, as a process that allows new things to happen and it facilitates awareness. What you can hopefully do is develop a much better synchronised communication between the eyes and the hands.

Starting to look, but only occasionally

Set up as before, however this time if you are using an easel and drawing with your right hand, you may find it better to look to the left side of your board. You need to be able to see in such a way that only tiny head movements are needed to be able to see the subject and the drawing. The time between looking and mark making needs to be as short as possible.

Only glance at your drawing every 20 seconds or so to check that the drawing is in roughly the right place.

 Memory testing

Take any subject that it is possible to look at. This could be a photograph, building, person etc. Look at what it is you are interested in and try and remember as many details as possible. Try and take a break from looking and examine how many details you can see in your head. Once you feel confident that you can remember certain things, now try and make a drawing of what you can remember. (Of course you are not allowed to do this drawing by cheating, once you have looked and remembered don’t look back). Think of Gainsborough and his flights of stairs.

Build this drawing over time, going back to the source when you cant remember any more.

 Part two

Do the same exercise but this time you can only build relationships such as angles between things or the main masses of darks or lights. Do not draw things, just how things relate to each other.

 You should now begin to see the relationship between looking, feeling, memory, and responding having made a collection of marks that begin to ‘resemble’ your subject. These drawings will be somewhere between abstraction and representation.

Use your critical ability to keep extending possibilities. Is this a clichéd mark? If so what can I do to be more inventive? Am I discovering something? If so what?

All good drawing is a discovery, most of it is of course making images that can be tested against each other and as this happens new languages are formed.                                  

Sharp looking

 As a subject use any object or view that has interesting contour edges. This could be the human figure, the horizon of a landscape, edges of objects around part of the room etc.

The aim is to produce an analytical, well observed, detailed drawing of contours by using only short straight lines. This drawing should require you to slow down the process of looking. You will need to look.. make a decision… make a mark… look… make a decision… make a mark.

Use a very sharp pencil, making all your marks from the wrist. Non of your marks should be bigger than 1cm and some as small as 2mm.  Start by making a short sharp, intense mark. Make a second then a third mark, slightly overlapping each successive mark so that they become linked into a continuous contour. Continue making these marks to define your first contour edge. Keep these marks as sharp and intense as possible. Don’t let the pencil become blunt. If you need to, rub out with a sharp edge of a plastic rubber and re-insert as you go along. Draw around curves even small ones with small straight lines and change direction of these lines to find the curve. As you develop the drawing find your way into internal forms, looking for shapes, perhaps edges of shadows as much as objects themselves. As you develop the ‘boxing in’ of the drawing, start to think about mark weight, some areas might need to be slightly lighter than others, others darker, this will make you develop your ‘touch’ and allow for a greater understanding of atmospheric perspective in relation to edge/mass relationships. (In atmospheric perspective, sharp dark marks tend to come forward and lighter marks sit back into the picture surface) Start doing this with large forms and as you progress work towards smaller shapes.

Repeat the above and this time start to build hatching strokes into the drawing in order to define tonal variation.

These drawings should develop careful and decisive looking. As a result of slowing the process down, your decision making should have become noticeably more accurate.

3. Technical approaches

Technical approaches to drawing can produce very powerful and convincing images. (For instance in the recent Henry Moore exhibition of Denis Oppenheim’s work, there were large technical drawings of his proposed machines) However there are several approaches to this and each one gives you a totally different end result.

Start by choosing an existing drawing, this can be of anything, because it is the format chosen that will shape the drawing and give you a new image.

Start by making a flat gridded sheet of paper and on this plot a plan view of your chosen drawing. Then make a side view of it. If your drawing appears to you as flat, don’t worry, try and invent some high points and low points and then try and do this with a plan view as if cut through the centre and then on the furthest side away from you. These drawings in themselves may already be interesting.

Use the information gathered to try and make four Axonometric projections, including isometric, diametric, trimetric and oblique. By making drawings of plan and elevations of your work you will have already developed some Orthographic projections.

Oblique projection

Once you have the idea of these four different ways of doing technical projections start to make a large drawing (at least 2xA1) that stretches your understanding of how an existing flat drawing can be pulled into an axonometric space. Try to think about atmospheric perspective and mark diversity as you build these drawings in order to keep your mark-making invention subtle and purposeful.

4. Finding the core

If you are having problems working from photographic imagery you could try this exercise. Cut 20 sheets of A5 good quality watercolour paper from existing A1 stock. Mix at least 6 grades of grey ink, going from very light to dark almost black. Keep each tonal grade separate. Select six watercolour brushes of different sizes.

Working from a selected images work quickly using the largest brush and the lightest ink on 10 sheets of your paper. Try and capture the essence of the image but do not get into detail. Do this again on the next 10 sheets this time working wet on wet. I.e. dampen your papers before using them.

By the time you have finished the last wet on wet image the first of your initial 10 images should be dry enough to work over.

Before doing this however look at all the drawings you have done and see if any are interesting in their present state, if so remove from the pile and keep for later.

This time select the next tonal value one step darker and repeat the process using a slightly smaller brush. Again work quickly, this time you have a faint image to guide you and this should help your positioning of mark and tone. Once all 20 are done, (wet on wet images might need re-dampening) again line them up and select out any interesting ones, then move on to the next darkest ink and next smallest brush. Keep doing this until you have used the darkest tone. Now put up an exhibition of all 20 images.

PS When I first did this we worked with 50 starting images, so if you are feeling ambitious up the numbers.

Look at the work of Marlene Dumas and June Glasson in particular her series The Foulest of Shapes.

On completion you will have a series of images of varying tonality and with a variety of mark qualities. Hopefully this series of images will allow you to start to develop a personal language with which to deal with photographs within a drawing context. One of the biggest issues with a photograph is what is often called the ‘tyranny of the image’. It is sometimes very hard to break through the ‘it looks like a photograph’ barrier. Once you have made these images, some of the worst ones could be re-cycled again, this time working on top of them with pen and ink.

Losing and finding

Take any of your existing images that are on paper, (in particular ones that you don’t think work or are poor) stretch them* and when dry, paint over them using slightly diluted emulsion or use white chalk on dry paper to do a similar thing. You should be able to see a ghost of your old image underneath. Now start picking out what you feel was most important about that image and re-draw using whatever materials interest you. (Ink and brush, pencils and oil pastel, charcoal and graphite etc.)

If you think of a drawing as the creation of a problem which is then solved, then what you are doing is discovering a problem starting with, “why is this drawing not good enough?” What remains is then the struggle to reveal what the drawing is becoming about as well as what it was about. This is a type of compacted time, the compacted image that results being about resurrection and re-establishment.

What you will gain from this is a process for rescuing drawings that might otherwise be discarded. It will also allow you to value mistakes and use them as a tool to enable you to make progress.

“Drawings reveal the process of their own making, their own looking” John Berger

*How to stretch paper

If you have never stretched paper before there are lots of useful videos on YouTube such as: (Also read the comments below, as people have picked up common problems) My tips would be make sure you use good quality brown gum strip tape, (don’t try and use masking tape) and a large plywood board that has been thoroughly washed beforehand to make sure no binding glue is left in the top layers of the wood. I have also found it useful to only wet the gun-strip lightly as too much water means it slides away from the paper as it pulls tight.

To get a sense of why paper is like it is see:

After looking at the basic languages of drawing you can try out the implications by designing your own drawing exercises. 


Is drawing a language?