Wednesday, 29 October 2014

The Life Drawing Sessions: A bit of background

There have been several schools of British Drawing and each one has developed a different focus. However two in particular have interested me and both continue to have a lasting influence when I look at how to approach drawing from life.
The first but perhaps least important to me is the Slade School of drawing as practiced by William Coldstream and brought to a sort of head by Euan Uglow. Uglow in particular demonstrated that the process of looking needed to be one of total focus and that you needed to be fully aware of yourself and your position in relation to the subject if you were to understand what was happening. Coldstream used small dots and lines to define points of measurement and Uglow took these things on as almost stylistic devices. 
Coldstream drawing: His measurement grids helped to locate relationships between objects

Look at the peach below, Uglow attempts to ‘trap’ it within his pins of measurement. 


However it was when I first saw images of Uglow’s studio that I began to take him seriously.

Uglow's studio set-ups show how obsessive he was and how determined to control vision.

Uglow took great pains to set out spatial indicators and measurement points. His subject being as much the procedures of measurement as the model, he helped me develop a respect for that invisible grid against which we measure. However he does have his limitations. See
David Bomberg had a very different approach one he taught for several years at the Borough Polytechnic, his legacy is remembered by a residency, which one of you could apply for at some point.
Bomberg had at one point studied under Walter Richard Sickert, Sickert’s paintings of everyday urban life suggested the material fact of the city was carried by the physical fact of the paint. (There was also a myth going round at the time that Sickert was really Jack the Ripper and a strange confliction between the artist’s gaze and the killer’s knife came into life room conversations).

A Bomberg drawing of London

Bomberg’s late works are constructed by vigorous brushmarks, and have a powerful grasp of the physical energy of seeing. His marks did not just record physical appearance but were an embodiment of his almost tactile understanding of the nature of perception. Bomberg’s key phrase that he used to describe this process was a search for “the spirit in the mass”.
A good introduction to Bomberg can be found here
Several of Bomberg’s students went on to have successful careers of their own, the most well known being Dennis Creffield, Leon Kossoff, Gustav Metzger, Roy Oxlade and Frank Auerbach.

Leon Kossoff

Frank Auerbach

Roy Oxlade

Dennis Creffield

Bomberg believed that looking was about action and therefore centred on movement. Touch he believed was central to our understanding of visual perceptions and only in movement can we experience what is actually in front of us.
One of Bomberg’s ex-pupils Miles Richmond in the introduction to a painting exhibition in 2001 stated, “Painting matters to me since I know no better means of exploring the connections between our outer and inner worlds and presenting evidence of that exploration’. Drawing and painting were seen by Bomberg and many of his pupils as a type of exploration of experience and that experience was as much to do with a set of inner emotions and sensations as with a direct physical engagement with perception. In fact direct perception of the world he would argue is impossible, it is always mediated through our mental map of who and what we are. 
Cliff Holden another ex-student of Bomberg pointed out that Bomberg believed that children only learn to see through the testing of experiences via movement and the sense of touch. He states, “Movement gives a sense of space and distance. You cannot see distance – you can only measure it”.
Holden goes on to state that Jacob Bronowsky when describing the drawing of a face noted that “the picture does not so much fix the face as explore it ... that the artist is working almost as if by touch and that each line that is added strengthens the picture but never makes it final.”

These issues have been with us for some time. Bernhard Berenson in his great book on the Italian Painters of the Renaissance pointed to what he called “space-composition” as being a far more advanced way of organising images than two dimensional arrangements, which “extend only side to side, or up and down on a flat surface.” Berenson points out that the most advanced painters of the Renaissance developed spaces that extended inwards. Space-composition, he believed, heightens our consciousness of being alive. This type of understanding also relates to what is called ’somatic theory’ or critical thinking as an embodied performance. See Merleau-Ponty’s essay Cezanne's Doubt which was an early attempt to write about these issues.

Essentially the world around us is not static and neither are we, we are in effect dancing with our perceptions and constructing meaning as we see and as we think and as we do.
Therefore it is only through movement that we can truly assess what form in a drawing is. The ‘idea’ of form as well as its re-creation can only therefore be found through the actual activity of drawing or painting. Trying to work towards a preconceived image, would in effect be to ‘kill-off’ the experience rather than re-create it.
This is why we in the last few life sessions have moved from static measurement towards a more embodied perceptual approach to looking, the curve of vision, being just one aspect of the continuous flicker of the eyes as they scan the world and seek out meaning. As the evening sessions continue we will work more and more towards the discovery of form through making.
Bomberg did not have any answers as to how you should make an image look, simply that as artists you should be open to the experience of the situation. The “spirit in the mass” essentially being a reminder that if solid form was to be found it would only be found within an embodied performance. Each mark made by the artist being a sign, signs that collectively begin to steer the eyes towards a new understanding of what it is to experience mass and space within the world. In many ways this is an impossible situation, drawings and painting are in reality simply marks on flat surfaces. However the faith that artists such as Bomberg had in the ability of images to contain these complex ideas about life and perception was for me far more life affirming than Greenberg’s insistence on painting’s specificity.
For more information on issues related to the teaching of drawing and perception see these other blog posts
For a simple animated introduction to Greenberg See this playful intro that uses drawing in a very basic but informative way, one that after all the looking and measuring might be exactly the right one to carry your other message. 

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

The Jerwood Drawing Prize

The Jerwood Drawing Prize is coming to Leeds. This is a terrific resource for all of you interested in the state of contemporary drawing. It will be on at the Tetley from 16th January to 1st March 2015.

The Jerwood Drawing Prize is one of the most important events in the British drawing year. It’s open to all artists resident in the UK and has prizes for both students and professional artists. In particular it offers two student awards of £2,000 each. See
So it might be an idea to put work in for next year’s exhibition.
It’s also worth a look at some of the past exhibitors:
The Jerwood likes to stretch the definitions of drawing so you often get artists working on the edge of the discipline; for instance this work by James Eden & Olly Brooks.  Burst’, is a film of graphite balloon bursts lasting 5mins and 15 secs. Balloons are filled with graphite dust and burst, the resulting film being submitted as a drawing.
James Eden & Olly Brooks: Burst
 
Gary Lawrence was a first prize winner with Homage to Anonymous in 2011. His large 4 foot by 6 foot drawing was packed with intense detail and all done in biro.
Gary Lawence: Homage to Anonymous
 
James Allen's drawings are direct observations of people and architecture and he uses the properties of charcoal to be rubbed out and reasserted to deal with a visual representation of time passing.

James Allen


The 2012 First Prize winner was a hand-drawn animation made by Karolina Glusiec. You can see a trailer for her animation here.
The point is that there is no house style or particular type of drawing that wins. The Jerwood supports the idea of drawing as a broad church. If you are going to put work in, the handing in for judgeing is usually at Wimbledon College of Art, so I'm afraid you would need to think about extra costs in terms of travel as well as presentation and fee. However to get selected is wonderful for your CV.

 

Saturday, 25 October 2014

Conceptual processes behind contemporary art practice

I’m starting to spend quite a lot of time talking around ideas at the moment. I have had quite a few conversations related to strategies of thinking; basically how to develop ideas from initial starting points. There is an issue about the relationship between closed and open ways of developing ideas. Often a way of thinking that appears closed at first, can sometimes take ideas into evocative and expansive territories. For instance I was taking to someone about a wooden object. They were using it as a starting point for work. They had lots of ideas but the ideas seemed to be too loose, too arbitrary and not focused enough on how the object itself could be the instigator of concepts.
So what do I mean by this? The object in question was made in a particular way, using particular materials, which were manufactured in a particular place, using wood sourced from a particular forest, which had been grown in a particular place because of a particular economic situation, and it had been left to be found because of a set of particular reasons. All of this information was embedded within the object, but very little of it was being used to direct ideas or to open out a meaning structure that might illuminate something about the world. Instead ideas were being ‘forced’ onto the object and extraneous materials were being brought into the situation which as far as I was concerned ‘muddied’ the waters and made it harder to realise what could be done, in fact it was easier to see possibilities once these additional ideas were stripped away and we could bring the object back into focus. First of all there were the physical realities of how it was made, how many nails, how much wood, what sort of wood, how was it cut, was it all cut from the same tree, why were the nails used in the way they were, why not screws, who manufactured the nails, who nailed them in, where was the sawmill, where was the forest, who worked the sawmill, who cut the trees down, who tended the forest etc etc? All rich information to begin developing narratives around.  Each piece of information could lead to a decision as to how an action could further illuminate it. For instance the object had a very clear grain and this was easily highlighted by making a rubbing. But with what? There are lots of materials that you can make a rubbing with, however in order to keep the concept ‘closed’ perhaps a piece of the object that had already broken off could be charcoaled and then used to make a rubbing. The wood effectively being used to record itself. This suggests a better intellectual closure than using just any available rubbing materials. If another structure is going to be made from the object, what could it be? If abstract, perhaps an ordering principle based on the internal existing structures of the object itself, divisions, thicknesses, ratios, numbers of nails used and pattern of their insertions. If more figurative or narrative, perhaps the wood could be used to make something else that reflected a significant piece of information that had been researched in relation to the object’s history. For instance it might be found that the wood came from Scandinavia and that at that latitude dog sleds were used to drag timber over frozen ice, you might therefore re-fashion the object to make a dog-sled and look to having it pulled by a team of dogs similar to those who took its basic materials on their initial journey. Or you might decide to illustrate the dogs and their labour by making large drawings in charcoal using up the wood by converting all of it into charcoal and making sure you used every last bit in the production of the images.  Other ideas might be to make large scale technical drawings using the charcoal to show how the wood manufacturing process operated, making lots of diagrams of wood machinery, transportation vehicles and/or the workforce behind these machines. You might decide to replace the trees from where the wood came from. Once traced, the wood’s history could reveal an area of deforestation and you might become actively involved in a project to plant new trees.  On the other hand your research might reveal something totally unexpected. Perhaps something about the nails? They might be made in a small family workshop in Cleckheaton, or mass produced in China, whatever the answer, a suggestion as to how to make another move arises. The nails could be melted down to make something or the wood given to a craftsman to make an object that had resonance in this opening story. The point being that as the ideas open out there is still a feeling of ‘closure’ because the ideas are directly related to the making and history of the object in question. Who owned it before it was found? What was it used for? Perhaps an idea might arise because of a conflict over ownership or you might want to pass a metaphorical ownership on to someone else. What other things does the owner own? Could a substitution be made? What would happen if the object didn’t exist, what would be the implications?
You are allowed of course to take an idea off in any direction, the point being however that the logic must somehow be impelled by qualities inherent in the object or events directly related to the object’s history.
One way you could look at it is that as an artist you are revealing some sort of meaning. Opening the object out into a wider series of associations that are already there but not yet visible.
The object could be linked to a situation, a memory, a political position or an action, as long as the ‘logic’ developed has a direct relationship with it, you cant be accused of making arbitrary decisions. However the narratives developed can often reveal that ‘life’ is weirder than anything you might invent yourself. It is how you play with the information that will eventually result in an interesting art-work.
For instance you may find that the pine used to make the object was also used to make simple children’s toys, why not use all the materials that went into the construction of the object to make the largest possible version of one of those toys. The poetics involved coming into play as the artist looks for an image or action that will have ‘resonance’ and yet will still remain active within the closed loop of information obtained directly through unpeeling the layers of information surrounding the object. A voyage may be decided upon that takes you back to the Scandinavian forests that ‘birthed’ the wood that the object was made from. The object of the voyage may be to return the wood to its ‘place of birth’. But in what format? Perhaps if the wood had been refashioned into a toy train, it may travel in a different method to one proposed if it was made into a toy boat. Each move of the game should imply another, associations often building upon each other, until a dense matrix of interconnected decisions are built, each decision having a certain ‘logic’ to it, but a poetic logic more akin to the logics developed by Duchamp, or if we go a little further back the logics opened out by Raymond Roussel in his classic book ‘Impressions of Africa’. See
There are many examples of this type of work, for instance the work of Simon Starling who describes his work as ‘the physical manifestation of a thought process’ a thought process that reveals hidden histories and relationships. His Shedboatshed (Mobile Architecture No 2) and One Ton, II  both from 2005 demonstrate a circularity of links that lie behind the generation of his poetic narratives. In ‘One Ton II’ one ton of ore, mined from a South African open cast mine, was used to produce just five handmade platinum prints of images of the mine. He was pointing to the fact that it takes one ton of ore to get enough platinum to make just 5 platinum prints, thus opening out issues surrounding the exploitation of both people and land associated with platinum production. Using video, film, slide projections, photography and sculpture, Starling’s work opens out complex histories, with sometimes quite elliptical connections. Cornelia Parker also works in a similar territory. A typical example being her ‘Pornographic Drawings’, images resembling Rorschach blots were made from pornographic videotapes dissolved in solvent. Rorschach blots were often used by psychiatrists to tap into people’s unconscious and as Freud based so many of his ideas on sexual repression, Parker is able to neatly bring the idea to a very satisfactory closure.

Cornelia Parker ‘Pornographic Drawing'

Chris Dobrowolski's work currently on exhibition at &Model demonstrates another variation of this approach. This is a wonderful exhibition, try and get there before it closes. See
This type of work developed out of the conceptual art movement of the late 60s and early 70s, which itself owed much to Duchamp’s previous example. It is only one of many strategies that can be used to generate ideas but a powerful one. Above all it allows for both an intellectual and a poetic engagement with any object or event. Theoretically this type of work can be supported by Benjamin’s concept of ur-history. Walter Benjamin looked at mass culture as a source of philosophical truth. The Paris Arcades that fascinated him being a 19th century "ur-form" of the modern shopping experience. Benjamin demonstrates how to read consumer products as both anticipations of social utopia and as gateways into a political critique of culture. A very good introduction to Benjamin’s thinking is ‘The Dialectics of Seeing, Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project’ by Susan Buck-Morss.  
I realise this has been a long post, but working this way can be a very useful strategy and one that lies very close to the core of much contemporary practice.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Drawing from photographs

Drawing from photographs is something I find very difficult. The problem for me is that I end up copying rather than selecting, and therefore I always draw directly from the world, something I find far easier as the process is very selective and it's me doing the selection. However the relationship between the camera and art is a long one, starting with the invention of the camera obscura and continuing into the present as artists seek to explore how a world of instant imagery and mobile phone selfies can be reflected upon by the slower processes of painting and drawing. Check out the book, 'A Brush with the Real: Figurative Painting Today' by Valli and Dessanay, which unpicks a lot of these issues. 

David Hockney has explored the history of pre-film camera art in his book ‘Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the lost techniques of the Old Masters’, it’s a really good read and his viewpoint is from that of the artist rather than the art historian which is always refreshing.
A Hockney drawing from ‘Secret Knowledge’

So how are artists dealing with the camera? There are vast amounts of ‘copyists’ out there and if you Google Photorealism you will find a raft of not just past practitioners, (apparently you have to have had exhibitions before 1970 to be a real Photorealist) but a host of artists still painstakingly copying from photographs. It’s skillful and hard work, but where does the art come in?
I shall try and unpick a few issues around this and at the same time introduce a few artists that I think are well worth looking at in relation to contemporary drawing.
Kevin Cosgrove is an artist that I think uses photographs in a very personal way. His interest in a particular subject matter is very powerful. He draws and paints places of work. Old fashioned work, places of oil and metal and grind. Those small workshops that used to at one time be everywhere but are now becoming few and far between, as manufacturing is outsourced and people start to forget that things can always be repaired. Perhaps the car mechanic is the most familiar figure in this world; I get glimpses of their dark workshops when I have to leave the car for its annual MOT. Cosgrave obviously loves the feel and texture of those workshops and he takes photographs of these places to work from. However when he selects from the photographs he selects aspects that he will heighten through a touch soaked in a metaphorical dark oil. Read this review of his work.
The drawing below is charcoal on paper 108 x 150 cm, large enough to get stuck in with a big soft lump of charcoal, the dark patches below the workbench creating those mysterious dark spaces we all remember from childhood. Those dark spaces where the bogyman lives. He feels for the surfaces and textures of old paint cans and tools, their worked surfaces further worked in his drawing. Although the drawing is done from a photograph, he re-shapes what is there, gives additional emphasis and thus transcends the image and makes it his own.

Kevin Cosgrove

Paul Chiappes works in a very different way, but his is also in his own way re-creating rather than just copying photographs. This time the scale issue is reversed, he works on images that are even smaller that the original photographs. His subject matter of old school photographs, images from long ago parties etc. is suffused with nostalgia and it is only when you realise the scale that we get the hook into the work. Scale makes us move around. We have to stand back from some images, their large size forcing us back until we are in a position to see them as totalities rather than as a surface of marks. On the other hand tiny images force us to examine them very closely, like those paintings reproduced on postage stamps. Chiappes’s marks can only be seen when you look at his images from about 4 inches away. They suggest an obsession and intense involvement with the images, but one totally different in quality to Cosgrave’s.


Paul Chiappes

Clive Head makes paintings and drawings from places that he visits over and over again. He takes photographs and makes small drawings on the spot. This is how he describes his working process, “Before taking photographs I make lots of little drawings and sketches as well. The initial construction of the painting is drawing and I always draw on tracing paper, which is very resilient if you keep rubbing it out. Although I make a tiny drawing at the beginning that drawing has probably gone through 30-40 different stages before the final version of the painting. The small drawing will give me an idea of the format for the painting.”
He then goes on to draw out his images large scale ready for painting. Personally I like his drawings more than his paintings, the final finished images being perhaps too finished for me, all the hard won processes and thoughts are eventually hidden beneath the paint, the final finish of which I’m not sure about. Even so his working methods are interesting and hard won, so I cant really criticise the man.
Clive Head

Head is particularly good at drawing curved space, which is something I've been interested in for a long time and as I also make large drawings I am very aware of how much physical effort they take. The lesson that all of these artists teach is that you need to have a clear idea about what makes an image if you are going to move beyond the photographic copy. 

Of course our very own Richard Baker makes images from photographic sources and you can find a book on his drawings in the college library. The print below, an etching, was printed at Workshop Press. 



Richard Baker

See also:



Monday, 20 October 2014

A Gallery that Focuses on Drawing

Some galleries are very supportive of drawing as a practice. If you find one it’s worthwhile taking a more in-depth look. One I’ve been looking at recently is the Rabley Contemporary Gallery which specialises in drawings, works on paper and original prints. See
Some artists that show there are I think of particular interest to drawing students.
Alan Bond makes sculpture based on architectural sections as well as at times horses that are reminiscent of those pre-historic chalk figures cut into the South Downs. He also draws interior spaces and his drawings of interiors are really worth looking at closely. He uses painterly surfaces, usually monochrome acrylic brushwork laid in washes and then line drawing laid in over the top. Small patches of colour are used to pick out particular areas, which are also then clarified with line drawing. He uses a strong grasp of perspective to give structure to the painterly surfaces below, this allows him to use both low and high vantage points, which of course adds a further layer of interest.   




Alan Bond

Ann Christopher’s recent show 'Marks on the Edge of Space' is really fascinating. Anyone with an interest in making abstract drawings with three-dimensional qualities should look at what she is doing. She layers and cuts paper, combining different types of materials such as tracing papers and cut card as well as using metal inserts. She scratches out surfaces and rubs white marks into areas of grey graphite. What brings all the elements together is a very strong sense of symmetry and reflective geometry.

Ann Christopher

Nik Pollard’s work is quite traditional and yet at the same time is full of strong drawing based on looking at nature. He uses a lot of direct observation and collects his information by drawing out in the landscape and then works up more finished images back in the studio. His drawings of animals and insects are really lively and if you are looking at how to work with brushes and watercolour as a way to keep images fresh you can learn a lot from him.

Nik Pollard

Fiona Robinson’s drawings bring together two different aspects of image making. One area is a direct link to sound, she often stretches graphite coated strings over the paper, and ‘snaps’ them down in response to music. The resultant images are then linked with beach landscapes, the associations between horizon and angle allowing her abstract images to be suggestive of the low angles seen when standing looking out at sea and then turning back towards the land. She also draws directly from landscape, gradually merging the two approaches to make her final images.


Fiona Robinson