Wednesday, 31 December 2014

The vignette

A frame around a drawing or print in effect creates a window through which we look. However when looking at vignettes; the edge of the image is more like a meeting between the land and the sea and this creates an altogether different sensation. Its feels as if the image is much more self-contained; it unpicks its form out of the very paper it sits on. What do I mean by this? In a vignette the paper is of course carrying the drawing or print as it would do in any other case, however because the edges of the image are defined by the artist’s choice of certain forms, (the texture of leaves at the top of a tree or some lines representing water), these forms are the boundary or edge of the vignette world. Because this boundary is a broken edge, the paper appears to integrate totally into the image, it is as if the image is like a landmass in a map set into a sea of paper. The rivers of the landmass eventually become the sea, in a vignette’s case the white in the image, eventually becomes the white of the paper.
I realise this is always the case in both drawings and prints, the white is the paper surface, but in a vignette this seems to be so much more clear.
I first came across Tom Lubbock writing about this in a collection of his writings on drawings, ‘English Graphic’.  He writes, “A framed image depicts a section of the world…it extends indefinitely off picture. Not so the vignette…Its image is a contained environment like a desert island or a snow dome.”
I think this image below by the great English vignette specialist Thomas Bewick perfectly sums up what Lubbock was talking about.

Thomas Bewick

In this miniature world the trees frame and cut the image out from what would be sky, the lines of water abruptly stop on the right and the clods of earth texture define the bottom and left edges. Beyond these edges all is paper. The man peeing against an old wall is lost in a contemplation of himself, simultaneously watching his shadow and his own pee, his insides emptying out and his outsides flattening out. The white of the wall that holds his shadow is of course the paper on which sits the drawing, it is though a drawing within a drawing. The man will never stop peeing, his shadow will not move as the sun goes down, this world is frozen in its own snow dome.
There is an apocryphal myth about the first portrait, it was supposed to have been a filled in shadow by the Corinthian maid Dibutade, who outlined her departing lover's shadow on the wall to preserve his image whilst he was away. The very first drawn figurative images may well have been made this way.
I seem to have drifted off to the world of the shadow rather than the vignette, but they are in fact very close relatives. Kara Walker makes much use of both, the connection being the silhouette. The edges of the silhouette can be read in a similar way to the edges of the vignette, my musing on Bewick’s image being in effect that the vignette is like a cut-out and so is the man’s shadow. Shadows are very powerful and you have to be quite clear as to how you cast them if they are to be recognizable. This clarity leads to a powerful simplification of form, therefore an artist working in this way has to begin to deal with essences. 

Kara Walker

As always there is a vast amount of information out there about these issues.

Some references:

Gromrich, E (1995) Shadows: The Depiction of Cast Shadows in Western Art London: National Gallery

Stoichita, V (1997) Short history of the shadow London: Reaktion

Casati, R (2004) Shadows: Unlocking Their Secrets, from Plato to Our Time London: Vintage

Rutherford, E (2009) Silhouette: The Art of the Shadow New York: Rizzoli

Lubbock, T (2012) English Graphic London: Frances Lincoln

Click here for an interview with Victor I. Stoichita the writer of ‘A short history of the shadow’ and click here for more information on the history of the silhouette.

Olly Moss uses laser cut techniques to make his silhouette images 

See also post on drawing with light if you are interested in the possibility of working with shadows. 

Drawing with Shadows 

Tuesday, 30 December 2014

A show to go to if you are in London.

If you happen to be in London and want to see some interesting drawing, London-based artist Emma McNally is showing recent selections from her ongoing drawing series “Choral Fields” in the group show “MIRRORCITY” at the Hayward Gallery on until January 4, 2015. She talks about her work here.

Emma McNally puts together drawings using a variety of techniques and on a scale that allows her to combine and integrate soft fields of graphite with tight geometrical approaches, she merges the symbolic notation of maps with gestural fields of atmospheric mark making. 

Thursday, 18 December 2014

The artist's Xmas card

Launched in London in 1843 the Christmas card took a while to take off. The original designs included envelopes, which suggested that there was far more to Christmas then, than there is now. 

An original 1843 Christmas Card envelope

Artists are not immune from the Xmas festivities and I have many a time when broke made my own artist’s cards, hopefully they will never re-surface. However if you become famous whatever you did will at sometime re-enter into public view so beware. Here are a few Christmas cards sent from artists great and famous, some better than others.

I like this one by Ad Reinhardt, somehow it all makes christmas sense but then again I'm not sure.

Helen Frankenthaler is having no truck with a traditional Xmas image, I like that.

Philip Guston's suggests a skull thinking about something horrid. I read the black kettle as an eye socket Perhaps I'm too aware of his other work. Again no real attempt to be Merry.

Graham Sutherland is just weird and yet behind all the strangeness you feel he is very much into a polite English Christmas. 

And finally just to remind everyone, there is a Terry Frost exhibition planned for the Leeds City Art Gallery next year, and here is Frost in Xmas mode, he used to send these cards to friends, including Patrick Oliver  a former member of staff here at college. 


Happy Xmas and have a bright and sparkling New Year

See also: 

Friday, 12 December 2014

Magicians of the earth

Xmas is a time to go away from college and recuperate. This has been a long term and I am exhausted, full of cold and at this moment in bed recovering from a chest infection. Last weekend though I managed to get down to London to see a few shows including the Kiefer at the Royal Academy and the Polke at Tate Modern. For many of you this holiday is perhaps a chance to see some exhibitions and they can, if you are lucky, be significant and life changing.
In 1989 Jean-Hubert Martin curated ‘Magicians of the Earth’ at the Pompidou in Paris, and for me it was as if a rug had been pulled out from under my feet. I was bowled over and it re-energised my whole practice. The exhibition contrasted ethnocentric practices with the contemporary art world and it featured 50% Western and 50% non-Western working artists. The artists were presented as individuals rather than by geographic region and the work was not separated out as between Western or non-Western art. It was all just there to confront and it really did confront you, or it did me. On the one hand it helped to give new insights into work I had already seen, for instance Richard Long’s mud circles of hand prints could be thought of as being sites for rituals, or you could look at Western art as if it was the product of some archaic ethnographic practice and when you did, you began to realise how odd it really was. The biggest issue for me at the time was that most non Western art was occupied with real stuff, life and death or sex and ritual, it was utilitarian and practical as opposed to being art about making art. After looking at that show, I became determined to find a way to make art about what I was experiencing in the real world.
You can download a reaction to the show here

Editions Xavier Barral have this year brought out a memorial catalogue in memory of this highly significant show and its accompanying catalogue. 

However it seems to me that we have not learnt the lessons that ‘Magiciens de la terre' had to teach us. I find too many art exhibitions still highly euro-centric and concentrated on art about art. It makes me feel sad that so much art is totally ignored by the majority of people, ignored because its concerns are not about life but about art. I read an art review by Will Self the other day and he had actually had a cathartic moment when looking at some work by Ron Mueck. 

Mueck’s piece, ‘In Bed’ is a large illusionistic sculpture of an over life-sized woman in bed. It seems to tackle a similar theme to his earlier work, ‘Dead Dad’. Both become meditations on death, and for Will Self, a man not known for sentimentality, his confrontation with ‘In Bed’ allowed him to be, in Aristotle’s term, ‘purified’. I suppose I better explain.
Plato did not like the fact that art imitated nature, he thought this dangerous, as we might not eventually be able to trust our senses. Aristotle refuted this and argued that on the contrary art was useful in that it modeled itself on the world in order to allow us to see what was actually happening. The ‘purification’ of an audience occuring at the moment when the model allows the audience to ‘see’ the reality. (In this case Aristotle was referring to stage plays, and in particular tragedy). Art for Aristotle was based on life experience but it simplified, or clarified that experience and opened it out for contemplation. Therefore it was not a copy of the world but a model or framework against which we could test out our real world experiences and come to some sort of ‘realisation’ about them. Mueck’s sculpture distances itself from life by being ‘too big’ or ‘too small’ its scale being vital to its reception. In effect the scale change allows us to ‘see’ the work as art, if it was the same size as the original it would fall into Plato’s trap, it would be too easily indistinguishable from the real world and therefore confusing.

This is a list of all the artists that were exhibited in ‘Magicians of the Earth’, it is interesting to see how their career paths have differed.

Marina Abramovic, Dennis Adams, S.J. Akpan, Jean-Michel Alberola, Dossou Amidou, Giovanni Anselmo, Rasheed Araeen, Nuche Kaji Bajracharya, John Baldessari, José Bédia, Joe Ben Jr., Jean-Pierre Bertrand, Gabriel Bien-Aimé, Alighiero e Boetti, Christian Boltanski, Lousie Bourgeois, Stanley Brouwn, Fréderic Bruly Bouabré, Daniel Buren, James Lee Byars, Seni Camara, Mike Chukwukelu, Francesco Clemente, Marc Couturier, Tony Cragg, Enzo
Cucchi, Cleitus Dambi / Nick Dumbrang / Ruedi Wem, Neil Dawson, Bowa Devi, Maestre Didi, Braco Dimitrijevic, Efiaimbelo, John Fundi, Julio Galan, Moshe Gershuni, Enrique Gomez, Dexing Gu, Hans Haacke, Rebecca Horn, Shirazeh Houshiary, Yongping Huang, Alfredo Jaar, Nera Jambruk, Ilya Kabakov, Tatsuo Kawaguchi, On Kawara, Anselm Kiefer, Bodys Isek Kingelez, Per Kirkeby, John Knight, Agbagli Kossi, Barbara Kruger, Paulosee
Kuniliusee, Kane Kwei, Bojemaâ Lakhdar, Georges Liautaud, Felipe Linares, Richard Long, Esther Mahlangu, Karel Malich, Jivya Soma Mashe, John Mawandjul, Cildo Meireles, Mario Merz, Miralda, Tatsuo Miyajima, Norval Morrisseau, Juan Muñoz, Herny Munyaradzi, Claes Oldenburg / Coosie Van Bruggen, Nam June Paik, Wesner Philidor, Sigmar Polke, Temba Rabden, Ronaldo Pereira Rego, Chéri Samba, Sarkis, Twins Seven Seven, Raja Babu Sharma, Jangarh Singh Shyam, Nancy Spero, Daniel Spoerri, Hiroshi Teshigahara, Yousuf Thannoon, Lobsang Thinle / Bhorda Sherpa / Lobsang Palden, Cyprien Tokudagba, Ulay, Ken Unsworth, Chief Mark Unya / Nathan Emedem, Patrick Vilaire, Acharya Vyakul, Jeff Wall, Lawrence Weiner, Krzysztof Wodiczko, Jimmy Wululu, Jack Wunuwun, Jie Chang Yang, Yuendumu, Zush.

Wesner Philidor drawing. He was an artist from Haiti

Jivya Soma Mashe shows some of his work.

Jivya Soma Mashe

Perhaps the point is to look for drawing everywhere. Art galleries only host a certain sort of work, and in particular after doing a tour of the private galleries in Cork Street, I’m not sure that contemporary galleries are looking for art that operates either in a ritualistic manner, as so much of the art in ‘Magicians of the Earth’ did or in an Aristotelian ‘cathartic’ manner. The art I saw was simply a commodity exchange based on a rarity and significance given value by a particular set of ‘art world’ agreements. A bit like our money now that it is no longer tied to the gold standard. Provenance and listings replacing emotional power and artistic insight. 

Karva Chauth (Hindi: करवा चौथ) is a one-day festival celebrated by Hindu women in North India in which married women fast from sunrise to moonrise for the safety and longevity of their husbands. This festival continues to this day and many women still have themselves decorated as part of an accompanying ritual. These drawings are often beautiful and meaningful and still fulfil a vital function. Mehandi a technique using turmeric and henna paste is derived from the Sanskrit word Mendhika, and has a long history in Hindu ritual.

Karva Chauth drawings.

So have a good break over the Xmas holidays and try and keep on the look out for drawing in all its guises, perhaps above all look for how drawing can engage with life. 

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Images of the city part 2

There are many ways of responding to the city in drawing and more contemporary practices have included animation, mapping, performance and installation. Francis Alÿs, is always interesting, he can paint, draw, make films and construct installations.  Pacing, 2001 is a very simple work that records the way he walks.

Francis Alys: Pacing
Shoe Shine Blues is a much more complex piece that evokes the tedium and class differences that lie at the core of much manual labor. 366 animation cells break the act of polishing a shoe down into individual motions and the resultant accompanying ten-minute animation shows the same act repeated over and over, to the sound of clarinet notes and a voice singing lines such as "nothing to see." The result is complex and poetic. The cell drawings as they sprawl across the walls reflect the idea that art making can be as monotonous as other forms of labour.

Francis Alys: Shoe Shine Blues

Interesting responses to the city are not always found under the umbrella of fine art practice, this Map quilt of Providence, R.I. (below) by Robin Camille Davis is a personal response to making something for a partner, however it points to an alternative possibility when making images of the city.

Han Feng: Floating City
Han Feng’s Floating City is neither sculpture nor drawing, it is composed of hundreds of tracing paper buildings of various sizes, their laser-printed details deriving from images of city architecture, which are grouped in dense clusters and hung from the ceiling with transparent thread. The city becomes weightless, semi-transparent and fragile; something imagined, impossible to realise in reality.

Kathy Prendergast: City Drawing
Kathy Prendergast’s ‘City Drawings’ and ‘Black Maps’ explore the potential of the city map. She obsessively draws penciled connections between significant points of the city, her hand tracing the journeys that the mind takes as it mentally inhabits a map. Her more current series ‘Black Maps’, is produced by a laborious process of inking-out areas of road maps from countries around the world, leaving visible small white dots that denote areas of habitation. On closer inspection, roads, place names and geographical details can still be discerned underneath the densely hatched black marker surface and viewed from a distance, they have the appearance of a star charts.
Kathy Prendergast: Black Map
plan b are the artists Sophia New and Daniel Belasco Rogers. They perform together and collaborate on each other's solo works. In particular they are interested in the city as a place to walk through and they often use GPS messaging systems to record their activities. There is a lot of information about this on plan b’s website

Whether making drawings from direct observation or constructing drawings in order to create a dialogue with the city and its processes and activities, there is an unending stream of information to be unpicked and responded to if you live in a dense urban environment. In particular new technologies are opening out fascinating potential areas for artists to explore and make new work within.

See also:

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Images of the city

The city is one of the richest environments for artists to live in and as a subject matter it continues to be something that artists find exciting and worthwhile. For you as drawing students it is a subject matter on your doorstep and as an artist myself I use everyday experiences to feed my imagination, and in order to keep new ideas coming I make drawings of the city most days when I walk to work.

It is though hard to make full scale images out there on the streets and most artists rely on sketchbooks and small sketches to build up their image-banks before working up larger scale pieces.  This is an old tradition, but one that can still be very rewarding.

I first came across the drawings of John Virtue back in the 1980s. He had been working as a postman to make ends meet, and as he walked the streets he made small drawings. He was at the time working out in a rural area and so what he was confronting everyday was a landscape of trees and fields, so he developed hundreds of small drawings documenting the experience of these daily walks. He then worked on these in the studio after finishing work as a postman. This is a detail (below) from one of the worked up images, as you can see they are constructed out of small sections, a useful lesson in itself; if you don’t have a big studio space you can still have ambition for your work.

The drawings were mainly pen and ink, but when massed together they had a powerful impact and were a wonderful vechicle for his dark passinate romantic soul. He made his name with these drawings and so he was able to stop working as a postman and become a full-time artist. In 2003 he was appointed as artist in residence at the National Gallery and he continued working as he had always done, by making lots of small drawings and then working these up into much larger images. The drawings (below) are from his sketchbooks and small studies, often done from the rooftop of the National Gallery. As you can see they are fairly traditional in format and mainly concerned with getting basic details down.

However, once back in the studio, he was able to work these small images up into wonderful atmospheric landscape views of London, his previous experience of making dark emotional views of rural landscapes allowing him to control dark and light in order to orchestrate and open out the information that he had collected in his sketchbooks.
“Drawing is the compost from which painting develops.”
John Virtue

The tradition of working from observation in urban landscapes is of course one that is founded on the work of the Impressionists. If you look at this drawing by Seurat, (below) you can perhaps see a Post-Impressionist influence on Virtue's vision.

The intense pen and ink cross hatching from this night-time view by Seurat must have influenced Virtue's approach to his early landscape drawings. However one of Seurat's most poignant drawings is for myself his chalk drawn view of the Place de la Concord. The unlit streetlamp becomes a metaphor for the state of loneliness that many find themselves in when coming to a vast metropolis. It is one of those drawings that seem to be about a void or emptiness that we can all at times find in our lives, even in the midst of a bustling city. 

Seurat: Place de la Concord

One of the defining characteristics of an English city is that it has to have a cathedral. Denis Creffield, an artist who used to be based in Leeds, at one time toured all the cathedrals of England making large charcoal drawings of them as he went. A cathedral is meant to be the spiritual heart of a city and Creffield’s drawings are an attempt to capture that sense of spirituality that you get as you gaze up into the heights of the mainly Gothic architecture.

Both drawings above from Creffield's Cathedrals of England series

Creffield lived in Leeds for a while and the drawing above is a view over Leeds. You can see the Town Hall over on the far top left.

Leon Kossoff and Frank Auerbach were both like Creffield deeply influenced by the teachings of David Bomberg and you will find many fine drawings made by both artists of the city of London. 



Claes Oldenburg used to walk the streets of New York drawing everything whatever seemed to fascinate him. He had different sketchbooks for the three basic shapes; triangle, circle and square and recorded all the square things he saw in one and all the triangular things in another, and because he wasn’t trying to classify things beyond their basic shape, he ended up drawing everything from drainpipes to cigarette butts. This period of his life gave him enough imagery to build an entire career on. His drawings can sometimes be very technical and at other times quite loose, reflecting perhaps the collision between technology and human life that makes up city living.

Sandwiches, lollypops, fag butts and office fans, all become subjects for Oldenburg to make images of.
The city is an endless source of information and if you are ever stuck for something to do, just walk out there with your sketchbook. I keep little tiny sketchbooks that fit easily in my pocket, as I walk through Leeds I stop and make notes, they then get either used in larger more complex drawings or simply help me build my visual imagination.

Even bits of earth at the bottom of an old tree can make for something interesting to draw, gradually your brain starts to 'see' things much more clearly, simply because you are exercising it.

See also: