Wednesday, 15 April 2015

On reading Andrew Marr’s ‘A Short Book about Drawing’

I’ve been spending more time outside drawing in the landscape over the past couple of weeks. I always find observational drawing refreshing and have often thought of it as a form of meditation.
Andrew Marr has been drawing since he was a child, he has never thought of himself as an artist, being a journalist and foreign correspondent, but wherever he goes he tends to draw in order to record his responses. His book on drawing is therefore fascinating as it is composed by someone from outside the art business and this is refreshing and at times perhaps more insightful than it would be from someone immersed in what can be a very obscure and difficult discipline. However before he finished this ‘little book’ he had a stroke. Having a stroke is a vicious reminder of how we take our bodies for granted and for Marr it allowed him to see how vital to his wellbeing the making of drawings were. In fact the whole tone of this book is about drawing and mental health. He feels that the hard to do activity of observational drawing is wonderful and that the struggle to look, remember and transfer what you have seen to paper, is an activity that not only lies at the core of what makes us human, but sees us at our best. It is one of those activities that we have to concentrate on so hard that time flows past without us knowing it. We are totally at one with our mind and body, the intellectual struggle to single out moments of our perceptual experience, is then conjoined with the physical struggle to control materials in such a way that marks and lines correspond to those hard won ideas as to what the world looks like. As we do this, Marr would argue, we are in the 'now', in an almost Zen moment of immersion in the world.
As someone who uses drawing to both record the world and to construct visual allegories, I’m very aware of the difference between different sorts of drawing and this is what I would consider a limitation of the book, because he is tempted to use his particular take on ‘conceptual’ art to try and unpick for himself the interrelationship between drawing and art. That’s fine as far as it goes, but all art is to some extent conceptual, and the gradual blurring between what was a perceptual study of the human body and what is now an allegorical figure placed in a landscape in a Renaissance painting, is something perhaps only a working artist could really appreciate, elements from the one activity are always still present in the other.
I shall try and explain how this works.

This is a drawing I did standing on slippery rocks at the side of the sea in West Wittering during the Easter break. It is one of a series of about 10 all made on the spot, within yards of each other.
As is normal with my drawings I use an old dip-in pen that I made myself, the nib very well worn so that it flows easily across the page, the other end being a brush so that I can quickly decide to lay washes if need be and ink and water available in a small clip on device that fits in my hand or on the side of my notebook, which itself is a book of watercolour papers that are cut to a thin landscape format. The book is small enough to hold in one hand as I draw, but big enough to allow me to go beyond a thumbnail.

Before drawing I stalk the area, I’m looking for a composition that will fit the shape I’m going to use, the very long thin aspect of which forces me to concentrate my looking. This is very important to me, as I have found in the past that the ‘average’ rectangle is too ‘known’, I know it so well I cant compose in it any more. The first time I twigged this, I simply had one of my sketchbooks sawn in half, suddenly I could see how things out in the world might shape themselves again as flat images.
The first part of the drawing is therefore drawn in the mind. I then before embarking on the ink drawing use a pencil to indicate roughly where things are, this allows me to adjust where I stand and eliminate awkward selections, as well as establish a framework of basic measurements for me to work into.
Because the pencil work is very light I can ignore it or use it as the need takes me.
Once I begin with the dip-in pen the drawing gets serious. I use this because I can’t make adjustments after the fact. With pencil or charcoal I am very aware you can rub out and make amendments, therefore I might not maintain that full concentration. Direction of mark as well as their quality are vital, changes in pressure allow me to get more or less ‘space’ into the drawing and my formal invention has to be high enough to suggest that what I am drawing is one thing rather than another. A dot when used in one place may suggest a stony surface, in another simply a sign that something is here. However the other thing I am doing is recording my own movements. Each mark is a frozen record of how fast my hand is moving, what degree of shake it has, how firmly I am convinced about what I have seen and how I might interpret it. I’m also recording larger body movements. I’m very aware I don’t keep my head still, I’m aware of the difference between my two eyes and consciously enjoy trying to build into the drawing my awareness of this.
Although the final drawing appears quite coherent, I actually work several areas up at the same time, in particular foreground, middle and distance, this allows me to ensure that as the drawing comes together the total space it sits in makes sense. As I look at what’s out there my hand tracks over the paper, inventing as it moves, often directional change on the paper being used to indicate a change of direction out there in the perceived world; my drawing at this time being made from approximately 2 to 3 seconds looking outwards and then about 5 seconds drawing. I can’t hold much information in my head, which is actually quite a good thing as it stops me getting too detailed. What I am of course drawing is the space the objects sit it, and if I can get that right the drawing will be coherent. 
So far so good and this is very like the situation Marr picks out in his book. However there is also a conceptual side to the activity. I am worried about the state of the world. In particular climate change and global warming. An aspect of this that we will all have to face at some point is that of a rising sea level. The edge of the land is always a place of conflict with water, sea levels rising and falling over millennia, coastal erosion being something we have for many years fought against. I therefore knew I wanted to draw evidence of these things before I set out to look for locations. I was also very aware that at some point I would probably use information taken from these drawings to enrich ideas in my larger ‘studio’ drawings. I.e. the drawings are about something else besides the struggle to record what is out there. This is perhaps where the art comes in. If I was a geographer, my drawings might be used to help illustrate an idea about coastal erosion, if I was a biologist my drawing might be used to illustrate how quickly seaweed colonizes a tidal bay, but as an artist I’m trying to build an analogy, create a metaphor or in my case in my larger studio drawings, create allegories.
The drawing chosen is one of several, it is picked out by myself because of what it represents. The shape that runs through the body of the drawing is what is left over from a previous sea defence. The sea has destroyed this and the base area is now all that remains, seaweed having colonised this. What the drawing started to 'mean' for me was something about the ghost of a former attempt to stop the sea's ravages. My other drawings were of the sea defences now a further 20 yards back. They are like this. (Below) I may be able to use some of them but conceptually they don't have the resonance of the drawing above. 

Now back in Leeds I'm still drawing from observation but looking for other types of ideas, for instance signs of our older tribal nature as in this graffiti on a rock in Gledhow Valley Woods. 

These drawings are never shown in exhibitions, they are simply ways of gathering in information, at some point information from them will go to feed my much larger allegorical images, like this one that is on the go at the moment. 

Marr does though have a point, especially when he states that if an artist is going to make art that is conceptual without relying on any drawing skills, they better have a dam good idea, because the activity of drawing from the world is itself a powerful metaphor and one that is always rich with invention and struggle. Even a conceptually weak drawing records a struggle with a complex three-dimensional world and how to record it on a flat surface. (Of course this is not the case when working from a photograph, and he has had an interesting conversation with Hockney about that)

Marr’s book is an accessible and interesting read and he points to other sources that could be used to enrich and deepen an understanding of the points he is making. You can get a copy for £4 from Amazon and for those of you thinking about COP3 proposals there might be some issues in there that could be fleshed out as research areas.

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