Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Up close and far away. The macro and the micro.

Most hand made drawings are when looked close up just a field of marks. But the nature of this markfield is essential to an understanding of the drawing as a whole. Not only does the mark quality and handling tell a story, but the concept of a mark field being something that comes together as an identifiable entity when you see it from a distance, is itself fascinating. You can think of this situation as being rather like what happens when you begin to examine something with various powers of magnification; like this. Look at the video link and it clearly articulates how powers of magnitude allow us to think about how scale and 'look' are relative concepts that depend on moving our conceptual framework beyond our 'normal' sense of scale, a normality that is based on a particular understanding of ourselves.

From 'Powers of 10'

The figure lying on the grass represents our 'normal' scale, but when the camera focuses on the hand, then looks at the skin and then goes into the structure of the molecules and eventually individual atoms, you realise that 'reality' is all of these things and that the superficial surface is deeply dependent on what lies beneath.

Rembrandt detail

Van Gogh

Look at the close up of Rembrandt's etched drawing. The lines are both a sign for hair and a tonal value that begins to give shadow to the face. Different weights of mark are brought together to fuse the two aspects of hair texture and shadow into one. Now in your mind's eye stand back and look at a Van Gogh drawing, dots and lines operate freely as themselves and as textural equivalents for foliage. Both drawings can be seen as fields of marks, but Van Gogh's 'signature' or hand gesture is different to Rembrandt's. With both however the further away you are from the drawing the more it will 'look' like an image of a face or a landscape. You can think of this as a coming in and out of focus, or as drawing as a particular physical type of encounter. As you step towards and away from a drawing you are getting very different perceived sensations from it.
The difficulty in exploring magnification on a computer screen is closely related to these issues. If you look closely at the screen it pixilates out. The Rembrandt detail in particular is beginning to disintegrate because the resolution is only 72dpi.  
The concept behind Debra Weisberg’s tape drawings relies on this effect.

Debra Weisberg: Tape Drawing

As it states on her website, 'On a macro level one can read the explosion of the cosmos; on a micro level it looks like a magnification of neurons transmitting impulses of energy'. She is making an explicit reference to the way we can read marks in relation to changes in scale. As we step back from her tape made drawings gradually we lose sense of the fact they are made of tape and begin to read them as something else.

However we can think about 'what lies beneath' in different ways. Scientists have reasoned that what everything actually consists of is energy vibration and this can be visualised in a mathematical or geometric format.

These harmonics are not only beautiful but relate to the way other things such as DNA structures are organised.

This close up of the surface of a pencil drawing is fascinating. We don't know what it is a representation of but we already begin to think about what it could be. So the other issue is about image potential. Again this has a series of parallels in nature.

When you look at the molecular level close ups in 'Powers of 10' you cant tell these come from a hand, they could be of any organic or inorganic object, it's only when you get to the skin level that you can sort of guess it's from a human. At this level of magnitude it's as much about the paper surface as it is the graphite hardness or softness. Things are brought down to their material essence rather than their ability to represent something. Once again we have a change in focus, not only literally but metaphorically.

The artist Tim Head had explored this close-up world in relation to digital and print technology. He refers to 'the digital medium's elusive material substance'. He strips back the screen image, or digital print to the pixel or dot and uses these basic elements to make works that reveal the illusory nature of the digital.

Tim Head

Tim Head

Keith Peters

Keith Peters is an artist that uses code to deal with these issues. The code can be seen as the micro and the resultant images as the macro. You can explore these types of ideas by following artists that deal with generative art, i.e. artists that often by using computer software, begin to build large worlds from tiny units. This area of thinking was introduced to the mainstream by the popularity of fractal mathematics. You can see how the process works by looking at the diagram and animation below of Koch Curve generation.

Think of looking at a coastline. If you try to measure it from a map you will get one result, but as you increase the size of the map you will see more and more indentations, as you measure these the coastline measurements get longer and longer, as you get to a one to one correspondence with the actual coastline, the closer you look the more complex it gets, you begin to have to measure around every single pebble, and as you get ever closer around every crystal that makes up the stone and every molecule, atom, quark etc. A fractal is a natural phenomenon or a mathematical set that exhibits a repeating pattern that displays at every scale. The important issue here being that it allows us to think about the macro and the micro as having an indexical relationship. (Charles Peirce developed the concept of indexicality as a way of describing the direct relationship between one thing and another, such as a photograph and the thing that was photographed)
An example of these issues in relation to life on Earth so to speak are the very large scale Nazca drawings in South America.

Nazca lines photographed from an aircraft

Nazca lines ground view

It is only possible to get an idea of what Nazca lines look like from an aircraft, at ground level they are still very effective but your experience of them is totally different. Once again this opens out possibilities for thinking about things made to be seen from one point of view, in this case I presume it would have to have been the viewpoint of a God, which can also be read from a totally different viewpoint. This begins to remind me of anamorphic projections and similar illusions, and as this is a slightly separate issue more to do with position in space than closeness and distance , I'll reserve my thoughts on this for the next post.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Drawing and Mona Hatoum

This weekend I managed to get to see the Mona Hatoum exhibition at Tate Modern. This is a wonderful show and is central to how contemporary artists use drawing. In particular Hatoum uses a wide variety of approaches to drawing to visualise her ideas, from sketches for ideas all the way through to the physical actualisation of her concepts. These are a few of her approaches but once again remember it's best to go and see these things in the flesh, so if you can get down to London it's on until the 21st of August 2016.
Impenetrable 2009 

'Impenetrable' consists of hanging metal rods that have had the twists of barbed wire added, so it looks as if this is straightened barbed wire. Once again the grid format is used to give coherence to the form, this time by floating the 'cube' of verticals you get the sense of a space that is on the one hand 'Impenetrable' but on the other hand it is very ephemeral, hovering ghost like in space. This is essentially a 3D visualisation of vertical lines in space and reads as a 3D drawing, rather than as a sculpture dealing with mass.

Light Sentence

'Light Sentence' again reads as a 3D drawing this time using shadows to give kinetic excitement and mood to the space. She has a dangling light bulb at the centre of this piece, (again the wire mesh lockers gain coherence because of the grid format), the bulb is attached to a live wire that is itself raised and lowered very slowly, ensuring that the shadows are constantly changing and therefore as a viewer you are always slightly off balance, unsettled by never being able to establish a fixed point of reference. This is a very powerful piece, but in essence it is again a 3D visualisation of a drawn grid. Of course the actual material associations make for a far more complex read than a pencil drawing and the inescapable references to wire cages are vital to its reception. Again though I would argue that this is someone who thinks through drawing, even though her final pieces are material led.

Undercurrent (red) 2008

'Undercurrent' continues Hatoum's obsession with live electric cables. Electric wires are fascinating as they hold a vital current, an invisible energy that is powerful enough to kill if handled. She uses the cables as if using threads in a weaving, (again a metaphor that has been mentioned a lot in this blog), and shows us the effect of the hidden electrical current by attaching light bulbs that dim and fade as the current oscillates. The red covering of the cabling is also vital to the read as well as the way the cables open out from a very formal central weave as they stretch out towards the light bulbs that form an edge around the piece.

Homebound (2000)

'Homebound' is an earlier example of Hatoum's fascination with electric currents. This time everything was placed behind a tautly strung wire fence, this itself being another metaphor, the wires acting as a boundary beyond which the audience can’t pass. Homebound links a wide range of domestic objects together with electrical cabling and we can see that they are live because light bulbs are inserted into objects that glow as the current throbs through the installation. The wires linking things together are lines of connection, again this is a drawing concept.

Present Tense 1996


Another obsession of Hatoum's is the map. She revisited maps several times in this show, and once again I have often pointed out how maps are central to the way that drawing can be used to visualise our world. 'Present Tense' uses soap made out of olive oil and the map itself is drawn by pushing into the soap thousands of tiny glass beads that are often worn by Palestinian women. The soap is again a carefully chosen material, it being one of the products manufactured only by Palestinian workers in this heavily contested, politically charged area of the world.

Handmade paper map

Her handmade paper maps are very subtle. We have looked at papermaking before as an area much underused. In this case she has used a stencil to give form to the shape of the continents. This is hard to control but quite straightforward once you are set up to make your paper. The end product leaves a gap or space where in this case the continents would be, therefore asking a question as to how solidly each landmass can be associated with a particular idea of territory.

Neon Globe

The neon globe carries the idea on further, the fact that you can see through the globe again undermining the idea of fixed territories, the neon lines merging and mixing to create new continents as you walk past the work. Once again though, this is about line, line as a boundary, line as an edge and line as a mapping device. 

+ and -

'Plus and Minus' is all about erasure. As the work is drawn it erases itself. A wonderful metaphor for creation in destruction and of course related to the idea of how we draw by marking surfaces and erasing these marks as we proceed to develop new images.

Rubbing on stiff tracing paper
Hatoum's rubbings on stiff easily crinkled tracing appear to leave ghosts of images without actually having to use any applied rubbing materials. The image is revealed as the paper is broken and 'whitened' by the way light is reflected off the broken paper surface. She also pricks holes into areas where there is a hole in the object beneath. The grey is made by the light coming through the untreated areas of the paper's surface. This is all about investigating the properties of paper and then finding an appropriate use for it.

Sketchbook page

Finally there is Hatoum's use of sketchbooks and scraps of paper on which she tries out ideas. Her performances and projection pieces are first of all realised as sketchbook drawings, these are not at all 'finished' but clear enough to give an idea of what can be done. If you look at the page above it is crammed with information as to how this piece will work, she used drawing as a vital thinking tool, and I would suggest that without drawing she would find it very difficult to do the things she does.
Hopefully this is a reminder of how important it is to think of drawing as an extended practice, it is both something that can be practiced in a traditional way and a discipline that is now capable of standing alongside any other practice. As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, go and see the exhibition yourself and make your own mind up, but as a drawing student try and think about how her approach could both ask you questions about how you yourself are responding to the events you are living through and whether or not you can open your ideas up to a much wider range of approaches to drawing both conceptually and materially.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Drawing real and symbolic lines in space

In the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, Theseus is given a ball of string by Ariadne to unravel as he goes down into the labyrinth. He then after killing the Minotaur escapes the labyrinth by following the unravelled thread back to the surface. 
The Chinese myth of 'the red string of fate', was that gods would tie an invisible red cord around the ankles of those that are destined to meet one another at a particular significant moment in their life.  In Japanese culture, there is a similar myth the red thread thought in this case to be tied around the little finger. Those connected by the thread are usually pre-destined lovers, who will meet regardless of the obstacles set in their way, be these place, time, or circumstances. This magical cord may stretch or tangle, but never break. (See earlier post, The Wyrd) 
We can visualise these types of ideas in different ways, one area seldom approached by artists is mathematics but it can be very rich in metaphor.  Think about 'asymptotes' for a moment. 
An asymptote is a line that the graph of a function approaches but never touches. Rational functions contain asymptotes.
In this graph below there is a vertical asymptote and a horizontal asymptote. The curves approach these asymptotes but never cross or touch them.
Finding vertical and horizontal asymptotes

As art students you may find my occasional references to maths off-putting but like all areas of human preoccupation the problems that maths thinkers think are interesting can be used to help the wider community develop further analogies as to how something could be visualised. In this case the blue vertical and horizontal lines will never be touched by the orange curved lines, however the blue lines are the directors or shapers of the orange lines. So we have a situation where that although the entire existence of the curved orange lines is dependent on the straight blue lines, the orange lines will never touch the blue lines.  I find this very poignant, on the one hand it is rather like the invisible Gods directing the red strings of fate and on the other there is something almost Sisyphean about the fact that the lines get closer and closer but never touch, the sense of forever trying to get somewhere but never accomplishing it is key to our human sense of life itself. 

These mathematical lines of course only have existence within a mathematical reality. But as in Abbott's Flatland, that reality can be used to think about our own very physical experience. 

Going back to Theseus's experience in the labyrinth, string is great way to map out the physical world and define its relationships.  You can not just use it to find your way through life, you can use it to determine the way you want to shape things. My first experience of using string in this way was as an apprentice at Round Oak Steel works. I was taught to use chalked string to mark out the cutting lines on huge metal sheets. We used geometry to determine right angles and 'pinged' the tightly pulled chalk string, so that clear chalk lines were left on the metal ready for cutting.  This video explains how to use a chalk line. 
Ryan Carrington uses the chalk line to create images of tartans taken from catalogues of luxury fabrics. His point is to associate the workman's chalk with the work behind making expensive fabrics. 
Ryan Carrington: Chalk snap-line on plywood

The plumb line is another line that crosses between art and work. They have been used for thousands of years by masons to get a vertical line. They are a metaphor for what is straight and true. 

Viking mason's plumb line bob

You also of course use a plumb line when making measured drawings. Students often using anything that comes to hand in the drawing studio to make them. In the case of the image below it looks as if someone has taken the thread tightener from one of the easels to make theirs.

The Key in the Hand, was an installation by Chiharu Shiota at the last Venice Biennale. As an artwork it begins to help me weave together the various threads of this post. 

Chiharu Shiota

When you entered the Japanese pavilion in Venice you were immediately bathed in red light. Thousands of red lines of thread criss crossed the space, so many that at first impression you couldn't see anything except a blur of form that slowly came into focus as you began to walk into the space. Gradually you worked it out. Each thread was pulled taut by keys hanging as weights, but initially you couldn't see what each thread was linked to, only gradually as you moved around and walked in the  spaces that would open out between the threads did you realise that right at the centre of it all was a wooden boat. However so many threads had been linked to it that in from certain viewpoints it effectively disappeared from view in a haze of red lines. The 'red string of fate' coupled with keys that had in the past being used to unlock and give access to things, was obviously the metaphor but the experience was wonderful and to do with the sheer amount of stringing involved and way that the space itself had been opened out and reshaped by the stringing. 

Anne Lindberg's thread drawings are a much quieter experience, one that relies on the intersection between weaving and abstraction, but weaving without the weft, which I suppose is therefore technically not weaving at all. They are very delicate and due to the thinness of the threads the colour operates very subtly. 

Anne Lindberg: Thread drawing

Lindberg's thread drawings move optically backwards and forwards in a similar way to Bridget Riley's early drawings and appear at first sight to be rather like Joan Salo's biro drawings.  They of course have the benefit of physicality, each and every line being a real thread and by being taut these threads link two points, hundreds of points are linked and in the linking a new form is made. This perhaps takes us back into the mythic idea of the thread of life, its hard to see this when actually involved in day to day living, but when you step back far enough a pattern or shape emerges. 

Monday, 9 May 2016

Drawing Competitions

Now is the time of year to be entering drawing competitions. Drawing, watercolour and print are all interrelated so don’t be put off applying for these too, just think of adding a small media shift, but do read the entry requirements carefully.

June 1st Deadline

The Derwent Art Prize aims to reward excellence by showcasing the very best artworks created in pencil by British and International artists.
Artists can submit 2D and 3D works created with any pencil or coloured pencil as well as water soluble, pastel, graphite or charcoal pencils.
An exhibition of the selected work will be on show at the Mall Galleries, London from 19-24 September 2016

Deadline 13th June

Now in its 29th year, The Sunday Times Watercolour Competition is the largest and most prestigious watercolour competition in the UK. Hugely popular with artists, gallery visitors and readers of The Sunday Times, the competition aims to celebrate and reward excellence and originality in the medium of watercolour.

Deadline 20th June

The Biennale showcases the broad spectrum of contemporary printmaking across the globe, through an extensive programme of exhibitions, events, activities and an international symposium, held across the North East of England. It is the only event on this scale for printmaking in the UK, and since its inception has established itself as the key event for print in the international arts calendar. In 2014, the third edition of the Biennale’s Print Awards welcomed submissions from over 740 artists from 42 different countries.

Deadline 27th June
Selected from original art works, it has established a reputation for its commitment to championing excellence, and promoting and celebrating the breadth of contemporary drawing practice within the UK. By showcasing the work of emerging artists alongside established artists, the Jerwood Drawing Prize has contributed to the careers of numerous now well-known British artists since it was founded in 1994. An independent panel of three selectors will choose up to

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Drawing and the City

Ahmet Doğu İpek’s intense drawings have very strong ties with the city of Istanbul where he works.  These large scale drawings are made with graphite and watercolour and reflect what it can feel like when living in a city that is constantly being built around you. The last time I was in Istanbul parts of the city really felt like this. You could move from the deep gloomy dark magic of the Basilica Cistern and come out into the light of day only to be surrounded by the noise of constant building, building that never seemed to finish, lots of new buildings appearing to be left half finished as new ones began to be constructed in their footprint. 

This is one of the columns that you can see in the cisterns below Istanbul. If you look at the ceiling structure you can see how it might have influenced Ipek's drawings.

Ahmet Doğu İpek

Ahmet Doğu İpek at work

Jeanette Barnes is another example of an artist that uses her native city as  source material. London is seen as a city in constant change, she celebrates the hustle and bustle of its surging population and ever changing skyline. In contrast to Ipek who you feel sees the city as a necropolis, she sees it as a fountain of life. 

Jeanette Barnes at work.

Barnes works in charcoal, using a rubber to create an energetic surface mark quality, as well as allowing her to constantly adjust her drawings in relation to the unfolding spatial matrix she is creating. What both artists have in common is the scale they work on. When you see the actual drawings you can immerse yourself in them and this is an essential part of their quality. 

My own particular hero of city drawing is the architectural draftsman Hugh Ferriss.

Hugh Ferris

 His 1922 charcoal sketches of imaginary Manhattan skyscrapers. sketched out the implications of the new 'setback'  laws, which were brought in to ensure that light would still penetrate down to street level.  His images became iconic and still have a direct influence on my own drawings. 

You can see the original of this drawing of mine in the current LCA gallery exhibition 

See also earlier Images of the City posts part 1 and 2

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Making models to work from



The artist Ken Ragsdale makes drawings from memory. He then develops paper models of the drawings and photographs them. By using selective lighting techniques he can create various moods and after the scenes are photographed computer enhancement can be used to edit and sharpen before printing.

Basic Ken Ragsdale model ready for a photoshoot

There are several very interesting processes going on here. Drawing from memory is very hard. You need to practice being able to hold an image in your head and visualising it. Even so, once you begin drawing what you think you are remembering, the drawing itself will tend to take over. Every drawing has a moment when it wants to become itself, and working with this, will enable the drawer to establish a look or feel to a body of drawings done from memory. The next thing about memory is that only significant details are detained. Therefore a car drawn from memory is more like an idea of a 'car'.  Plato believed that there existed some sort of universal perfection of all the imperfect things that we deal with in the everyday world, perhaps he was thinking about memory and how it can give a 'golden glow' to the past. Ragsdale makes his models out of paper by creating flat templates that are then folded into shapes. I'm not sure if you get these now but when I was young in the 1950s, we were given a lot of cut out things to make by folding into shape and perhaps Ragsdale did too. He then goes on to photograph his models. 

Typical sheet of flat drawings made to be cut out, folded and stuck together to make 3D objects.

At the core of my fascination with this is the movement between 2D and 3D thinking. It's as if we could cut and fold Abbott's Flatland in order to create new dimensions. Flatland is about to become a film; watch this.

It's interesting to compare Ragsdale with Thomas Demand who also makes paper models of scenes but this time directly from photographs.  Ragsdale's memory I would argue is one suffused with nostalgia, his memories of America feel very 'filmic' too. It is almost as if he is building film sets. 

Ken Ragsdale

Demand begins with an image, often taken from media sources and frequently dealing with traumatic or politically important events, and creates a replica of the image using paper and cardboard. He is much more academically interested than Ragsdale in the idea of the model. For instance he has researched the American architect John Lautner’s physical models, which have been used since 1960 by Lautner and Partners to develop their architectural projects. Demand focuses on the sculptural quality of Lautner’s architecture and how the model itself helps shape this. He produced the book, 'Model Studies' in response to this research. 
Demand has worked for a long time by making card and paper models of interiors and photographing them. In doing so he highlights issues about both the nature of photography and the model. For instance, photography is concerned with point of view. Only from the one position that the photograph is taken do Demand's models look 'real', move to the left or right and you will be able to see how this world is fitted together with tape and string. The other issue is how the model simplifies reality. Demand's images have no flaws, the interiors are too 'nice', the complexities of real life have been ironed out. 

Thomas Demand

Thomas Demand: From Model Studies

In my own work I often need to make models to work out what I'm doing, these are often very crude but they allow me to visualise things easily. 
Cardboard model of terraced house

I used cardboard models like the one above in order to get and idea of how buildings would look as I put together the large drawing of a street above. 

The main point I'm making is that making models can be a wonderful way of not only generating new ideas, but as an aid to figurative drawing and as a philosophical concept. 

I'll leave you with an image by Tintoretto. Tintoretto sometimes made little wax figures to use as models for his paintings. He would clothe them like dolls, then put them inside a box, arrange them like miniature actors in a toy theatre, and shine light on them to examine how shadows fall. He would make studies from these models and from the studies make his paintings. His fantastic lighting effects are really convincing, paradoxically their very conviction is based on his study of models. In the model we find a heightened reality.

Tintoretto: Study of action in an interior

Tintoretto: The Last Supper