Tuesday, 30 August 2016

Drawing Water

The Resounding Sea: Etching: Thomas Moran

One area of drawing I have had to think about quite a lot over the last year has been how to draw water. This might appear to be a pretty basic question but the more I looked at it the more interesting the answers became.
Water is hard to draw simply because it rarely comes in still forms that allow you to take your time to draw it. Therefore what you have to do is stare hard at whatever form it is taking and as you look, you need to break down what you are seeing into manageable visual chunks, so that you can memorise them. Then as you draw you also need to keep looking back at the water in order to re-check how your static visual invention is stacking up against the reality of constant movement. You are inventing a way of freezing movement and yet making it feel as if it still has movement within it. This is something a photograph can't do; it can freeze the moment, but it can't reinvent the experience by developing an equivalent experience.
Leonardo was fascinated by water, in particular the way it moves and he made several studies of twisting flowing water in motion.

Leonardo: Drawings of flowing water

These are the sort of drawings you could do yourself simply by watching how a running tap creates eddies and flows in a wash basin. What is particularly interesting is the amount of formal invention Leonardo has to do in order to get his ideas across about how water operates when it moves. It's still worth trying to draw this type of situation, because there is no 'right' answer and because the task is so difficult the experience will force the drawer to become inventive and to come up with new marks and inventive forms based around their own particular interests and proclivities. If you look at the work of Leonardo as a whole, you will find very similar curves occur over and over again. His obsession with movement and energy producing a language of sprung curves that he began to see everywhere. Perhaps by trying to draw something that is virtually impossible to actually see, what happens is that what you finally draw is an illustration of your own thinking process.

If you  look at the drawing by Thomas Moran at the top of the page, at first sight it appears to be a very ordinary drawing of the sea, but on closer inspection you realise that he has invented a wide range of marks in order to capture the variety of water movements that you see when you stare at sea water in movement.

Different types of water require different types of visual languages to portray them, David Hockney has at various times in his career returned to water as a subject and his own invented graphic languages tend to revolve around spending a lot of time alongside Californian swimming pools.

Hockney: Design for a swimming pool

The final Hockney swimming pool image is of an actual pool designed using his graphic language, thus bringing his watery graphic concept into some sort of circular closure; or in this case more like a peanut enclosure.

Sometimes it's useful to examine one selected part of an image so that you can see how an artist has responded to the problem of how to depict water. The artist Joss Judd has created an almost oily water surface in this detail from one of his drawings.

Joss Judd: detail

You can just about see that he has prepared the surface before applying charcoal, the traces of brushing and sanding can be seen picking up particles of dust, thus adding to the textural feel of the water surface. The way that water curves and reflects light is very well captured in this drawing, the fact that there was also a dark figure standing in the water of course added an additional narrative but what is important to consider in this case is how effective the drawing could be when just the nature of water's appearance is explored.


The great Japanese artist Hokusai drew water many times and several prints were made from his images. He was particularly adept at creating rhythmic linear compositions that could freeze a dramatic moment and catch the essence of the delicate balance between wave power and water froth that you see when a wave breaks.

I've had to develop a graphic language to represent sea water myself for a series of drawing I did recently.

A few seconds of a recent animation using pen and ink.

The drawings above explore directional mark possibilities, drawn using ink and brush, there are several aspects that you need to control at the same time, such as weight of mark, clustering of marks to achieve various tonal values, mark energy, shape and direction.  

This more completed drawing above, has a large section devoted to an invented sea. Without spending time drawing water and trying to develop marks and shapes to stand for the various forms it takes, I would not have been able to invent my way into making a sea that could work across the surface of the image. This is not about copying from a photograph and if you look at what I have come up with, just like the Leonardo images of moving water, the image is not at all like the frozen instance that can be recorded in a photograph. Sea never actually behaves like this, but of course a drawing can never be 'like' reality, it is always a fiction. The job of the artist is to make it a convincing fiction, and fictions are only convincing if they have some sort of awareness of reality built into them. If this element of my drawing works, the lines and marks create a constantly moving field for the eyes that can simulate the experience of looking at the sea moving.

I became fascinated by the various ways water could be drawn after looking at a variety of drawings of Saint Christopher. As he is always depicted walking through water, artists would draw the water itself, as well as some dealing with the fact that water is also transparent, because they wanted to show that Saint Christopher had his feet planted firmly on the ground, as he had to be able to provide a solid support for the young Jesus Christ as he carried him across the river. 
Look at the way the folds of Durer's wind blown cloak are blown into cloud like forms, in many ways this image of St Christopher is a depiction of earthly matter transforming into spiritual form. In the image below the cloak has taken on an even more substantial form, threatening to overpower St Christopher himself. Matter becoming energy or spirit being central to this myth.  

If you turn this image upside down, you can think of the marks that represent the sky as also been capable of representing a sea.

The woodcut directly above particularly fascinates me, not just because of how the water is depicted (you can see a direct visual link between this water and Hockney's) but how size constancy has been played with and how the artist has applied a process of simplification to all the elements of the story, as well as providing space and room for textual commentary.

Water is of course one of the 4 elements. Earth, air, fire and water were seen for many centuries as the fundamental building blocks of our universe. Water is deeply woven into our mythic consciousness, indeed in some ways Earth should have really been called Ocean, as water covers far more of the world's surface than land and water is essential for the creation of life as we know it.

What can start with basic observation, can be deepened and given resonance by looking at how artists of the past have depicted it and then it can be further enriched by research into how as a subject it can operate mythologically, historically, chemically, physically etc. etc. Above all drawing things that are insubstantial, moving and impermanent suggests that what the drawer is trying to do is to meditate on life itself.
However time spent drawing flames is very different to time spent drawing clouds, each of the 4 elements has a different relationship with the ever changing reality of existence and the unique character of these things can be seen at some level to be not unique and to be simply about the fact that everything can at some level be reduced to changes in vibrational energy.

Vija Celmins
Shapes of the sea

The drawing by Vija Celmins is of course done directly from a photograph. Her image is playing upon the idea that something captured in a tiny fraction of a second is now laboriously copied. My own drawing of the sea below it is very obviously an invention of what a moving, swelling sea could be like. Neither is 'right' and they are both in some ways a meditation on languages of representation. 

Some other related bits of random information:

Visit Project Gutenberg, download and read 'On the Laws of Japanese painting'.  There is an interesting section on drawing water using ink and a brush; a small part of what is a fascinating read.

A good read in relation to this post is 'Drawing Water: Drawing as a mechanism for exploration' by Tania Kovats. In this book she opens out her interests in both the sea and drawing in a wide range of formats and approaches, in particular she opens out how we can think of drawing as exploration, both physically and metaphorically.

Don't forget the people who work in a sequential discipline, see Cartoonists draw water.

See also: 

Monday, 15 August 2016

Mathematical shapes of interest

I have reflected upon the way that drawing and mathematics converge several times, in particular my reflections on the grid and the way that certain artists, such as Kenneth Martin used to use certain geometric formulas to drive their decision making. An underlying need for order has emerged over and over again within different visual cultures and this need for mathematical order is a fascinating area to explore, so I have decided to collect together a few key starting points for anyone deciding to set out to research these issues in more depth and at the bottom of this post to put in links to various other posts where I have commented on similar issues.

Egyptian images were often designed using a grid that measured 18 units to the top of the head. Using this system they were able to achieve a visual harmony and consistency of image making over many years. The fact that they applied this grid was very influential in the development of canons for Greek sculpture. The Egyptians measured their figures in cubits and cubits were the length from the elbow to the tip of the thumb. Therefore there is a close correspondence with the human body and its natural proportions. The other units of measure were the palm, or hand width and the finger, again cementing ideas of body proportions into the way things were measured. This relationship of course still exists, our current measure of the 'foot' being an obvious example.

The 18:11 ratio as used between 2650BC and 2181BC
An Egyptian figure measured in cubits

The Greeks developed two competing canons of proportion:  the original, developed by the sculptor Polykleitos in the 5th century BC and later in the 4th century by Lysippos. The Greek use of modes (ratios or measures) were designed to give the viewer a sense of harmony by making sure that ratios for parts of the body were both relative to each other and to the whole.

Comparison of the the Canons of Polykleitos and Lysippos

As you can see in the illustration above there was some debate as to whether the head should fit into the body 7 or 8 times.
This concept of ratios that give the viewer a sense of harmony by ensuring that all parts of the body were both relative to each other and to the whole would be of vital importance to Renaissance art. 

Leonardo: Vitruvian Man

Leonardo's drawing of the Vitruvian Man is based on his understanding of the writings of the Roman architect Vitruvius and Vitruvius took his ideas from the Greeks. In Leonardo's drawing the head measured from the forehead to the chin is exactly one tenth of the total height, and the outstretched arms are as wide as the body is tall. Vitruvius linked ideal human proportions to geometry in Book III of his treatise De Architecture, describing the human figure as being the principal source of proportion among Classical orders of architecture. Interestingly Vitruvius set out the ideal body as being be 8 heads high, agreeing with Lysippos rather than Polykleitos. 

These are the actual measures as set out by Vitruvius.
A palm = four fingers
A foot = four palms
A cubit = six palms
Four cubits make a man
A pace is four cubits
A man is 24 palms
As you can see they are directly related to the Egyptian measurements that were laid down over 2,000 years before Vitruvius.
I really like this sentence from De Architecture, "If you open your legs enough that your head is lowered by one-fourteenth of your height and raise your hands enough that your extended fingers touch the line of the top of your head, know that the centre of the extended limbs will be the navel, and the space between the legs will be an equilateral triangle". These could be the directions for a contemporary dance piece or instructions given to an artist for a performative drawing.
These are the proportions that Vitruvius sets out as being ideal.

  • the length of the outspread arms is equal to the height of a man
  • from the hairline to the bottom of the chin is one-tenth of the height of a man
  • from below the chin to the top of the head is one-eighth of the height of a man
  • from above the chest to the top of the head is one-sixth of the height of a man
  • from above the chest to the hairline is one-seventh of the height of a man.
  • the maximum width of the shoulders is a quarter of the height of a man.
  • from the breasts to the top of the head is a quarter of the height of a man.
  • the distance from the elbow to the tip of the hand is a quarter of the height of a man.
  • the distance from the elbow to the armpit is one-eighth of the height of a man.
  • the length of the hand is one-tenth of the height of a man.
  • the root of the penis is at half the height of a man.
  • the foot is one-seventh of the height of a man.
  • from below the foot to below the knee is a quarter of the height of a man.
  • from below the knee to the root of the penis is a quarter of the height of a man.
  • the distances from below the chin to the nose and the eyebrows and the hairline are equal to the ears and to one-third of the face.
    The Modern architect Le Corbusier came up with his own version of these measurements.  

Corbusier's modular man

Le Corbusier developed his version as a visual bridge between two incompatible scales, the imperial and the metric and it was based on the height of a man with his arm raised. The relationship between the proportions of the human body and architecture are easily symbolised in this drawing of a design for the floor plan of a church by Francesco di Giorgio Martini.
Francesco di Giorgio Martini

As an artist your work when it is shown will nearly always be shown in a gallery and that gallery will be part of an architectural complex. The architect may well have used a software program to help design the building and that program will have been developed around a grid, or series of grids based along the x, y and z axes. If as an artist you want to respond to the situation the work finds itself in, then you may want to measure the walls and think about the ratios set up by the architect. The doors and windows will have certain proportions and these will intrude on the space your work will be shown in. How might you reflect upon these issues? Would you go as far as contacting the architect and asking to see the original drawings? How would you develop a series of works that are both site specific and conceptually related to these ideas of measurement, ratio, harmony and proportion?
Robert Morris's 'Location Piece' is the first work I ever came across that raised this issue. You hang the work and then set the dials that indicate its position in relation to walls, ceiling and floor.
Robert Morris: Location Piece 1973

Occasionally I have tried to use computer modelling programs to develop ideas and of course if you do, you are immediately faced with having to think about how a grid can be used as a structural device. What interested me about this was that you could flatten out any 3D grids as nets, in doing this I was able to find a close association with those Egyptian images from thousands of years ago.

The image above is one made by developing a 3D model in Maya from a freehand drawing I made of my own body and then outputting the sections as flat grids.

If you want to look at a basic way of turning a 3D object into a net you could try using 123D Catch, a free downloadable bit of software. Simply make a model, take about 60 photographs of it from different angles and load into the software. (Since writing this post 123D Catch has been discontinued)

Every screen is also a grid and every grid has an aspect ratio, which is the ratio of the width to the height. 
Thinking of working on computers reminds me of the one area of aspect ratio we are all faced with; the computer screen. However we tend to just accept it as given. I clearly remember having to learn programming on BBC computers in the early 1980s, which like so many computers before 2003 had a 4:3 aspect ratio screen. I remember also having an Apple Mac Classic in the late 1980s, the almost square screen meant that you had to think about images with that proportion, and this was difficult for someone used to paper proportions. Of course the dynamics of fast scrolling game play were unthinkable in those days. Even so I still managed to use Hypercard stacks to create some basic animations. Monitors with a 16:10 aspect then began to appear in the early 2000s as the first laptop computers came in, this meant if you were working on page layouts you could put two pages side by side. By 2010, virtually all computer monitor and laptop manufacturers had moved to the 16:9 aspect ratio because of the demand for screening movies on computers. Having recently made animations that are tall and thin and then attempting to show them on screens, I began to realise yet again how much the aspect ratio of computer screens was shaping ideas. 

Climbing man animation

I needed a tall shape for the animation, but I either have to turn a monitor on its side or place a black shape around the animation to make the total image ratio fit a 16:9 screen ratio. What I really needed was a contemporary version of Magnascope technology. This was a very short lived projection technique that coincided with the release of the 1933 film 'King Kong', it allowed the scene where Kong breaks through the huge tall gates, to be projected vertically.

The grid is though a pretty basic mathematical form and sometimes it's useful to get away from it and explore other forms that are less static.

I have already looked at some basic visual exercises related to the relationship between squares and circles and the mathematics of the super ellipse extends these ideas further.

Variations of the Super ellipse

Piet Hein used the shape of the super-elapse to design a road roundabout, this was a wonderful way of calming traffic and allowing for a smooth transition from cars moving in straight lines into tight curves. Piet Hein explained the need for this shape very eloquently and I see no need to add anything.

"Man is the animal that draws lines which he himself then stumbles over. In the whole pattern of civilization there have been two tendencies, one toward straight lines and rectangular patterns and one toward circular lines. There are reasons, mechanical and psychological, for both tendencies. Things made with straight lines fit well together and save space. And we can move easily — physically or mentally — around things made with round lines. But we are in a straitjacket, having to accept one or the other, when often some intermediate form would be better. To draw something freehand — such as the patchwork traffic circle they tried in Stockholm — will not do. It isn't fixed, isn't definite like a circle or square. You don't know what it is. It isn't esthetically satisfying. The super-ellipse solved the problem. It is neither round nor rectangular, but in between. Yet it is fixed, it is definite — it has a unity". Piet Hein

One variation of the forms above is called the 'squircle'.


The point about these shapes is that they lie between one form and another, therefore they are visually unstable. For an artist looking for 'life' within abstract imagery, these types of shapes are fascinating. As well as operating between geometric 'mechanical' form and biologically 'soft' forms, they can be arrived at by inductive means as well as by mathematical formula. Follow this link to an earlier post to see how these interests relate to the history of the Leeds College of Art.

There is however something more fundamental about an interest in forms that are ‘off grid’ so to speak. When your eyes receive information that information is collected at the focal point of a lens, and each lens forms part of a spherical object. As you look you revolve your head to follow what is interesting, so looking tends to take place within a perceptually curved environment. Our life experience is not about flat grids, but about overlapping curvatures of perceptions. Therefore locking images into flat grids could be seen as trapping them into intellectual nets, or cages and more curved formats perhaps suggest that you are meant to have a more phenomenological experience of the image. I.e. you are to have a heightened physical confrontation with what you are looking at. For instance I sometime curve the space through 180 degrees in my drawings, so that an observer has to in their mind, envisage physically travelling through the spaces constructed.

In this detail from one of my own large drawings above, you can see the space being gradually curved, which causes the horizon line to eventually become re-positioned as the edge of a hole in space.

As you pull back from the drawing you can see how the hole/sky works

This is another drawing, using a similar concept

Stepping back you can begin to see how the idea of up or down can be challenged 

A flat space can be described by Euclidean geometry, but as Einstein pointed out space, energy and matter are intertwined and the descriptions of gravity that he produced were effectively diagrams of curved space, or, more specifically, the curvature or warpage of four dimensional space-time.
On a curved surface, the shortest distance between two points is actually a curve, technically known as a geodesic. When undertaking measured drawing, because you are at the centre of the measuring process, effectively you are measuring from the centre point of a huge sphere. The issues surrounding this have been explored in earlier blog posts related to how drawing used to be taught in the college; see how to draw a line and drawing a straight line .
What I’m suggesting is that opening out any research into underlying mathematical relationships and forms, is a possibility that should be taken seriously. Maps and how they relate to the flat rectangular nature of drawing papers, contradicts my experience that spatial understanding doesn’t come neatly contained within flat grids. It is in trying to reconcile the two ideas that for myself, an interesting drawing arises. The 'Squircle', may seem a long way from the sky holes in my drawings, but it is still hanging in there as an idea about how my eyes might move around a shape, even if that shape is now a curved horizon. 

See also:

The maths of road design

Friday, 5 August 2016

William Kentridge in Berlin

William Kentridge: Charcoal and ink on paper with traces of red pencil

I was over in Berlin this last week and had a chance to go and see the William Kentridge exhibition at Martin-Gropius-Bau; ‘No it is!’. Kentridge has long been an interest of mine as he covers a wide range of approaches to making drawn visual narratives and is not afraid to reflect on the political realities of his homeland and the contemporary fraught world of global capital and the anxieties it creates. His work can also be read allegorically and seeks to distil personal feelings into works that strive to achieve mythic stature.
This was a comprehensive examination of his animation work as well as his filmed performative pieces. Alongside this focus on moving image were also two galleries devoted to drawings, prints and models.
By working between disciplines he is able to extend his narratives and to open them out into much wider contexts. He has been able to work with composers, dancers, actors, as well as engineers and technicians to develop immersive environments composed of several projections and/or objects and moving constructions.


Always drawing led, he has developed a comprehensive catalogue of characters, objects and landscapes that can be used as images in their own right, as models and sculptures that can be used as props and to create shadow plays, or within animations and performances where they are brought into ever changing relationships with each other, that allow original stories or implied associations to become renewed and opened out into new emerging narratives. Every time I get to see a Kentridge exhibition it seems as if he has added another element to his repertoire, this time working with musicians to compose scores that add emotional depth to the filmic experience. He was also layering his projection work much more, using animated drawings for backgrounds and a mixture of live footage and shadow play to develop his themes. 

From: 'More Sweetly Play the Dance’

In ‘More Sweetly Play the Dance’, by using the device of a procession he was able to let all his characters parade in front of the audience. This 40-foot ‘frieze’ film of slowly progressing shadowy figures walking to a haunting tune played by a brass brand, is a sort of dance macabre that includes skeletons, people pulled along on platforms, dancers, people on medical drips, in cages and a walking pair of dividers. People might be fleeing their homes or escaping hunger, floods, poverty or war, they are from everywhere and anywhere, their dark forms moving through a raw stripped down landscape of and from any-when.  

On the 21st of September William Kentridge comes to the Whitechapel Gallery in London for the exhibition ‘Thick Time’. The exhibition will be composed of 6 large-scale installations; I am really looking forward to being able to see more of his work and if you didn’t see his major show at Marion Goodman, or haven’t been able to get to Berlin recently, then I do recommend you getting down to London before the 15th of January 2017 when it ends.

Still from a Kentridge animation