Saturday, 29 July 2017

Silverpoint drawing

My occasional posts on drawing materials always make me think of their specificity, of the way their very particularity shapes and forms the type of drawings that can be done. Silverpoint is a case in point. Each mark is very delicate and fine and you can't rub it out. You also have to prepare the surface, so that it has enough roughness to ensure the metal is deposited on the ground or surface as the point moves over it. 
These restrictions make for a certain type of concentration and focus, as well as a fragility that comes from the way tones need to be built up by the gradual massing together of many fine lines. 

Left: ‘Portrait of an unknown young woman’, c.1435, by Rogier van der Weyden 
Right: ‘The Virgin and the Child’, c.1509, by Raphael 

There was an exhibition at the British Museum a few years ago called Drawing in Silver and Gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns, which brought together examples of metal point from a wide range of artists and times. Both Northern European and Southern European artists during the time of the Renaissance used silverpoint as it lent itself to the sharp delineation of details such as the folds of a cloth or the subtle variation of tone across the surface of a face. The at the time 'new' naturalism was ideal for the harnessing of a technique that would support close looking and fine details. 


In this drawing of a dog by Durer you can easily see the sharp, distinct mark that is characteristic of a silverpoint line made on a drawing surface coated with an abrasive ground.
Des Lawrence Obituary portrait: Jimmy Stewart: Silverpoint

Des Lawrence is a contemporary artist that has taken to silverpoint to make obituary portraits. In this case the delicate, precision of the medium and the way it changes with age as the silver tarnishes, create a perfect mesh between chosen medium and subject matter. Not simply an allusion to the 'silver screen' but a recognition of the historical precedence of the medium, used in the past to depict saints, and now portraying a faded star; the medium of silverpoint becoming a way of preserving a celluloid 'ghost'.

The most common recipe for making an abrasive surface was to apply a liquid made of burnt and pulverised animal bones or cuttlefish bound together with glue or gum. This could be applied in layers to a variety of surfaces from prepared wooden panels to paper and parchment. You could also add pigment whilst making the ground, this could act as a mid tone onto which you could add white highlights with a very fine brush. 

Jasper Johns: Silverpoint drawing

Jasper Johns is an artist that is always trying to play with the way a material can shift the meaning of an image, so it is to be expected that he would have used silverpoint at some time. The delicate etherial nature of the material produces an almost ghostlike image of one of his variations on a theme, making me think that in some ways for Johns the image is at times incidental. Compare an image using a different technique. 

Jasper Johns: Painting in encaustic

You can just about see the faucet to the bottom right of his silverpoint drawing and one of his Rubin vases in the centre, these re-occur in the encaustic painting above. Johns shuffles the image pack every time he approaches making an art work and over the years gradually adds new ones. The Rubin vase occurs yet again in the etching below, the aquatint providing a tonal richness that once again changes the visual read of the image. 

Jasper Johns etching

Taking an image through as many different ways of making it as possible is a direct consequence of Johns' often quoted maxim, "Do somethingdo something to that, and then do something to that", an approach to art making that often seems to work and is a great way of making a next step when you are unsure as to what to do next. 

The artist Susan Schwalb has focused on silver and other metal point drawings for some time and has an extensive body of work devoted to the subtlety of this technique. In her case she restricts her images to tightly controlled abstract constructions, this allows you to concentrate more on the effect that the process has on the visual quality attained and stops you getting distracted by the narrative of the image. 

Susan Schwalb: silverpoint

Susan Schwalb: Madrigal: aluminum/copper/silverpoint on grey gessoed paper

Susan Schwalb also uses the effect a toned ground can give. As you can see with the drawing on grey gessoed paper above, she has been able to sit the soft warm tones of copperpoint in amongst the cooler tones of aluminium and silverpoint, using the grey colour of the ground to help blend them all together. 

Cynthia Lin

Cynthia Lin depicts scraps of hair, bits of dust and those things that you usually want to wipe off the surface of a drawing when its been left out in the studio for a few days. She uses the delicacy of silverpoint on gesso to remind us that it is often the tiny insignificant things that we never notice that hold important messages about the way we move through life. Dust and hair the products of our own body gradually flaking off and leaving a faint delicate trail behind us. 

Roy Eastland is an artist that has used silverpoint on gesso to suggest an image coming into focus. He works on and into thick layers of gesso which allows him to scratch and sand back into his drawings, he revises and redraws until the image arrives out of a haze of marks. 

Roy Eastland

Eastland's drawings above were done from toys found in a museum, the process reimagines them, and uses silverpoint's sharp delicacy alongside sanding and scratching to suggest a dreamlike nostalgia for the forgotten toys of the past. I particularly like the drawings of a red Indian dancing, turning a small plastic toy back into a shamanistic dream image. 

As always there is a scientific principle at work here, the mohs scale of hardness reminds us that the ability of a harder material to scratch a softer material allows us to think about how to use selected materials to shape and form others. As one surface rubs against another there is an intimation of geological forces at work, the drawing's surface working as a miniature landscape, being eroded and cut into by the forces of metals and minerals dancing in tune to hand gestures and a changing mind as the artist searches for an image in the ground. 

You can easily make your own drawing tools if you want to work using metal points, or if you need to you can still buy both metalpoint drawing tools and prepared grounds from art suppliers such as Jacksons. I would personally recommend making your own but see this link if you want to just buy stuff and get on with trying things out. 

You can buy silver wire for less that £1.50. 

Find here a link to an exhibition that brought together several contemporary artists using silverpoint. 


Burns, T (2012) The Luminous Trace: Drawing and Writing in Metalpoint Archetype Publications

Still, S (2015) Drawing in Silver and Gold: Leonardo to Jasper Johns Princeton Press

Wednesday, 26 July 2017

Drawing as translation

My last post on Drawing in response to art touched upon another related issue, drawing as translation. You could argue that Picasso and Lichtenstein were translating earlier artists' personal language into their own. But there are several other issues that can be unpicked here, the most interesting for me though is that of the gradual erosion of the initial meaning or intended communication and the way a new object arises out of the act of translation. As children we have all played Chinese whispers, a game that relies upon the fact that people are prone to mishear things, especially if they are whispered. When the last person in the line has to announce what they believe was said, we are often genuinely surprised and enchanted by how far the initial sentence has changed. Sometimes I think art is like that. One artist makes a piece of work, another sees it and makes something similar, then another artist sees the second artist's work and makes something in response to that; and so it goes....

There is a quite technical understanding of this process, the translator Antoine Berman has identified several ‘deforming tendencies’ that occur during acts of translation: including rationalisation, clarification, expansion, ennoblement, qualitative impoverishment, quantitative impoverishment, the destruction of rhythms, the destruction of underlying networks of signification, the destruction of linguistic patternings, the destruction of vernacular network or their exoticisation, the destruction of expressions and idioms and the effacement of the superimposition of languages. 
This process is understood by Berman to be related to verbal or written languages, but we can see very similar processes of deformation occur when we look at visual translations. 
Translation is very close to copying, and historically copying was an important aspect of an artist's training.  Fialetti's 'All parts of the human body, divided into several pieces'  is a classic drawing aid, which itself uses engraved and printed translations of drawings as illustrations, which artists were meant to copy in order to build up a knowledge of the human body. Known as 'libra da disengage' these instructional manuals were designed to be followed step by step, from outline to shading, from individual body parts to full bodies. 
(My interest here is that the body is broken down in a similar way to how we can break down a written or verbal language when trying to learn it, and if words are put together in the wrong order the meaning changes dramatically. Think of what would happen if an eye from one page was put together with a torso from another). Max Ernst was one of the first people to grasp the power of this potential. 

Max Ernst: Collage

So when does copying become translating? One way to think of this is when a change of medium is involved. A chalk drawing rendered as a line drawing in pen and ink for example, or a silverpoint drawing copied in pencil. However a step further would be when a three dimensional medium, such as stone carving is translated into a two dimensional medium. 

Tourist photograph of the Belvedere Torso

'Artistic' photograph of the Belvedere Torso

Photograph of a Peter Paul Rubens red chalk drawing after the Belvedere Torso

Maerten Van Heemskerck

Hendrick Goltzius  Belvedere Torso

Not only do we have changes in expression due to changes in material, we can also see subtle changes due to the particular predilections of each artist. Rubens emphasises the compact rhythmic power in the torso, Goltzius is more interested in the sensuous body and Maerten Van Heemskerck who worked for many years as a designer for engravers, is more interested in picking out a clarity of form with his hatched pen and ink lines. Perhaps more interesting is how the two different photographs carry meaning. The 'tourist' photograph is harshly lit and our attention on the figure distracted by the other people in the image. The 'artistic' photograph, taken from an old art magazine, has used a very particular soft lighting technique to emphasise the fleshy quality of the torso. 

All the 'translations' above are historically distant, but we can get an idea of how Lichtenstein's images initially seemed so startling by looking at a few drawings from how to draw superhero comic books. 

The conventions associated with superhero comics, include certain sorts of simplification and exaggeration, what Berman would call ‘deforming tendencies’. If you replaced the styles of drawing the Belvedere Torso that were commented on further above with a comic book style, you can see how it would lead to rationalisation, clarification, expansion, ennoblement, qualitative impoverishment, quantitative impoverishment, the destruction of rhythms and the destruction of underlying networks of signification. But in the very destruction, there would also be the creation of alternative rationalisations and renewals. 

Jack Kirby

The Jack Kirby drawing above still has within it a memory of the Belvedere torso, but by now the model is but a faint one. 
As one type of simplification process is applied, it can be combined with another, until the original image becomes a pattern and loses most of its association with an initial three dimensional experience. In the image above a brush drawing was further simplified using a Photoshop 'stamp' filter. 

We have to also bare in mind that all of the images in this post are already translations from one photographic medium to another, digital photography and computer aided image manipulation is so ubiquitous that we tend to forget that it is itself a medium with specific qualities. 

Photoshop: Reticulation filter

There are of course more dramatic translations, such as a sound having a visual equivalent, as in a sound score, or the reverse; 'Adjectives, lines and marks' was "an open-ended audio drawing" that was "a spoken description of an unknown object" and it won the Jerwood Drawing Prize the other year. The translation of drawings or other visual art forms into words is an old format, one the Greeks called 'Ekphrasis', which has the following dictionary definition, 'a vivid, often dramatic, verbal description of a visual work of art, either real or imagined.' See this earlier post for an example. 

Aura Satz, Impulsive Synchronisation sound score, 2013


I have touched on some of these issues before; see earlier posts on eye music and mapping as translation.

The artist Bryan Eccleshall is someone specialising in the theoretical implications of a drawing practise reflecting on these issues.

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Drawing reflecting on art

Velazquez 'Las Meninas'

Sometimes when you are working it becomes apparent that what you are most interested in is art itself and the various images that we associate with the practice of being an artist. Even an artist as protean or inventive as Picasso at certain times in his career turned to art itself as his subject. Could he translate the language of Velazquez into his own style?

Picasso: Drawing after Velazquez 'Las Meninas'

There are many ways to engage with art as a subject matter, the most common is to work directly with images of the past, exploring how a contemporary language changes our understanding of the classical canon. Roy Lichtenstein has in the image below employed his signature style of 'Ben-Day' dots and flat colour derived from comic book printing processes, to a futurist image by Carlo Carra. (See link at the bottom of this post for more detail) In effect Lichtenstein's image works to freeze Carra's attempt to inject dynamism and movement into painting. Is Lichtenstein trying to reflect on the fact that once a painting becomes part of the historical canon, it is in effect 'frozen' in time, its original impact now lost and it becoming instead a commodity fixed to the blue chip art retail index? Whatever the reason Lichtenstein is now himself part of the art canon, his work now ripe for someone else to make work about.

Carlo Carra

Personally I'm more interested in this lithograph (below) that Lichtenstein made back in 1970. We have all made sketches and diagrams about new processes we have been trying to learn, my old sketchbooks have lots of them, how to make a 5 piece mould, how to prepare a silkscreen, how to etc. etc. These notes are in fact often interesting examples of visual thinking and Lichtenstein has decided to elevate his notes taken when embarking on lithography to the status of art, by making his notes the subject of the prints. I realise this is again very self reflexive but I think he was making an important point. We often dismiss those things we do to understand quite complex information as everyday note taking, he reminds us to think back and look carefully at how powerful a simple diagram can be.

Roy Lichtenstein: Lith/Litho 1970

His most iconic images in relation to the subject matter of art, or more specifically painting, must be his 'Brushstrokes' series. Made in response to the Abstract Expressionist movement's reliance on the importance of a signature mark or brushstroke. Lichtenstein copied the graphic comic book style of Dick Giordano to achieve his idea. Thus 'high art' appropriated 'low art'. Giordano is a revered comic book artist who has a long track record of working with some of the most iconic superhero comics of our time. It could be argued that as time has moved on and the status of comic book art has risen, Giordano is now becoming more famous than Lichtenstein.

Dick Giordano

Roy Lichtenstein

Eventually Lichtenstein would make his brushstrokes into monumental sculptures, such as the one above, elevating the artist's brushstroke to the same status of a king or queen, the artist's gesture now taking on the status of a public monument. It would be interesting to read what future historians might make of this, and how they would read this image in relation to an understanding of our culture. The artist's gesture having such an importance that it is monumentalised, says much about cultural status and the role of the celebrity artist.
When Lichtenstein responds to the work of Picasso, it's interesting to look at what he does to the image; once again it's essential dynamism is lost, Lichtenstein making a sort of boiled down emoji of Picasso's work.

There are emojis for everything now and of course the artist cliché is still with us. The image of the artist with his thumb through his palette (very much a him) is quickly found amongst the many hundreds of emoji's to select from when you are texting messages. This boiling down of images into their most easily read components being one of the by products of the mobile phone screen. In comparison with the artist emoji, Renoir's painting is hard to read, there might me more to it, but in the days of image saturation, this emoji which has been constructed from simplified past images of artists, seems so much easier to grasp. Clichés are not just the lifeblood of emojis, the press and by extension people as a whole, find it much easier to work with simple stereotypes. Where this leads to is a mistrust of difference, a refusal to address complexity and political gestures rather than meaningful engagement. 

Although this post is about art as a subject matter, I do find it hard to avoid political issues. I am not alone in this. Another way of approaching art history is to take one way of working and to use it in conjunction with subject matter never before associated with it. For instance the portrait of Lenin below by Art and Language uses a Pollock drip technique where you would expect to find socialist realism. This connection has an interesting background history. Back in the 1950s Abstract Expressionism was often seen to exemplify the idea of what it was to be a free thinking US citizen, whilst socialist realism was seen as the typical state controlled art of communist societies. The Art and Language image suggests that what appeared to be freedom of expression, was far from it and that Pollock's work was as much informed by the complex needs of his society as any other. 

Art & Language
Portrait of VI Lenin in July 1917 Disguised by a Wig and Workings Man's Clothes 
in the Style of Jackson Pollock

A related but slightly different comment on Abstract Expressionism is Rauschenberg's erased de Kooning. In this detail below you can just about see a ghost of the original de Kooning. Rauschenberg is making a point about the idea of genius, about the status of art when it becomes part of the accepted canon. It can also be read as a statement made by a younger artist who is determined to be part of a new generation who will come through and replace the older artists. Modernism itself has often been seen as a succession of styles replacing one another, and Rauschenberg's intervention could also be seen as a comment on this. 
Detail of 'Erased de Kooning' by Rauchenberg

Sherrie Levine asks questions about originality and the idea of the artist's signature mark. She sets out to copy other art and presents the work as her own, not as a forger, but as someone that stakes ownership through a conceptual repositioning. I was particularly interested in her work, because several years before Levine became known I was doing exactly the same thing, re-making Duchamp's Bottlerack and making stone lithographs of Van Gogh paintings.  However making a clever point about originality in the confines of a small art school in South Wales, is not the same thing as bringing it to the attention of the New York art world. 
Sherrie Levine, After Willem de Kooning, 1981, pencil on paper

Garry Barker 'Hand made Bottlerack' 1972

Conceptual positioning and repositioning are much more likely to be the processes a contemporary artist would use, if they are to make work reflecting on art and its associated tropes. When making conceptual statements, artists need to operate as if they are in effect playing a game. The rules of art are well known, but occasionally someone thinks of a new move. This art game relates to what has been theorised as the Institutional Theory of Art. I.e. what we call art is really all the activities and things that belong to the existing domain of art practice. Galleries, art critics, styles of art, artists, art movements, art schools, studios, easels, paintings, art magazines, art history books, art fairs etc. etc. therefore art according to Dickie and others who advocate the institutional theory of art, is always operating as some sort of self-validating mechanism, the people within the art matrix are always happy to demonstrate its importance, simply because they have to in order to validate their own worth. 
Tyler Coburn: Thumbprints & Other Takeaways (1960-2010)

There is an article in Flash Art, 'Signature and Style; a nomadic platform for subversion' by Karen Archey, that unpicks several of the issues surrounding concepts of style and originality, this excerpt below from the article explores how several strands can be woven together to create a more complex narrative. 

'Tyler Coburn created Thumbprints & Other Takeaways (1960-2010), a set of three pedestals topped with reflective copper etching plates, creating a surface upon which viewers would leave their thumbprints. Upon these etching plates are three sets of Felix Gonzalez-Torres-style takeaways: a selection of smooth, round “sucking stones” (à la Samuel Beckett’s infamous Molloy, 1955); a sliced, oozing round of Camembert cheese; and a stack of white drawing paper with various signatures of Salvador Dalí etched in graphite. The three pedestals represent three unique methods of artistic production. The sucking stones — bringing to mind Rosalind Krauss’ 1978 essay “LeWitt in Progress” — represent working through a fabricated system of logic. Coburn’s liquidated cheese refers to the a-ha! moment in which Dalí sat down to a lunch of Camembert and first envisioned his signature melting clocks — or more specifically, the synthesis of work and leisure. Lastly, and perhaps most pertinent here, is the artist’s stack of heavyweight drawing papers etched with various signatures of Salvador Dalí in the bottom right corner. At first glance, the signatures appear to be authentically written in by Dalí himself — Coburn even goes so far as to credit him as a collaborator, which, needless to say, is illegal. The artist actually etches the graphite signatures onto the paper (the etching copper is a good clue to determining authenticity), toying with notions of forgery. Notably, toward the ’60s Dalí ceased to create art but frequently signed sheets of paper onto which reproductions of his previous work were printed out of financial motivations'.

What I think much of this type of work is about is the perceived lack of use value for works of art. I know several artists, including myself at times, that worry about what it is they do. What value is it to the world, how can it operate as a force for good? If there seems to be no purpose for something, but (and here is an interesting paradox) people are still driven to make it, then why not simply make images or artworks that reflect on the thing that you are driven to do anyway. If however you believe that art helps us enrich our understanding of the world, the art world is simply another subject matter. The art world being like any other sub-group preoccupation, concerned with roles and positions and familiar rituals of practice, that could be regarded as being analogous to other preoccupations and interests, the work done being understood as another metaphor for the human condition. 

Alan Brookes: Dix

Taking a different approach to art as subject matter Alan Brookes another ex LCA student, is more interested in those images we have that capture the artist at work or in their studios.
I still remember the large drawings he did as a student and it's interesting to see what he is doing now. As he points out sometimes you begin collecting things that at the time you are not sure why you do it, in his case this is what he had to say about the background to his drawings about artists and their studios.

“When I was at art college I began collecting pictures of artists working in their studio or making their artworks. This collection became an addendum to my interest in the artists’ work, a research method for the development of my own practice. I collected the images from magazines, old books, newspapers, postcards, anywhere I could find them. But at the time they weren’t collected with any particular purpose in mind. About five years ago I was sifting through this archive of images and it struck me that the reasons I had been originally fascinated in say, Ensor or Dix, had become lost in time. Dix is a portrait of the German painter Otto Dix, who is well known for his gruesome depictions of WWI violence and satirical images of life in the Weimar Republic".

Alan Brooks: Nauman

The Leeds based art duo Leeds United developed a rich vein of art world inspired works over a long period of time. This PDF is an excellent introduction.
Leeds United

Richard Long introduced walking a line into the art canon, and Leeds United's tongue in cheek version was to undertake a pub crawl instead. Art and heavy drinking are closely entwined in the mythology of certain macho art practices, such as those associated with the Abstract Expressionist movement, and Leeds United in this piece join two art myths together.
I've always loved Steve Carrick's take on Hirst's spot paintings and the convention of always having wine at openings. He stained each glass of wine to approximate the colours of a Hirst spot painting, and then laid out the table in the same configuration. During the opening of course the audience would effectively destroy the piece by drinking it.

Leeds United

The business of art is a very rich field to reap, as a student I was fascinated by it and made several pieces of work responding to various issues that at the time I was interested in. Kolmar and Melamid's 'Most wanted and Least wanted Paintings' is a work that has had resonance far beyond the art world itself, as it pointed to well established sensibilities in large sections of the general public and a indicated a clear schism between what the average member of the public would like to see and what the art world itself viewed as good art. Below are some examples of the images we love and the images we hate, I leave it up to you to decide which is which.

'Most wanted and Least wanted Paintings' USA

'Most wanted and Least wanted Paintings' France

Komar and Melamid have also commented on the birth of drawing and painting. In Pliny's original story, Butades daughter draws around the shadow of her lover, so that she has a clear memory of his face, Butades will then go one to make a realistic bust of him. The implication being that the first drawings were tracings of shadows. In this case though the lover is the much mourned former head of the soviet state.

Komar and Melamid: The Origin of Socialist Realism

“We know that a picture is but a space in which a variety of images, none of them original, blend and clash. A picture is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centers of culture…We can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original.”
-Sherrie Levine

This area of practice has been often criticised for turning its back on the 'real world' and its problems. However, art like all other human activities is simply part of the experience of the world that we all have. You cant take art out of the world. It's a similar situation to the framed drawing. The frame is an attempt to separate out the drawing from the world so that you can contemplate the drawing without any distractions or outside interference. However in reality the frame is of course just another thing, another part of the world's furniture and so is the drawing that you are looking at. All things are interconnected and because of this analogies can be made that reveal rich echoes between what we might first of all think are totally separate fields of human endeavour. Komar and Melamid in the Origin of Socialist Realism, perhaps alluding to the sexual excitement that power can generate. 

I will at some point put up a post about Mark Tansey and his images that play with art and its associated ideas, but in the meantime find a couple of images to whet your appetite.

Mark Tansey

See an exploration of drawing and painting origin myths here.

See also an earlier post on this subject

More on the Institutional theory of art

For an excellent and informative discussion on the ben-day dot and Roy Lichtenstein

For a little light relief.