Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Drawing hands

One of the first drawings of yourself you will probably do is of your own hand. I suspect this is true of most artists, your 'other hand' is always available as a model and all drawers are acutely aware of the importance of the eye hand relationship. That relationship is a deep one and in many ways artist's drawings of hands exemplifies their world view. The hand becomes a microcosm through which the world itself is touched by meaning. There is a drawing by Seurat of the hand of Poussin, after Ingres. It is Poussin's right hand holding the edge of what looks like a small drawing board. In the Ingres' painting that Poussin did the drawing from, Poussin is directing us to look at the main event, 'The Apotheosis of Homer', but in Seurat's eyes the main event is Poussin's hand. This was the hand that made those tightly composed compositions that gave classical weight to the French tradition of painting. You get the feeling from Seurat's closely observed drawing that it was this strong drawing hand, the hand that felt for the clarity of expression that could be achieved by disegno, that was the real mind behind Poussin's work. Seurat would in his own time develop a series of drawings and paintings that would become a new classicism for a post impressionist world, this hand perhaps being for him a loadstone that indicated what was to become his life's ambition. 

Georges Seurat, The Hand of Poussin, after Ingres

Ingres: 'The Apotheosis of Homer'

Ingres: 'The Apotheosis of Homer' detail, portrait of Poussin

Ingres has a similar problem to Caravaggio when it comes to hands, Poussin's  left hand is too close to us in terms of size constancy, compare the image above with 'The Supper at Emmaus', below. The figure on the right with his hands stretched out wide would have an enormous right hand if he brought both hands together to prey. I think this is to do with the psychology of hands, they are so important to us that it is hard to be an impartial judge when making images of them, their importance to us is then reflected in the sizes we make them. The hand in essence becoming an additional portrait, that has a life of its own and that establishes its own space and presence within the overall image.


Seurat's drawings are often presented as painter's drawings and Rodin's as sculptor's drawings. I think you could if you wanted to reverse this and think of Seurat as a sculptor and Rodin as a painter. Seurat was looking for a new way of giving classical weight to his images, his drawings simplify form and in doing this give a certain weight and monumentality to the world. 


The two drawings above by Seurat are details, both images are seen with an eye for solid form and could easily have been done by a sculptor. If we look at Rodin's drawing of a hand in comparison it is more about energy and movement. Both the pencil and wash elements of the drawing reinforce this, the wash pulsing with liquid energy, whilst the linear pencil drawing establishes direction and position. Both artists were seeking to link their work back through a classical tradition, but both had to find a fresh approach to old problems. The energy in the mass as understood by late Michelangelo had to be rethought by Rodin, just as Raphael's constructed solidity had to be re-invented by Seurat. 



Rodin's drawing of a hand is a summation of a gesture, and when he comes to draw the body as a whole he again sums up the body as a vehicle for the containment of energy, something that would be vital to his sculptural work.
In contrast Henry Moore is about a more geological solidity, his hand drawings are closer in conception to Seurat's drawings. However Moore feels his way over the forms, cross contour lines travel over the wrist following the touch of the fingers of the right hand.

Henry Moore

Henry Moore studied at the Leeds College of Art as did Barbara Hepworth, but their drawings are very different. If you look at Hepworth's drawings of surgeons' hands below you can almost compare them to the drawings of Watteau. The delicate, sensitive touch needed by surgeons to operate with being almost wistful in its softness.

Barbara Hepworth

Barbara Hepworth

The more completed drawing above still has that delicate sensitive hand holding a scalpel, this time framed by the more sculptural presence of the surgeon and accompanying nurses. The drawing of hands below by Watteau is a similar study of small differences in gesture. However these hands are framed by their elaborate cuffs. Watteau's hands are more 'boney' than Hepworth's, or at least have more of a grasp of 'inner' structure, whilst still having a certain delicacy of touch; Watteau's chalk drawings using the subtle play of dark/light contrast to give weight to these small gestures.


Watteau's hands suggest a life lived, one that has had to rely on subtle gestures to achieve communication with others, but even so a lived life is evident. This is a far cry from the hand drawings of Egon Schiele.

Egon Schiele

Egon Schiele's drawings revel and reveal in the fact that the skeleton is always close to the surface of the hand. His skin covering is muscle-less, the pink watercolour masking out the bones that remind us of death. In Watteau we are reminded of the fragility and yet strong delicacy of life, but in Schiele we are confronted with the end of life. If you then compare a hand drawn by Picasso made as a study for Guernica, there is a fascinating difference. Both hands in their different ways confront death, but Picasso's is a hand in revolt, a hand energised in its confrontation with pain, one that for all its distortion still possesses an inner strength, but Schiele's is too brittle to fight back, too thin to resist the coming end.


Philip Guston

Of all the many hands I have looked at perhaps the most intriguing are the ones drawn and painted by Philip Guston. Guston sees the hand drawing as almost God like. It emerges from a celestial cloud, holds what looks like a stick of charcoal between two fingers, (a very ungainly way to hold any drawing tool) and veins stand out around the wrist suggesting a high venous pressure, possibly as a result of a poor life style. The low horizon line giganticises the hand, its rough form authentic as much as comic, awkward as much as kitsch. It is drawing a line in the sand, a line that could also be a shadow, a shadow that if it is a shadow has forgotten to cast the hand of its maker.  Nothing is right about this image and because of this it sticks. Sticky images are hard to come by and when they happen they stick. 

Qu Leilei

Since putting up this post I have been to see the Qu Leilei exhibition at the Khoan & Michael Sullivan Gallery of Chinese Paintings in the Ashmolian Museum in Oxford. His large ink drawings of hands are an alternative take on this tradition, a fusing together of Eastern and Western sensibilities, he uses his large drawings to comment on our use of hands as a powerful symbol for friendship and togetherness. 

 Käthe Kollwitz

Sometimes the hand has to be separated from the head. In this case Kollwitz suggests that the hand although linked to the head, (a head that stares hard at the line representing the drawing surface), is also separate from the head. The mind and the hand working together, separate and yet joined. The arm that connects them dissolved in energy marks. 

Monday, 19 February 2018

Drawing as material thinking

The more I think about the last post, the more I am reminded of the issues surrounding drawing as a type of material thinking. I have in recent posts tried to open out my ideas on drawing as a record or trace of physical interaction, but another way of exploring this is to think of drawing as a particular type of material transformation. In doing this you can then think of drawing as a temporary space for a meditation on the movement between organic and inorganic matter. 
Perhaps I need to retrace my thoughts. Nancy Rubins' drawings were made of graphite on paper. Graphite, (it used to be called plumbago because it looked so much like lead), is a crystalline allotrope of carbon, an element that because of its high valency of 4, is very good at making connections with other elements, one result of which is that in science fiction we are often referred to as 'carbon based life forms'. Graphite is formed as veins within metamorphic rocks, and these veins are the result of the metamorphism of organic material in limestone deposits. I.e. graphite is a material made from a stone that is in turn made from organic materials. If you look closely at limestone or chalk deposits you will often see the tiny remains of shells. A sedimentary rock, limestone is mainly calcium carbonate (CaCO3) which is what forms the mineral calcite. Calcite is made from the slow accumulation in shallow seas of a constant falling rain of shells, corals, algal and fecal debris. The slow time of a rock, if speeded up to the time awareness of a human, reveals it's complex entanglement into organic life. The structures of chemical compounds are often visualised through drawings, both two and three dimensional and the Rubins exhibition also included sculptures held together with tensed wires, structures that echoed those first of all explored by Buckminster Fuller. 

A basic tensegrity structure that can be thought of as a three dimensional drawing

Buckminsterfullerene, the chemical compound of carbon when it is found in the form of a fullerene has a shape very like a spherical football. These forms when visualised help us to think about how the world at a deep level is interconnected, and at this microscopic level there is a constant movement between organic and inorganic matter; humans being both made of these elements and existing in the midst of them. Our bones are made in a very similar fashion to the way that shells are extruded, both needing a liquid environment within which to grow. Our blood relies on iron as a carrier of oxygen around the body, which is why our blood is red, an octopus relies on the copper-rich protein called hemocyanin to do the same thing as our much more familiar haemoglobin, which is why an octopus's blood is blue. We are part of an ever changing dance of materials, materials that are constantly metamorphosing into interconnected organic and inorganic forms and as I make my drawing in chalk or graphite or whatever materials are available, in many ways I am simply performing just another materials dance routine, but one that for a brief moment, might help an often overly self obsessed conglomerate of chemicals in its self reflection.

Click on this video that was made to help people draw the Buckminsterfullerene molecule. 

Above is a drawing of buckminsterfullerene. Below is an image of one of Nancy Rubin's sculptures alongside one of her graphite drawings in the Gasgosian. 

Rubin's work could therefore be read as metaphors for the underlying structural elements in all things, whether these be organic or inorganic. The casting of animals into metals, now becoming a reminder of the essential elements that all animals are made up of. 

So a few points:

  • All living things can make and transform chemicals.
  • Suns can make and transform elements.
  • A planet is a site for the accumulation of matter and of resultant complex chemical interactions.
  • Organic matter is enmeshed into a complex entanglement with inorganic matter.
A rock is weathered, its weathered particles when they are small enough dissolve into water and as they do so they become chemically connected with other elements and transformed into new compounds. 
An animal eats vegetables made of chemical compounds 'sucked' from the earth by plants. The plants have been able to survive because they can trap the energy of the sun through photosynthesis. The plant made compounds are  broken down by the animal's digestion system and transformed into useful building blocks for its own life. Eventually the animal will die and the various compounds will be returned to the earth. 

It could be argued that all drawings are also material reflections on these processes. 

Drawing using charcoal made in the ceramic boat below

Boat for charcoal making

The charcoal I made for the drawing above was made in a fire that was partly covered up to reduce the amount of oxygen that could get to the wood. Sticks were laid into the body of the ceramic 'boat', which was ritually burnt and then the 'boat' was retrieved from the fire once everything had cooled. The ritual was a way of reminding myself where things come from, and how ideas can have complex entanglements with history as well as chemistry. The drawings made from the charcoal became a sort of mental re-enactment of the associations I began to think about as I drew. Because charcoal is burnt wood and I had been researching older myths, I was very aware of the burning of ships as a funeral ritual. Fire as a transformative element is central to my thinking here, but also the boat at sea, in particular the "sea in the middle of the earth," or 'Wendel-sae' as it was in old English. As of this day 19th of February 2018, just 50 days into the year, there have been 404 recorded migrant deaths in the Mediterranean sea.

The white marks were made from wood ash and the point I am slowly getting to is that I have begun to feel that drawing can also act as part of a series of rituals designed to help us think about what goes on. Hopefully not to privilege human ideas over other sorts of chemical transformations but to alchemically celebrate the interconnectedness of everything. 

Recent posts related to the idea of drawing and material thinking.

Drawing as entanglements of life
Drawing as the trace of a touch
The world is drawing itself
Patternings, ties, entanglements and knots
Drawing as a model for life experience
Drawing to an end

Friday, 16 February 2018

The drawings of Nancy Rubins at the Gagosian

Nancy Rubins: Graphite on paper

There is an exhibition of Nancy Rubins’ work at the Gagosian gallery in Britannia Street, London at the moment. It’s on until April the 14th, so if you are travelling down to London by train go and see it, as Britannia Street is very close to Kings Cross station.

Although this is an exhibition of both her sculpture and drawings, I was particularly interested in the two very large drawings Rubins had on exhibition (Above). These drawings were essentially about the illusion of weight. I have seen some very good Richard Serra exhibitions in the same gallery and Rubins’ drawings reminded me of Serra’s interest in iron and how heavy it can be, however these particular drawings were I thought, much more to do with the old tradition of trompe d’oeil. Rubins works in graphite on paper, and like Anna Barriball builds up dense textures by pushing graphite into the paper surface. However there is a big difference in how she is developing this surface. 

Rubins tears and re-joins her paper, she has also attached tape and pulled it back off so that areas of rough texture can be developed. I suspect she sands the paper surface as well. As you scan the drawings you can see subtle changes in the way light reflects off differences in texture, as the gallery lights pick up the various changes in direction her hands must have taken as she pushed the graphite across the surface. There have been many hours spent building up a surface of this intensity, these drawings in many ways being a document to Rubins’ labours. 

The paper itself is a thick, heavy weight and a not hot pressed one; a hand made paper that collects graphite powder in the pocks and holes in its surface, thus preventing the sheen that Barriball gets when she rubs her graphite into a paper surface. The density of the material Rubins ends up with means that these sheets of paper look like lead and on first glance could be mistaken for wall mounted sculptures. On second glance you can see that these ‘sculptures’ are held onto the walls simply by using metal headed push pins. 

If you bend down and look behind the areas that bend away from the wall you can see that this work is a product of the material properties of paper, the untreated backs of the paper sheets revealing the true nature of the work.
Paper can be folded, creased, torn, ripped, bent into curves, pinned to walls, it can be made to crack as it is bent or folded, and is easily overlapped and layered. Rubins takes full advantage of the fact that this heavy looking material is in fact paper light and she is obviously enjoying the freedom of compositional variation that these building methods give her.

Finally we are left with the associations these ‘leaden’ looking surfaces suggest. From the giving of monumentality to the simple graphite pencil mark, via thoughts about lead sheeting, the look of Anslem Keifers’ books and aeroplanes, via the look of broken armour, to memories of 1950s and 60s lead lined atomic shelters. There is though also something about drapery as well, folded and draped materials having a long history of Classical associations in Western history of art. Perhaps above all I was interested in Rubins’ drawings because they were just graphite on paper, something that she would have probably done when she made her very first drawings as a child, and what she does is show us what the potential is when you just push an activity to its logical conclusion. 
See also these earlier posts.
Theimprint and the trace (This post also introduces Anna Barriball’s graphite work)

Friday, 9 February 2018

Drawing as a model for life experience

So can drawing to be separated out from life, and if so what is the use in thinking of it as a separate thing, especially if life itself can be experienced as a type of drawing? It could be argued that drawing be regarded as a model of reality or arena whereby the material thinking that arises from real world interactions is echoed or re-enacted within a tightly controlled situation. The lessons learnt in responding to traces of events in the real world are in these cases transposed into the controlled arena of the drawing. All those experiences of real-life events that I have referred to over the last few posts; the reading of tracks in the snow, the following of marks that indicate a path, one material leaving marks on another etc., help build up a vocabulary of material awareness, one that can be applied in a variety of circumstances. In a traditional drawing a very limited set of material interactions are used as a trigger or an initiator for thinking, but even these restricted materials (charcoal, ink, pencil, chalks etc. what we tend to call art materials) can when looked at closely and the narratives we see unpicked, help us to think about how both the making and the way the materials help shape the making, come together to make meaning. Look at these previous posts about traditional approaches to drawing; Watteau and Hakuin Ekaku although from very different cultures, both use their materials to respond to things happening in their world. Real life experiences and drawing can in many ways mirror each other, drawing being a model to help us understand something about life, life itself being the resource from which all drawings take their bearings. Of course a drawing can't really escape from or be separate from the world itself, but it can be regarded as a temporary holding space and testbed of experience, a space for material thinking to take place, one that gives us more time to reflect on the issues raised. I have in a past post pointed to Derrida's concept of the parergon to help think about the space between an artwork and the real world. However since reading Donna Haraway's 'Staying with the trouble' I would suggest that it might be more important to think about how a physical preoccupation like drawing, (both its objectness and the processes surrounding its making or origin) is entangled with and into the rest of nature.

False nose: pencil and wax crayon

The drawing above of a false nose was done while I was waiting for someone. I was in a house in Glasgow and for some reason the person who owned the house had this false nose lying on a table near to where I was sitting. I began to doodle something on a piece of yellowish paper, a something you can just about see as a ghost of its former self. Once I had realised I could develop the drawing further, I removed the initial drawing with a white oil pastel. As I realised I had more time than I thought I had, I changed focus, this time trying much harder to establish a more convincing shape for the false nose. I began to realise the drawing could be read in two ways, with the bottom of the nose either open and facing out into the space, or lying flat on the table surface. This flicking between states is fascinating, because it keeps visual possibilities open and alive to constant reinterpretation. I'm always aware of Cezanne when doing drawings like this. He was a master of the small difference in viewpoint. As I drew I was moving my head, so that curves to the left of the image are made from one viewpoint and curves slightly to the right are drawn from another. As a small drawing like this gradually emerges one of the issues is how much do you adjust different aspects of the drawing to allow them to fit together as a whole. This I believe can only be done by instinct. There will be an overall feeling tone that arises, one that makes the difference between the drawing being alive or dead. It is in relation to this feeling tone that the most convincing adjustments are made, not the measuring of relationships. However, is there enough information to make the drawing convincing? Does it tell enough of a story of its making? Is there enough in this drawing to suggest a layered read or double life? Is it experiential as well as metaphorical? In small drawings like this, I can see all sorts of possibilities; a scrap of visual information can provide a thoughtful few moments that at some future time might become a much more worked through idea. I would hope that in changing focus as the drawing was emerging, this has helped to get across an idea of compacted time, of a series of decisions made and captured in such a way that they all continue to operate on the mind of the observer, thus keeping the initial experiences alive. A dialogue with an inanimate object being hopefully as rich as a dialogue with another human being. A stand alone drawing done in the security of someone's kitchen is though very different to a series of drawings done in the open air. 
Below are some sketchbook drawings done down in West Wittering of a wheat field. I've drawn this field several times and each time something new occurs to me.

Sketchbook pages

The top drawing is made on a single A5 sketchbook page. It is again made in pencil, and white oil pastel is used in conjunction with the pencil as both an eraser and as a method of giving an extra dimension to both the textural and the tonal range I can make when working in pencil. The paper is creamy white, and is smooth and about 100 gsm in weight. The two drawings below, done on the same day, are made in a small A6 sketchbook, the paper is watercolour weight and the images take advantage of the landscape format that is on offer if you work right across both pages. This time pen, brush and ink is the medium. The metaphors available when drawing a field are very different to those that come to mind when drawing a false nose. A field of wheat is in constant movement, it is more like trying to draw the surface of the sea than an object. Therefore rhythm becomes more important. The pencil drawing felt too stiff, so I moved on to pen and ink because each stroke is much easier to read as an energy container. Close up and more distant views again change the nature of the marks made, the furthest away forms being made simply with a brush and dilute ink. The wind blows as I draw, my feet push into the earth, there is the sound of the outdoors and an awareness of small creatures moving through the landscape and I am like all these things, tied into the world in my own networks of connection, our occurring together in this field at this particular point in time being the result of far too many small and large happenstances for me to articulate, but we are all arriving at the same time, myself, the landscape and the drawing. 
It's interesting to compare a drawing of wheat done from a much more scientific point of view, such as the image below.

I'm very aware that my drawings tell the viewer very little about the actual nature of each individual seed head. My eyesight isn't as good as it was, but more importantly I was trying to capture an essence of the experience, something that could replicate the feeling of a dynamic rather than a snapshot of time. The drawing of wheat above is focused on very specific scientific information, the seeds and their various shapes are picked out and arranged next to their respective cereal grasses. In particular they are made to produce information that will be scientifically useful for another human being. My sketchbook drawings it could be argued are far less useful, however they do point to a certain type of relationship a particular human being had at a particular moment in time with a field of wheat and in that very fact, perhaps this is their use value. I was prepared to stop and have some sort of conversation with the field, the drawing being perhaps like some sort of animist language, the spirit of the field now reflected in the spirit of the marks made. 

There is a fundamental limitation to the drawings I have been showing as examples of how I have tried to build images of experiences. In particular small drawings can only hold certain sorts of information about time and space. Experiences are durational, often built in relation to overlapping time periods and in relation to very different perceptual viewpoints. My experience of anything will also include memories of previous experiences that help me understand the experience I am having, these memories and new perceptions become locked together to make complex amalgams and the sketchbook drawings shown so far are isolated examples of observational experiences. However they can inform the process and the best of them can hopefully stand scrutiny as examples of drawing as observational thinking. These sketchbook drawings operating like vignettes within a short one act play.

Allegorical map of Chapeltown

The drawing above is a drawing that is more like a novel. I attempted to combine various physical awarenesses of spatial movement with symbols and observations that all at one time or another had a role to play in the understanding of the story/s that weave through an area that I know well. This is a link to another map type drawing one I produced after several conversations with people who had arrived in Leeds after some horrid experiences getting there and who were now living in high rise flats. Brexit, Trump's wall, a fear of the future and of the past, what it was like to arrive on the South Coast of England, stranded fish and several other stories were all entwined in this drawing, one that was struggling to cope with so many issues, but which was at least as far as I was concerned about stuff. 

The map is a sort of dreamtime structure, but unlike the real dreamtime, it isn't tied into the culture of the everyday, it sits outside the experiences that contributed to its making and this I would argue is a problem, a problem not just for these two particular drawings, but for the vast majority of Western art as it is produced today.

So how can this dichotomy be resolved? Artists such as Joseph Beuys realised that if their art was to really connect with people it had to work on many levels at once. Drawing, materials thinking, performance, poetry, sound, text, installation, etc., each element supporting other elements and adding to the potential for meaning construction with as wide a range of communication channels as possible. In the far distant past cave painting would have been set into a series of rituals that would have included the intonations of spells, the singing of hymn type chantings, symbolic dancing and stories told, and Beuys was very aware of this. So what am I proposing? First of all and most importantly, I think that drawing is still a very powerful tool and one that allows human beings to have a dialogue with other things that are not other humans. To draw a false plastic nose left on a table is to take it seriously. We humans have spent too many years not taking anything else seriously except ourselves. So if drawing things can help attune us to other things that must be good. Secondly drawing uses materials to make meaning, in doing this the actual activity of making drawings binds us as humans with other materials, this entanglement creates a language, a language which is a symbiosis between human and non-human materials. Again I think this is important, because it reminds us that we can't do things on our own. However we live in a society that is not used to reading drawings, so other communication channels need to be used to help both make others aware of the potential of drawing and more importantly to raise awareness of what is now often called OOO or object orientated ontology. A way of thinking that reminds us of the primacy of things and that tries to rebalance our human tendency to see everything as either an extension of ourselves or as something we can control. Drawing needs to be embedded into the fabric of society and seen as part of a much wider idea, an idea of a society that recognises how the entanglement of everything together means that we have to act respectfully and thoughtfully in relation to animals, objects, processes and other people. 

Some links to other posts that touch upon some of the issues opened out:

Drawing as mapping, a post that asks questions as to the sorts of languages you might use when responding to various real life stimuli. 

The frame, a post that opens out the dialogue surrounding how to frame an image. At the end of this post is a link to the Parergon by Deridda. 

Thursday, 1 February 2018

Drawing and photography

I have recently been asked to write about a forthcoming exhibition of a painter I know. He has been working from a photographic archive and using the images he comes across as starting points for painting. By being asked to write about his practice I have been once again in effect questioned about my own very ambivalent relationship with the photographic image. I do find it personally impossible to work from photographs and find it hard to justify why anyone else would want to use them as a source from which to work from. So I will try and unpack the processes behind my agreeing to do the writing for the show. 

This is a slightly edited copy of the press release

The Gallery, London opening 1st March 2018

Lorca would have told us that a photograph can never possess el duende; that quality of human movement that makes something unforgettable. Lorca believed duende could be found in all the arts, not just in dance, and that it can only come into existence when someone is totally possessed by an outside of the body experience, one where subject and object are conjoined, where the physical world and the artist merge with the spirit; and when this happens forms arrive as if “shaped like wind on sand” (Lorca, in Berger, 2016, p.99)

The best of ----------’s paintings give to his investigations of a photographic archive that duende that Lorca saw as essential to the recreation of a lived experience. -------’s striving to find a something in the act of painting, means that images arrive and then retreat in a maze of mark-making. Each painting as it emerges through the fragments of a previous image picks up traces of other lives, “enough suggestion of a double life” to ensure that his audience is always engaged. The painter in his painterly dance is at his best at one with his painting, or as Cezanne put it, “At this moment I am one with my picture. We are an iridescent chaos”. (Cixous, 2000, p.588)

Because of a photograph's supposedly ‘indexical’ relationship with the world, the distinction between image and reality has often been blurred, but by adding a further painted layer ------ opens a door into another reading, one that questions the basic assumption of the relationship between a photograph and reality.

A photograph is seen as evidence of a subject’s existence. But it is also an absence. Its very momentariness makes us aware of the time that was not captured, its framing makes us aware of what was not in the frame. In these spaces and times not recorded lies nostalgia, and in nostalgia we draw away from reality and internalise the world, constructing it of memories and reflections, rather than experiencing something real. In being shorn of time, a photograph sucks us into it, so that we give to it the time it doesn’t possess.

-------- understands that a second layer of vision is needed in order to construct a base for meaning that was only a possibility in the first; his paintings reach down deeply into the time and spaces that the photographs cut and sliced into and they begin to repair the wounds of absence by giving back the richness of a life’s existence, by hand crafting and leaving traces of a bodily dance embedded into the materiality of oil paint as it runs and smears and is brushed across the ghostly textures of previous images. These are paintings about the difference between reality and what is real, and -------- shows us what it is like to be a ‘real’ painter.

I began my ideas about what to write by thinking about the fact that Bergson stated that if we could see the world directlty there would be no need for art. (Bergson, 2008, p.46b)  he goes on to state that, “Between nature and ourselves, nay, between ourselves and our own consciousness a veil is interposed” (Ibid) I was interested in this because I have come across a lot of people who believe that photographs give us a direct access to being able to see the world 'directly'. J. F. Martel when reflecting on Bergson’s account wrote, “What is revealed to us through art is a plane of reality that combines the observer, the act of observation and the object observed in one sensation, one event.” (2015, p.51) Martel brings the human being back into the equation. These are statements about the power of art to give us revelations about what is always there, to illuminate the everyday, to reveal the strangeness behind the familiar, and when you stand in front of a drawing or painting that has responded to a photographic image, you can I believe begin to see what Bergson and Martel were thinking about. (I use the term responded rather than copied, because I think there is a huge difference)
For a painter, using photographs as a starting point can be problematic. The photograph can become a trap; one that is so easy to fall into because the authority of the lens has become ubiquitous and we live in times where image making is often judged by its ability to be like a photograph. So how can an artist, especially one with a long track record of prioritising looking directly at the world, overcome this trap? Perhaps William Blake provides an initial clue.

From: To Thomas Butts: With Happiness stretch’d across the hills

And a double vision is always with me.
With my inward eye, ‘tis an old man grey.
With my outward eye, a thistle across my way.

By double vision I think Blake is referring to the fact that seeing isn't simply a process of opening your eyes and capturing the world. It is a process of thinking. As you build a conceptual framework about the world (your inner eye) you use it to help decide what you are seeing with your 'outer eye'. You need internal and external eyes if you are to escape the trap of the photograph. For me, it is as if the photograph has only one eye. Paradoxically I see this as the inward eye. This is why the photograph evokes the nostalgia of the past, its own technology dates the image as soon as the shutter is released; it is immediately embedded into its own history. Its technology shapes what is recorded, it is in fact simply a reflection of technology, but technology dates easily. In contrast the outward eye of the painting reactivates the thistle of life experience. Something new emerges from the materiality of paint and its manipulation. In paintings images grow slowly as opposed to the simultaneity of arrival that is the provenance of the photograph. Although painting is a very old technology, it is too close to the human hand to date. A brush is in effect an extension of the fingers, the technology is so primitive that the smearing of paint with it is hardly different to what would happen if you used your fingers. 
Because in effect the trace of the body movements are captured by brush strokes, I began to think of the body's movements as being like a dancer and this reminded me of Lorca's comments on duende, and that he believed that all art forms can have this, even though duende is usually as a term reserved for that flamenco dancer who has entered the zone of forgetfulness, the space of now, who is inhabiting the moment in such a way that everyone watching the dance is transfixed by the wonder of sound, movement and a moment of total syncopation. This it was I felt that the painter could put back into the photographic image. The thin slices of reality given to us by photographs can suck us in, because they are so undernourished, we need to feed them with space and time, and eventually I would argue, contact with too many photographs can suck us dry. This is why we need paintings of photographs, to feed our need for space and time and to protect us from being ghosted out by fast fading photographic images. 
photograph’s status can be seen as evidence of a subject’s existence. But it is also an absence. Its very momentariness makes us aware of the time that was not captured, its framing makes us aware of what was not in the frame. What we miss from our past becomes nostalgia. Therefore in those spaces and times not recorded by the photograph lies nostalgia, and in nostalgia we draw away from reality and internalise the world, constructing it of memories and reflections, rather than experiencing as something real. In being shorn of time, a photograph sucks us into it, so that we give to it the time it doesn’t possess.

A second vision I decided was needed in order to construct a base for meaning that was only a possibility in the first or internal eye of vision. 

As to how that base for meaning might be constructed I turned to Heidegger, in ‘The Question Concerning Technology’, he considers ‘poiesis’ in its sense of ‘to make’ and suggests that it is in hand making that we can come to an understanding of being, that the process of making things gives us an opportunity to actualise our existence. 

Heidegger wants to live in a world of technology is such a way that it doesn’t “warp, confuse and waylay our nature”, he saw our being as initially developing an understanding of the world through nature, ‘physis’. Then in a further stage by using ‘poiesis’ which is seen as a way of helping things come forth and in this case ‘poiesis’would be the act of making the painting. (Dreyus & Spinosa, 1997, p. 160)

The dual lenses of Blake, could then become those of ‘physis’ and ‘poiesis’, the photograph (physis) being in many ways a natural event, a simple chemical or digital recording of an instant, the painting (poiesis) a hand made process that is used to help an idea come forth.
One other term was ratting around at the back of my head, and its a religious one, the Thomistic notion of 'connaturality'. This is to do with the religious idea of 'possession', a state that is as sister Anselma Scollard states, "both intimate and profound". (2008, p.23) This is perhaps the state that an artist is in when they are lost in the contemplation of their work and it is the handwork or 'touch' produced during this time of possession that elevates the image above and beyond the possibilities of the photograph. 

So eventually I managed to convince myself that there was a way to work from photographs. 

I also think working on top of photographic imagery is interesting and it is another way of bringing together physis and poiesis. In the case below the hand made stitch bringing life back into the dead world of the technologically captured photograph. These images below by Jessica Wohl benefiting greatly by the conjunction of the two worlds of hand crafting and rapidly ageing photographic formats. 

Jessica Wohl

Wohl also draws on her images and constructs collages, which is a natural extension of an idea that brings different language formats together. See this earlier post Drawing on Photographs

Jessica Wohl

The work of Alex Hamilton is useful to look at in this context. Because he uses the same photograph over and over again, he is able to create a dialogue with his audience in relation to what the original photograph might mean and what the artist's intervention might transform that meaning into. Each image is in some ways similar and in others very different. His practice of photocopying the photographs and then transferring the images onto heavy watercolour paper before beginning to work by hand, facilitates the movement from indexical relationship to surface for invention. The photograph for Hamilton becomes in effect a contemporary equivalent to Cozens ink marks, (see) a surface used by the artist to stimulate visual ideas.

The Forth Plinth: Alex Hamilton

Finally I ought to reference the work of Ian Mckeever. He has had a long career whereby he has often interrogated the relationship between drawing and photography. 

Ian Mckeever: from the Waterfall series

The image above consists of a drawing on the left and a photograph on the right. They are both of the frozen surface of a waterfall on the Isle of Skye. The drawing can be seen as a companion of the photograph, a critical friend if you will. It does not set out to copy the photograph but creates a pairing. In doing this the physical nature of the drawing is highlighted, it is easier to see that the drawing's gestation is also geological. It consists of the traces of marks made as various materials rub off against one another. We can see the duration of mark making much easier in the drawing than the chemical capture of light represented by the photograph. Both though represent a haptic, or direct 'touching' engagement with a situation, the drawing more attuned to physics and the photograph to chemistry. Mckeever took analogue SLR photographs of the situation and then developed the 35mm negatives and enlarged them to the same size as the drawings, so that the grain of the photographs became very visible. In doing this he makes us more aware of the photograph as a physical entity. However the two processes are always fundamentally different, as McKeever has explained: ‘to begin with the photograph is a decision to leave something out; with a drawing it is a decision to put something in … 


Bergson, H (1911) Laughter: An essay on the meaning of the comic Book Jungle 
Berger, J (2016) Confabulations London: Penguin
Blake, W.  (1982) The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake Berkeley: University of California Press
Martel, R. F. (2015) Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice Berkeley: Evolver Press
Dreyus, H.L. & Spinosa, C. Continental Philosophy Review (1997) 30: 159. https://doi.org/10.1023/A:1004299524653
Hélène Cixous, (2000) “The last painting or the portrait of God” in Cazeaux,C. ed. The Continental Aesthetics Reader London: Routledge
Scollard, Sr A. (2008) The sense of touch versus conceptual art in Oxlade and Reichert 'Art without art' London: Ziggurat
As to the Jasper Johns quote in response to being able to see glimpses of earlier attempts at image making through gaps between areas of new paint, 'enough suggestion of a double life' I think it's by Max Kozloff.