Sunday, 10 June 2018

More on water

I was in the British museum last weekend and spotted some more drawings of water. Images of water or clouds or smoke fascinate me because they are very hard to draw as you have the constant paradox of trying to make a static image of something that is in essence always in movement. 

In the image right at the top of this post the artist has changed the direction of the lines to suggest a changing series of sea types. In the foreground we have a rhythmic swelling sea, this begins to change as we move towards the shore, first of all the swelling is broken by swirling eddies and as the shore approaches the lines flatten out, suggesting that the sea calms as it nears the shore. The image immediately above, taken from another area of what was a huge print of Venice, (probably 7 to 8 feet wide and made up of lots of small prints) has a further range of sea water symbols, this time wavelet forms surround the figure of Neptune, and as we move towards the shore the sea is established by a series of straight lines with half circles breaking up areas of white in between. 

The two drawings of the sea below are from different times visiting the South Coast, one drawn during a storm a few years ago and then used for an animation (see further below) and another that was drawn when I was in West Wittering over Easter. 

The patterns that the sea makes are inspiring and craftspeople from a huge span of time periods and from all the continents have at one time or another used motifs inspired by the sea.

Wave design taken from Greek pottery

Atamoana textile with ocean wave pattern (New Zealand)

Ancient Pueblo (North America)


There is a wonderful series of paintings by Ma Yuan (ca 1160-1225). These are the earliest images that I have come across whereby an artist has attempted to freeze the complexity of moving water into images, rather than reducing images of water to a series of basic symbols, such as the Egyptian symbol for water below.

Egyptian symbol for water

All of the pattern images above have reduced the movement of water to a rhythmic formula, but Ma Yuan's Water Album: Ten Thousand Riplets on the Yangzi, demonstrates a deep awareness of both pattern and uniqueness, there is a sense that every wave creates a one off shape. Every wave is also a forming and un-forming part of a never ending rhythmic process. Ma Yuan can also invoke subtle atmosphere, his waters drift into and out of the mist as they form and reshape, his images are a reflection of water in its many guises, from rough waters to ripples, from flat lapping to sloughing through troughs and peaks.

Ma Yuan: Water Album : Ten Thousand Riplets on the Yangzi

However Ma Yuan's images are in some ways too sophisticated for a designer to use and and a Japanese artist such as Mori Yuzan fills that gap between perceptual wonder and designed clarity. 

The images above are from a book, 'Ha Bun Shu' (1919) by Mori Yuzan of wave and ripple designs. Similar work is also collected in Hamon shu (Wave patterns), a multi-volume work brought out at the beginning of the 20th century. Both these works would have acted as a kind of go-to guide for Japanese craftsmen looking to use wave and ripple patterns. You can find them on line here.
Mori Yuzan's images might not be as complex as Ma Yuan's but they are still fascinating because they have had to go through a process of clarification and simplification and if they are to work they once more have to hold that tension between rhythm and structure that communicates both structural integrity and constant movement. 

The sea is powerful and when you are in it and far from land its close proximity can be terrifying. Its constant movement, the flexing of its gargantuan water muscles make you feel as impotent as a mayfly. I have swum off boats in the Mediterranean, but only from tourist excursions and in calm weather, even so I well remember the slight nervousness I had when I realised I really was swimming in the cruel sea. More than 8,000 lives have been lost crossing the Mediterranean over the last two years, an ongoing disaster that we tend to lose sight of. The same body of water that I stand in front of and draw, has also taken the lives of thousands of poor people seeking another life in Europe. 

A short animation I made in response to the refugee crisis

The animation I made (above) tested out my ability to invent moving water, some sections are better than others and I may try and go back to this and redraw, but I found the subject a hard one to confront and constantly worry that I have not been able to deal with this subject sensitively enough. I tried to develop a soundtrack that reflected the tension and unease I had been feeling about the situation, which involved another very different form of drawing , as I had to develop a timeline and think about how to compose the distorted sounds that I developed using feedback-loops. What it must be like to be stranded on a small crowded unseaworthy boat I dread to think, but I had to try and respond somehow to the situation. The many facets of water are like moods and as moods develop they can become dangerous and difficult, the people in this animation are tiny, they may appear insignificant, but everyone on these boats, boats that so often disappear into the Mediterranean, would be someone with a complex full life, someone that if we knew them could become a friend or even part of our family.  

See also:

Drawing water
Beryl Hammill drawing water

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