Friday, 31 May 2019

Sanskrit Indian aesthetics

The dismemberment of the demon Kalanemi: Manaku

In my recent post on drawing plants I introduced the six Chinese principles of brush drawing. I must admit that I have not posted enough on the power of other cultures to help us address the limited viewpoints that we westerners tend to have when it comes to thinking about art practice. I shall therefore over the next few months put up a range of posts designed to introduce you to alternative cultural aesthetics. 
If you want to think more about 'viewer response' aesthetic theories probably the best cultural milieu to explore is that of the Indian sub continent. Indian art is best approached via the ancient aesthetic theory of ‘rasa’. In Sanskrit this literally means ‘juice’, ‘extract of a fruit’ or ‘essence’ and refers to the finest qualities of taste. This goes back millions of years to the evolution of our senses as ways to detect what is good or bad for us. The colour, taste and smell of food, can usually tell us whether or not it is safe to eat it. It is therefore logical that an aesthetic theory would begin with an understanding of qualities linked to the testing of food. The term ‘rasa’refers to the ‘essence’ and emotional qualities that have been built into a work of art by its maker as well as to the response the contemplation or perception of the artwork evokes in the viewer or sahṛdaya. The viewer response is as important as the maker’s intent, which makes this approach a useful critique in relation to western aesthetics that are post ‘death of the author’ or too obsessed with formalism and the internal dynamics of the art world. In rasa theory the maker has a state of mind (bhavas) and it is this that is shaping what is coming into form. Because the theory began at a time when the pre-eminent art forms were performative, (dance, drama, poetry etc.) an emphasis was always put on how the audience was receiving the art form. The artwork or performer only serves as a means for the viewer to experience the different rasas. Rasas elicit emotional states and these states are always associated with stories, which is why in Indian visual art narrative modes predominate.  

Hiranyaksha delivers a mighty blow, wounding Varaha: Manaku

The nine types of rasa: 
First and most important is ‘Shringaram’ a quality of love, attractiveness and erotic feelings. The deity that rules this area is Vishnu. The colour association is normally green, but as the erotic levels rise it becomes blue/black. It is interesting at this point to compare this with the most important of the six Chinese principles. 
The first and most important principle of Chinese brush drawing was ‘spirit resonance’ or vitality. ‘The life energy of the maker should be transmitted from the artist into the work. The very heartbeat of the artist should exist in the rhythm of the marks that go to make up the work. There should be a total transmission of life force from the living being of the maker into the material structure of what is made. Love it could be argued is at the core of an idea about life energy, without it there is no procreation. 
Following ‘Shringaram’ but in no particular order are:
‘Hasyam’: Laughter, mirth, comedy, the comic. Deity: Ganesha. Colour: white.
‘Raudram’: Fury, anger, warlike feelings. Deity: Rudra and Kali. Colour: red. Hence ‘Raudra, which translates as ‘dire’ or ‘Ugra’ which translates as fierce, violent, or furious and is associated with symbolism used to express fear, violence and destruction.  Typical elements include adornment with skulls and bones, weapons, and wide, circular eyes.  
Kāruṇyam’: Compassion, tragedy, touching or moving. Deity: Yama. Colour: dove-coloured (grey-white).
‘Bībhatasam’: Disgust, aversion, abhorrent, shocking or odious. Deity: Shiva. Colour: blue
‘Bhayānakam’: Horror, terror, fear, the terrible. Deity: Kali Colour: black
‘Vīram’: Bold, fearless, stout hearted a heroic sensibility. Deity: Indra. Colour: wheatish brown (yellow, ochre)
‘Adbhutam’: Wonder, amazement, wonderful, wondrous. Deity: Brahma. Colour: yellow
The 9th rasa is ‘Śāntam’: Peace, tranquillity or a quiescent mood. Deity: Vishnu. Colour: perpetual white (silvery, the colour of the moon and of jasmine)
The 9th Shanta-rasa is simultaneously seen as an equal member of the rasas, but also as distinct, since it represents the clearest form of aesthetic bliss and has been described as “as-good-as but never-equal-to the bliss of Self-realization experienced by yogis”.
Hence ‘Shanta’ which translates as peaceful and Saumya’ which translates as gentle, benign, and kind. the symbolism is used to express joy, love, compassion, kindness, knowledge, harmony and peace often using flowers to carry the message. 
Because Indian aesthetics covers many areas that we have no specific names for in English, this area of understanding can feel very alien. However if you think about an aesthetic derived initially from something more akin to theatre or the performing arts, you can see how the communication of various emotions might be central to a particular type of understanding of art practice. The ‘blending’ of emotions could be seen as a type of recipe for life. It does require the taking on board of several new words and as I have discussed before, words can tend to fix meanings in ways that images don’t. For instance, the production of the aesthetic form or ‘rasa’ arises from bhavas (becoming, birth, production, origin but also emotional tendencies), a concept that blends the making or coming into being of something with the emotional proclivities of the maker, this fusion isanalogous to the production of tastes (juices) associated with both various foods and their flavourings (condiments, curries and spices). I have often thought of the close relationship between cooking and making art, and the idea of ‘taste’ in food and aesthetic preference is linked in English, but not in such a formal way. 
There are more Sanskrit words that carry associated meanings. 'Vibhavas' means karana or cause. It is concerned with what caused the emotional communication; the ‘alambana’, the personal or human object and associated emotional substratum, or the ‘uddipana’, the excitants. The maker (alambana) will produce the work and as it is made the maker will transmit into it a certain emotional content. The art object 'uddipana' is what will excite the viewer or audience and this is followed by the ‘anubhava’ or effects in the audience following the rise of the emotion produced by experiencing the artwork. 
I find this interesting because I was always taught that as an artist I did not need to feel an emotion I was trying to portray. I could convey anger for instance without having to be angry. However I have had many arguments as to whether this is actually the case and several of my artist friends have spoken to me about the need to channel their emotions into their work. 

Compare the emotional registers of Indian aesthetics with the six Chinese principles of brush drawing in the post on drawing plants. Both in their own way ask us to focus on how we are making an aesthetic communication. My various blog posts are also asking the same question, but western aesthetics no longer have such clear rules. I have in previous posts looked at underlying mathematical order in aesthetics and at certain points historically western aesthetics did touch on what were known as ‘canons’ (For instance the Greek sculptor Polykleitos made a sculpture as a demonstration of his "Kanon" which operated as a "measure" or "rule" for the harmonious proportions of the human body) but all these reference points are now gone. 

Nb
When searching for more in-depth articles to research in relation to this subject these Indian aesthetic terms are taken from the Shilpa Shastraan, an umbrella term for various Hindu treatises and manuals on the arts and crafts, which outline Hindu iconography, design principles and rules, composition, the ideal proportions for human sculptures, as well as the principles and rules of architecture.

See also:

The Indian art world of the late 18th century can in many ways be compared with our own time. There was much stylistic innovation and hybridisation of art forms and it was the ‘rasa’ tradition of aesthetics that allowed this to happen. Visual art, poetry, music and dance began to cross-fertilise each other’s art forms. The artist Manaku, whose work is used to illustrate this post, lived during this time and this article on his life and times is a useful reminder of how little we know of art of this period. 

The poet Ghanand wrote the following line when he reflected on the difficult times he lived in, ‘Ujarin basey hai hamaari ankhiyan dekho.’ In English it becomes, ‘Watch the wasteland reflected in my eyes’. I have thought several times that this could make a very good title for my next exhibition. 


I first came across Sanskrit aesthetics in Marina Warner's wonderful book, 'No Go the Bogyman', her introduction is on p7 of the year 2000 Vintage publication. 

See also:

Japanese aesthetics
Drawing plants (Find the 6 principles of Chinese brush drawing in the second half of this post)

Sunday, 26 May 2019

Barbara Walker at Turner Contemporary


I have mentioned the work of Barbara Walker before, and there is now a chance to go and see her work in the flesh because she has a residency at Turner Contemporary in Margate. I think the way that she deals with the ephemeral and the need to give gravitas to people that are seldom given much thought is very interesting. She draws directly on the walls of the spaces that she is exhibiting within. These drawings are often simply wiped out at the end of the period of exhibition. The process of removal being as poignant as the process of construction. The people she often chooses to draw are found on the edges of society, which makes their rubbing out feel so tragic. However the fact that when she is drawing them, she gives them a monumental size helps to redress the balance. For a while at least their status is elevated and their presence made strong and unavoidable, as they step out of the margins and take a command of the gallery space. I have mentioned the conceptual possibilities inherent when making drawings with unfixed charcoal before. There is a temporality that is very fragile in an unfixed charcoal drawing, Barbara Walker is obviously very aware of this and the fact that these are in effect 'dust' drawings, and charcoal is itself a burnt stick. 'Ashes to ashes, dust to dust' being perhaps the underlying poetic sensibility of these images.




This is how the gallery introduces Walker and her work.


"Place, Space and Who is a new commission by British, Birmingham-based artist Barbara Walker, which explores migration and the experiences of women living in Margate.
Walker will create a series of large-scale wall drawings directly onto the gallery walls, during a four-month residency in the space. From the 30th April 2019, visitors will be able to see the artwork evolve and grow.
Over 20 years Walker has developed a practice of drawing, painting and portraiture, often creating large-scale drawings directly onto walls. Growing up in Birmingham her experiences have directly shaped a practice concerned with class and power, gender, race, representation and belonging. Her figurative paintings and drawings are informed by the social, political and cultural realities that affect her life and the lives of those around her."
For more information see Turner Contemporary 

See also

Drawing and politics part two



Monday, 20 May 2019

Drawing Plants

Leonardo

One of the first drawings that I ever made where I realised I had been able to put something down on paper that I had actually seen, was of a flower. I can still remember the concentration it took and how I had to make its shape appear and disappear as the edges of a leaf moved behind each other. I had to move my head to 'see' what had happened and then make a decision how to show this. The realisation that by 'disappearing' the leaf plane and letting it reappear but now from beneath, would visually describe the way a leaf dipped through space was at the time magical. I suspect this is quite a common experience. 



Flowers are such beautiful things, designed to attract other living things so that pollen can be distributed, they have had millions of years of evolution to get those colours and shapes just right, no wonder we find them so fascinating. 

I'm once again having to go on about the art and science divide, so bare with me. In the last post I put a hyperlink in to a poem by Goethe. He wrote this about plants:

None resembleth another, yet all their forms have a likeness;
Therefore, a mystical law is by the chorus proclaim'd;
Yes, a sacred enigma! 

He recognised the mystical in the difference between each plant form. Each plant had a certain degree of similarity because of a set of features that are designed to do certain things, such as draw up water from the ground, photosynthesise and have sexual needs. But each plant was also very different because there are as many different niches for plants as there are possible differences in environments. Each leaf form designed to act slightly differently, roots that dig deep or hold on tight to stones in thin soils, yellow flowers that may be small, or red flowers that may be smaller or a similar size but only blossoming on late summer days. Stems are segmented or ridged, covered in hairs or smooth, tall or low lying, each designed by time and evolution to survive right here, right now. This is science, this is art, this is mystical knowledge that we all should know. So lets not dismiss those wonderful botanical artists who spend their days visualising plants. Celebrate them as creative artists of the highest order and bring them back into the fold of fine art. They should be shown alongside our Turner prize winners and not be relegated to dark dusty museum cupboards and seen as some sort of low grade artists who don't do 'real' art. For them art and science are one and in that fusion they continue to see the magic in reality. 

To draw a plant well you need to have a good grasp of its structure and to understand its structure you need to understand the plant's life. Make the plant a friend, listen to it, be with it and care about it. All simple things but once again it is about dissolving the differences between humans and other things. If we are to change our ways in order to not totally despoil the Earth, we need to begin somewhere, and this could be by simply making friends with that plant that we used to call a weed. 


Raymond Booth

Living in Leeds I have gradually became more and more aware of the work of Raymond Booth. Occasionally I would come across one of his studies of flowers, I immediately realised that they held within them a record of enormous feats of extended concentration. They were when you saw the originals very large drawings, sometimes four or five feet high, these were not schoolboy drawings, these were serious scientific studies made by someone with an artist's eye. His drawing above of a man holding flowers, is evocative of what his whole life was concerned with. The human figure in the drawing is Booth himself concentrating on the flowers he holds, his body gradually dissolving back into the field of marks that also operates as a sign for the vegetation that surrounds him. The tradition of intense close observation of nature goes back to Durer, and it could be argued that no one has ever captured a small piece of the earth with such intensity.  

Durer: Clod of earth


Raymond Booth: Iris study 

Perhaps using an over 'designed' layout, Booth's study still operates to inform us and show us what he has seen.  So much more understandable than a photograph, the drawing has a clear visual narrative that takes us under the ground as well as showing us the full glory of the plant in flower. 

Going back to John Dewey, Booth gives us a way of connecting with his own experience. An experience so common that we can overlook it. But when a well known fine artist did something similar, for instance when Michael Landy after completing his epic work of destruction in 'Break Down' made his etchings of weeds, he was praised for his bravery and refreshing take on art. The Tate Gallery buying a set of these prints and on its website tells us that "Landy collected a number of these plants and took them back to his studio where he potted and tended them, making studies of their structures including detailed renderings of roots, leaves and flowers". That's wonderful and very praiseworthy but I would argue that is what any botanical artist worth their salt would have to do on a daily basis.


Michael Landy

We forget that most of the activities that make sense are done over and over again. We discover that it is wonderful to lie back in the grass and gaze at slowly moving clouds as they shape change in the sky. We look at a clump of weeds and as we stare at it we realise that there is a whole world there to discover. Millions upon millions of human beings will have done those things, but that doesn't take away from the richness of each individual experience. Unfortunately we live in a society that wants to celebrate individuality, we focus on the fact that each one of us is different, when we ought to be looking far more closely at how we are similar. 

It was the work of Chinese artists that first of all set out the interrelationship between looking and understanding the world, not as a way of being separate from it, but as a way of commingling with it.
If you look at this brush drawing of a pine tree and chrysanthemums by Chen Shu you can see that she understands the six principles of Chinese brush drawing very well. 

Pine tree and chrysanthemums by Chen Shu 

I haven't referred to the six principles before and as they were set out as early as the year 550 it is worth looking at them in some depth. They have an almost mythic status and yet you could use them as a manifesto for the depiction of nature today. 
The Six principles of Chinese brush drawing were established by Xie He and first set out in the book ‘The Record of the Classification of Old Painters’.
The first and most important principle was ‘spirit resonance’ or vitality. The life energy of the maker should be transmitted from the artist into the work. The very heartbeat of the artist should exist in the rhythm of the marks that go to make up the work. There should be a total transmission of life force from the living being of the maker into the material structure of what is made. Xie He stated that without 'spirit resonance', there was no need to look further at a work. 
The second principle the "Bone Method" or ‘way of the brush’, establishes the method of establishing ‘spirit resonance’. The language of the brush stroke is linked to the textural qualities it can command. This is also to do with the ‘handwriting’ or personal signature of the artist, which can be read like graphology, a set of marks that can reveal the personality of the maker. It is important to remember that the art of calligraphy was inseparable from painting in Chinese art at this time. 

The third principle, "Correspondence to the Object," concerns the depiction of form, or how mark, shape and line are used in correspondence with what is being depicted. This again relates to the first principle. The chosen mark quality should be in sympathy with the qualities found in the object depicted by the maker. A link is established between the life force of the maker and the ‘spirit’ of what is to be represented. This ‘resonance’ goes both ways and can only work if the maker is ‘attuned’ to what is both seen and what is being understood in that seeing through a sensitivity to the materials of depiction. 

The forth principle, "Suitability to Type," refers to the overall colour or tone of the image. This includes the layering or the building up of textures when an image is worked on in order to refine differences or pick out qualities that refer to the particular nature of the subject. This is sometimes thought of as a type of refinement or fine tuning, but may also be to do with the overall atmosphere or feeling tone of an image. 

The fifth principle "Division and Planning," concerns both composition and the way that the image deals with space and depth. The placement of the various elements within an overall composition can either enhance or hinder an understanding of the overall spatial positioning of the pictorial elements. This together with an understanding of atmospheric perspective, size constancy, mark energy, formal relationship, such as whether or not objects overlap each other or whether they have a certain consistency of relationship, such as regular or irregular spacing between marks or shapes; will determine the overall spatial conviction of the image. 

The final principle "Transmission by Copying," concerns the amount of understanding the maker has of tradition. Every artist builds up their understanding of the principles of image construction by looking at the work of other artists and comparing the languages of art their predecessors have developed with their own experiences of the world. Therefore a good artist will reveal thoughtful study of past masters in the way they make their own work and at the same time reveal how well they study nature by the building of new visual ideas because of the need to record what they have observed that others may not have witnessed before. Thus tradition is preserved and art is refreshed again by each new generation of makers. 


Chen Shu's drawing of a pine tree and chrysanthemums echoes these principles and hopefully you can see how a simple depiction of plant life can embed within it a set of principles that could be applied to the depiction of anything. 

Dandelion Face

I have been drawing flowers a lot over the last few months, and gradually another aspect is beginning to emerge. As I draw them they begin to inhabit my subconscious, coming through that dark unknown internal space as slightly changed hybrids often with human features.

From a floral narrative

When I was a small boy the puppet programme 'Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men' was on children's hour, I watched it avidly even though I found the fact that houses and simple garden objects could be sentient rather disturbing. I suspect the character 'little weed' went much deeper down into my psyche than I realised.

Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men

See also: 

The evolution of an idea: how drawing plants can help evolve visual thoughts




Wednesday, 15 May 2019

John Dewey: Art as Experience: Leonardo Drawings at Leeds City Art Gallery

Leonardo

The Leonardo drawings that have just been on show in Leeds City Art Gallery reminded me of the time when art and science were not such strange bedfellows. The philosopher John Dewey would often advocate their conjoining and similarities, a position that came out of his pragmatist approach to thinking and one that I have a lot of respect for.  

John Dewey was a ‘Pragmatist’ philosopher who wrote his most famous text on aesthetics in the 1930s, ‘Art as Experience’. This might seem a very long time ago but during the 1990s and early 21st century several writers on art theory began to see that Dewey’s key concepts developed out of working from concrete experience could be very useful. I was very lucky in coming across Dewey quite early on in my career, reading him as an art educator rather than as an artist. It was in art education where his influence had always been strong, but at the time, because I was also a practicing artist, I saw his relevance to the drawings I was making about my experiences of being a young father with growing children. There didn’t seem to be many other theorists around that could help me with the building of a supportive theoretical framework for a body of work that focused on making images derived from watching my children grow up. 

Dewey ‘democratised’ my thinking about art practice. If everything that I could possibly think was the result of experience, therefore anything was potential subject matter. More recently Richard Shusterman (1989, 2012) in response to Dewey’s thinking advocated treating all art as fine art, in particular in his writings on rap. He has also used Dewey to support his own thinking about the ‘embodied mind’ another area of research that I have pointed to several times in these blog posts. Crispin Sartwell (1995, 2003) and Yuriko Saito (Saito 2007) have both used Dewey to support an idea of an everyday aesthetics. However my own interest in how aesthetics and ecology need each other in order to support a new approach to thinking about Nature, such as in the writings of Tim Morton, is why I’m particularly interested in returning to Dewey. In relation to this, although I find his writing too soaked in Romanticism, Thomas Alexander has shown in ‘The Human Eros’ how Dewey’s ideas are essential to an understanding of eco-ontology and the aesthetics of existence (Alexander 2013). 

For Feminist writers Dewey is important because of his emphasis on the importance of concrete experience and his exploration of how feelings are an essential aspect of how personal experience is received and understood.  He also prioritised doing and making and he wanted to eliminate the division between practice and theory in order to achieve some form of synthesis.

Dewey argued that all experience has an aesthetic, therefore it could be argued that our aesthetic sensibility is centred on how we ‘feel’ or ‘experience’ our day-to-day situatedness. Art therefore leads out of life and this being so, for a ‘good life’ and correspondingly ‘good art’ we need to cooperate with and nurture our environment, which in turn will shape us. For artists this puts aesthetics right at the centre of philosophical debate, therefore when trying to write about the nature of art as a means towards some sort of understanding, Dewey can be vital. 

As a Pragmatist that focused on human beings learning from experience, Dewey believed that art and science are very similar; both learning by doing in response to finding out about the world that surrounds us.  Because of the relativist nature of his interpretation of “what is art?” he will sometimes ask the question  “when is art?” and in doing so he reinforces my belief that we need to be looking more at processes than things, definitions such as ‘art’ and ‘science’ often standing in the way of forming new ways of thinking and acting. (I like to use the compound word ‘thacting’) 

Any of you thinking of going into art education ought to read 'Art as Experience', I believe it is a seminal text, and will help you begin that process of shaping and modelling sessions for your own future students, especially sessions designed to enable them to see how making art can also be about making sense of the world. 



The Leonardo drawings demonstrate beautifully how art and science can be conjoined in a synthetic response to the world. At times he is looking at how things work, at others how things can be represented and as his imagination is fed by his looking he begins to make new images constructed out of what he has learnt from his experiences of examining the world. As a process this is not hard to understand, but sometimes we forget that the modelling or shaping of experience relies on long periods of intense study. You are not required to dissect a human body any more in order to develop an understanding of how it works, however there are always other things to explore. Dewey's point is that everyday is filled with experience, but we don't usually stop to examine that experience, but when we do, science or art will emerge from this activity. It doesn't really matter what we call it, however the naming tends to shape the way we continue with our exploration, so perhaps, at least for a while, we should simply stop, look and listen and then see if we can do something that makes ourselves and others aware of the implications of existence. 

Goethe would have approved of Dewey, his poem 'The Metamorphosis of Plants' perhaps sums up everything I had to say in this post. Biology and art combine in a form that like Leonardo's drawings goes beyond both. 

References

Alexander, T(2013) The Human Eros: Eco-ontology and the Aesthetics of ExistenceNew York: Fordham University Press


Dewey, J (2009) Art as Experience New York: Perigee Books

Saito, Y. (2007) Everyday Aesthetics, New York: Oxford University Press.
Sartwell, C. (1995,) The Art of Living: Aesthetics of the Ordinary in World Spiritual Traditions Albany: SUNY Press.
Sartwell, C. (2003) “Aesthetics of the Everyday,”  In The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics, J. Levinson (ed.), Oxford: Oxford University Press, 761–770.
Shusterman, R. (1989) “Why Dewey Now?,” Journal of Aesthetic Education, 23: 60–67.
Shusterman, R  (2012) Thinking through the Body: Essays in Somaesthetics, New York: Cambridge University Press.




Wednesday, 8 May 2019

Drawing with wire: Picasso and Calder

Poster for the Exhibition

Wireframe drawings that are the result of CAD software have been with us for some time now and they have a history that goes back to the Renaissance. They have a particular aesthetic and are very useful when making ideas that require a very clear linear understanding of certain types of 3D space. 
However wire is itself a very interesting drawing material and it can be used to bridge that interesting gap between 2D and 3D thinking. 
I was in Paris recently and the Picasso museum was hosting an exhibition of Picasso and Calder. 

Picasso

Calder

This is how the museum introduced the aesthetic connections between the two artists.

'A key connection can be found specifically in their exploration of the void, or the absence of space, which both artists defined from the figure through to abstraction. Calder and Picasso wanted to present or represent non-space, whether by giving definition to a subtraction of mass, as in Calder’s sculpture, or by expressing contortions of time, as in Picasso’s portraits. Calder externalised the void through curiosity and intellectual expansion, engaging unseen forces in ways that challenge dimensional limitations or what he called 'grandeur-immense'. Picasso personalised the exploration, focusing on the emotional inner self. He brought himself inside each character and collapsed the interpersonal space between author and subject.'

These are fascinating issues and they extend some of the ideas I have touched on before in this drawing blog. In particular the way that an interior space, the space constructed by a mind deliberating on what it is to be, can be seen to be no different in essence to a cosmic space, one that looks to hold within itself all of creation. 

So don't forget the humble florist's wire and if at any time you feel that your drawing is becoming too flat, or does not begin to capture the spatial nature of an experience, remember that a wire construction may well help you both realise the experience and open a doorway into a new idea. 

Related earlier posts

Absence, emptiness and the void
This post includes comments on David Edgar's conference paper ‘Agitating the void: phenomenology and its practical application in drawing’ 
Cross contour drawing
3D Printing: solidified drawing
Some reflections on Sara Barker's wire drawings seen in a Glasgow exhibition


Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Drawing and Mindfulness: Part five: Weaving in your own story


Zen Buddhist drawing of a meditating frog

Before we get serious, I need to remind everyone that from many points of view this whole activity is very funny. Don't take yourself or this process too seriously, the point about stepping lightly is to not leave dirty boot prints all over the place. Hence the meditating frog drawing.
One of the reasons for immersing yourself into the working processes of another artist is to try and push your own ego into the background. In order to develop our sensitivity to the world and others, we need to clear a path through that dense thicket of me, me, me and accepting the fact that someone else might have an approach to life that can be of benefit is part of that process.

However at some point you will need to build into your world view an acceptance of yourself as a human being, as a process equally as valuable as anything else. Your way of being and existence is as wonderful as the processes of sky, as beautiful as the construction of a stream and as kind as the ecology of a tree. The place you find yourself in, is simply a moving point in space, a point interconnected to all other points in space and therefore to all other things, and their possible combinations and existences. You are entangled into the process of being and as your point in space moves, so does the matrix of connections with everything else. Time and gravity combine to give weight to your actions, and in many ways shape what you might in the past have called ‘intentions’ but from a different position of acceptance, see as ‘fate’ or simply the playing out of possibilities.
This stage of drawing and mindfulness simply asks you to pick out something you have already done and to repeat it, but this time to reduce it down to an essence. Then to repeat the process again and again, until you feel you have gone as far as you can. Now review all your drawings and decide which of them you have the most affinity with. Now meditate on your bond with this drawing and finally create a family of forms that emerge naturally from the processes that you have evolved in your drawing's making.

By finding a relationship with materials, drawing hopefully opens the door to a new way of being. An acceptance that other things have agency, leads to an acceptance that the paper and dyes you have been using have their own ways of being and as you learn their languages you become more conversant in the ‘touch’ of material thought. This sensitivity leads to a type of caring, a kindness towards the non-human, hopefully carried through into the rest of your life as an attitude towards others, whether people, animals, plants or inorganic materials. It hopefully also leads to the establishment of a point of view that always searches for the processes of interconnection, rather than looking for the isolated, atomised thingness of reductionist thought.

This blog is written as a series of encounters with thoughts about drawing. Thoughts are triggered by various encounters with drawings, conversations about drawing with other people, books and journal articles about drawing, conferences on drawing and exhibitions and sometimes those everyday connections with drawing that can happen at any time in any place. What ties them all together is a search for how drawing can be used to help be at one with the world. At times this can be thought of as a way to develop a spiritual response to life, at others to foster a deeper awareness of the underlying mathematical structures that underpin reality. A historical perspective can be as important to our awareness as an emotional register and this as vital as an awareness of the chemical composition of a material. As you look through various posts you will become aware that no one approach is favoured over another, philosophy and politics being as important as genre or gender. The continuing search for connections is what counts and hopefully the somewhat rambling nature of the various posts can give you an insight into how wonderful an activity drawing can be. Buddhists are very aware of how important the shaping of an attitude to life is. Buddhist belief also encompasses an awareness of the limitations of verbal language, for instance the chanting of “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” is much more to do with the sound of the words than the individual meaning of them. It is the sound and rhythm of chanting that activates the human potential and there is no word for word translation. This is about faith and practice. In repetition you begin to cultivate a state of sensitive awareness. However this does not mean that things don’t evolve. The “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” chant is made of words that have evolved out of ancient Indian and Chinese languages and are pronounced in Japanese. ‘Nam’ is from the Sanskrit, “myoho-renge-kyo” are Chinese words, the fusion of the two being “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo”. This historical fusion is often referred to as embodying a universal language, the sound of the chant being understood by all who have been inducted into Buddhist traditions. The sound is understood as one that creates a unity with the fundamental rhythm of the cosmos. This chant was developed during the 13th century and the fusion of languages that shaped it was formed out of a poetic consciousness. The poetic consciousness is very similar to that one attained as we are attuned to the finer adjustments in a drawing. It is this type of consciousness that leads to a deeper understanding of entanglement, an activity that shapes new forms and in their shaping reveals an interconnectedness that underpins the morphing and reshaping of process. An image will hopefully arrive out of the constant making of drawings that you can return to over and over again. Each time you return to it, it should reveal new layers of connections.

This stage of drawing is also about letting go of drawing. It is not about words, it is not about drawing, it is about finding a way of experiencing a relationship with something that isn’t yourself. This relationship being something that can become a model for future conduct, something to use as you prepare food, cultivate your garden or work with other people. As you move beyond this stage, you should sense a growing relationship with the universe, an acceptance of your own being arriving alongside an acceptance of other processes of become-ing, world-ing, plant-ing, forest-ing, animal-ing, sky-ing, sea-ing, rain-ing, sun-ing, moon-ing and all those other processes of interconnection that you are part of.

A brushstroke being itself


Drawing and mindfulness part two
Drawing and mindfulness part three


Monday, 6 May 2019

Drawing and Mindfulness: Part four: A Material Conversation

Sohan Qadri

If I had to pick out one artist that would be an example for any of us that wish to take the drawing and mindfulness approach onto a further level, it would be Sohan Qadri. He used to approach his work in a way that was very similar to a ritual or religious experience. Qadri was influenced by both Tantric-Vajrayan yogi practices and Sufi mysticism.  He developed his spiritual ideals through meditation, dance and music, eventually deciding to focus his art making on the potential inherent in the properties of paper. Qadri worked with heavyweight papers that gave him the opportunity to engage with his paper's structural and surface textural potential. In particular by soaking it and carving into it in several stages, and by applying inks and dyes between each stage, he was able to attune himself to the paper's properties. In the process, paper was transformed from a two-dimensional surface into a three-dimensional medium, or thin sculpture. In particular he developed controlled rhythmic ways of marking the papers, often using a careful repetition of incisions into the paper as he meditated. Each layer of marks would be followed by another layer of intense colour wash, the inks and dyes soaking into the newly disturbed paper creating powerful saturations and glowing surfaces of colour, that grew even more intense as each colour layer was absorbed into the surface below. Layer after layer of colour would be applied, each application regarded as if it was a paper's ritual bath of colour immersion. Qadri worked for many years, looking for a way to shape an art practice that would be an effortless method of creation perfectly in tune with his yogic practices. By respecting the crafting of paper, and by then furthering his awareness of that craft by engaging at an intense level with the fibrous nature of his material, he developed a way of working that was in total harmony with his paper's inception. 


Sohan Qadri

Before embarking on this next stage you will need to make a decision as to whether or not to make your own paper. If you have access to the right resources this can be a very useful thing to do because you will develop a deeper understanding of your paper's nature and it will help you to become engaged with it's materiality. There are lots of resources on 'You Tube' and the university has resources and technicians that will advise you on how to do this. If you want to begin with ready made paper, that's also fine, but you may need to spend more time exploring the surface properties of your paper in order to develop an understanding of its nature and how it can be worked with. See older posts on paper to get an idea of the possible range of papers to use. 

You will need to use colour in order to reveal the changes you make to the paper, and colour will need to be applied between every stage of your paper transformation, so you will also need to experiment with dyes and inks and explore the way they effect your chosen paper. 

Once you feel confident that you understand your paper, you need to familiarise yourself with the tools you will work with to make marks into it as well as the applicators for your dyes and inks.

Your paper marking tools and colour applicators will be vital to you. The process of making these tools can itself be part of the mind letting go, by gathering up objects and transforming them into tools for marking paper, you begin to see the world from the point of view of inter-object relationships. Perhaps as you take apart an old cheese grater and fit handles to its various parts, this activity might take you into thinking about your hand and how it holds things, of the sharpness of the different surfaces of the grater, of the potential for these surfaces to be used as scratching tools for roughening up your paper. (Typically you will make or find scratching tools, but also sandpapers, incising implements, polishing things and embossing tools) We have looked at making your own tools before.


The development of an organised almost ritual approach is going to be vital and you will need to embody or materialise your thoughts as part of this process. 

You will need to begin with at least 20 sheets of your chosen paper.
Take your first sheet of paper and position it in a portrait relationship with yourself. It may be lying on the ground in front of you or on your table. You need to see it as a whole. It is like you bilaterally symmetrical, the the right half mirrors the left half. Meditate on this for a while, what does it mean to you? Are there any 'off centred' aspects that you might want to think about? Are you left sided or right sided? 

Now make a mark on the paper. Just one. But be as inventive as you can about how you make this mark. Look at the paper and feel for how this mark has effected your awareness of the the rest of the paper. What are its qualities, where is it? Is this mark nearer the top, or closer to one side or the other? Now put the paper to one side and make another mark on a new sheet of paper. Do this carefully and each time try to vary the quality of the mark and positioning. Carry on until 19 sheets of paper have a mark and one is left unmarked. As you make each mark, feel for how it relates to your own body, does that mark down on the left relate to your left foot, if so what does it feel like?

Now take up the first sheet again and make a line down the centre of the paper that represents your own awareness of the fact you have a backbone. Is this a single incised line, is it composed of several short marks that visually appear to become a line when seen from a distance? Once the first line is made, pass on to the next sheet and the next until you have made 18 different vertical lines. These can be lines made by pushing pins through the paper, dragging a compass point across the paper surface, incising with an empty biro, drawing with your fingernail, scraping with a knife or scratching with your cheese grater tool. 

Once you have made these lines paint a colour selected from your dye mix across the first one and spread this colour right to the edges of the paper. Now look at what you have done and let your mind wander into it. 
Do this with 17 of the sheets.

Put the papers aside and begin the same process on the first sheet once again, make a mark, look at how this changes the relationships set out between what you have done already. Then once you have done this with 16 sheets, move on and make another vertical line on 15 sheets. 

Now paint your dye across 14 of these sheets. 

Put these images in a row and look at them, what is happening, look at the difference between a mark that has had only one covering of dye and the others with two, compare the white sheet with dyed sheets.

Take 13 sheets. Look at your two lines on the first sheet and in your minds eye thicken one. It will become a rectangle, perhaps a long thin one, or if it expands out to the edge of the paper a much more regular rectangular shape. Now make the rectangle you see by building a surface of regular marks. These could be horizontal or vertical scratches, regular punch holes, overlapping hammered marks, regular scratchings from your cheese grater. What ever you can do to make a continuous surface that stops at 4 straight edges. 

Paint a dye over 12 of these sheets of paper. 

Take 11 sheets and look at what has happened to your other line. Is it lost under the rectangle you have made, does it stand clear, can you still see part of it? Make another line designed to reinforce awareness of this line. Do you make a shattered disjointed line next to a clear sharp line, or do you echo it by making another sharp line but how far away should it go? Once you have made these 11 new lines, paint the dye over 10 of your sheets of paper. 

Now lay out all 20 sheets, look at them closely. You have in effect been playing with a particular variation of Paul Klee's idea of moving 'from point to line to plane'. However by adding colour you have included a very emotional ingredient to the sequence that will hopefully ensure that this is not a cerebral exercise. The fact that only changes in the paper surface are used to capture changes in colour intensity should also make you far more aware of the paper as a material, rather than as a background on which to work.

As you look at the sheets you have worked on hopefully one will stand out as being of interest in some way, you will be drawn to one of the sheets for whatever reason. Take it out of the presentation, look at it for a little longer and add a fold to the structure. Work on the back of the paper to ensure the fold is sharp then flatten out the paper and fold the paper again in the opposite direction. Then flatten back out. Now paint your dye over the whole surface. 

Pick another sheet of paper from your remaining sheets and look at this. Now cover a proportion of the surface with a sheet of thick clear paper. Whatever is left uncovered lightly sand with rough sandpaper, or scratch over with a set of regular marks. Now paint your dye over the whole surface. 

Take another sheet. This time close your eyes and feel with your hand over the surface. With your eyes still closed take a sharp implement and scratch into the surface feeling for the difference you are making. Now look at what you have done and dye the paper surface. 

Take another sheet and do nothing to it. Now take a different coloured dye and paint it all over the surface.

Take out another sheet. Using a bowl of clean water and a rag wipe away as much dye/colour as you can from one area of the sheet of paper. 

On another sheet make a straight line one inch wide from one side of the image to another. This can be an any angle. Make the line in anyway you want, it can be dyed, scratched into, embossed, whatever you feel is right.

On the next sheet make a square anywhere on the paper in any way you wish using any of the techniques already used to mark the paper. 

Now take a sheet and make a tear into it. 

Take another sheet and make another tear, this time you are to dye the sheet once the tear is made.

Draw a circle into the next sheet of paper using any of the paper marking techniques you have been using. 

Now lay out all of your sheets of paper again, look at them and think about how they might relate to yourself. This is a very personal thing and how you make the connection is up to you, remember there is no right or wrong way to do this. 

Pick one sheet, close you eyes and feel it, follow the lines and surfaces with your fingers and build up a picture in your head. Now look at it from a distance, and feel for the differences between sight and touch. Now decide how to respond to what you have felt or seen or both by making either a mark, a series of marks, a line or a shape.  You could work on this sheet with eyes closed, by working whilst looking very hard, or alternating between looking and feeling. Use any combination of the techniques you have introduced. 

Pick another sheet and reinforce one element by painting into it with a different coloured dye. 

Pick another sheet and do the same but this time using the dominant coloured dye found on the chosen sheet. In effect this would be blue on blue or red on red, a heightening of saturation or intensity. 

On another sheet remove a large area of information by sanding or any other appropriate erasure technique.

On the next sheet to do the same thing but this time to erase within a sharp boundary. Such as working within a taped out boundary or using a clean sheet of paper to mask out the area you are working in. 

Repeat this process on two more sheets and then apply dye across both sheets. 

Finally, choose a sheet and simply dye the edges, letting the colour fade out into the existing colour field.  

At this point it is time to stop. Go back reflect on these images and see what has happened. 

The next stage is up to you. 

You will now have a much better understanding of your chosen paper. Do you move on to explore a different sort? Are there any sets of marks or forms that particularly intrigued you? Do you begin the next exploration by starting with these? Do you begin this time with a square sheet of paper rather than a rectangle? Do you use tearing techniques alone? What if all your marks were punched into the paper? What is it about the colour that works for you? How would you approach dyeing paper if you had to do this again? What if all your marks were confined to one half of the paper? 

The next stage will be about focus and it is your decision as to what that is. 

Sohan Qadri








How paper is made in Nepal