There are as many ways of writing about drawing as there are drawings. Recently 'Soanyway' the online magazine had a call for entries for their LIQUIDITY >|< VESSEL issue, so I put something forward. It wasn't accepted but by writing the submission I had to formally organise some thoughts, which is always a useful exercise. The activity of writing a submission is nearly always rewarding and if it is rejected you can always use whatever it is you have written in another context, in this case as today's blog post. As a student it can be a good exercise and sometimes you find you have written something that you never expected yourself to write.
Submission title: ‘An Oak Tree’
How the submission related to the set theme.
‘An Oak Tree’ is a short story that reflects upon the drawing of a glass of water, using a dip in pen and oak gall ink on paper, a technique that has been used by artists for many years. Drawing using liquids is very different to drawing using solids, the act of shaping a drawing being as much a product of material possibilities as of the drawer’s intention. Exhibited at the Rowan Gallery in 1974, Michael Craig-Martin’s ‘An Oak Tree’; a glass of water on a high shelf, was a conceptual art piece. Drawing at the time had seemingly become redundant as an art form; contemporary art ideas appeared to have separated themselves from material making.
Michael Craig-Martin: ‘An Oak Tree’
An oak tree
Encounters between things are always interesting, especially if things can never touch each other in reality. There are events that we as human beings think about as encounters. However this is because our thoughts are structured in an encountering manner in order for us to operate in particular ways. Ways that in relation to other things and how they commingle and become entangled with the world, are strange and materially confusing. I'll try and explain what I, (as a moving bag of water with hard bits inside), mean in relation to what something that isn't me might experience.
As part of the act of making a drawing, I am holding in my hand a half full glass of water, looking at its particular ability to refract light and cause a slight distortion of the world that passes behind it. I dip my finger into the water and feel its cool dampness, and as I place the glass back down onto the table I hear a reassuring quiet thud. However, all of these actions are a complex and very convincing fiction, played out for my benefit by my own brain.
There is no such thing as a direct encounter between myself and this glass; the colours I see refracted across its surface are my own invention, photons of light have no colour, just as sound waves have no sound, coldness has no temperature and chemical molecules no odour or taste. But it does seem to me that I am touching this glass, how else could it be defying gravity and floating above my drawing table? Most of the mass of the atoms that make up my finger ends is concentrated into various nuclei and the same situation exists for the glass I’m holding. Surrounding these many and various nuclei is empty space, except for where electrons orbit around protons and neutrons. As they do so we can count them. The number of electrons surrounding a nucleus depends on the element and here are two shells of spinning bodies, one consisting of four electrons and another with two, a sign of the element carbon. Each carbon atom can form bonds with up to four other atoms simultaneously and is ripe for joining in with the development of complex molecules such as those that fingers are made up of. But silicon is also present in this situation and it is much more commonly available than carbon, so perhaps we are looking at a nascent life form, as well as a developed one. These subatomic particles also have a negative charge; stubborn by nature, they are only attracted to particles with an opposite charge, and are repelled by similarity. This prevents electrons from ever coming in direct contact with each other. It could be argued that their wave packets can overlap, but they can never touch; the electrons in these fingers repel and are repelled by the electrons in the glass. This glass is actually levitating using a wonderful conjuring trick designed by the glass and the human's fingers in conjunction with each other, a collective mind / body mass, engineering a moment of fantasy. Touch is something else’s repulsion, a repulsion from an electromagnetic field permeating local spacetime is psychologically perhaps difficult to cope with, especially that Pauli’s Exclusion Principle is also at work. Electrons know where every other electron is, and they try to avoid each other as much as possible. Pauli, a standoffish individual, was responsible for the fact that some humans think they know why ordinary lumps of matter are stable. He suggested that atoms occupy a volume and cannot be squeezed too closely together, which could have been related to the fact that he had problems with his own body image and had no friends. However attracted these fingers are to this glass, I’m not sure they want to be responsible for its collapse; all I can say is, it does seem to me to be a reasonable presumption that in my world two solid objects cannot be in the same place at the same time. I usually think of other things as being separate from me. I like the distance perception and consciousness appear to offer me, they make me feel special, a distinct being that can have encounters with other things, I like to think I have agency.
I’m pretty old fashioned and still use the same type of dip-in pen and ink to write and especially draw with, that I was introduced to at my junior school. I intuitively feel as if there is a sensitive and yet straightforward encounter between the ink and the paper as I put my thoughts down. Today I am using water-based ink on paper as my preferred drawing material. I categorise my mark making materials into those that flow in water as if in a primordial sea and those that are scraped off of hard surfaces like some form of geological attrition. When I choose ink as my medium, it can feel as if I am working with something akin to my own life-blood. However I am aware that I can use metaphor to fool myself and that illusion is very much to do with relative scale.
In order for the ink I use to ‘stick’ to the paper, or at least appear to be attached to it, certain things need to align, such as polarity. For instance I am using water based or hydrophilic ink; a polar ink, not to be confused with Noodler's Polar inks, of which I am very fond of the brown. I choose certain types of paper because the surface is smooth enough to allow me to move the nib across the paper without it getting caught in the grain, but textured and thick enough to allow me to add further diluted ink, if I feel the need to embellish the drawing with a tonal wash. However my thoughts about why I choose paper are very different to the ink’s affinities.
If you pour mercury over paper it will not wet it, mercury's surface tension is so great it adheres to itself. But if you pour water-based ink onto paper it will wet it, because the surface tension of water is much less than that of mercury. But this is not always the case. For instance, if water soluble ink comes into contact with lipids, (organic compounds that are insoluble in water, such as fatty acids or grease), the water molecules become more attracted to each other than the lipids, and will therefore, like mercury run off the paper and leave it dry. When ink is drawn onto a surface that it doesn't like, it aggregates, clumping together to avoid all interaction with the surface. In this case the term ‘like’ being both a foster parent of metaphor and feeling.
The ink has a certain flexibility of movement, is mobile in its solvent, and will remain so until the solvent evaporates. Whilst its mobility is active one can engage with the ink via a mediator, which is in this case a nib made of a 14 carat gold alloy, a substance that like glass, will not chemically interact with it. Water allows the ink to form in solution, it acts as a carrier and when its job is done it evaporates away. Water is a life-enhancing medium, as the carrier for blood, it not only gets nutrients and oxygen to cells and transports waste products away; it also carries the white cells that protect us from diseases. Water supports the making of the complex molecular bonds that are needed to create amino acids within an animal body, the chemistry of which being not that dissimilar to that which allows ink to stick to paper after the water evaporates. It is in the spaces between surfaces where we will find ink's direct encounter with paper, but human eyes will never be able to see it. When ink does favour the substrate or surface that it has been applied to, it will attach via inter-molecular forces, such as h-bonding, London dispersion, and most interestingly, van der Waals forces. Johannes Diderik Van der Waals, a human with a large family network, realised that forces arise from interactions between uncharged atoms or molecules, leading not only to such phenomena as the physical absorption of gases, but also to a particular understanding of universal forces of attraction between macroscopic bodies. Indeed it has been argued recently that gravitational force is actually van der Waals force; gravitational force being related directly to quantum mechanics, the networks of quantum fluctuations of electron clouds in atoms both holding everything together and creating space-time. The behaviour of sub-atomic forces and the fact that these are shaping everything we do is unseen because our viewpoint is focused on a human scale. Just as our eyes are only tuned to a certain part of the electromagnetic spectrum, all our other senses are operating within very narrow perimeters. The fingertips holding this pen can feel the difference between a smooth surface and one with a pattern embedded into it of only 13 nanometres deep. However the edge of our ability to judge surface change is nowhere near the diameter of an atom, which ranges from about 0.1 to 0.5 nanometres, a scale far beyond our perceptual abilities. Therefore the idea of an encounter that includes direct contact is just that, only an idea, one that has been developed by our brain’s idea of a sense of touch. Touch is only understandable in the space between the smallest thing we can grasp and the largest, we are all though touched by the sun and its chemical processing continues here on Earth.
The fact that we can think of ink as being like blood is not too far-fetched, iron gall ink, a brown-black ink made from iron salts and vegetable sourced tannic acids was the standard drawing ink used in Europe from the 5th century to the 19th century, and has remained in use by many artists. The ink flows well, dilutes to give a very subtly coloured brown wash, and most importantly adheres firmly to a wide variety of paper and velum surfaces. Iron sulphate added to tannic acid has a very strong chemical affinity with cellulose fibres; this affinity operating both at a molecular level and as a narrative arc. The oak galls that are used to obtain the tannic acid, being a result of animal/vegetable interaction; wasps leaving the galls behind on being able to fly. The wasp larvae on hatching modify the oak leaf to develop the gall form, a structure that protects the developing larvae up until their metamorphosis into adults. The tannins produced by this animal/vegetable interaction, combined with inorganic iron oxide then come back into contact with another animal at the drawing stage. A dipped into ink gold alloy nib, holding onto liquid via surface tension and moved across the surface of the paper in conjunction with organic matter creates new forms as it does so. As these forms are realised, so is a physical bond between the paper and the ink, an attachment so strong, that the only way to erase a mark once this ink is dry, is to sand the whole surface down. At a sub-atomic level intermolecular bonding between electron rich donor atoms and electron poor receptors has taken place, this alongside a van der Waals interaction is a model that can result in both new inorganic and organic molecules, but in particular is at the heart if the building of drawings, DNA and proteins.
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