Thursday, 21 March 2019

Drawing as testimony

There is an area of drawing that is often underrated and as I have remarked before, also made to feel inferior by being regarded as illustration. This is drawing done directly in front of the world, reportage, or direct responses to life as it is experienced. Historically this thread includes Pieter Bruegel, Goya, Rembrandt, Otto Dix, Daumier, Edgar Degas and many more artists that at their core looked at and experienced the world through drawing, and in doing so derived a deep understanding of what it is to be human.

I try to continue in my own small way this tradition by walking my local streets and drawing. My skills are nowhere as good as they need to be but at least I feel that some of the reality of the streets seeps into the work I do.

This post is about artists who have drawn directly from experience, and like Goya, sometimes these artists find themselves in dangerous and difficult places, and yet also like Goya and Otto Dix, they still managed to get down on paper their feelings and observations. Drawing is not like taking photographs, the split second of the photograph means that you only glance in the direction of what is happening, sometimes not even looking, because you can only point the camera and hope for a good shot. But if you draw you need to look hard and long, thus confronting the situation, taking it in at a much deeper level.


The artist Avigdor Arikha was known for working only in natural light and for producing each of his images in one day. Both of these working methods were due to Arikha’s decision to focus on prioritising the act of observation. He would often give himself limitations within which to work, for instance at one time restricting himself to black and white, a restriction that he imposed upon himself for seven years. 

Working within an imposed set of severe conditions was something Arikha would have had to learn from an early age. He survived his early experiences as a boy in a concentration camp during the second world war, because of drawings he made on scraps of paper of images that were direct impressions of the horrors he was experiencing as a camp inmate. On a visit to the camp, delegates of the Red Cross saw some of his drawings and realising the importance of his revelatory images managed to engineer his own and his sister’s escape. 



Avigdor Arikha: drawings done as a boy in Transnistria concentration camp

Because of his Jewish identity, Arikha was only able to escape the concentration camp by taking on the identity of a boy who had just died. To become a dead person in order to live is one of those experiences that must shape one's view of life forever and in Arikha's case I think it was seminal to what he was to eventually develop as a body of work. His art training in Israel introduced him to European abstraction and this was to have a lasting impression on his compositional choices; selection and simplification of forms being vital to his own process of self-reflection. His perceptions needed to be stripped down as they arrived in all their complexity in order for him to understand what it was he was seeing. The critic Robert Hughes described Arikha's process as one suffused with  an "air of scrupulous anxiety", the act of drawing, being never an easy one, especially when you realise that in some ways you only see through someone else's 'dead' eyes. Arikha's work has a nervous, edgy quality, to it, one that reminds you that no matter how hard one might seek to be objective, a point of view is hard to avoid, because it can seep into the image from the way a pen is held or from the confidence with which a mark is drawn. The artist's 'touch' can at times be just that; a touch that transforms by its very nature. 

Lord Home

I well remember Arikha's portrait of Lord Home the Conservative Prime minister, one of those rare portraits that seemed to capture the nature of what the political animal is actually like. Arikha seemed the perfect choice to make a painting of Home, because he was able to see the death in life of the conservative mind. 

Avigdor Arikha: Samuel Beckett

Avigdor Arikha: Knife and bread

Avigdor Arikha made many drawings and paintings of people and landscapes, but of all his images the ones that I feel make the most impact are those of simple basic objects. His image above of a knife and bread being a wonderful example of that confrontation with the play of light passing over a few moments of the day. He makes these moments as solid as a mountain, this rock of bread will break your teeth if you try to eat it, it is not for eating it is for looking. This image is of a few moments preserved in all their richness, a sight made all the more precious because at one point there was to be no more looking for Arikha and he still can only see out of a dead boy's eyes.



Eric Taylor: Images drawn in Belsen

The images above are by Eric Taylor, a former principal of the art college in Leeds where I still work. When I began my teaching career Eric was still working in the college making ceramics. He was a quiet, inwardly focused man, who at that time used to come into the college every day to work. This was his reward for services rendered, after devoting his life to art education he was given free access to the college studios and facilities and used these until he was in his 90s. He was a beacon of sanity around which the department rotated, he didn't have to talk, he just made things and made them with love and care and an eye that relied on the experiences of life to tell him what to do. One of those experiences was in the services of His Majesty's Government as a war artist at the end of the second world war. He was one of the artists that had to record what had happened in Belsen concentration camp and there is no way that his training as an artist could have prepared him for what he was asked to document. The drawings he did at the time are now kept in the Imperial War Museum and act as reminders to us all of what people do to people when they forget that all people are people. 


Restoring Eric Taylor's mural

Set into the side of the Leeds Arts University's new building, you can see a three part ceramic mosaic mural. It is a joyous celebration of rural life, set into a wall facing a busy city road transport link. This is also the work of Eric Taylor, a far cry from the scenes he was forced to contemplate during his time as a war artist. Now fully restored these colourful murals are passed every day by a new generation of students who have hopefully not had to face what both Avigdor Arikha and Eric Taylor had to experience. However both artists at one time or another had to stare life in the face in order to make their drawings and in that process they learnt both about the world and themselves. 

In many ways the artist Pia Linz's practice is the opposite of these older artists' work. But it is perhaps a much closer reflection on how we as people in what we now call the developed world, experience life today. Because she works from behind a transparent shield, she sees the world through a screen and this, it would seem to me, is the everyday situation for many of us, be this the car windscreen, mobile or a computer screen.
Her 'Box Engravings' have developed from ideas of projection. What is interesting here is that these ideas are in fact rooted in the 15th century and if you go back to very old drawing devices such as Durer's perspective frame, the idea of drawing as a record of what passes in front of a flat screen or grid, can be seen as a constant that has lasted since the invention of perspective.

This is what Durer had to say about how to use his drawing apparatus. “Now draw whatever you wish to paint on the pane of glass. This is very suitable for portraiture-especially for those painters who are not sure of themselves. If you wish to use this method to paint a portrait, let the subject rest his head so that he will not move it until all the needful strokes are completed. ”





You can compare Durer's drawing apparatus with drawing aids used at the beginning of the twentieth century, the following text being taken from an advert for Ablett's glass plane above. "The teacher with the position of his eye fixed by the moveable iron ring, traces with brush and Chinese white the outline of the object, (rod, disk, cube or chair etc), which is placed on a table or the floor on the further side of the glass. The pupils, one by one, look through the ring and see for themselves that the lines traced on the Glass by the teacher, coincide with the outline of the model. Pia Linz develops her three dimensional Box Engravings by always using a fixed standpoint and turning around on her own axis. First, she builds a transparent Perspex box construction that is tailor made in response to her chosen location, for instance it might take the shape of a prominent building that can be seen from the location. Then once it is positioned, she sits inside the transparent Perspex construction and draws with a felt marker onto the inside of the construction what she can see. (Obviously she will have to swivel round as she draws in order to do this). After this activity is completed, she makes the drawing permanent by engraving the lines of the drawing into the Perspex.

In contrast to Durer's perspective frame however, in which the observer places themselves in the same position of the artist, here the observer views the world of the Box Engraving from the outside. The world of Linz's perceptions is always therefore contained within her construction. It is as if Linz's perceptions can never really escape the confines of her own head. The older artists had a confidence that their testimony would be something that was communicable to others, they had no need for complex devices. In Linz's case we feel that she has to provide a framework for her experiences, one that has to conceptually reflect on the research behind her ideas. However her work still operates as a drawn testament to the fact that she too sat out in the street and drew what she saw. It is a document and a form of reportage, but contained in a presentation far more suited to present day exhibition demands, the work sitting clearly within the domain of contemporary fine art practice.



Pia Linz: Box Engravings
See also:



Sunday, 10 March 2019

Glen Baxter at Leeds Arts University


On exhibition at the moment in Leeds Arts University's Vernon Street building is the work of Glen Baxter. Baxter is an alumni of the University and he gave a very funny talk in conjunction with the opening of his exhibition. This ought to have been expected as his work is always humorous and designed to pull the rug from out under the feet of anyone who takes art too seriously. It is interesting to compare his work with Mark Tansey, an artist that has reached 'blue chip' status as a contemporary grand master and one that also plays games with our reading of art. Baxter is much more of a joker, he is not afraid to deal in one liners and in many ways he reveals serious issues that surround our society's relationship with contemporary art practices. In particular he questions the relationship between high and low culture and the reception of art within sub-cultures that lie outside of the 'art world'. 
I will simply leave you with a few of his cartoons, they speak for themselves. 














Find details of the exhibition 'Unhinged in Hunslet' here.  Exhibition open until 11th April.

See also:




Thursday, 7 March 2019

Seeing things for the first time

When Galileo published his book the 'Sidereus Nuncius' or 'Starry Messenger', he was also, because he was the first person to have drawn the moon by looking through a telescope, giving us new images, images that were unmediated by other people's experiences and therefore slightly unformed. It was a little like the experience cited in Memo Akten's work on artificial intelligence,  if you haven't seen something before, you tend to take a while to clarify what you are seeing, and use previous experience as a model. In Galileo's case he was drawing something already familiar in the case of the moon, but it had never been seen before in such detail. Over the next few years, the moon seems to slowly come into focus as different people look through telescopes and gradually work out the pattern of forms that we now accept as the moon. The drawings of Claude Mellan in 1635 establishing an artistic norm if not a scientific one. 

Galileo: 1610

Claude Mellan: 1635

Long before both Galileo and Mellan however Jan Van Eyke had painted an image of the moon that was uncannily accurate and which suggested to me at least that he must have been used to using lenses to look at things. 

Van Eyke: crucifixion 

Detail of the moon, on the right edge.

Because Saturn was a lot further away it was harder to get a good image of it and so a greater amount of invention was needed. In Huygen's 'Systema Saturnium' below we see Galileo's original drawings of Saturn as if it had two moons, (top row) followed by various other attempts to clarify what it was observers were seeing. It took a while to work out that Saturn had rings, Galileo, modelling his first idea on what he already knew, Earth with its moon. 

Compilation from Huygen's Systema Saturnium (1659)
showing how Saturn's appearance had changed from
1610 to 1646.

There have been many and various attempts by artists to draw heavenly bodies and because they are so hard to see, it is interesting to look at these in relation to how much invention was put into trying to clarify what was seen. The Astronomical Drawings of Maria Clara Eimmart are particularly interesting because she introduces an almost 'mystical' feel for the heavens, partly due to the colouration she uses. 

Some of the Astronomical Drawings of Maria Clara Eimmart

The 19th century French artist and astronomer Étienne Léopold Trouvelot made over 7000 illustrations of his observations, some of his most imaginative ones are presented below. 





I think his sunspots are particularly revealing, because of their similarity to certain plant forms or jellyfish. His efforts at making us aware of the possibilities of extra terrestrial forms were though to have other unexpected consequences. 
Because of his drawing skills and notoriety as an astronomer, Trouvelot was asked to travel to the USA to present his work and when he did he took with him an idea, one that could be read as a fable for what humans do to the planet Earth. He thought he could make money by developing a new very productive insect species, by interbreeding European gypsy moths with silk worms. So he carried some eggs over to the US with him when he travelled; the gypsy moth larvae of course escaped and finding few natural enemies to keep them in check, they began to ravage the forests of the New World. Ideas have consequences. 

James Nasmyth made plaster landscapes based on his observations of the moon and then photographed them in order to obtain the levels of verisimilitude he wanted. Again the line between invention and observation is very blurred. 


James Nasmyth

If you ever need reminding of how invention is part of seeing the drawing below is probably one of the best examples, this is Robert Hooke's drawing of a printed full stop, (circled A) when viewed for the first time under a microscope. 
Robert Hooke: drawing of a full stop

Hooke was famous for making drawings using the newly invented microscope, his insects in particular were wonderful examples of new images, that fused invention with observation.


Robert Hooke: drawing of an insect's head

Hooke's drawings have an almost hallucinatory intensity and they still mesmerise us because of this. 

It is worth exploring these early drawings in more detail see: 

A history of moon drawings
Trouvelot's drawings

The ideas in this post are a direct response to this earlier post and it would be useful to read the two together. What I'm suggesting is that if you can find a way of looking at something either by using a new tool, such as a telescope, or by looking very closely at something intensely for a long time, you are likely to come up with images made with a very high level of intensity, and they are much more likely to lead to both new knowledge and be visually exciting. 

Sunday, 3 March 2019

Drawing using wax resist


Henry Moore: wax resist with ink underground shelter drawing

I was at school when I first discovered drawing using wax resist techniques and perhaps because it is often introduced as a way of adding texture to a drawing as part of a school art room exercise, it is rarely used again. However like any process it has rich possibilities and in this case a long history.


My interest in wax resist techniques as a way of working was rekindled a few years ago when I put on an exhibition of work that was being produced in my local area of Chapeltown in Leeds. One of the artists I made contact with was Oluseyi Ogunjobi, a storyteller, musician, painter, textile artist and translator. Seyi’s images try to capture the universal essence of spirituality and tap into traditional life and stories found in Yoruba culture. He paints as well as makes images using resist techniques and the images he supplied for the exhibition both used wax resist.

Oluseyi Ogunjobi

Resist techniques are common in Yoruba imagery, originally using starch and more recently wax, the Yoruba tradition is one that Oluseyi continues, converting stories originally designed to be passed on via oral traditions, into visual patterns. Like the sand drawings I looked at from the New Hebrides a while ago, these images would have been made as part of a holistic tradition, and when Seyi (Oluseyi) showed his images he also came and told stories about them. The more I become aware of these traditions, the more I believe as artists we need to think about a more holistic approach to art. 


Yoruba textile using starch resist


Wax resist as a technique is thousands of years old and its unique visual quality means that it is constantly being rediscovered as a way of making images that tap into mythic pasts. For instance Susanne Wenger has revisited Yoruba culture and brought it back into contact with a German tradition of expressionist woodcuts, the results being powerful images that cross over several cultural boundaries. 

Susanne Wenger: Wax resist


Wax resist or 'Batik' traditions of image making have been found in the Far East, Middle East, Central Asia and India from over 2000 years ago. The craft spread from Asia to the islands of the Malay Archipelago and west to the Middle East via caravan routes. Batik, from the Javanese word 'tin' to dot, is usually produced by painting in hot wax onto cloth and then when the cloth is dyed the resist areas remain uncoloured. Finally the wax is removed once the various layers of wax painting and dying have been completed. As you can see from the image of a detail from an Indonesian sarong below, the process can lead to very complex images and because many motifs need to be repeated, batik is often associated with wood block printing techniques, the blocks can be used to print both wax for resist purposes and to ink areas of cloth. 
Contemporary batik Indonesian sarong design

This film made by Anna Gifford shows how you can transfer a paper design to cloth. 
See Link 
It's an old film but it shows how you can use charcoal dust and a small star-wheel to draw through paper onto a cloth beneath, by pricking holes using a rolling star-wheel following along previously drawn lines. It demonstrates how the techniques of making cartoons and transferring them for fresco, were very closely modelled on techniques that would have been used to transfer designs onto cloth. I've also got a very personal reason for making a link to the film, Anna was a fellow student on the DipAd Fine Art course I studied at Newport College of Art and she has sadly now passed away. 

Henry Moore used wax crayons for his resist technique and users of watercolour and ink make use of a variety of resist techniques, in the image below you can see John Singer Sargent using wax scribbles as a resist technique. 

John Singer Sargent

An artist such as Bernadette Madden who is also a printmaker uses batik techniques to work in a territory that sort of sits halfway between painting, printmaking and drawing and she is well worth investigating if you are wanting to explore colour and surface resist techniques.

Bernadette Madden


Resist techniques are many and various, try painting an image loosely in gouache and then when dry going over it in black ink. When the ink is dry wash out the gouache. The gouache colours will stain the paper and the black ink will seep in around the edges of each shape in unpredictable ways. It is often the unpredictability of using resists that makes for those unexpected moments of wonder.

Picasso: Etching

The one area of print making that allows you to really develop your thinking via resist techniques is etching. Every time you have to put the plate in the acid you stop out or resist one or other areas of the plate. White is the only non bitten area left when etching away various parts of the plate, i. e. it is the area that has always had some sort of resist on it, through the whole time that plate has been worked on. (Except of course any area that has been burnished and re-polished).  In my day you could use almost straight nitric acid on a zinc plate, but health and safety precautions now mean you would probably have to use ferric chloride, but even so, very similar results can be obtained. Working in this way can help you be more dramatic in your decision making and bolder in your design work. A combination of aquatint and open bite can be used alongside sugar lift and line work scratched through a hard ground to give you a very rich textural range. 

George Rouault: Etching

He might not be very popular at the moment because of his religious associations, but if you ever get a chance to view any George Rouault etchings have a good look at how he achieves a wonderful feeling of both richness and solidity, whilst still keeping his forms mobile by using gestural strokes. He often does this using sugar lift techniques, but he also mixes photographic transfer processes with hand applied aquatints to get the desired intensity of surface texture and sooty darks. When used in the hands of a master like Rouault or Goya, resist techniques can lead to a surface richness and an intensity that can be used to carry deep emotional impact. 
Goya: Etching

This tradition is carried on by artists such as Paula Rego, the resist techniques of etching ensuring that the images that arrive are never over controlled, but emerge out of a sort of half guess as to what might happen if. The first pull of an etching plate is rather like that first moment that you brush ink over your wax resist, the image is always slightly unexpected, and in that unexpectedness lies its freshness and directness. 


Paula Rego: Etching

More on drawing and printmaking
Monoprints and lithographs
Monoprinting