Wednesday 15 April 2020

Patrick S. Ford: A Dialogue with the Landscape.

Guest drawing blogger: Patrick S. Ford

A Dialogue with the Landscape.

I Grew up in England, with its long tradition of landscape art, and studied at Jacob Kramer College (as Leeds Arts University was known at the time). I first studied there from 1977-78 and then again from 1980-81.

Among the many wonderful and unforgettable experiences I had at Jacob Kramer, the week-long drawing trip to Wharfedale was arguably the high-point for me. I could never forget sitting up on the hills in the cold for hours on end making marks, erasing marks, making new marks, struggling to capture the particular character or personality of a specific section of the valley. The search for the appropriate marks that could express weight and convey distance and form in the landscape were the goals of those drawings. I quickly became aware that the resulting drawings were not simply an objective recording of the chosen landscape, nor were they merely an attempt to depict the landscape as a two dimensional image. The final images were more than that, they seemed to be a struggle to find a way of conveying a physical experience by recording that experience as a specific collection of marks, in a similar way to how binary code stores complex sets of information about the world.   

‘Wharfedale’, 1981

As I made these drawings I first had to ignore the temperature and the fact that I had not dressed appropriately for a day on the hills. I sat on a plastic sheet, with snow lying all around me. As I drew a stick of compressed charcoal across the sheet of paper, I followed the lines of the drystone walls I could see on the opposite side of the valley. I imagined myself walking there, hugging the walls for protection against the wind, climbing the hill towards the crest. As my imagination walked across the hillside, the piece of charcoal in my hand scraped correspondingly across the paper surface.
The resulting drawn image may not have been an exact visual copy of that part of Wharfedale but that would only be apparent if the drawing were held at arm’s length to the valley beyond. Once a drawing has left the location that triggered its creation it must work as an independent, resolved image able to exist on its own merit and not reliant on any comparison with a particular place and in my case a particular part of Yorkshire.

Fast forward now around 40 years and I found myself living on Cheung Chau Island, part of the territory or Hong Kong. During the 6 years I had been living on the island I had developed a regular late afternoon walk which I undertook every Saturday and Sunday unless it was raining heavily. Along the route of the walk I had noticed numerous boulders that lay in various parts of the island. Some of them lay very close to the path I traced and as I walked quite slowly I had time to look at them closely. On many of them the surface had been eroded by the wind and water into a texture that resembled miniature vermiculation reminiscent of the type to be seen on the lower stories of renaissance buildings. One in particular attracted me due to a large crack that ran vertically down the rock. The combination of the fissure in the rock and the surface texture I thought was quite striking. It could almost have been sculpted deliberately.
At the time, in my notebooks, I had been testing various drawing materials, such as willow and compressed charcoal, pastels, soft pencils and so on by laying thin sheets of paper onto the floor on my balcony to see which materials picked up the details of the floor surface in a more effective way. I was investigating different methods of mark making although at the time I did not have a particular application in mind. When I saw the fissured rock on my weekend walk I put the two together and decided to trace the wonderful texture of the rock with the most effective materials I had determined from my tests. 

The next weekend I took out a few sheets of thin, Chinese ink painting paper, some willow charcoal and located a few rocks that could serve as experimental subjects.
I spent a few minutes deciding which part of the rock to lay the paper on and then laid out my materials to be at arms-length while I worked. I would be holding the paper with one hand and pressing the charcoal onto the paper with the other. I carefully picked up the texture of the rock by utilising the frottage technique, the kind often used to record brass memorials in old churches. Care was needed and some practice required as I found that a certain amount of pressure was needed to pick up sufficient texture from the rock, but not too much pressure as that would tear the thin Chinese ink paper. I worked on 3 different rocks before moving on to the one with a distinctive crack running through it. This I felt to be the best of the group as it had an individual, distinct character. Although I was picking up the natural texture of the rock by rubbing the charcoal across the paper, I found that I could intensify certain parts of the emerging image in order to create emphasis. I therefore realised that I could exert some control over the marks being made and it was not simply a matter of recording the rock texture mechanically. The hand that held the paper in place while I drew was forced to move as I concentrated the drawing on different parts of the paper and through that hand I could sense the texture and temperature of the rock beneath.

In this way, as I used my hands to sense the form of the rocks, I gained an understanding of their make-up and which allowed me to respond later in an empathetic way. I had already expected that I may then have to work further on these initial images in order to clarify the visual imprint the rocks had left.

The drawings were the end result of a direct tactile interaction between the natural landscape and my hands. The experience was quite sculptural in a way, almost as though I was physically shaping the rocks in clay or a similar malleable material. It was as if the activity I was engaged in would somehow record the residue of the rocks’ presence onto the paper. Paul Klee would suggest that this residue would be generated by the naturally occurring energy of the rocks. Although the scale was different, I now realise that this ‘presence’ was what I was attempting to record onto paper back in Warfedale.

Reviewing my first round of drawings on Cheung Chau, I sensed that some drawings seemed to be almost fully resolved while others required some further work in order to resolve them. This further work was completed back in my studio and it was important for me to reflect on the experience I gained out in the landscape, so that my responses in the studio would be sympathetic with the marks made out in the field.
My overall aim was to combine the natural marks and textures created by the technique of ‘frottage’ and the sympathetic application of marks and tones added later in the studio.

Relief Drawing A – 33(h) x 22cm(w)

Relief Drawing B – 29.5(h) x 34.5cm(w)

Relief Drawing C – 32.5(h) x 35cm(w)

Relief Drawing D – 31.5(h) x 34.5cm(w)

Following this initial experimentation, I decided to move on to the next stage.
For this second round of experiments I chose a spot on a local beach. Here I found horizontal rocks emerging from the sand, full of character and ideal for my project. As these rocks formed the ground I walked upon it was therefore easier to lay out larger sheets of paper and use rocks as weights, rather than relying on my left hand to hold them in place while I worked.
On the day I chose to make my drawings it was very hot. I wore a straw hat from Okinawa that gave me shelter from the sun and allowed air to circulate through the weave. During the session that day I aimed to make two drawings. I took the roll of Chinese paper and a large square of paper that was not as sensitive as the Chinese ink paper, but being much larger it allowed me to experiment on a larger scale. It made sense to document the process and Nina, Yiu Lai Lei made the video recording for me.

Video: the making of relief drawing1

Working on the beach: Relief Drawing 1

Video: the making of relief drawing2

Working on the beach: Relief Drawing 2

Back in the studio I laid out the two drawings and reviewed them. The one I had made using the roll of Chinese ink paper seemed to me to be fully resolved. It had recorded quite a lot of the surface texture and the overall image had a strong personality. It seemed there was nothing missing and therefore nothing for me to add that could have improved it.
The larger, square sheet seemed a little unresolved so I felt I had to work more on it. Perhaps as this sheet of paper was not as sensitive it had not picked up as much of the surface texture. The contrast in the marks was greater (fewer half-tones had been created) and the marks seemed quite linear when compared to the other drawing. At first I was disappointed. I had been so pleased with the first drawing I assumed the larger drawing to be similar but more extensive. However, as I began work on it I realised my assumption was wrong. The paper surface was different, it was thicker and smoother and had not picked up as much of the delicate texture, only recording the main lumps and bumps beneath. I was mistaken to think that this paper could result in an image similar to the other paper that had such different qualities. Instead of being disappointed I embraced the larger drawing and as I continued to work I began to sense this drawing’s own personality. The image that began to emerge was not as three dimensional, the marks were almost calligraphic in nature and did not merge together so much in places as had happened in the previous drawing. Once I had found the new direction for this work I found the work much more enjoyable.
I tried to find equilibrium between the marks that were directed by the textures and fractures in the rocks and my own, considered response to them. The rocks led the way by setting out a basic structure, the scope of the drawing, and I then later followed their lead by responding to their clues and hints.

In order to make these drawings I had to adapt my usual method of working that would eventually allow me to make an honest and direct response to the form of the rocks. It is so easy to impose preconditions on a drawing and then attempt to push it in that direction rather than allowing the work’s specificity to dictate one’s working methods. 
I have always found experimentation exciting and I enjoy the thrill I receive when I am not in control and don’t fully understand where a particular project is headed. In future I now plan to explore this topic more and test the specificity of this method through the use of different surfaces and different types of drawing support. The fact that the results of such a project would be unpredictable is what drives me on. 

Relief Drawing 1: Chinese ink paper drawing – 138(h) x 35cm(w)

Relief Drawing 2: Layout paper drawing – 119(h) x 88cm(w)

Patrick S. Ford’s contact details

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