Thursday, 21 April 2011

drawing state

I'm still thinking about this idea of the state of mind which accompanies drawing. I don't mean the state of 'flow', which has been written about a great deal; that thought-free state of concentration which drawing seems to produce in just about anyone who does it.

No, it's not that. It's the state that makes it possible to draw. And also the state which, in one sense, determines what and how you will draw. In my creativity group last week, we did two drawing exercises. The first was from Drawing Lab - 'blind contour drawing' of giraffes - where you draw the outline of a giraffe from a photo without looking at your paper or pencil at all. This teaches you almost instantly how closely you need to look at something if you want to draw it. It was a laugh.

Then we did an exercise from Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain - where you draw a Picasso drawing upside down, and then find to your amazement when you turn it the right way up that it's a hundred times better than you would ever have thought you could draw (if you haven't drawn as an adult). This wasn't so much of a laugh - all four of us found that it involved phenomenal concentration. It was another exercise in understanding the need to look very carefully at what's in front of you. Both exercises were very good for understanding that drawing is not a magical skill, but a training in learning to look and to see.

However, for me, at this stage in my drawing life, I seem incapable of getting very interested in this approach to drawing at all. I decided about a month ago that I was going to overcome what I took to be a kind of 'fear of failure' attitude to drawing that seemed to be preventing me from doing it. But I realised last week that returning to this kind of focus on drawing was utterly deadening to me. It's quite strange. Even copying the Betty Edwards Picasso was phenomenally hard, concentrated work - or was it because it was an exercise that it felt like such hard work? Looking at these two drawings, which I did around age 23 and which must have taken quite a long time, I have no memory of finding it hard concentration at all. 

To do a drawing like this, you have to be utterly absorbed, interested, captivated, mesmerised. I did it then, and I did it about five years later in the India drawings, some of which were equally mundane, in terms of subject matter. The fascination was clearly still there.

Now, though, I just can't do it. I don't mean technically, or in terms of concentration in general. I mean, I can't get into the state of wanting to draw an object like that, I can't find the will to become mesmerised in that way. I tried to start on a few of these recently, not noticing at the time how lost and peculiar I was feeling about my work. This was partly an upheaval caused by the trip away - which threw everything up in the air - but it was partly, I'm quite sure, because of the focus on drawing.

After a few days of this the agitation got to a peak, stopping me from going to sleep one night, until I got up and found myself making a small, messy, wonderfully undisciplined painting, of the sort I was doing a couple of months ago.

It was quite strange - as if the drawing from life was boring me and strangling me, and in the end this unknown, unconscious part of myself reared up from the depths and forced what it needed to happen. For whatever reason, learning to look at the world with my pencil just isn't doing it for me anymore.

When I think about it now, I can see that this unconscious part of myself seemed to be trying to make itself heard earlier in the week, when I decided to draw an orchid. I set myself up in front of the beautiful plants, without a clear plan in my mind, but intending to draw them. What came out was this:

Which wasn't quite the orchid I had in mind. I wonder if it was partly because I had no plan when I started that instead of the regular plant drawing I had somehow assumed, I got this exercise in repetition, pattern and colour. There seems to have been an unconscious level of response which was trying to speak up when it saw me going off in a direction that, for me, is somehow just not the right thing at the moment....

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

the process of painting and drawing

In my last post, I mentioned someone who had talked to me about using the experience of drawing to create a particular state of mind/being (rather than the other way round, where the drawing can't happen until a particular state is achieved). I asked her to write about this for this blog. She's a retired psychiatrist, who started drawing and painting at some point in mid-life.

I think my first experience of the transformative power of drawing, or painting, came in a workshop I attended led by Frederick Frank, the Dutch-American artist who wrote ‘The Zen of Seeing’. 

Under his guidance we drew in silence for many hours, a small piece of a parsnip was what I was drawing. This exercise, an attempt to open a clear flow between parsnip and pencil via the eyes and hand [and the brain, I guess, though that part of it was far from consciousness!] led me through many phases during the day of frustration, despair, boredom and so on, but ultimately to the kind of expansion of awareness and peace of mind and spaciousness that meditative disciplines of many different kinds can induce.

After that, I turned to drawing and painting as a way of shifting to another state of mind than my usual, less full of preoccupations, less gripped and driven, a way of releasing myself. Sometimes it would happen very quickly, just a few marks of pencil on paper was enough to free me. At other times, I needed deep immersion in painting, or drawing, and at times when it was possible to give myself over to much painting, for days on end, the rewards in terms of opening up the world for me, extending my embrace, were much greater. All this is in the context of normally being an intensely busy, sometimes quite driven, sort of person, so the contrast for me is always striking.

As time has gone on, I have also become more proficient and skilful at making the kind of marks, or creating the effects that please me; but that has never been the prime motivation in this activity. Often I am painting or drawing in response to some request, for decoration, for posters, for painting a picture of something for someone, and so there is inevitably in these activities a wish to produce something that fulfils my own and other’s expectations, but still, with those conditions attached, the process itself is one which brings great reward for me. It is hard to convey in words, as I have attempted above, and these words will probably only resonate with those who have similar experiences themselves.

Maybe this is universal in this craft, this art, but only a few people have spoken to me about this as also true for them.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

inside drawing

It is a platitude in the teaching of drawing that the heart of the matter lies in the specific process of looking. A line, an area of tone, is not really important because it records what you have seen, but because of what it will lead you on to see. Following up its logic in order to check its accuracy, you find confirmation or denial in the object itself, or in your memory of it. Each confirmation or denial brings you closer to the object, until finally you are, as it were, inside it, the contours you have drawn no longer marking the edge of what you have seen, but the edge of what you have become. Perhaps that sounds needlessly metaphysical. Another way of putting it would be to say that each mark you make on the paper is a stepping stone from which you proceed to the next, until you have crossed your subject as though it were a river - have put it behind you.

John Berger, (1972:165) Selected Essays and Articles: The Look of Things, Harmondsworth, Penguin

I'm not sure I know completely what Berger is talking about here, but it's something about the experience of drawing, a state of being which is connected with drawing, which is not really anything to do with technical aspects or even finished products.

It's perhaps easy, when coming to drawing at the beginning, to focus on its external aspects. 'Have I got that proportion correct, is that tone lighter than that...', accompanied, of course, by the chattering critic 'Oh god, this is crap, this doesn't look at all like the thing, I'm no good at this'. This links to what I was thinking about some time ago in relation to skill. And even if you manage to resist too much of this external, product-focussing, for sure someone will come along eventually and reinforce it - 'Oh, that's such a great drawing... Mmmm, you haven't quite got that angle right...'

(For those of you who are critically trained academics, I'm not brainlessly pulling in the simplified binary of internal/external here as any kind of description of reality. But, as someone like Derrida pointed out in one of the original discussions of the problem of binaries, opposed concepts can do useful work in terms of providing a framework within which to examine something. So I'm going to run with this internal/external thing...)

Perhaps the way I'm thinking about being inside your object is a little different to what Berger is talking about. One of the things I've been thinking about for a long time is the connection between internal state and drawing. I've never managed to get any kind of drawing going when my day to day state of being was being busy, teaching, doing research, running about, having a packed timetable. I didn't really understand why this was, but it was just the way things were. By contrast, the drawing above appeared unbelievably effortlessly at the start of my six month teaching job in Northern India (early 1980s) after about a month. As something inside me began to quieten down (after some years of teaching 25 hours a  week, etc etc ), a new kind of responsiveness started to emerge, which, after a fairly short time, began to naturally express itself on paper.

Someone I mentioned this to recently suggested that it could also be the other way round - that if you just started the behaviour/practice (ie. the drawing), you could generate this kind of state. I think that's a very interesting idea. This same person mentioned once to a mutual friend that what she experienced when drawing was a kind of freedom (similar to what she experienced in meditation). Perhaps she's put her finger on what happened to me in North India, as a result of a combination of particular circumstances. But whereas my experience was the result of a long series of events, and tied to particular conditions, her approach suggests that we can actually create a different kind of internal experience through the very act of drawing itself....

As Berger says, the idea that learning to draw is not about learning drawing but is about learning to see is a kind of cliche in teaching drawing. But it's a cliche, perhaps, because it's somehow incredibly easy to forget this, or not really believe it, or otherwise become distracted by technical and practical and emotional issues associated with trying to draw.

And why is learning to see so important anyway? Not, I would suggest, simply because by learning to see we are able to make better drawings. No. Though having written that, I wonder if that is indeed what's often assumed. Whether the drawing creates the state, or the state creates the drawing, something begins to happen in this practice that is in a very real sense transformational in relation to a person's experience of the world.

This is an interesting thought in relation to what I was thinking about some time ago in relation to the culturally-assumed link between states of mental illness/emotional unease and 'creativity'. Perhaps so-called creative people aren't necessarily driven by mysterious demons or otherwise mystical or magical forces. Perhaps some of them have just discovered the transformational potential of creative activity, and are driven by the desire to explorere, taste more, of this extraordinary change of state?

Saturday, 9 April 2011


I'm reading Betty Edwards' wonderful book again. Here is her final piece of advice, right at the end of the book.

First, don't be afraid to learn to draw realistically. Gaining skills in drawing, the basic skill of all art, has never blocked the sources of creativity. Picasso, who could draw like an angel, is a prime illustration of this fact, and the history of art is replete with others. Artists who learn to draw well don't always produce boring and pedantic realistic art. The artists who produce such art would no doubt produce boring and pedantic abstract or nonobjective art as well. Drawing skill will never hinder your work but will certainly help it.

Second, be clear in your mind about why learning to draw well is important. Drawing enables you to see in that special, epiphanous way that artists see, no matter what style you choose to express your special insight. Your goal in drawing should be to encounter the reality of experience - to see ever more clearly, ever more deeply. True, you may sharpen your aesthetic sensibilities in ways other than drawing, such as meditation, reading, or travel. But it's my belief that for an artist these other ways are chancier and less efficient. As an artist you will be most likely to use a visual means of expression, and drawing sharpens the visual sense.

And last, draw every day. Carrying a small sketchbook will help you remember to draw frequently. Draw - anything - an ashtray, a half-eaten apple, a person, a twig. .... In a way, art is like athletics: if you don't practice, the visual sense quickly gets flabby and out of shape. The purpose of your daily sketchbook drawing is not to produce finished drawings, just as the purpose of jogging is not to get somewhere. You must exercise your vision without caring overly much about the products of your practice. You can periodically cull the best examples from your drawings, throwing out the rest or even throwing out everything. In your daily drawing sessions, the desired goal should be to see ever more deeply.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

deep movements

I think I mentioned in my previous post that one day recently I got thoroughly sick of my naffing about, and just picked up some oil paints for the first time. I've never liked oil paint, judging it usually to be applied too thickly, to be somehow too painty, when I like watery. Where other people seem to like brushmarks, I've always hated them....

Thinking about oils and acrylics in recent months, I haven't been able to imagine that I would like them, as it seemed that one of the things that had been fascinating me with inks and watercolour was the element of unpredictability - the fractals and accidents; the endlessly surprising events that could never be anticipated or fully controlled. It seeemed that in oil or acrylic (apart from watering them down and making them behave like watercolour) you had to know what you were doing, because every mark was consciously placed by your own hand. And, I suppose, you're influenced by descriptions of people working in the past - all those sketches and studies, that only become 'finished paintings' after months of preparation.

But on the day in question, I bypassed all that thinking completely. I just got the paint, got the cheap canvas (very freeing....) and starting splodging paint. No plan, no forethought, no intentions. As I suspected, it turns out oil can do things that no other medium is capable of. And it seems that, for me, working in this way, with no plan or intention, is perhaps the equivalent of the unpredictability of using water-based media. You don't know what colour you're going to choose, how much you're going to put on in any one place, or how you're going to respond to what happens.

You can't know the effect that a tiny corner of blue will have on you, or what it will make you do. You can't imagine on day one that on day two you'll suddenly pick up a deep pink and slash it across yesterday's pale green. And you certainly can't imagine that day three will find you breathless before your amateurish, dark mess, strangely excited by what's happening in front of your eyes. It's the weirdest thing.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

hauling back the jewels

I'm just back from another trip to London. Talk about a change of state. I eat it. I can't get enough of everything there on offer, and it makes me realise how important it is to feed yourself if you want to do any kind of creative work. When I'm there, I see things to paint and draw and study at every turn. Everything speaks to me, shouts to be made into something, responded to.

Quite hard to keep that sense going, though, when you get home again. Perhaps it's a bit overwhelming, all those ideas and images and possibilities. Perhaps it's just the reality of having to turn the responses into paintings, or drawings, or whatever it is. Perhaps it's the relative staleness of sitting contained within your usual four walls, compared to the endless joy of every blade of grass in Bloomsbury Square, every (superior) cup of coffee in Patisserie Valerie, the maddness of new sights and images round every corner. And the unexpected - finding that Cornellisson's, an image in my mind from being a student at St Martins of piles of rabbit skin size, jars of pigment, and ancient wooden shelves - had moved itself to be found, by accident, just down the road from the British Museum.

I thought I was going down mainly to see the watercolour exhibition at Tate Britain. In fact, I found myself going to look at Rose Hilton in Cork Street. Twice. Staring and staring at her canvases, looking at the paint.

I recently got completely sick of myself dancing around the idea of paint and just starting scrubbing around on a cheap canvas with some oil paints. Not reading about how you're supposed to do it, not planning it, just going for the sensation of paint on canvas. So looking at paint on Rose's canvases had a new meaning. My paint didn't quite look like that, ahem, so I sat in front of this particular painting for a long time, studying just exactly was happening there.

I also bought some tiny Fabriano sketchbooks from Cornellisson's, just the right size to put in my pocket, and have finally started drawing things when I'm out and about. Shockingly awful, but exploratory. Responding, finally, after doing it in my head, or through a lens, for so long. Drawing is still pregnant with potential disappointments, but every now and again I find myself doing it without thought - here I just suddenly couldn't resist the square white page of a book I was sticking recipes into....

So it's coming along, even if today it feels like wading through treacle....


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