5 minutes free writing. Promt ; I want to say….
I want to say that drawing is a personal activity that makes the world appear on paper. Of course the world is seen through one’s eyes and one’s view is personal. I want to say that one’s interpretation of what one sees is subjective. I.e. It’s determined by one’s views, experiences and accumulated knowledge. Therefore the drawn image may reflect the world, but it is also an interpretation of that world. It could be an inanimate object, a building, car, landscape or ….. another human being. This last subject of the drawing artist is more complex and open to interpretation than the previous inanimate subjects. I want to say that is true, but I may have to prove that in the long term. Once one embarks on making a picture of a human being it may become a portrait of that person and capture something of them.
Now a little more considered.
I am working out how much this thesis can be the practise and how much is academic research. This is important to me as I can plan and divide my time accordingly. It also is a question that I need to answer to justify the work in terms of artistic practice and personal development of my art of drawing, digital photography and printmaking. I also want to interrogate the work in an academic arena whereby what I am investigating can become valuable new knowledge. So what have other artists contributed currently and in the past? What has been written before about these three areas? I am being given pointers on the later and my eye’s are being widened to ‘take in’ additional styles, approaches and techniques of drawing to take me out of my drawing comfort zone and encourage me to experiment artistically.
I am also looking to perfect technical skills and knowledge of the process of silk screen printmaking to enable me to predict outcomes from my drawing and it’s transfer to paper via print. These two areas have come together in a magical moment when my drawing experiments have thrown up a technique of dark carbon rubbed ground for drawing with an eraser and a discussion with my master printmaker colleague who suggested I might follow one of his experiments : ‘silkscreen mezzotints.’ A term I have never heard of but it is intriguing to put together two seemingly very different techniques that are usually very different in scale, mark making and from different times and print traditions. This is an illuminating moment where two print media could be aligned to make a third. One could create a dark ground and draw with a burnisher that is usually used to draw, scratch and soften metal to create highlights.
This will not be new, as my colleague has successfully tried it, however it is ‘newtome’; a new descriptor of many of my experiences in these early research days. Newtome is motivating me to work through a selection of portraits that could benefit from a large scale, dark ground, burnished image and embark on making a new portrait.
The third area of digital smart phone photography is where I am looking to read further on the experience, motivations and ethics of discreet portrait sourcing through the medium.
Another ‘newtome’ area of research and knowledge is following back to the origins of classical renaissance drawers to find out and understand what techniques were adopted. In doing this research I surfaced an artists’s handbook by Cennini in1390. ‘Il library dell’ arte’.(1) I requested the 1930’s translation through interlibrary loan from the British Library. I opened the first pages in anticipation of learning what were techniques of the day and transported myself back to the 14th Century to put myself in the position of learner of drawing. With some surprise I was faced with establishing a spiritual foundation for my activities before anything technical would be described. Before the techniques were laid out the religious and spirtitual context was made clear. In the eyes of God. Adam was sent from paradise and he and Eve realised ‘that some means of living by labour had to be found.’ He began with a spade and eve with a spinning wheel, but in time they ‘coupled these skills with those of the hand; and this is an occupation known as painting, which calls for imagination, and skill of hand, in order to discover things not seen, hiding themselves under the shadow of natural objects, and to fix them with the hand, presenting to plain sight what does not actually exist.’
It was more than gratifying to read this exposition of the rationale for drawing was still relevant today 700 years on, when the word of God is not so prevalent.
Coincidently in my research on contemporary drawing artists I was encouraged to look at the work of Jenny Saville (1970) by Dr Catherine Baker. A British artist who came to light in the YBA period of the early 90’s when Charles Saachi bought her degree show work and she has gone from strength to strength. Her work is of women and the flesh.
‘She deconstructs the stereotypes of beauty and eroticism of the female body as seen through art and through men, and then broadens them. She experiments with obese women and changes in the body, but above all she uses her own body as a model and means of reflection. She reveals the natural beauty of the individuality of the women she paints, and her own. Through the body, she expresses states of sensibility that bind us to our existence: uneasy, anguished, painful fleshiness… This defines her artistic language as much as her traditional pictorial technique. Figures are the sole focus of attention of her huge canvasses, which often cannot contain the whole figure in the same way that our selves cannot control our bodies. Her painting and her skill at drawing spawn a multiplicity of realities that build movement.’
When asked the question by Elena Cue for the Huffington post in 2016 (2): Do you feel that you have a body or that you are a body?
‘Some artists like Michelangelo worked almost with God working through him; he was doing God’s work and there was a kind of divinity involved in it. God has been slipping away for most of us, but when we make work, I’m interested in what the drive is. When I’m working in the middle of the night and I’m trying to get to something, am I working with a wager on God’s existence? I don’t make work for an audience. I don’t make work thinking that I’m going to show this to an audience. But it’s definitely a form of communication. So it’s almost as though there is a third person involved, whether it’s God or whatever. That drives me to go further in the work, and I don’t know what that is.’
As Jenny says ‘God has been slipping away for many of us’, but she then alludes to there being a third party (person) involved, God or whatever, which relates back to Gennini’s contextualisation of making art in the eyes of God. I point to this not simply because of the coincidence of the strands of research and thinking coming together at one precise moment, but because it brings another authority for the work and the/a reason for using ‘skill of hand to fix with the hand, presenting to plain sight what does not actually exist’.
I am not saying that all (my) work is in the eyes of God, because like Jenny Saville, God has slipped away from me to some extent over the years. That said I have been considering the ethics of portraiture and the figurative representation of human beings in a variety of cultures as well as that of contemporary UK. Some Eastern cultures feel that ‘taking a picture’ of someone ‘takes’ something of their soul. And other contemporary religions are not supportive figurative representations as they may go against the teachings of the Quran. This is interpreted being the creation of idols or being engaged in idolatry.(3) Although there are many examples of figurative work in Islamic texts and visualisations. Some contemporary cultures feel they are bombarded with digital images of themselves and others that diminish their perception of themselves as people in their society. They would rather avoid consuming such images and look forward to meet other people in face to face exchanges, whether in intellectual, social and daily transactions such as seeking directions rather than praying to the smart phone’ google map.
In this context Chris Klatell writes in the epilogue of Bruce Gilden’s disconcerting book of Portraits (4) from the hardened streets of Iowa, Bogata, Wisconsin and West Bromwich – FACE : ‘We live in a world whose visual lingua Franca has rapidly become the decontextualised, always posed, mechanically lit idiom of social media, of instagram and yes Facebook. Far from rejecting this environment, Bruce’s portraits embrace it and grapple with it. They say to the viewer : so you’ve constructed your ‘social network’ out of aspirational pictures, of yourself and of your ‘friends’, but what space does that for these people? They are my ‘facebook’ friends. You need to look at them – at us – too. You can’t make us disappear with digital photography filters and social media platforms that act as a real world filter, sifting from your ‘community’ all that is discomforting.’
These are contemporary, multi cultural, ethical questions that pertain to my work as I attempt to ‘fix’ the subjects of my portraiture on paper to be seen in art environments.
Drawing and PrintmakingSkills
So there are questions being asked well beyond the act of creating drawn and printed images. However in order to do justice to the making a portrait of another person one must spend time and energy developing the range of artistic skills necessary to make choices and judgements on how to represent someone. What paper, what tools, what background, what shading, what technology can be used in any particular drawing or print. When embarking on a drawing these questions are asked. One hopes to make the right choices, but one may not, but one will learn from those decisions. When beginning to make a print of a drawing, because one wants to transfer the single drawn picture to a reproducible medium with its own characteristics, one has to draw on learned experience of working in that medium. One is focussed on the technical expertise and parameters of the medium that if nor performed well will definitely not produce a satisfactory image.
So, like learning and mastering a variety of drawing techniques to ‘fix’ an image, technical printmaking techniques must be mastered to be applied successfully. I am currently in my third state of a silk screen print of a senior player in the arts to achieve the ‘right’ tonal spectrum through different exposures, squeegee pressures, inks and most recently the reduction of ‘information’ on the paper.
And now back to the digital question.
Tablet drawing, digital pencils and software applications are genuinely 21st digital tools that I am regularly drawn to as I enjoy the process from smart phone photography to tablet drawing, layer upon layer, brush by brush, and print out on high quality inkjet printers on quality paper. This process although enjoyable raises many questions about ‘copying’ rather than drawing. I do enjoy creating a portrait through drawing on a tablet and it’s not easy! It has its own characteristics that I am becoming more proficient in and it is as time consuming as an analogue drawing. There is much research on the use artists have made of technological devices to assist them make effective artistic pictures over the centuries from the room sized Camera Obscura and hand held Camera Lucida to use of captured photographic images to inform painting. Hockney’s ‘Secret Knowledge’ is a major review of these process that he researched alongside his application of new image making technology to his art over his lifetime. I sometimes feel I shouldn’t do the digital drawings because it is so electronic and so far from tactile drawing and printmaking skills that I use to create bespoke portraits, but equally I can make a portrait from beginning to end in a closed digital loop, yet produce a limited edition bespoke printed output on quality paper to be proud of sharing and exhibiting. In fact I have just had a small inkjet print accepted into the Printmaker’s Council exhibition made in this way.
The adjudicator of the show, on viewing the submission wrote to me requesting an explanation of the process I undertook as they wanted me ‘To explain your working method in making your prints as we We want to make sure that they are original prints’.
Meeting the criteria for this show is important as the prints will become a part of the V&A collection. I duly explained my process and was pleased to get a positive response :
I understand your process now and confirm that your prints are indeed Original prints. It will be good to have such a contemporary medium included.’
I have been attempting to put down on paper through words, what stage my research in contemporary portraiture- through smart phone photography, drawing and printmaking – is at as I move forward on the three strands of work. They are fundamentally related as I strive to create better reflections of the people I have met and selected to make a portrait of.
- 1. Il lib to dell’arte cennino d’andrea cennini. The craftsman’s handbook trans daniel v Thompson Dover pubs 1933
2.Huffington post 2016 An interview with Jenny saville
Elena Cue Contributes in:Board of Fundación Museo Reina Sofía Board of Museo ABC President of Alberto and Elena Cortina Foundation, Member of Vivre en couleur of the Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain
3. The new Arab July 2016 William greenwood. Central Islamic lands at the museum of art in Doha.
4. FACE Bruce Gilden photographs. Daniel Lewis publishing 2015.