The Drawn Portrait in Contemporary Printmaking: A journey between analogue and digital.
This research explores the value of using contemporary smart phone digital photography as a basis for portrait drawing, printmaking and how this process alters the meaning of the image.
An early reflection: I WANT TO SAY………….
At the beginning of my research I want to say that drawing is a personal activity that makes the world appear on paper.
I want to say the world is seen through one’s eyes and one’s view is unique, it cannot be repeated, cognitively or philosophically. Two perceptual experiences cannot be identical. We know this through DNA research into identical twins by Professor Eric Kandel (1) who shows that although the two may be identical and brought up together they will experience the world differently.
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 be a manifestation of the world, but it is also an interpretation of that world. It is an artefact that exists in the world. It could be a drawing of an inanimate object, a building, bike, landscape or ….. another human being.
I want to say this last subject of the drawing artist is more complex and open to interpretation than the previous inanimate subjects.
I want to say that once one embarks on making an image or interpretation of a human being it may become a portrait of that person and capture something of them, unknown to both subject and maker, but may become known to both and others.
I want to say that although I understand what a portrait is in well established and recognised traditions of art and thought, I must challenge that word and what it might mean in contemporary terms.
I want to say that these statements are true, but I may have to prove that in the long term.
This is my practice led research.
Now a little more considered review of where my early research is.
I am working out how much my practice led research PhD thesis can be 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, my personal artistic development in the coalition of drawing, digital photography and printmaking. I further intend to interrogate the work in an academic context whereby I test if my investigation and methods can constitute a new contribution to knowledge in the field.
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 latter and my eye’s are being widened to ‘take in’ additional styles, approaches and processes of drawing to take me out of my ‘safe’ drawing methods and encourage me to explore and improve artistically in the journey to develop a unique methodology.
I am also looking to make material investigations into the process of silk screen printmaking to enable me to predict, from an informed standpoint, outcomes from my drawing and it’s transfer to paper via this print medium. These two areas have come together recently in a shifting of my thinking when my drawing experiments, encouraged by Dr Catherine Baker, have thrown up a technique of rubbing carbon into paper thereby creating a dark ground for drawing with an eraser. i.e. Light out of Dark. In tandem a discussion with my master printmaker colleague Justin Sanders, 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 alternate approaches that differ in scale, mark making and with a nod to different times and print-making 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. Using an eraser to ‘draw’ on a dark ground made on a sheet of mark resist film (2) achieves a similar light out of dark effect. The resultant positive could then be exposed on to a silk screen to be used to print on to selected paper. There would be no raised border that a mezzotint plate would create having been run through a pressure printing press, but there may be other artistic benefits – size, textures, retained print detail over large editions. A border could be made, printed or even embossed.
I want to say that throughout my early reserach l have found it necessary to identify a term that has helped me ‘anchor’ points on my journey. The ‘silkscreen mezzotint’ will not be new, as my colleague has experimented with it, however it is ‘newtome’: a new descriptor of many of my experiences in these early research days. Newtome are the realisations that my research is throwing up on a regular basis. Whether it is in the application, selection and reframing of digital photography; techniques, processes and making drawing; and the similar gamut of past and present printmaking media that can be tried and tested, no matter how unknown they are to me with my limited contemporary artistic breadth of experience and vocabulary. This self same analysis can be applied to my academic writing, as I write, however I will stay with the ‘artistic practice’ element of my research at this juncture.
I want to say this ‘Newtome’ silkscreen mezzotint is motivating me to work through a selection of photographic images that could benefit from a large scale, dark ground, burnished image and embark on making a new ‘eraser drawn’ silk screen printed portrait. Perhaps not quite a silk ‘screen mezzotint’ but certainly a unique method of digital and analogue image making.
Drawing and God
Another ‘newtome’ area of research and knowledge is following back to the origins of classical renaissance Artist’s drawing and draughtmanship to find and understand what methods were adopted by the ‘old masters’. Were they in anyway the same as contemporary endeavours? Are their lessons to be learned? In undertaking this research, in pursuit of artistic answers, I have ploughed through texts, images and creative philosophies and found myself being referred to an ‘Artist’s’ Handbook’ by Cennini in1390. ‘Il library dell’ arte’. Available online, but unavailable in the tactile, analogue format of the book from the department library, I requested the 1930’s translation through interlibrary loan from the British Library. Il lib to dell’arte Cennino d’andrea Cennini. The craftsman’s handbook translated by Daniel VThompson, Dover publications,1933.(3)
I opened the first pages in anticipation of learning what were techniques of the day and experience 14th Century teachings, and I put myself in the position of a learner of drawing, an apprentice perhaps. With some surprise I was faced on page one, with establishing a spiritual foundation for my activities before anything technical would be forthcoming. Before the techniques were laid out the religious and spirtitual context was made clear:
“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 beyond gratifying to read this exposition of the rationale for drawing is still relevant today 700 years on, when the word of God is perhaps less prevalent. I have made a number of detailed notes on Cellini’s technical instructions to the learned drawing artist, which I can foresee bringing newtome methods to my practice. However before returning to the drawing board, another ecclesiastical coincidence appeared.
Through my research on contemporary drawing artists I was encouraged by Dr Baker to look at the work of British Artist Jenny Saville (1970). Saville came to light in the Young British Artists (YBA) period of the early 90’s when the collector and gallerist Charles Saachi purchased her entire degree exhibition work. Since then she has pursued and developed her emotionally and painterly charged work with vigour and intensity :
‘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.’
When asked the question by Elena Cue for the Huffington post in 2016 (4): 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 Saville states : ‘God has been slipping away for many of us’. She then alludes to there being a third party involved, ‘God or whatever’, which relates back to Cennini’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’.
The ethics of portraiture
Like 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 British Culture.
Some Eastern and African cultures describe the ‘taking a picture’ of someone ‘takes’ something of their soul. This has also been said of some Native American cultures : Matt Crowley (5)
Soul Theft through Photography https://www.csicop.org/sb/show soul_theft_through_photography
‘Consider the notion that taking a photograph of a person “steals his or her soul.” For most of us in developed countries, this idea seems like a pre-technological fear born of simple ignorance of photography. It’s an easy concept to dismiss, as it seems so simplistic and overtly fallacious. But I claim there is value in actually considering this notion more carefully, because it functions to exercise our critical thinking skills, and it demonstrates that there is often a great deal going on with an extraordinary claim if we simply think about it carefully.
First off, I’m going to take the claim at face value and assume that it’s not been articulated in a precise way by a theologian. At the very least, it can be differentiated from beliefs about photography by groups such as the Amish. For them, photographs of members of the community may be considered “graven images” and as such violate the Bible’s second commandment. For some Amish, the issue of consent becomes a factor, as active participation in their own photography is considered prideful, and thus sinful.’
‘The religious and spiritual beliefs of some cultures are not detailed in written records. Anthropologist and photography librarian Carolyn J. Marr  notes that some Native Americans stated they did not want to be photographed based on the belief the photograph would steal their souls. Nevertheless, this was not a belief held by all Native Americans, as many examples of carefully staged and posed Native American portraits .’
In historical, contemporary scientific or popular cultural photography terms the concept of ‘soul theft by photography’ has been taken seriously by groups of peoples across the globe. Some contemporary religions are not supportive of figurative representations as they may go against the teachings of the Quran. William Greenwood, Curator of Islamic Art, captures the subtlety of this positioning in The New Arab / Al-Araby Al-Jadeed (6)
‘I am often asked : “Aren’t pictures of living things banned in Islam?
Looking around the museum galleries, and indeed at almost any collection of Islamic art, the simple answer is clear – no. Poets peer out from illustrated manuscripts; languid aristocrats are woven into silk panels; mounted falconers chase their quarry across ceramics, metalwork, and carved stone. It is undeniable that from the earliest period until the present day, figural representation has played an important role in the arts of the Islamic world.
If this is the case, you may reasonably ask, then where has the notion of Islam as prohibiting images – being aniconic, to use the technical term – come from? The Quran itself does not explicitly forbid the making of images, but it is unequivocal in its condemnation of idols and idolatry.’
Greenwood goes on to say :
‘As the 16th century Persian calligrapher, painter and art historian Dost Muhammad wrote in a preface to a royal album of calligraphy and paintings, in spite of religious disapproval of figural imagery, “the garden of painting and illumination is an orchard of perfect adornment… and the portraitist’s conscience need not be pricked by the thorns of despair”.’
It is clear from this interpretation that figuration has a role in Islamic Culture, but must not be employed in the creation of idols or being engaged in idolatry. Other contemporary cultures brought up in the digital world may be termed ‘digital natives’ and experience being bombarded with digital images of themselves and others that diminish their perception of themselves as people in their society and may be loosing parts of themselves, as they participate in social and visual digital media. Wayne k Yamamoto in his essay How Photographs Steal Your Soul (or Why We Willingly Give It Away). 2012.(7) points us to this view of digital image overload:
“I now believe this at some philosophical level. When our picture is taken, it is potentially accessible by many. How that image is used, altered, and re-purposed, is largely out of our control. We’ve given up a little part of ourselves. The more pictures of us taken and used, the more we give up, and the less control of our identity that we have. In effect, little by little, we give up a bit of ourselves each time a picture is taken and used. In the end, indeed, I think we are giving away a little bit of our soul, picture by picture.”
Without cognisance of the possible ‘theft of the soul’ some contemporary users would rather avoid consuming social media images and look forward to meet other people in face to face exchanges, whether in intellectual, social and daily transactions such as seeking directions from another human being, rather than praying to the smart phone’ google map.
As ex engineering student Kalvin Lamb reflects in ; Did you ever feel like quitting social media? When and Why? 2016 (8) :
“Yes, I want to quit all the time. I’m fed up with Instagram and Facebook. I’m fed up with myself subconsciously comparing my life to those of others. I’m fed up with feeling jealous that my friend has so much more fame/money/success (with school, life, dating, etc.) than I do. Why isn’t my life as exciting as ______’s? I don’t party as much or travel as much or do ______ (insert interesting activity here) as much. Damn, is my life boring?
Fuck! How could I even have these thoughts? I do a crap-ton of self reflection — I always make sure that I’m allocating my time and doing the things that bring me the most joy. I make sure of that, mostly by writing, by taking walks, and thinking, deeply, about my life and what makes me smile. Our lives weren’t meant to be superficially compared and judged against each other, our worth and value aren’t supposed to be defined by others.”
Contemporary portrait photography
In the context of contemporary western culture of representation of people through images of their faces, Chris Klatell writes in the epilogue of Bruce Gilden’s disconcerting frank ‘in the face’ book of Portraits from the hardened streets of Iowa, Bogata, Wisconsin and West Bromwich – FACE (9) :
‘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 considered methods of digital smart phone photography, hand drawn and printed portraiture on paper, to be exhibited in art environments. I am looking to read and research further on the experience, motivations and ethics of discreet portrait sourcing through the medium.
Drawing and Printmaking Methods
I want to say that these social and ethical questions of digital and analogue experience need to be asked in the context of my drawn portrait research. They may seem to be beyond the physical and artistic acts of creating drawn and printed images, but I think not. Gaining an understanding of the societal positioning of portraiture is important to inform my developing practice.
However, I want to say in order to do justice to the making of a portrait of another person one must spend time and energy developing the range of artistic skills and methods necessary to make informed choices and judgments on how one can represent someone. What paper, what tools, what background, what shading, what technology, what materials can be used in making 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 and become more knowledgable of one’s developing methodology.
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 focused on the technical expertise, methods and parameters of the medium that if not performed well will not produce a satisfactory image.
Another digital question
Tablet drawing, digital pencils and software applications are genuinely 21st digital tools that I am regularly drawn to as I enjoy experimenting with the process from smart phone photography to tablet drawing, layer upon layer, brush by brush to be printed out on high quality inkjet printers on quality paper. This process although enjoyable raises questions about ‘copying’ rather than drawing; digital rather than analogue, technical rather than artistic, from eye through the hand to a screen. I can enjoy creating a portrait through drawing digitally on a tablet, and it’s not easy! It has its own characteristics that I am becoming more proficient in. It is as time and attention 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 as bases for painting, and indeed portraits. Hockney’s ‘Secret Knowledge’(10) is a major review of these process that he researched alongside his application of new image making technology to his art, over his lifetime. As noted by Peter Robb In the Guardian newspaper’s Education section, October 2001 (11)
‘David Hockney’s Secret Knowledge is a short and thrilling book with big new things to say about European painting. Hockney has followed his painter’s technical curiosity into questions that have mostly been ignored by academic art history. Were the great leaps in verisimilitude achieved by European painters after the middle ages enabled by the use of mirrors and lenses?’
I want to say that during my practice led research I sometimes feel I should not ‘make’ digital drawings because the process is so electronic and so far from the tactile drawing, materiality of surface response and printmaking skills that I use to create unique printed portraits. Tablet digital mark making is constrained to the tablet size and the hand cannot draw expansively, even through the image can be expanded during drawing. Drawing at scale with tactile tools on paper surfaces the drawing hand, and arm, can be less constrained and more expressive. This physicality of drawing at scale is enhanced as one tends to stand to draw at scale, the opposite is true of drawing digitally where one tends to sit. Digital, tablet and haptic methods may distract or contradict the tactile analogue methods of seeing and drawing I am engaged with.
This questioning of digital and analogue drawing is central to my research. It has been studied by artists and researchers as mechanical, photographic and cinematic technologies are invented and employed by artists in their image making and motivations. Ed Krama’s essay in Cinematic Drawing in a Digital Age.Tate Papers no.14 (12), explores the way in which the arrival of digital technology has impacted on our conception of drawing and refers to Art Historian Michael Newman’s assertion that “the meaning of drawing’s specific qualities is conditioned by the field of other visual technologies with which it shares a space with at any one time.”
‘The meaning of the apparent ahistoricity of drawing is determined by the other technologies of representation that co-exist with it at any given moment. This effect itself is a historical construct. Drawing becomes ‘archaic’ in the age of mechanical reproduction, yet this archaism makes contact with the tactility of the most up to date mediums. And if writing with light began by imitating drawing, as analog photography itself becomes an archaic medium, drawing will aspire to the condition of the photograph, not as a projective representation, but rather as a resemblance produced by contact.1’
Krama goes on to analise this proposition through the art and commentary of William Kentridge who reflects in ‘Double Lines’ in ‘Five Themes’ p233, (12)
‘There is something about the act of drawing that reflects the process of labour … It is the appearance of work, making visible the hours on the paper. In an era in which the human labour in everything was clear, there was something utopian in making art appear effortless or at least miraculous. Now that we take the impossible for granted – digital animation, Photoshop (the invisible workings of a computer compared to the very visible and audible mechanics of a typewriter) – there seems a place for showing physical process. (And through this mental process; this is not clear, but some impulse in this direction sits in my guts – not that they are to be trusted either.) (13).’
Kentridge affirms the ‘labour’ of drawing ‘to make visible the hours on paper’. This resonates with Cennini’s assertion the drawing ois a labour of the hand. It also chimes with my practice and increasing desire to show/reference the physical elements of the making in the artefacts, no matter the medium being utilised. Drawing, photography or print. I am reflecting on contradictions of my methods of making images on paper, in the digital and analogue realms, with the knowledge and experience that 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 exhibition, on viewing my 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 want to make sure that they are original prints’.
I respected these queries as meeting the criteria for this exhibition is important as the prints will become a part of the V&A Print collection and thereby enshrined in print history.
I duly explained my process and was pleased to receive 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.’
Report from the exhibition: http://printsanew.jonnieturpie.com/blog
Having reviewed this text over the last weeks to respond to the advice from my research supervisors I have in parallel carried out the practice element of my research. In pursuing the ‘Newtome’ potential of the ‘silkscreen mezzotint’ I selected a smart phone photograph of a woman staring intently into her smart phone in an arts centre cafe. Her concentration was complimented by her resting head on the cafe table, her hand steadying the phone, her woven scarf and dark leather jacket. Although lit from the window to her left, I could imagine how I might darken the background using the carbon rubbed into the film approach, and how the subject might be drawn into the ground with a series of shaped erasers.
Taking this approach to drawing into darkness to create light I embarked on my first ‘silkscreen mezzotint’. I prepared a dark ground with a charcoal stick, ensuring a dense and even ground. Intenionally I ‘left’ some of the initial charcoal sweeping marks around the edges to retain this rough part of the process to be seen by the eventual viewer.
Over 3 days I attempted to learn from drawing marks on the dark ground. After a quick outline of the image was made I worked from a large scale blow up of the small photograph and used the erasers to draw the image. I learned how the dark could be drawn out enabling highlights and textures to show through. I found that a range of textures were possible by applying various pressures and holding the eraser at different angles to the ground. Sharp lines could be made to reflect the subject’s highlights. The drawn lines in particular could be used to make marks that contributed to the overall portrait, but equally could be more abstract than figurative, creating more depth to the portrait, and perhaps enhanced enquiry from the viewer. I realised this was not my usual clean process of drawing with pencils or graphite sticks on clear film as I cleaned the build up of charcoal dust from my studio workspace and regularly washed my hands of the dark, dark dust. This is a tactile drawing experience.
I have written in detail about this process, the final printmaking realisation and the introduction of an additional background printed layer to make the portrait warmer:
The final drawn and printed image is quite different from the original, digital phone
photograph in atmosphere and location realities, but the concentration of the subject on her digital content, whatever it was, is there and in fact enhanced by the silkscreen mezzotint requirements, choices and drawing
decisions. The image has changed. The materiality of the image is changed and the meaning of the image has changed from a document of reality to a bespoke artifact. A portrait. This changing meaning of the digital image through the methodology being applied will be the subject of a future ’I want to say chapter’.
In this early gathering of thoughts and reflections on my research I have attempted to put down on paper through words, what stage my research in contemporary portraiture – through smart phone photography, drawing and printmaking – is, as I move forward on the three strands of work. They are fundamentally interrelated as I strive to create images of the people I have met and selected to make a portrait of to the best of my ability.
This much I want to say.
Birmingham, November 2017
- Identical Twins – Not Identical Brains. Professor Eric Kandel. DNA Learning Centre. https://www.dnalc.org/view/1200-Identical-Twins-Not-Identical-Brains.html
Although identical twins have identical genes, different life experiences mean they do not have identical brains.
- Screenprinting Jane Sampson. Google books April 2017 : p74 https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=O0klDwAAQBAJ&pg=PA74-IA55&lpg=PA74-IA55&dq=mark+resist&source=bl&ots=FnfsmJPHr3&sig=e1vRG7iGHxXWVcsewrVD3qJz8iY&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwjtjs6A5ujXAhXJJcAKHRCPD7I4ChDoAQgyMAA#v=onepage&q=mark%20resist&f=false
- Il lib to dell’arte cennino d’andrea cennini. The craftsman’s handbook trans daniel v Thompson Dover pubs 1933
- Huffington post 2016 An interview with Jenny Saville by Elena Cue
- Matt Crowley – Soul Theft through Photography
6.The new Arab. Images and idols. The figurative in Islamic Art.
July 2016 William Greenwood.
Central Islamic lands at the museum of art in Doha.
- Ricardo Moraes. Photos for gaining trust to deliver positive medical interventions in Kayapo culture in Brazil.
- FACE Bruce Gilden photographs. Daniel Lewis publishing 2015.
- Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the Lost Techniques of the Old Masters
David Hockney. Thames & Hudson
- Ed Krama in : Cinematic Drawing in a Digital Age.Tate Papers no.14 http://www.tate.org.uk/research/publications/tate-papers/14/cinematic-drawing-in-a-digital-age
- William Kentridge reflects on this in ‘Double Lines’ in Five Themes’ referenced by Ed Krama