Research Point–Landscape (1)

Early Cloud Sketch June 2018

This research point asks us to look at “… artists from different eras who use landscape as their main subject”. That’s a big topic! I have partly been using it as a prompt to look back at some research that I did when studying the Photography Landscape module – notably (and satisfying the brief) I have re-read this book – ‘Landscape and Western Art’ by Malcolm Andrews – which serves as a sound introduction/refresher and neatly explores the development of whatever we mean by ‘Landscape’ from the setting of early religiously-themed art, through the picturesque and the sublime, to 20th century land art, and touching significantly, along the way, on the politics of landscape. It is, as I say, a big topic; and I am strongly resisting the temptation – here – to get into any detailed theory/thought/debate. I may return to it later. Perhaps sufficient to say that it is a rich topic that one would be unwise to try and simply summarise. Whatever 21st century, deconstructionist sensitivity one might bring to looking at the Claude Lorrains, the Constables, the Thomas Coles, and so on, there is a wonder about them and they shape our view. “Landscape is not a genre of art but a medium”, WJT Mitchell is quoted as writing in 1994. Richard Long is quoted, in 1984, saying that his art “… was the antithesis of so-called American ‘Land Art’, where an artist needed money to be an artist, to buy real estate to claim possession of the land, and to wield machinery. True capitalist art.” As I said, it is a rich topic.

I was pleased to note that the module directs us towards the work of George Shaw. There was a time, during my Photography degree, when I was interested in trying to create photographic images that mimicked the effect he achieves with Humbrol paints. The irony was not lost on me, I stress; Shaw primarily works (in his Devon studio) from photographs that he took when walking around his childhood home on the Tile Hill Estate in Coventry. In the immediate context of this course, the first time I encountered his work was in an exhibition that included a series of etchings – Twelve Short Walks 2006. That works particularly well as I approach the Exercise ‘Sketchbook walk’.

Two other books that I have recently acquired, following Bryan’s recommendation, are Vitamin D: New perspectives in Drawing and Vitamin D2: New perspectives in Drawing. They’re very recent acquisitions and I haven’t yet had chance to study the introductory essays etc, but I have put them to good use in the context of “… artists from different eras who use landscape as their main subject” – specifically, the current era (however defined). Vitamin D was published in 2005 and contains work by 109 artists, noted for their use of or contribution to Drawing, since 1990. Vitamin D2 was published in 2013 and picks up with subsequent work by 115 artists. A (admittedly fairly rapid) look through revealed three artists in the first book and four in the second “… who use landscape as their main subject”. That’s seven out of a sample of 224. And I don’t think I’ve particularly stringent in my approach to the selection. Four examples follow:

Matias Duville  Alain Huck   Serse   Robyn O’Neil

It’s a diverse group but my impression is that, in pretty well all cases, they fall into the WJT Mitchell context, whereby Landscape is the medium. Sometimes it is the ground within which another narrative is performed, but it is not, even then, a bystander. These ‘landscapes’ have a strong presence through which meaning is being explored; they have mood and a sense of the unconscious. That I find interesting.

There will be more research and, probably, more reflection here.

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Trees–Part Three Project 1

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Neighbour’s Sycamore – in willow charcoal – A3 size

I’m not sure how much of my future practice will involve drawing trees but this third section of the Drawing Skills module is about getting out into the ‘landscape’ – which is certainly going to involve trees. Hence this as the first project. And my feeling is that this is all a question of balance. The level of detail, were one to choose to try and ‘realistically’ represent a tree ‘as is’, is so immense that some degree of compromise is unavoidable. So the question becomes – how much? And the answer inevitably depends on ones intentions. So, the drawing above was an attempt to express a response to a (probably) 40ft sycamore in the neighbouring property that hangs over our garden and drops leaves, twigs and seeds by the ton! Not much detail and a looming, expressive use of the dark tones of willow charcoal – it probably took me ten or fifteen minutes, I guess.

Alternatively, one might work with more detail and look for a more ‘respectful’ representation of what might be seen as quite a majestic specimen (‘architectural’ was our neighbours description when we asked about having it cut down).

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This A4 version took me more like a couple of hours and was preceded by some practice sketches of details and an A5 version in my sketchbook – see below – adding up to something like five hours in total. I think it adds up to a fair representation of the overall structure, shape and form of a large and complex tree; and was a good challenging place to start with this project. The tonal range in a subject such as this, on a bright day, when there is deep shadow within the centre of the form but bright sky visible through the gaps between leaves and branches, is considerable. I could probably have pushed it further than I have – but it’s an improvement on some of the sketchy interior efforts that Bryan commented on in my feedback. This use of tonal breadth seems to be crucially important in getting a sense of the tree’s formal depth – I can see a similar issue coming up with cloud forms – and maybe one almost needs to exaggerate it. Leaf shape is another issue – it being impossible to even consider drawing individual leaves. I’ve gone for a sort of multidirectional squiggle with varying levels of pressure, which I don’t think has worked too badly. I don’t think I’ve got the proportions right – the base trunk being a bit too thick for the height of the tree in the drawing. This is coming up again later in this post and was even more out in the third preliminary drawing below. I’m showing a tendency to draw trees that resemble sticks of broccoli!

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But, moving on, the third part of this project is to do a “study of several trees”; for which I have ventured outside the garden gate, with my sketchbook, for the first time. There’s an interesting line of trees that borders the space in a nearby cemetery, falling away down hill beside a dry stone wall. I began with a thirty minute sketch.

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That felt really tough, trying to work out the layers of foliage and differentiate them in some way. There isn’t a great deal of difference in leaf shapes between the trees. I have also made a limited attempt to represent the opposite side of the valley, behind the trees. My second attempt, a couple of days later, took just short of an hour – plus a few minutes after I got back home.

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This is a little better. I’ve tried to use different ‘textures’ of mark, plus slight tonal variations, to achieve some sense of separation between the trees. I practice, even with careful looking, it was hard to differentiate them ‘in real life’ let alone in a representative drawing. Much of this is about finding some form of visual technique to represent what was there – like developing a visual vocabulary from which to structure the words and sentences of the narrative. Some is actual mark-making, but there’s also a lot of what one might call creative thinking. Since it’s impossible to repeat exactly what we see (even with a photograph!). These are marks on a flat surface through which we might get a response from the viewer – that there was this group of trees and it felt like this. I did some more ‘playing’ with marks and also looked at the introduction of colour – another means of separation – such as the pages below.

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And finally concluded that I would use this particular exercise to experiment. Using the second sketch of the cemetery trees as a starting point, I would produce an A3 drawing that deliberately tried out a range of marks, colours, shapes etc – not an exact representation of what was there but an opportunity to try out some ideas. It is here – drawn with Conté pastel pencils and crayons on A3 120gsm cartridge paper. Firstly, I confess that the trees are, again, somewhat broccoliesque (not a word often used in art critique!). Perhaps there is some psychological reason why I ‘see’ the trunks as thick as this – don’t know, but I need to watch it in future drawing. As the exercise requests, I have written up some reflective notes about the process and the outcome – highlights below.

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The different species of tree are distinguished through a combination of colour, textural marks, shape differences – and a large dose of imagination. The marks are sometimes formed into a coloured shape and sometimes into a collection of small, perhaps directional marks, variously designed to deliver some kind of representation of the mass of foliage in its full summer bloom. There are spaces, here and there, where either the background of the distant hillside or the brightness of the sky can be viewed through/between the trees. The light in my drawing is probably a bit ‘flatter’ than it really was, but I have used tonal variation to give some sense of shadow under and within the foliage, as well as across the trunks – left to right. I note that it can be harder to achieve tonal variation in a colour drawing that with graphite or charcoal – but might just be my lack of practice/technique. The drawing does significantly simplify what was there – particularly in the foliage shapes and in the deliberate under-representation of the background. Perhaps it is over-simplified; certainly that was my own initial response. But then it was a deliberate attempt to experiment and, on second/third viewing, I’m not displeased with the slightly bonkers charm of it. Whilst it may not show just what this group of trees looks like, It might give a sense of what it felt like to sit in front of them on a warm sunny afternoon in June.

Assignment Two–feedback & reflection

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I thought I’d start my post-tutorial reflection with this drawing, since Bryan said something along the lines of “Oh, that’s good; I like that; you could put that straight up on the wall; look at the confidence of that line on the left side of the vase.” – and I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t said with tongue in cheek! In summary – my research and contextual thinking is strong; I’ve been ambitious in my approach (particularly, I think, in the task I set myself for the assignment drawing); and I have a good eye for details that are engaging. But, I need to be more confident in my work and worry less about how ‘good’ the drawing is; develop my line work; and broaden my tonal range. All of which is fair enough – this section has actually improved my confidence and I do now have the feeling that, after eventually untangling the challenge I set myself for the assignment, I can make some sort of shot at a representation of something I’m looking at. I began this Drawing Skills module saying that my Photography degree had taught me, amongst other things, to look and to see. Now I begin to feel some sense that I can use mark-making to translate and represent what I see; but I need an awful lot more practice.

Feedback on the assignment drawing was broadly pretty good. The build up showed plenty of evidence of planning, thinking and working out solutions, with visual ideas coalescing and coming together to turn a difficult project into something engaging – some technical issues, of course, as I already knew, but a good overall outcome. The comment about tonal range relates mostly to my sketchbook work, where I tend to be rather too tentative when I’m start to sketch something, with lots of tentative lines that I don’t necessarily fully develop into strong lines/tones from which I can then have rather more scope for the overall range. There was some evidence of a better range in drawings such as the ones below, where I had worked just in pencil and fully developed the tones. I need to have the confidence to go for it with the initial lines – hence the comment about the line on the left in the vase above.

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Interestingly, the feedback was also quite positive in relation to the drawing below. There are some problems with the angles of the table, but what went down well was some of the use of cross-hatching to represent tone and ‘flow’ (for example the ‘bevelled’ edges of the table top and the side of the box) – but I’ve been careless in the lines representing the box shadow on the table, front left, letting them curve downwards. These comments on cross-hatching also relate to a wider comment about adding surface interest; another potential area for this being the identification and representation of small patches of reflected colour in surfaces, which I guess is a further extension of my attention engaging details.

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Another area of encouragement is the pursuit of those interesting conversations around comparisons – between Drawing and Photography; between digital and physical; between different ways of looking. Bryan can see plenty of potential there and these were, I suppose, some of the main drivers for enrolling on this course in the first place. Some way to go, but I can envisage a final assignment that seeks to explore these areas.

All-in-all, the feedback is encouraging and gives me some confidence to go forward, knowing that I can do it, that I’m making progress, and that there is potential in the ideas I’ve been exploring. Section 3 takes me out and about; let’s me loose on the outside world, maybe!

Assignment Two Submission

Submission Drawing

This is a photograph of my submission for Assignment Two, as introduced in my previous post here. Starting from a purely descriptive approach, it is a colour drawing of a domestic interior, 37cm by 38.5 cm in size, using pastels (soft, pencil and crayon) on ivory coloured 160 gsm pastel paper. From this ‘aerial’ viewpoint, the exaggerated perspective creates a V-shaped composition, though the various elements also form a ‘T’ – a framed picture on the wall, a lit table-lamp on a wooden cabinet, and a partially visible armchair forming the vertical; and bookshelves, the framed picture, and a large wall mirror forming the horizontal. The lit table-lamp provides an ‘internal’ light source, but there is also light coming in from the right (confirmed by the presence of an external window visible in the reflection in the mirror). The ‘more-or-less’ square framing, with broadly balanced elements left and right in the composition, might suggest a ‘harmonious’ setting, but, whilst the centrally placed colourful lamp may be an initial focus, the viewer’s eye is drawn off in any of four directions by the ‘half-visible’ bookshelves, mirror reflection and foreground chair, then also by the fully-visible, framed picture on the wall that is being strongly lit from below by the table-lamp. So it is, perhaps, a busy and unsettled composition, with the possible exception of that framed picture. Setting aside, for the moment, any responses to its technical qualities, I suppose that a viewer with no knowledge of any background story might read it as a somewhat odd and quirky composition, visually interesting, colourful, and with the lamp and picture as its main points of focus but, overall, with an unsettled, disharmonious feel about it. I could give it a title – probably ‘Peter is an ornate vase’ – and immediately that adds another unresolved aspect for the viewer. The “ornate vase” would likely refer to the picture on the wall, increasing its significance, but that is probably all. Nothing else would be resolved.

There is a story behind it, which I will partially and briefly relate here. My father-in-law, Peter, died a few months ago, after a tough ‘end-of-life’ lasting 15 months or so. “Peter is an ornate vase” is a piece of family fun and nonsense that goes back 20+ years and relates to some happy holidays in France; it doesn’t need to be explained fully here. After he died, my wife created an appliqué picture of an ornate vase from his silk ties – which is framed and hangs in our living room, above a table-lamp. The chair that is partially visible is the one he most regularly sat in when visiting over the last 20 years. So, for me, there is much significance in the subject of my drawing. There is no way that could be communicated to, or be of significance for, another viewer of the work. But perhaps the sense of unease and incompleteness around the completed, framed picture, the outside world reflected etc; perhaps that does come through. It doesn’t really matter – all that I wanted to express here is that, for once, I am creating a piece of work that has personal resonance – something I rarely, if ever, did during my BA Photography. Perhaps drawing does, indeed, have a greater potential to touch the unconscious and the imagination.

Returning to my reflections on the work and an appraisal of its merits. It certainly reflects progress through the second part of this module, I believe. I have used materials that I had never used before, the range of Conté pastels,and built up sufficient skills to create a passable and believable drawing of an interior. There are several signs of my inexperience with both drawing and these materials, such as the rather ‘muddy’ wall behind the lamp where I have tried too hard to create the shadow cast by the shade and passed a point of no return; the slightly too short legs of the coffee table in the reflection; and I could go on. The angle of the lamp doesn’t match with the angle of the surface on which it sits. The overall perspective is exaggerated and not always consistent. But I mind those latter points less – there are internal inconsistencies of that nature in the works of Green and Hockney, as discussed before. Look at the vase on the small table in the front middle of the painting I used at the top of this previous post – here. I did say that I wanted to make work about something rather than draw an imitation of a photograph of something. In some ways, this is a work of the imagination – the viewpoint as presented is impossible; the framed picture is not actually anywhere near as large as shown here; the armchair isn’t where I’ve drawn it. So it does demonstrate some shift in the nature of what I am drawing.

With the preliminary sketches, preparatory drawings and care in final implementation, this drawing has taken a long time to produce. And, to an extent, there are places where the outcome might have been better if I’d had more confidence in some expressive mark-making rather than careful construction. But that is indicative of my relative inexperience. I’m broadly happy with my progress in the basic skills, whilst recognising that there is a long way to go. What remains a little disappointing and frustrating is that I don’t, yet, feel that I am finding my way into the territory that might link what I’m doing here to the previous work towards the end of my Photography degree. But there is plenty of time for that, so all I’m doing here is registering that I recognise it.

Assignment Two–Preparation

Preparation Drawings

Three drawings in one! It’s a composite of some preparatory drawings that I have been doing before starting the ‘final’ version for Assignment 2. I left off at the end of my previous post – here – with an expression of my desire to move away from the ‘photographic’ view in my drawing. This composition shows a version of our domestic interior that a) doesn’t actually exist in the precise form I’m presenting and b) couldn’t be viewed from this angle without cutting a hole in the ceiling. It particularly features the ‘picture’ of the ornate vase, which is actually a textile appliqué piece made from cut-up silk ties, and which has some emotional significance; as does the chair in the foreground.

One of the first sketches around the house that I did for this part of the module was the one on the left below.

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And I’ve also sketched a version of it in colour, when thinking about options for the second assignment.

Vase Picture & Lamp

Reflecting on the questions about viewpoint and perspective that I had considered in that previous post, I sketched various options out in my sketchbook, culminating in the A3 sketch below.

Orientation sketch

It is influenced by Anthony Green’s use of the ‘aerial’ viewpoint, as discussed before; and, interestingly but not deliberately, I have concluded that a square framing works best, which is another characteristic of Green’s paintings. This sketch, and the final version that is emerging, exaggerates the size of the artwork on the wall and moves the mirror closer to it, giving me the opportunity to bring in a reflection of a window to the world outside as well as a of other parts of the interior. The chair, too, is no longer where it is shown in the drawing – though it was there in the past. In other words, this is a scene constructed in my mind for the purpose of the drawing. It hardly qualifies as a drawing from the imagination, but it is at least a step in that direction. I am reflecting back to my early exploration of ‘What is drawing?’ and the notion of a direct line to the unconscious.  It is no surprise to find that drawing anything seriously requires a significant investment of time, effort and emotional energy – and my internal motivator tends to question the sense in making that investment unless the process is doing something that adds more value than simply photographing a scene. This drawing for Assignment 2 represents a small step, for me, down that pathway – breaking away from drawing a picture of something to creating a piece of work about something.

(And, on a technical note, I am working with pastels – Contés, in soft, crayon and pencil form – and have been delighted to discover silicone colour spreaders!)

The final drawing is sketched out at about 38cm x 38cm and ready to go.

Research Point–Interiors

The United Kingdom 1969 Anthony Green

‘The United Kingdom’ 1969 Anthony Green (Bridgeman Education)

We are encouraged to look at the work of Anthony Green and other examples of artists who feature domestic interiors in their work. As I hinted in the last post – here – I am particularly interested, at present, in looking at ways of breaking into a more expressive way of drawing and so Green’s ‘unconventional’ viewpoints and perspectives are particularly interesting and inspiring. There are figures in there, too, of course, and substantial scope for narrative interpretations, but at this stage in my own development it is the all-encompassing viewpoint that strikes me most of all. In this and other examples, he manages to find a way to create a sense of the ‘room’ rather than a particular perspective-based view – we experience the interior as well as looking at it. It is, perhaps, a way of exploring three dimensions in two that manages goes further than a photographic-style representation.

As these sketchbook pages demonstrate, I have looked at other, sometimes more traditional and sometimes more abstract, representation of ‘Interiors’.

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But I have come around and back to the arch perspective challenger, David Hockney.

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Hockney has argued (with many others since the Cubists) that perspective, as applied in art since the Renaissance is a construct from ‘optics’, from the use of concave mirrors, comparable to the use of a lens in photography; and that this creates a ‘void’ between the viewer and the image. It is this sense of being one-step removed, looking at a two-dimensional representation rather than being in there experiencing, which interests me just now.

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I have studied Photography and have a good sense of its possibilities and limitations. The ‘photographic way of looking’ is familiar. Learning and applying the use of ‘traditional’ perspective feels a bit like more of the same and maybe breaking away from that has more potential to explore an expressive way of drawing, freed from constraints. Here is a very quick sketch of my ‘work-station’ (the artist’s space … familiar territory for experimentation) as I see it rather than how I think it should be drawn or how it might look in a photograph.

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I feel as though I might get more out of the next assignment if I explore this approach to drawing – maybe.

Part Two–‘Still Life’ & ‘At Home’

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No blog posts at all in March – not good enough!

It has been something of an up-and-down period – some of the inevitable feelings of frustration and motivational problems that go along with our creativity. (Managed to fit in a week in St Ives, though!) This drawing is my version of Exercise 4 Monochrome. It isn’t, strictly speaking, monochrome, I know; it’s more a case of working with a limited range. It’s probably the only drawing in March that left me with a little bit of satisfaction & was an impromptu effort, done in a couple of hours, the afternoon before going on holiday. I like the unusual angle and the slight madness (entirely ‘made up’) of the pink background. The glass bowl has a highly-reflective surface, which is a challenge to draw & I haven’t got it just right; but I find it a cheerful and expressive little drawing with which to re-start my blogging.

So, what else? I did some work that is somewhere between still-life and at-home which experimented with different media & mixed media. It was a challenging subject, a corner of the living room where a window is looking out on a snowy landscape, with a (colourful glass) vase of ‘pussy-willow’ resting on the window-sill. Here are various efforts with different media/mixes.

Packaging paper; ink; highlighter pens; willow charcoal; white crayon; oil pastel; soft pastel; black crayon

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Pastels – crayon; soft; oil

Still Life Ex 3-2

Photographic digital print; digital drawing; oil pastels

Still Life Ex 3-3

It was certainly interesting to experiment, even if the outcomes have left me a little dissatisfied. The simple expressiveness of the first, using everything but the kitchen sink, was fun. The second is a more careful attempt to meet the challenge of a complicated subject; and it isn’t a disastrous attempt. The last is probably the most interesting because it begins to explore the possibilities of multi-layered work that incorporates photography, digital drawing. and physical drawing. It started life as the photograph below. Using that as a base, I have used my digital drawing software to reproduce the window-frame, sill and elements of the external background scene (leaving the photograph of the wall & outside plant in place). I printed what I’d achieved by that stage, A3 size, onto cartridge paper, leaving space where the three items on the sill should be. I’ve then drawn those ‘physically’, using oil pastels (and, of course, then re-photographed to present on here … let’s not forget that crucial layer!). (The little ‘cat’ ornament was a step too far!)

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One might reasonably ask ‘why?’, when I was starting out from a perfectly decent photograph! The short answer is ‘because I wanted to’; and the explanation as to why that interests me? I think I continue to muse on the whole business of visual representation & what it means. We are surrounded, overwhelmed even, with visual images; and we cannot help but be influenced by them. Our unconscious is ‘reading’ them all the time, even if our conscious mind flits past them, hardly seeming to notice. My awareness of that makes me want to intervene and disrupt; and this exploration of the layers of representation is symbolic of the whole interest in studying Photography, developing a creative voice, wanting to learn to draw … and so on. Perhaps I feel that somewhere amongst these layers I’m going to find something! And maybe it’s also playful fun just exploring the possibilities. There are elements of both – naturally.

I continued exploring the ‘At Home’ section of the module, where we’re encouraged to sketch around the house. I have to admit to finding it somewhat tedious and unrewarding – partly, I think, because I was dissatisfied with the outcomes and partly because I was trying to draw these corners of the home ‘accurately’. I was trying to get all the angles and perspective ‘right’. I did make progress, trying to apply the principles of one-point perspective, and no doubt I could get better and better if I keep practicing. But do I want to and will it move my artistic practice forward in a useful and fulfilling way? I don’t and I’m not sure it will. Just ‘for info’, here are a few pages from my sketchbook with examples of the ‘efforts’ and culminating in the handwritten reflection bottom right page.

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My plan, now, is ‘RESEARCH’ and an exploration of a more ‘expressive’ approach to drawing interiors. I’ve already done much of the research and my reflection on that will be the next blog subject. Essentially – I don’t, currently, want to draw in a manner that reproduces what I can do with a photograph. There are other ‘ways of looking’.

And as one final diversion, I did do some ‘St Ives’ sketches – a tough ask in a town that has probably had more artists/art to the square foot that anywhere else!

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And, just to confirm previous thinking … the first four St Ives sketches are from photographs but the last two, obviously, aren’t.