Framers ask you if you want “landscape” or “portrait”, which used to puzzle me mightily when I needed to frame something wholly different. The framer’s heavy sigh and bored translation of his jargon into ‘horizontal’ or ‘vertical’ finally got through to me. Oh. So, as an exercise, take a vertical piece of paper, and lightly sketch a landscape onto it. You won’t be able to describe a desert, but you will be able to hint at mountains, and gorges and a cataract that tumbles out of the lower margin. Add a figure and it will probably be like one of the brothers in Ruskin’s” King of the Golden River” or a Sherpa lugging a climber’s pack. Or something aspirational, like a pilgrim gazing at the heavens beyond the rocky barrier. The paper made you do that. Your narrative fitted into the space. Now take a horizontal sheet and draw a portrait. You can cram it into the center, with the head of a squashed monster, or you need to put the figure to one side and find props to fill the rest of the page. If your subject is an important industrialist you could have a window in the background, [double-glazed] through which you see the serried rows of factory buildings, chimneys belching hard-working smoke. If it is his wife, she could be gazing out at a riotous garden, gloves, shears and bottle of gin on the table beside her. Their heir could be lazily lounging on his Ducatti, with the open road behind him. However frantic you make their expressions the paper will remind you that these people have the luxury of horizantal space, and you don’t need to feel sorry for them. Even a prison scene will look different depending on the paper. Vertical is for political prisoners, drug mules in awful countries, and serial killers. Horizontal is for the fat cat in a bit of bother. The warders wait on him and he will be paroled shortly. Cut a sheet of coloured paper into circle, square, and vertical, horizontal. Pin them up in the kitchen wall, and whenever you sip your coffee, gaze at them and imagine what you could draw within each shape. Let the shapes suggest to you what they can accomodate, and then you decide when you want to go against the grain.
This is not to say that there isn’t merit in learning how to place images on a page. What we need do is work out just why certain arrangements are better than others. Academic artists of a hundred years ago were in thrall to the classical, and the neo- classical, and devoted to the methods of people like Poussin, and in spite of all that has happened to revolutionise visual art in the our own day, many students believe that there are right and wrong methods for accomplishing what we want. We demand formulae. Show me how to do it, is the cry. Many books on technique and perspective take advantage of this wistful hope. Volumes filled with lines A to C, intersecting with a right angle at point B are ground out by the same canny manufacturers of woodwork sets for Fathers’ Day, and trinkets for strengthening your flabby abs. Bound, like wind chimes and birdfeeders, for the attic. Trees are felled, and printing machines whirr in the cause of making us believe that books and diagrams can teach us about space. It is all part of our capacity for magical thinking; buying a book on Yoga makes us feel fitter, buying a book on budgeting makes us feel responsible. No it doesn’t. Yoga makes us fitter. Budgeting makes us responsible. Just so, looking and moving make us understand space. Ask any toddler.
Composition and perspective:
A sketch can sit anywhere on the page. Informality often enlivens the work. Paper provides a no-man’s-land on which lines can form as if they are in an infinite setting, and the eye encourages the hand to make marks which don’t list to one side, or drop off the bottom of the page. Use paper rather wider than you think sufficient. Drawings often require us to venture further in every direction than we anticipated, and there is nothing more frustrating than seeing beautifully executed work squash itself into too small a space at the last minute. Most of us have been led to believe that composition has fixed rules, that the “Golden Section” is the acme of design, and that rectangular paper is better than square or circular sheets. We talk about focal points and how a large shape on the left-hand side should be echoed by a smaller shape on the right. Instead of dutifully bowing to drawing class lore, all we need to do is think about our marks as players on a stage, not as a line- up of sportsmen for the Club photo. Let us imagine that we are drawing a portrait of a local politician. To charm her voters we need to place her iconically, in the centre of the page, and have her looking off to the left or the right, so that her eyes don’t follow us accusingly wherever we are in the room. If they do, we will feel guilty or irritated and she probably won’t get our vote. If she is kissing a baby give the infant sufficient room but don’t worry about the mother. Our candidate does not like nubile competition. The next portrait shows how powerful she is. Crop he at the knees, and make her crown of welded curls reach right to the top of the page so that she looms above us. Perhaps exaggerate the size of the ribbon-cutting scissors in her hand. Starting to feel a bit dubious about her merits as a candidate? Suggest this by putting her eyes in shadow, so that the sockets convey something guarded, and have her body merge into the background, towards the left. [Sinister—geddit?]Want to show that she is a bit timid, perhaps a bit of a wuzz? Push her to the side of the page, and make her shoulders a bit smaller than they are. By this time you are certain that she is of flimsy moral fibre. So tell everybody! Imply that her bling has been acquired in suspicious circumstances by foreshortening the be-ringed and bangled hand which fiddles with her diamond encrusted mobile telephone. Now you have her on the run. Show that her campaign is sinking fast by having just her face, cropped below the mouth, askew at the bottom of your page. Oh, dear. You have just caught sight of the opposing candidate, a byword for fraud, harassment, and stud-muffin antics. Time to rehabilitate our girl. Another icon, smiling face forward, with a flutter of bunting and a halo of light behind her. Same actor, but the way you moved her around the page made her play a variety of roles. You have re- composed the drawing to suit each occasion, not a set of rules. A good way to practise composing until it becomes instinctive is to cut out a figure or two from family photos, and randomly arrange them in settings like landscapes, water, at the top of trees, upside down, bisected by roads or mountains See how each arrangement makes your paper-dolls perform with surprising effect. You will also prompt your brain to seize on a hundred new drawing ideas. Photocopy the best arrangements, [badly, remember,] and keep them in a folder as fodder for the times when your imagination is starved. Uncle Rodney gazing from the clouds like Zeus, or your rather pushy little cousin walking on water could burn off artist’s block quite quickly.
Erotic artists are practitioners rather than voyeurs, and this is why I believe one can tell the difference between erotica and pornography. Porn is a formula-driven consumer product. The truly erotic is a love letter. Porn inclines toward grunt-and-groan gynecology whereas the erotic requires metaphors. Shakespeare’s two-backed beast is best described by people whose references are wide and whose touch is light. Consider Paul Scott’s description of ” that enchanted place, where your hand, moving over velvet surfaces would feel it suddenly as foot walking from marble might feel the springiness of turf.” As an exercise, make an erotic drawing using similar discretion and forthrightness, gleaned from your own experience. Draw something that would delight a lover rather than titillate a stranger. Then give it to somebody who deserves it.
When I first started to teach drawing many years ago, working from a model was a daily discipline. It was unbearably tedious for staff and students. The models left a lot to be desired, because we drew from a very limited pool of people, some of whom were odd indeed. One of them, a cadaverous man named Eddie, was known to all as “Action Painting”, or Poetry in Motion” by class wits, because he was incapable of sitting still. Years of devotion to banned substances had left him with a repertoire of twitches
and shudders and a hideous cough. The other, a stoical woman called Beauty, was completely rotund, and when she sat, her bodily features dissolved into an amorphous pear-shaped mass. Other than providing an aphrodisiac interludes in the lives of randy students these sessions did nothing to enlarge our experience of the human body in its infinite variety. Draw your children, draw your partners in their nudity, draw yourself, sketch at sports meetings, or while watching television. Form a life-drawing group and make sure that different models are hired, so that you don’t get into the habit of drawing by rote a body you know too well, and don’t know at all. The best is to draw somebody you love, as Rembrandt did, when every feature and even imperfections are treated with tender respect. Avoid glamour girls and boys. There are more than enough of them on every billboard. The hollow gods of pop culture have all their energy and idiosyncrasy photo-shopped out of them. There is one single simple rule about drawing from life:
As you look at the model ADOPT THE POSE YOURSELF. We have already spoken of learning bodily memory. Acquire it, and use it. If you draw a swimmer, stretch your own arm and feel it press down against the water which resist it. If you draw a climber, feel the tension in the knee as your boot finds a foothold, and your fingers curl into a crevice. If YOU feel it, you know what happens to the figure rather than just observing the action from a distance. This is true too of the rather neglected art of erotic drawing.
Sigmund Freud said that people became artists because they desired honour, fame and the love of women. Such a strange thing to say, coming from somebody who wrote beautiful prose and lived a life of ideas. People may try the arts in an attempt to gain notoriety or wealth or arm candy, but they soon give up. Some years ago it was estimated that New York housed upward of 90,000 artists. How many have we ever seen or heard? When Beethoven lived in Bonn two centuries ago several hundred pianists were studying there. It is lovely to be recognised, and to be able to afford the creative life in some sort of comfort, but it is not the norm. Most artists live their lives doing day jobs, and struggling to protect their creative energy from being dissipated by pizza deliveries, teaching, child rearing or soul-destroying commercial design work. The act of making is its own reward. If it isn’t, find something else to do. If it is, good luck may yet come your way, but never bet on it.
Some tantalising projects: 1
Here are some suggestions for widening your appreciation of what can be drawn. They will also gently push you out of your safety zone. Do them all, and try to refer to the actual objects rather than use snapshots.
1.Something shrouded: fish heads wrapped in plastic—false teeth in a glass of water— hand in glove—muslin scarf over a face.
2. Something moving: a lizard on the steps—a feather in the breeze—a hammer whacking a nail—fish in a bowl—tap water running.
3.Something harsh: clawing—bruising—tearing—burning—crushing. [Note: all these actions can be done TO the paper as well as letting your drawing interpret the action].
4.Something shadowed: the groin—armpit—open mouth—empty boot—rat hole. 5.Something edible: spaghetti on a fork—peeling an orange—swallowing an oyster— undressing an artichoke.
6.Something gross: a dog drooling—hair on a brush—road kill—a used dressing—acne.
Criticism is good, and very helpful. One needs to take care that it is given by people one respects, people who have some knowledge of the arts and of what you are trying to do. Friends and family are no good. Your friends will be obliged to say that your work is lovely, and your family will be cross because you are not paying them enough attention. Unless you are very lucky, both friends and family will only appreciate work they ‘like’, and are embarrassed if you do anything ever so slightly avante garde. Find like-minded people who draw and paint and want to improve. Hold criticism sessions with them, where you discuss technique and motivation in a spirit of professional detachment. Or find a mentor, an artist or teacher that respects your search and respects you enough to tell it like it is. Make criticism fun. Have meetings where you take turns in criticising your own work in the most acerbic terms possible. I gave a slide lecture once where I discussed works of my own which I knew had missed the mark, either because they were pompous nonsense or badly executed. You could have heard a pin drop, and I learnt a great deal. Also remember that one is disposed to believing harsh criticism and dismissing praise. This is a bad habit, engrained when we were children, to prevent us from being obnoxious. All it did was dent our self-esteem.
People who enter competitions, and then mutter about losing, remind one of the monk who complained when he wasn’t awarded the Most Humble Trophy by the prior. Many competitions offer prizes that could make an enormous difference to the life of the winner, so, if you are tempted, enter at your peril. The biggest art prize in South Africa was bestowed by a notorious criminal in order to brush up his cultural credentials. Many artists were aware of his reputation but submitted their work anyway. A sorry story that did nobody credit. The thing to remember is that if you love your work, you are going to be sensitive to rejection with the same sort of agony that attends a spurned lover. Make sure you are tough enough to take it.
This does not mean that you shouldn’t submit work for group exhibitions and be willing to join the also-rans who are told to take their work home. It gives you a chance to see how you fare against your peers, and to learn from them .It will also enable you to join the conspiracy theorists, who know who slept with the jury, and who is in with your local art mafia. You could take a leaf from the Impressionist playbook, and open a ‘salon des refuses’ .
The best thing to do is to re-read Vincent van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo, and remind yourself that this great and graceful man sold two pictures during his painful, glorious life.
“How do I know if I am any good?” is the question we all ask, and the only realistic answer is that we never will know. It is not really a relevant question. If we enjoy drawing, hunting for elusive energy, we should carry-on regardless. To do a thing badly is better than not doing it at all, and sometimes the dreadful, mediocre line can transmute itself into gold. Take Ros Chast, a cartoonist for that marvelous gallery of comic art, The New Yorker. Chast uses a dull, scrawled, fussy, fidgety, approximate, UGLY line to describe her commonplace characters and their relentlessly unmemorable concerns. Her line has the sound of a whiny suburbanite, and the things she draws are dusted with tedium. Sheer joy for the viewer, tinged with shame-facedness. [That nagging Mom.]
Strangely, and sadly, artists can never see their work clearly, even when we ambush ourselves by contriving to view work in unusual places. We will always see it through the filter of our unmet expectations. We will always see it as a work in progress, awaiting correction. Indeed, Bonnard used to go to museums when he was in his eighties, to touch up work bought by the nation many years before. Another sad truth is that artists who regard themselves highly are often misinformed. We all know the Art School star who leaves the bottom right-hand quadrant of each artwork as a bill-board for his signature. We know the poseur who tells us what she said to Jeff Koons last week, and whose people are in talks with people at Guggenheim Bilbao. These people are performance artists and delightful to watch. Leave them to it. We need to recognise that we are vulnerable to self-doubt , and need to protect ourselves against situations which are inimical to our creativity. Take art competitions, for example. If you enjoy competing, become an athlete. There the reason for taking part is to win. The result is beyond dispute, except in boxing, where we wuz robbed.