drawing: the artist as interpreter

Rootling through some studio box-files, I found the sketches for a still-life with possibly the longest title I’ve given a work.

Painting for a Child’s Bedroom: Still Life with Toy Theatre and Glass of Fennel/Oxwich Castle and Columbarium. 2005

Here are the drawings. Scraps, really, but they were the only preparations made.

I kept them, of course. It’s often the roughest little sketches that give me what I need the most. They have an almost unmediated sense of directness and urgency. Relatively unspecific, too, and with little detail to distract from ‘shape’, there’s no diminishment in their power to inspire and energise me almost a decade after their making. I could happily pin them to the easel today and come up with a painting entirely different in character to the one they outlined for me the first time around. A drawing can do that. I simply wouldn’t get any of the things gifted by these scraps, from a photograph.

For all the details and facts a photograph can offer, it is mediating a reality that I want to interpret first-hand with my own eyes. More significantly, I find photographs as studio aids to be a distraction, taking far more than they give. When it comes to making reference material for a painting, I’ll take a scrap of a drawing any day over what a camera can offer. There are never any reference photographs pinned to my easel. On the rare occasion I use a photograph, I won’t copy it, but learn the information in it by heart, like an actor committing lines to memory. Then I’ll put the photograph away and use what I can recall from it to make some drawings. It’s a process that I have to go through to distance myself from the camera’s ‘mechanical eye’.

None of this is to say that photography is not an art-form. Clearly it is. But for me it is not my choice of medium as an aide-memoire at the easel. It cannot tell me what a place smells like, or how light passes over skin, or how I feel in the presence of an object, a building, a landscape or an animal. I need all my senses to capture what I feel about the world, and I won’t relinquish the job to a snapshot taken in lieu of pencil, paper and the hand-to-eye daily practice of drawing.

6 thoughts on “drawing: the artist as interpreter

  1. I remember from my art school days, that there comes a time when you need to stop looking at or painting your references, but instead make a solid (or great, or just competent) painting. I find that when I listen to what the painting is telling me, instead of trying to force my will on it, it comes out better. It always seems to know…

    • I agree. A painting must be its own reality. And yes, whatever its starting-point, it has to be allowed to become itself. The references… be they drawings or sometimes, for me, three-dimensional models made for the purpose… may be the springboard, but I never let them be the final word.

  2. I prefer to use ambiguous sketches too and only do ‘practise’ drawings from photo references until I can understand the subject well enough to do my own version of it.

    Your working practises almost always strike a chord with me Clive.
    (maybe this stuff is hardwired into artists brains?)

    I’m always amazed at how well you can articulate these things though, things I struggle to be able to express to anyone in a coherent manner!

    • It’s very likely that running a blog for four years has honed my writing skills a little, plus it’s the place where I do my art-theory ‘thinking’ in the service of the various subjects I post about. Although the Artlog was created principally as a first port-of-call for anyone interested in what I do, it’s since additionally become a place where lots of developing ideas I have about my work first get aired. I think of it almost as a diary/laboratory.

  3. Too right! Personally I think that mechanical eye is too present in many paintings and drawings of recent years… the background blurred in just the way a camera would, overexposed areas, slight spatial distortions…. it seems to be everywhere. Anyway, to each his own, that is just a wee personal gripe, but I’m glad that I’m not alone in thinking about that sort of incursion.
    And, by the way, that is lovely painting with beautiful colours. What luck to be the kid with it hanging in their room!

    • I think many practitioners regard cameras as extensions of themselves. For every David Hockney, who has a forensic understanding of the differences between ‘natural’ seeing, and viewing the world through an optical lens, there are countless makers who don’t really get the fact that the ‘mechanical eye’ produces a quite different image to what their own eyes show them.

      There is no right or wrong way to work, and painters should always be finding new and challenging ways to see, whether with or without mechanical aids. But I too grow weary of the constant and all-too-often lazy presence of the camera in paintings. Like you I see it everywhere, and I find it a big turn-off.

      The painting was indeed purchased for a child’s room. Wish I could have lived with it a little longer (it went very quickly) but I like the idea of it being a constant presence in a young, developing life.

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