Johann and the Green Drawing Book

Illustration graduate Johann Rohl is spending a month living here at Ty Isaf, working in the studio on his own projects, and on a commission we’re producing collaboratively. I’m his mentor during his time here, though in reality I find there’s much to be appreciated and learned from the ways he applies himself to problems set. He draws beautifully, and on his desk is a green-bound book filled with pencil images.

Clive: Tell me about the book. It’s not just any old book off an art-supplier’s shelves, is it?

Johann: It’s a hardbound sketchbook I acquired at the end of my time at Cambridge School of Art, made collaboratively with my friend Toby Rampton. Toby is a bookbinder and a very talented illustrator who I went to uni with. His sketchbooks are beautiful objects in their own right. I don’t think I’ve ever been able to look at sketchbooks the same way since seeing his. By ‘collaboratively’ I mean I supplied the paper and linen for the cover and Toby did most of the labour. He even sliced into his middle finger, right into the nail; trimming the block of pages for me. So blood really went into the making of this book, though I’m not sure about sweat and tears. That sketchbook is a sort of testament to Toby’s craft, to teaching me it and to some of my creative breakthroughs done on location in the museums of Cambridge.

Clive: I love the green linen cover. I’ve noticed that you pay a lot of attention to the things around you, to forms and textures, and you’re appreciative of things well made. Have you always had this eye for detail and for good design? Can you account for it?

Johann: I love things well made. In a world of the disposable, there isn’t much importance placed on craftsmanship in our society. I come from a family that has a real appreciation for craftsmanship. I’ve grown up with things like pots and little crooked wooden stools, things you can’t get at Ikea. Witch balls at my aunty’s house. Stuff with character and soul. Things made with attention to detail, built to last a long time and to wear with use, but in a way that enhances and adds depth with age.

My grandparents came from nothing. They never bought things on credit and had to save money when they wanted to buy a piece of furniture or a household appliance. They moved into their first house when they were about my age. They had nothing to sit on, and so my grandma went over the road to the Co-op and asked if she could have the wooden boxes that the oranges came in. She took the boxes home and upholstered them using straw and cloth, and that was that. Furniture!  There was a make-do-and-mend attitude back then which I admire.

Form and function, colour and texture, these are all qualities that I appreciate. They give me pleasure, but they also influence my practice, and so I try to surround myself with things like that.

Clive: Where were the drawings in this sketch-book made? I recognise many of the objects as Mexican clay Dia de los Muertos figurines.

Johann: Most of the drawings were made in the Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology in Cambridge. Most of the Dia de los Muertos stuff is in a small section of the museum that I just about exhausted in drawing terms. It’s a modest collection, but it was enough to inspire me and fuel my desire to go off and look further into folk art and learn more about it. There are also drawings of Inuit art in the green sketchbook, and Greek statues from the Museum of Classical Archaeology.

Clive: Your mark-making in this book is extremely direct. There’s no fucking about with sketchiness, no faint lines trialled on the page and then adjusted and worked over. And theres no erasing. It’s as though there’s a line of unbroken energy going direct from the object to your eye and down through your hand to the pencil and page. Beautiful. Is this the way you’ve always worked, or have you aspired to it and made it so?

Johann: Having the confidence to commit to my lines the way that I do has taken years. Years to realise just how interesting it can be to make marks in ways that are sympathetic to the thing I’m drawing. When I started Art College I was ignorant of mark-making and approached it in a limited way. I’d use a mechanical pencil fitted with HB 00.7mm graphite for all of my drawings, and I’d make pictures with no depth, no difference in tone or texture and no difference in quality of line. Limited in terms of expression.

I draw very differently now. I put myself in the mindset of exploring something for the first time, like a child. I try and role-play the experience of seeing something as it is, as it really is, without any preconceptions of what I think it should look like. When I’m drawing something that I’m interested in recreating, I bring myself closer to it by condensing the feeling or the texture into a line or mark. I guess it’s like empathy, in a way. I try to channel the ‘feeling’ of the object from my eye to my mind and out through my mark-making, so that I’m connecting with the world around me in a different way. A lot of the time I draw what I think something should look like, and it takes working through it over and over to get to something more honest and interesting. But then sometimes I don’t have to put in quite so much effort, and I nail it in one.

Clive: You work in extremely attractive and mesmerising ways. There are the observational sketchbooks, like the green linen one, but also the project work-books, in which you draw largely in miniature. They’re fascinating to look at.

You make the books and then draw in them, and that undoubtedly invests them with a kind of concentrated energy. Is the making of a book a crucial process to your preparation for what goes inside it?

Johann: I guess it’s having more control of the project, being able to decide which format is most appropriate for it. It probably isn’t a crucial process, though it does invest work-books with a kind of ‘concentrated energy’. I like to be able to show my work in a book made with my own hands.

Clive: The third process in which you produce drawings, is probably the most unique one, and moreover the one that appeals most to me because it has some of the same obsessional aspects of my own liking for drawing and cutting-out.

You make hundreds of meticulously pencil-rendered images that are details of larger ideas… fragments, if you will… and then you cut them out and store them in transparent folders. They look like extraordinary, pale jigsaw puzzles waiting to be assembled. You play with these fragments, assembling them into potential compositions, until you have the material ready to begin a final work. In this way, like my own process of making maquettes, you have a dense methodology before ever you get to a gessoed board, which is the ground you favour most for your finished works. Tell me about how you came to work this way. Did it evolve from small beginnings, or did you see something somewhere that gave you the idea?

Below: cut elements for Johann’s project, Pomona.

Johann: My ‘process’ has been quite a recent development. It started towards the end of my degree. It was a strange time where all my course mates had finished, and a lot of my housemates were moving out. Yet I still had work to do. The work I needed to resubmit didn’t have to be amazing because my marks were going to be capped at 40%, so it really didn’t matter. The pressure was off. Instead of doing a bit of extra work for it I started a new project from scratch which was The Company of Wolves, which you’ve written about previously. (See HERE and HERE.)

I gorged myself on HughesWalking the Dog and started to express myself in a way that was much more liberating, away from the eyes of my peers. I committed myself to sheets of A4 but decided that if something went wrong that I would just glue more paper over the top of the mistake and I would draw over that. I made loads of mistakes. Made loads of cut outs that I could place on to the image as an alternative. I liked the potential this offered so that if I wanted the wolf’s mouth to look more savage and slavery I could exaggerate it and then put it over the top, or if I wanted to see what the wolf’s hand was like underneath his skin I could do that on another piece of paper and overlay that if I felt like it. I never glued the pieces over the top, though. I liked being able to play with the placement of these separate pieces of paper. That was a real breakthrough and the start of a really exciting way of working. I don’t know where it came from, or what or who inspired it, but it’s become a fundamental part of the way I work now, and I love it.

Clive: The project we’re working on requires that both our hands will be evident in some of the completed artworks. This is a first for both of us and has taken some adjustment. That we appreciate each others work clearly paved the way for the project, but it’s nevertheless a leap of faith for two artists to produce images collaboratively. (Sarah Parvin, who commissioned this, was enormously supportive of the notion of you and I working so closely, so all credit to her for her encouragement.) I feel very much at ease in the studio in your company, but frankly I couldn’t imagine doing it with anyone else. I’ve worked collaboratively with creatives who have skills other than my own; poets, writers, composers and film-makers. But the current project is significantly different, and has been a learning curve for both of us. Do you have any thoughts to offer on this, on the pros and cons? (Please be candid. I can take it!)

Below: elements made by Clive and Johann. Who made which? Hard to tell.

Johann: It’s definitely been a learning curve! I’m not very good at letting people see my work in its early stages, or see me working for that matter. I’m incredibly self conscious and insecure, as much as I hate to admit it. Putting your ideas out there, your rough drawings to be seen by another, can be very exposing and leave you feeling quite vulnerable. But I think because there’s a lot of trust and respect between us, it’s not even an issue. We ‘get’ each other, and we appreciate each others work. We can be supportive when things are going well, and constructive when something isn’t quite working. We each want the same thing for the other, which is to help and push and be where we want to be creatively, and that’s incredibly enriching for both of us.

Clive: Well now you’ve made me well up, which is definitely the right place to stop.

7 thoughts on “Johann and the Green Drawing Book

  1. Pingback: Tender links… | A line and a smudge

  2. Interesting how you both came to a mode using moveable pieces… though so different, of course.

    And my mother has one of those furniture boxes Johann mentions, a little crate covered with two different shades of mauve velvet, with a sort of strap in the middle to carry it by; it is a footstool made by my grandmother, probably around 1905. My mother was the youngest of her nine children…

  3. Oh I so agree with Phil! It’s marvellous to be eavesdropping on your collaboration – being an artist/maker/whatever can be so lonely and introverted. I know that’s where the creativity springs from (for me, anyway) but there are often times when it helps to have another person to talk with, who understands the process and does a similar sort of thing. Thank you both for letting us have a little peek into this really intimate space 🙂

  4. This is wonderful.
    I hope it gets published in book form, just as I hope for the little moleskine sketchbook, and for the green linen covered drawing book. Because this should be preserved for our children, our grandchildren, or for future inhabitants of Earth arrived from The Milky Way…
    Thank You to all involved !!!

  5. I wish I could draw like that!

    This post was a delight to read from start to finish. The images are so energetic and full of personality, but it’s also a pleasure to hear artists who can talk so eloquently and honestly about their work and their experiences. Thank you chaps. Sharing your fascinating conversation here shows again what a wonderful place the Artlog is.

  6. You’ve brought a tear to my eye as well!!

    I so enjoy reading these conversations between the two of you, which truly convey the appreciation of one artist for another artist’s craft. I know praise from you doesn’t come lightly Clive, but it is well deserved in Johann’s case.

    On the day I first met Johann, which was only in May, we spent seven hours together and didn’t stop talking. The conversation and ideas have flowed ever since and it is always a pleasure to spend time with him. I felt the same way when I met you. I am delighted that this has evolved into the two of you collaborating on bringing “The Curious One” to life and it’s very hard to contain my excitement, whilst both of you work your magic.

    You have to promise me that you will send Johann back to Yorkshire at the end of his time with you. I’m sure it’s going to be a very difficult thing to do!! (-:

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