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.