Friday, 23 August 2013

Ongoing research

As the research continues various strands start coming together. I have made up the images for the colour separations in silk screen, so I'm ready to print, however the print room won't be available again until the second week in September. Foundation started this week and inductions are underway, so great to see the space being used but not so good for drop in access. The print room up at Blenheim Walk is also being totally rebuilt so is closed down until further notice, I presume this means it will open end of September. The idea that you can work in college during the summer is always a bit of a pipe dream, there is so much work to do, refurbishing old equipment, adjusting spaces to deal with changes in incoming student numbers, installing new machinery etc etc. 
I have therefore returned to drawing. I'm also continuing to write about drawing and have got the first chapter underway about language and time. This is quite helpful as I'm kept very aware of what drawing means as a communication tool when I'm working. I've written a lot about the way drawing can compress different information into the same space and release it simultaneously, so it makes sense for me to be looking at this as part of the research. I've taken the images I have been working on, the fires and mountains and have started to combine them in drawings. See below.

The studies are useful to my main practice as I'm including this image in the top section of a new drawing, which will hopefully be finished for a show in mid-September. The aspect of compaction I'm looking at here is one artists like Cozens or Dali used. The fact that an image can be either one thing or another. It's an old trick, but it still works to energise an image because the viewer has to engage with their own perceptions and be aware of possible alternatives. The problem is though that you need to give clues if a reading is not balanced, in this case the mountain is outweighing the fire, so I am including camp fires in the foreground of the final large drawing.  

To give an idea of what I'm writing at the moment the selection below is an extract from a chapter entitled;  'Drawing as a record of perception'. I've moved on now to look at Zen Buddhist drawings and making notes on how calligraphic brush drawings embed time in a different way. 

The extract is a reflection on a particular Watteau drawing, the Flute Player.  

‘The Flute Player’ is a typical Watteau drawing from the early 18th century. This sketch was probably done to help him think through the content of one of his paintings. At first glance the simple reading is given to us by cultural clues, the man’s hairstyle, clothing etc. all suggest a time of roughly 300 years ago. However there is a lot more to this drawing. We can start to follow the artist’s focus and interest by reflecting on the various levels of engagement he has with differing elements. Some parts of the figure are barely there, ghosted in to support the main areas of focus, which are the face and the hands. Immediately we notice this we put ourselves back into the position of the maker, we re-live the time of the drawing’s making as our eyes re-trace the artist’s movements as he picks his way around the subject of perception. Finally we realise that one area in particular has been singled out as being the entry point into the drawing, the flute player’s left hand. The dark shading under the fingers helps to also push the space outwards towards the viewer, operating as a type of atmospheric perspective, (dark marks come forward, softer light marks recede) and recreating a moment of spatial awareness that would have been part of the initial experience. Condensed in this one image we have several time based issues operating simultaneously. The first is one of historical time, (the historical past) the second is a time of reenactment, in language we sometimes call this the past perfect progressive tense, as in “he had been drawing”, the third is however the present tense, which is constructed out of the fact that you are actively looking and your eyes scanning the image now, the present tense being what makes the drawing important, it is active today as well as being a record of the past.

So why is this important? Above all it tells us a lot about the human condition. The image embeds within itself a record of a period of skilled concentrated looking. The skill involved here is very important, it takes on average 10,000 hours for a human being to master a skill of this level. (Sennett, 2009) It is a level of accomplishment that means that the actions of the maker have become tacit; the hand is therefore released from the mind’s pressure of having to think about making and the artist can respond to the moment of perception without any barriers. We are therefore far closer to the original perceptual experience and we live as it where, in the same time as the original encounter. This is not the same as the frozen moment of a photograph, it is a layered time, one that opens out to the viewer the longer the image is looked at. The drawer’s decisions becoming more and more transparent to us as we retrace his interest via the changes in focus and attention to details encoded within the marks. In this way we develop another engagement, one with the artist himself and his own engagement with his world and its people. The grammar and syntax of this image are developed by the materials of its construction. The paper ground has a particular granular texture, this being essential to the application of the chalks, which rely on a tough surface on which to pull off tiny fragments of material from the stone-like core of the solid pastels. The touch of the artist is here vital, too much pressure and the mark clogs the grain of the paper, not enough and the trace is too light. The speed of application is also important. Each stroke becomes a sign for the eyes to follow and we track the artists hand with the same skill that our ancestors tracked the spore of a deer, being able to read as much in the differences between mark speed and weight of application, as between the weight of an animal’s imprint in soft ground and the shape and relationship of its hoof-prints as it slows down or breaks into a startled run.

Learning to read the marks that construct a drawing is something that itself takes time. A young hunter would spend several years being instructed how to read the signs of an animal’s track, in the same way a young artist needs to look at many drawings and take time to unravel the story that is frozen in the marks of their making. The more you look the more you see. Look at these marks more closely and you will see that some of them are applied with chalks that have been sharpened so that more fine detail can be picked out and other chalks are used on their sides so that broad areas can be touched in quickly. You start to realise that as the artist’s attention and focus moves his hands follow by choosing different tools or by using the same tool in a different way. When we read poetry we listen for how rhythm changes to reflect mood, or the way particular words are chosen to make us more aware of the complexity of content and how this is reflected in the sound structure of the poem. In the same way the draftsman can vary mood and contextual understanding by these changes in application and the way the ground is manipulated into becoming a space for action.  The construction of visual rhythm is vital as it on the one hand creates life, by giving a visual heartbeat to the work, and at the same time operates as a guidance system for the eyes, pushing vision quickly over certain areas and slowing it down when necessary point of focus are needed. The dark points of shadow under the left hand of the flute player in some ways operating as full stops as well as spatial indicators. The full stop in a sentence gives us time to breath and get ready to move on, but it also signals that a particular piece of information has been summed up or concluded. These points are vital to the language structure as they indicate a certain closure, the left hand being perhaps what Barthes would term the ‘punctum’ of the image, or as he helpfully put it, that which 'pierces the viewer'. (Barthes, 1993).

All of these marks are of course made by one material rubbing off onto another. In this case chalk is the material that is eroded and broken off by the paper. Chalk is one of our softest rocks, and one that has been used as a drawing material for thousands of years. Pastel is a man made variant of the naturally occurring chalk, powdered chalk being bound back together with coloured pigments using various binders, including in Watteau’s time, oatmeal and honey. The fact that this soft rock can also represent flesh and clothing, that it can be read as other than what it is, is something that every artist is acutely aware of. In particular artists working in Christian Catholic countries were aware of the importance of transubstantiation, that moment in the Mass when, “that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the Blood…”9 of Christ occurs. The still magical moment when marks and lines of a drawing suddenly appear to be something else, is a singular moment that pops into being every time someone looks at a representational drawing. The moment of transformation being given more power the closer the drawing achieves a balancing act between a clear presentation of its reality, (in this case chalk marks scraped off onto a rough paper surface) and the way its marks are grouped together to suggest the appearance of something. Too much ‘photographic’ detail can inhibit this moment as the mind has no work to do in recognising what it is possible to see and uncontrolled distortion or weak observation on the part of the artist can result in a failure of the audience to recognise what is being represented. In effect a failure to control the use of the artist’s language.

A further aspect of language of course is that it can create subtlety and nuance by the use of adverbs and adjectives. These are conditioning and modifying tools and in the case of drawing the choice of implement is vital to this. Chalks have a certain softness in their application, something we can understand if we contrast chalk with other materials. Imagine this drawing done in pen and ink, it would be too harsh, too firm in its tone. Chalk can caress the surface and yet still be controlled well enough to suggest an underlying firmness, the musician’s head clearly has a firm bone structure beneath it. However chalk handled in this way, also suggests a fragility, a gentle light touch, the rapidity of its application further suggesting the rapid passing of time. This brings us to a further, deeper realization of time within the drawing. These fleeting glimpses of a man playing a flute are also a metaphor for the fragility of all our lives. As the man plays he is playing a forgotten tune, one that will drift off and quickly fade away. The drawing’s lightness of touch being one that reminds us of smoke forms drifting through a room or clouds making momentary images as they shape-shift across the sky.
The composition and overall formal relationships are used to fuse the elements together and organise our reception of them. Again rhythm is vital to this and the swirling movement of the body and soft curves of the clothes and hair echo the sound of music coming from the flute, which itself is the only straight line in the composition, a diagonal linking hands with mouth and giving the eyes a moment of rest. Watteau catches a brief moment and holds it for us, but as we bring this moment back into the present through our engagement with it, we are also affected by the realisation of its import. Behind the membrane of the paper surface lies an intuition of the world of the dead and their spirits and for brief moment as we look at this drawing, we can perhaps in our minds touch the surface of the Paleolithic cave wall and from behind it feel the trembling hearts of our long dead ancestors. In some ways every drawing reenacts all the other drawings that have been done since humans first made them over 30,000 years ago. We are still the same species and still have the same short lifespan within which to experience, birth, growing up, maturity, old age and death. The tools we developed to help us get through were honed to perfection a long time ago, and as part of our realisation of what it is to be alive now, we should celebrate this.

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