I have history with drawing
What exactly is going on when I decide to make a drawing I wonder, what is so complex about this apparently simple decision to make my mark? Drawing has waxed and waned as a significant part of my artistic life and career and I have often wondered why that is. This article is a personal tracing of my tracks. I want to look at how drawing has been present at different times in my life and absent at others and what it has meant to me. I suspect there’s an arc in my history from drawing for other people’s approval towards drawing for my own satisfaction – or dare I say – delight.
I have been drawing as long as I can remember, I got praised for it as a child so it often had positive associations for me. It was one of the very few things I could do better than my older brother, it was my winning skill, a precious super-power in my young brain. It was something I could do for hours, it rewarded my interest and attention, I could get involved in it and the stories I created with it and then I could show my family what I had made. I had precious evidence of my effort and ideas, of my interests and progress.
Then at about age seven or eight a new boy turned up in our class at school. He was better at drawing than me, it was really difficult, like suddenly getting a sibling where you had things all to yourself before. I am not sure how I recovered from this (or even if I am really still working on it) – I was always the ‘artistic one’ in our family – so when a rival for the title turned up at school I felt seriously insecure. I was shocked and disheartened – that is clear now. I felt I lost more than just the status of being the best in the class at drawing. I think echoes of that young trauma are still present in the background to this day when I draw.
So drawing in a group often has an edge of competition for me, I am always wondering how far up or down the ladder of skill I stand compared to others, its quite a distraction from the challenge of making the drawing which is hard enough in itself.
I started drawing again at the start of 2021, not just jotting down little working-out-scribbles, proper observational and composition drawing. I completed the 30works30days project this April and I finished the100daysproject ten days later. For both projects I decided to make a drawing every day so I had an intensive blast of charcoal, pencil or watercolour on paper to help me get back into the habit.
I use drawing a lot anyway, in an everyday way to work out how to make things, to design the shape of my ceramic artworks and sometimes just because I want to work something out in my sketchbook. When I was last in the habit of drawing I just wanted to feel the power of creating something by tracing a path with a pencil across the paper with my hand, guided by impulses, ideas, occasional grand intentions. It seems you have to have an idea to get started. It seems you have to have a plan or an intention, even if that plan is “I am going to make some random marks now”
Sculptors drawing space
This is one of the reasons why it has been such a pleasure to discover @SculptorsDrawingSpace run online through Zoom by sculptor Mark Richards. In this group – that varies in numbers but usually about 30-40 people – drawing for a solid one hour session every Monday evening you see peoples faces or backs and hear their pencils on the paper together with a few noises off, the occasional dog, cat or songbird joining in on the audio stream. At no point do you see each others drawings, there is no Show and Tell so you can’t make those comparisons and rankings that we automatically do in non lockdown drawing class situations. This is such a relief for me.
The other striking thing is how powerfully benevolent the near-silence is. It feels like you can hear the concentration, the collective effort to maintain this space for drawing only, not chatting, not watching, not getting distracted. The group has an energy that really supports the participants by working on something in each others presence but not physically with each other, it’s an extraordinary congregational quality that has to be experienced to be believed. I recommend it to anyone who wants to make space and time for drawing in their lives. For me it has been a really positive discovery born from the strictures of lockdown culture.
Drawing is free
Recently I have done some online portrait sessions with @drawingisfree organised by Chloe Briggs. This involves a group of people taking it in turns to pose for the rest of the group who draw quick portraits of them lasting about 4 minutes (the duration of a song on Spotify). The session lasts for an hour and is very intense. Getting a likeness is a real challenge especially in such a short amount of time, there is only one chance to get it right or wrong so the hour has an urgent and immediate feel to it.
What I am noticing about this is how intimate drawing someone else’s face is. Learning to look at how anothers face is put together involves an intense and busy gaze, an examination that would be quite invasive and unsettling in any other context. After the sessions I was looking at peoples posts and comments on Instagram and feeling like I knew them quite well – despite never having spoken a word to them. This is another experience that is a new synthesis from the necessities of lockdown which would probably not have occurred in any other circumstances.
A new perspective on drawing
The Sculptors Drawing Space and Drawing is Free groups have given me a new understanding of drawing as an activity. While I will always strive to make each drawing the best I can, this meditative quality of shared energy makes me think more of the process, that the act of making time to draw is significant and that the time spent with my concentrating self (and others) is beneficial and the quality of any drawing I do is a bonus rather than the sole aim of the exercise.
I am quite amazed at the qualities of these Zoom experiences, I really did not expect relationships mediated by technology to have such subtlety and atmosphere and especially the energy of a collective presence or a sense of intimacy. I think this points to the generosity inherent in these exchanges and I note too that neither of these events involve an exchange of money which I think really allows the notion of goodwill and shared endeavour to develop.
Practice makes perfect
Sometimes in my life I have drawn a lot and improved my technique and confidence. The start of 2021 is one such interlude. But it has happened before, when I did my GCSE’s (then known as O Levels ) as a teenager for instance. It also happened when I attended weekly classes with June Collier in my thirties and again when I ‘rediscovered’ drawing for it’s own sake about 15 years ago and made quite a long series of A1 size drawings over about four years. But the main pattern is that drawing comes into my life and then later disappears. I hope I am now disrupting that tendency.
Like most tacit skills (skills that rely on a combination of muscle memory and learning) drawing improves with practice, the more you do the better you get, as with playing a musical instrument. What I am now questioning is why I have allowed drawing to be neglected for long periods in my life when it is clearly something I can do and also something productive that I can enjoy if I don’t get too hung up on the results.
Even when I was a professional freelance illustrator, I chose to make my name as a photomontage artist rather than drawing – although I did also build up a secondary brush drawing style. This might be a result of being taught on my foundation course that photography was the new drawing and thus drawing was more part of the past than the future. Photography has a lot to recommend it of course but I do feel drawing is being rediscovered partly in reaction to the ubiquity of digitally manipulated photographic images, which are becoming increasingly hard to believe are true accounts of anyones actual experience. Drawing can now be seen as something handmade, something less contrived and more likely to be free of interference or artifice.
Drawing is difficult
I do think drawing is technically difficult, you have to really concentrate to make it work at all – it’s not something you can do half heartedly. So many of us give up on drawing entirely around the age of ten when the balance of reward versus effort becomes too negative and our drawings start to look too naive and child-like to bear as we start to negotiate the transition out of childhood.
I am beginning to think that drawing also has certain elements for me that are charged with things I have felt a need to avoid. Here’s what I can identify :
– I fear that I might not be the best and the emotional burden of that could discourage me.
- My own Judgements
– I fear that my drawing skills are inadequate, that my work will look amateurish or insufficiently photographic or up to the expectations of others.
– I worry I may have insufficient talent – that I may not have sufficient aptitude to make drawings that are good enough, so it might be best to let my internal judge shut me down before I embarrass myself in front of others.
– Drawing takes time and practice, you have to do it regularly and frequently to build up and maintain your skills, it takes patience to let them grow.
– Drawing takes concentration, energy and time. If you are short of any of these it gets harder to do. In observational drawing just placing the shapes and size of the elements of any image in the right place, at the right angle and scale is very hard and can be shown as inaccurate at any moment as you review the components of your artwork.
Drawing is risky
I feel I should put the other side of the story here. I originally wrote that ‘drawing is fun’ but that just doesn’t adequately describe the complexity of the whole sequence of events and feelings. The process of making marks on a page to form either a recognisable version of the scene in front of you or an original composition from your imagination is exciting, mysterious, challenging and can be rewarding or frustrating. There is definitely something that keeps me trying, something that makes me continue but fun is not quite it. Something is driving me back to drawing repeatedly just as some of the difficulties I have identified tend to drive me away again. I don’t think I understand what that drive is yet. I do want to draw, in order to draw I have to risk drawing badly sometimes, it seems to be worth the risk most of the time.
A drawing complex?
What is going on each time I decide to make a drawing is a series of complex thoughts and related feelings based on my personal history with the medium. I imagine most people have an equally complex set of experiences to deal with. Continuing drawing after childhood is seriously challenging and the vast majority of people decide to let it go. Those of us that continue must have somehow managed to extract more pleasure than pain from the drawing process or we would not persevere with it. There seems to be a lot to learn about why so many people decide to persevere with drawing in the face of the technical and emotional complexity of the medium.
Drawing also has the potential to transcend these issues and emotions, if you can find the balance between release and control, being relaxed while concentrating, which you could describe as ‘being at one’ with the drawing. Drawing uses different parts of the brain than most of the things we do, it is particularly different from operating a computer and offers a change from those kinds of logic based tasks to the extent that people use it as a way to relax and lose themselves in a different way of thinking and being. What is not to like about that? Is this what keeps me and everyone else coming back for more perhaps?
I don’t know yet – I will keep looking and keep drawing. What do you think? What motivates you to draw if you do?
Reference and inspiration:
June Collier “I try to get the charcoal or paint to become the thing it is describing…”
Art & Fear by Ted Orland and David Bayles https://www.google.co.uk/books/edition/_/yGf6CAAAQBAJ?hl=en
Drawing on the right side of the brain by Betty Edwards: https://www.drawright.com/
@sculptorsdrawingspace on Instagram
@drawingisfree on Instagram
This piece of writing is my own theory about how creative ideas come in a cyclical flow. I am going to write about my understanding of the creative cycle, how I define it and how I think it works. This is based on my own experience as an artist. The reason I think this idea is important is that understanding the undulating and repeating nature of this cycle could help artists (and anyone else who recognises it) sustain themselves as a creative person for this most demanding of work patterns.
What is the creative cycle?
I think creative work happens in an undulating cycle – as shown in the diagram above. Sometimes ideas just seem to flow, at other times things slow down, stop or even seem to go into reverse. I think this is natural and quite possibly universal. I believe it happens in all creative endeavours. I think it’s innate to being human. I am talking here about your energy, the supply of ideas and the drive you need to do your creative work. It’s what happens when you work on your own ideas probably because your own work is bound up with your sense of your self and the cycles of your state of mind. Most artists conceive their work to some degree as an expression of themselves, something unique to them at the same time as it may express universal or collective concerns for society as a whole.
You might have noticed various aspects of these cycles in your work. I know I do a lot of cleaning up in my precious studio time that on the face of it seems like time-wasting or messing about. I think I do this putting-off-till-later activity when I could or should be producing things probably in order to reflect and get back into sync with my own creative cycle. This is not really a conscious process, it is something I repeatedly find myself doing almost without actually deciding to. I have now begun to recognise the pattern so I am more at home with it and less likely to fight against it.
Here is a diagram showing the structure of the creative cycle as I envisage it.
As I hope you can see it is a sequence that revolves in a tumble and can repeat ad infinitum. Note that the main axis is not time in this case but progress and that for part of the cycle it appears to go into reverse.
In my view there are four phases in the creative cycle, I identify them as follows:
Aka: Inspiration, Excitement, Ideas, Flow, In the Zone, Progression, Germination, Invention.
The high is also probably everyone’s favourite part of the cycle, it’s fun, it’s exciting, it makes you feel vital and full of energy, ideas flow fast and effortlessly. This stage is marked by optimism and urgency. This is likely to be where ideas spark and possibly the start of a production phase of creative work. Here your idea is likely to seem strong, in need of rapid realisation and all the resources you can muster.
Aka: Loss, Fall, Decline, Slowing, Barriers, Roadblocks, Second thoughts, Problems, Diversions.
All good things come to an end, this is also the case with a creative high. In my view this is a natural waning of energy not unlike being out of breath after a run. This state can also be induced by a problem or a diversion of some kind that interrupts the flow of energy and requires a review, a re-think or a pause to take stock. This stage feels like someone rained on your parade, just when things were really motoring, along come these doubts and problems that are only going to get in the way. At this stage your enterprise is going to seem unsound to some degree which is likely to feel disappointing.
Aka: Confusion, Disintegration, Depression, Sadness, Disappointment, Stuck, Becalmed, Standstill, Struggle, Review, Re-assessment, Rest.
This state is the most difficult to process and maintain your momentum. At this juncture any problems will tend to be in the foreground so they are likely to come to your attention and seem overbearing. You may feel confused, indecisive or dissatisfied, so it’s important to be patient and not beat yourself up for being here. Waiting or resting may be the most important things to do now. Behind the scenes your mind has to process all the problems and questions and your feelings about them. It’s easy to feel things are falling apart in this phase and that the endeavour at hand is fatally flawed. This could, of course, be true, it does happen, we all have projects or parts of projects that fail, but the states of mind associated with this point in the story mean this may not be the best moment to make that decision. At this moment your plan is likely to seem ill-conceived or wide of the mark – so hang in there.
Patience and self-belief are the qualities you need to profit from this part of the cycle. The difficulties of the Low mask it’s purpose and usefulness. Your feelings about your project will probably have changed a lot and this may help you get a new perspective on it. You are also likely to loosen your attachment to and ego identification with your original concept and this may help free up your approach to it. This could get things moving. This section is difficult but it’s also rich in ideas, this is the shadow aspect of the creative cycle, going through this unmapped territory means you have a story to tell, could you use it in the work? This part of the process is most likely to make you wiser, and of course, everyone goes through something like this. In my opinion this is the hardest part of the process and it is important and integral to the whole sequence. The recognition that you are in the low part of the phase, is almost like a trigger for the next phase. You need to organise yourself now to leave this stage. Quite how you do that is completely up to you, there are no maps – well – except this one maybe.
Aka: Recovery, Gathering, Gain, Growth, Organisation, Building, Thinking, Relaxation, Problem Solving, Re-charge, Re-design, Restart.
This is where your ideas are consolidated or revised, where you gather the intentions, materials and resources that will allow you to move on. This is also when you solidify your ideas to the point they are ready to produce. From here your scheme is likely to look redeemable, with problems that can be solved.
This is a cycle so at this point it all goes round again …
Why is the creative cycle important?
The reason I think this is important is so you can remind yourself at any point in the cycle that each phase will come round, there is nothing unexpected about these four stages, however much you might like to linger in the high, knowing it will recur can be helpful in not only surviving the other parts of the cycle but getting value from them rather than thinking of them as a waste of time.
The improvised nature of a lot of creative work means it can be exciting but it can also use a lot of energy trying things that don’t work out, those failures are going to generate frustration, understanding the creative cycle could help you see that there is a pattern to this work, that there is progression even if it’s not obvious at every stage.
I would be interested to hear if my theory rings true for other artists and creatives in all media, please let me know your thoughts in the comments section.
Art & Fear
Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking by David Bayles, Ted Orland
The 4 stages of creativity (skip to the video)
Getting lost in the woods, creative work is non-linear.
This idea is an integral part of Artists insight individual sessions and workshops. This article © copyright Simon Fell 2016-2021 all rights reserved thanks
I have developed a one-to-one session and a workshop for artists, it’s called Artists Insight. The first sessions took place in June 2016 in Brighton. I want to write about how this evolved. The workshop and sessions are about taking the time to reflect on your practice and discuss the issues that concern you – with a fellow artist or group of artists. This idea came to me as a synthesis of different threads of ideas that have run through my career as a visual artist and designer.
The first of those threads is my concern with the social and political relevance of practicing art. When I was at art school (1974-6 Fine Art at Leeds) it was very hard to see how what we were doing fitted into the time and place where we lived, it appeared to exist in a vacuum and be separate or even divorced from most peoples reality. This was the hey day of conceptualism and while I found myself caught up in those ideas I also felt myself not quite believing in it, not feeling it was something I could do wholeheartedly.
When I was at Leeds I used to struggle with a profound lack of confidence in the value of making art. In order to make anything at all I had to wait until I had a strong idea and make it quickly before I was overcome with doubt again. I identified myself as an artist from my earliest memories so my time there was pretty difficult and envisaging a career as a sculptor or artist was fraught with contradictions.
It was this complex of feelings and ideas that led me into becoming a community artist. After volunteering briefly at the Deptford Albany I got a job at Paddington Printshop in West London working with campaign groups designing silk screen posters and leaflets. This was my dream job at the time, combining as it did creative work with political and social awareness and working as part of a team.
The other thread came into my life around this time (mid 1980’s) when I joined my first men’s groups. The men’s groups were a response to the fact that so many women were joining feminist women’s groups and gaining support, knowledge and strength from the practice. The men’s groups also put me in contact with psycho-therapy as many of the participants were trying it out as a response to the underlying problems that were coming to light in the men’s groups which clearly did not have simple solutions.
I have supported myself with art/ illustration/ design related jobs for the whole of my career now and a few years ago decided to become more focused on the art aspect of this. It’s worth mentioning here that through my own psycho-therapy sessions my understanding of myself as an artist has changed over time. I am now much more at ease with myself as a creative person and value the opportunities I have to exercise that creativity through my craft skills and ability to think. Organising myself to make more of my living through this skill combination is another matter and an ongoing challenge as I am sure it is for most of us. One of the pieces of advice I got more than once was to curate or get involved in organising shows and artists in some way. This never seemed very practical for me so I have not taken that advice literally as yet.
I have done several years of personal psycho-therapy and psycho-analysis and this has had a profound influence on my thinking both about my life in general and my practice as an artist. Psycho-analysts of all kinds (there are many varieties) work by listening to their clients in a holistic way, that is they listen to what you are consciously talking about and for signs and messages from the unconscious mind too through sub-texts and dreams. This means that they see people as much deeper and complex entities than most of us present to each other in our daily interactions. The unconscious mind includes shadowy and primitive aspects of ourselves that we have learned to screen out most of the time but which influence us frequently but in ways that are hard to see.
It is this perspective which led me to think that I would really like to use my own rich and varied experience of maintaining a career in the visual arts in a constructive way that involves other artists. So I have devised a workshop programme that will give artists the space to review their own paths and compare and contrast their experience with others in the same area of work. The workshop will consist of exercises that open up discussion and ideas about the true diversity of artists practices – we will not be doing psycho-therapy although I do hope that the events will have a therapeutic effect on the participants.
Find out more details about – Artists Insight
So here I am sitting in a gallery full of art invigilating so the public can have access to it whenever they want to.
I am finding that the context of this big white space (No Format gallery in Woolwich, London SE18) is a great way to look at the work and allows discussions to start. The gallery environment is a reflective one, with plenty of space and a timeless quality that makes it a refuge from other concerns, it’s almost like a retreat, it has elements of a place of worship in a secular mode. The staging of the show is not precious though, it’s pleasantly informal and physically accessible.
I am finding that I tend to develop a fantasy of how the show will go, how a steady stream of enthusiastic visitors will flock to the show, how people will be curious and enquiring and tell all their friends. Needless to say these ideas keep bumping up against the reality of an exhibition in a quiet London suburb in part of a regenerating industrial area that is transitioning from old uses and industries to new populations and start-ups. It’s a dynamic area with all kinds of interesting businesses, organisations and individuals all ferreting away to establish their niche in the economy of the capital.
One issue the show has thrown up is that of selling things. It is obviously desirable that we would make some sales of the artworks in the show and it remains to be seen if this will occur at the time of writing. There are other possibilities though and this is part of my thinking about revenue streams for artists, that the more diverse and sustainable revenue streams we artists can establish the more chance we stand of making our work sustain us so we can spend more time involved in it. To this end I have organised postcard sales at the show. This is hardly revolutionary, nor will it pay the rent in itself but as an idea it points the way to allowing income to flow in our direction not only from those rich enough to have sufficient disposable income to buy original artworks but from a much wider market that wants a reminder of the show, some token they can take away, something more than a memory, something tangible to hold on to that reflective secular space that our work represents and inhabits. In this case I think these sales may be more important symbolically than they are financially but it is an issue I will be addressing early on in the next show I am involved in.
Some other thoughts about exhibitions:
1 Wear a badge at the PV
Put your name on it and your twitter handle, this makes it easier for people to start conversations with you and to connect in a real way with people who you have only encountered online up until now. These things are not cool I am sure but they could really help those of us less gifted in the social department.
The English weather is such a major factor in determining how many people are out and about and likely to turn up at an event or not. I think you have to learn to suspend your expectations until after the event. This is an emotional impossibility of course, expectations build up as matter of course and adjustment of some kind inevitably follows, it’s another of those recursive patterns that keep turning up everywhere I look now.
This will be the first time I have used this blog in the way it’s meant to be used, as a log of a project, or in this case an exhibition. I am showing in the ‘Recursive’ show, curated by Jane Boyer at the No Format gallery in South East London this October.
This blog is part of the way I became involved in the show. I targeted my promotional tweets to a few artists and curators I was following including Jane. She later got in touch with me with an outline of the show which was actually initiated by another of the participating artists Hitomi Kammai.
Working with a curator is a new experience for me, it’s a nice contrast with working on my own and it brings me into contact with new and different ideas and approaches. Sometimes it’s a negotiation or a trading of ideas and intentions other times I just have to remember to communicate what I am thinking.
Having a show to look forward to is changing my thinking and behaviour, to some extent it’s a focus, it’s a fixed point in time so I’ve got to get things prepared and I have to get myself ready. I guess it helps you take yourself more seriously as an artist when you get to show your work to an audience. My shows have now been so far between that this one’s giving me a greater sense of delivering the work to the point where it’s ready to be seen. It feels more like a launch than taking something to market which it also is. I am trying not to get carried away with the expectation of selling things, but my fingers are crossed just in case.
The show is called ‘Recursive’ which is a interesting twist on the concept of repetition and is defined thus: “Relating to or involving the repeated application of a rule or procedure to successive results in time” I see recursion as a cycle much like the creative cycle where you go through a series of stages which do not all feel like progress but which bring you back not to your starting place but to a place where you have assimilated some learning, thus you progress if you are lucky, but not in a straight line.
Recursion is also a term used in artificial intelligence where a robot goes through a cycle of experience and learns from it so that the next time it goes through the cycle it is better informed and can do it better.
So what does recursive mean in terms of my work? In ‘Autobiography”, which is a series of nine, wheeled ceramic vehicles there is some repetition in that each one has four wheels (producing the wheels was certainly a production line). Beyond that point the piece takes mass production as a theme with variations, each vehicle is as different in character as possible, the very opposite of actual car production where the variations are extremely constrained by commercial considerations. In the recursive model I would be learning from making each vehicle, incorporating what I learned into the next cycle of making – which is exactly what happens all the time with tacit or craft skills like clay modelling.
Repetitive obsession is really common among artists. I think if I had more time to spend in the studio I would make a lot more iterations of the same idea than I do currently, just to help work out the technical and aesthetic issues each idea brings up. I seem to have started working faster and more roughly to aid in this. It’s partly because I think I am becoming less precious about the work, I no longer think it’s very important that each piece proves that I can do my job, it’s more important that I get the idea across and often the fastest way of getting it down has most authenticity about it, the most freshness.
This is an eternal conundrum, so often the sketch is the best stage of a work.
Recursive at No Format Gallery,
London SE18 Oct 9th – Nov 2nd