Drawing breath

I am thinking about drawing and trying to write about it. The task turned out to be far from simple. I have been surprised how little I know and can explain, how much more I know tacitly than I do intellectually about drawing.

I want try and describe the way I draw.

A few years ago I started drawing more for its own sake. I worked in charcoal with patterns as an extension of the surface patterns I have used on ceramics and because I didn’t want to get distracted by over-thinking or what-do-I-want-to-say diversions. There’s something about the straight forwardness of patterns that allowed me to work more freely than representations do.

This way of drawing, was a revelation. I felt like I had found something which responded to me in the way that clay responds to me as I model with it. It’s enjoyable, as I am not representing anything real I can’t fail to make a good representation.

I also find I keep making representational allusions, (is it possible to draw in a way that doesn’t?) shading often appears, line drawings often demand to be filled in with tone or modelling just to see where the drawing will go next. In this sense the work is improvised. I want to see what develops on the page, I respond to my previous marks with my following ones.

To me drawing is like visual talking, it has a flow and an urgency and is purposeful without the underlying plan being spelt out- if there is one. Although I often start with an outline idea the issues raised by the marks I make determine how to resolve the drawing.

My skills in making and drawing are what drove me to become an artist in the first place. At school I did a lot of still life and I even got to go to a life class in the evenings so I became quite practiced at observational drawing. With regular practice the work did improve, it was very difficult to say how or why. I find observational drawing intensely hard work. It’s also quite a magical and mysterious process and very hard to control as it’s so much about releasing rational control and allowing visual information from your eyes to flow through you by way of your hands.

The hardest thing about drawing from life is the repeated assaults made on me by a (my own) sense of disappointment. When you start a drawing and work hard on it then step back to assess it, more often than not it’s a long way from what’s in front of you, the legs are too short, the body is brokenly dis-functional, there is no sense of volume or weight.

I have started to develop my own way of drawing that avoids this distracting distress and allows me to experiment with tone, form, composition & colour. The work is not abstract, what it represents is essentially fiction. Fictional space, depicted forms, something that exists only in pictorial space. I am interested to know how this idea fits into the the genre of drawing as a whole – another item added to my learning agenda.

Partly in search of answers to this question I visited the Jerwood Drawing Prize show . This years show demonstrates that an enormous range of approaches to drawing are going on in the uk. This diversity is hopeful, in the introduction to the catalogue judge Michael Craig-Martin points out the importance they attached to the artists individuality “What I find I am looking for is evidence of a distinct ‘voice’…the individual character of the artist is inescapably present and evident in the work and that the work engages the world beyond art.”

I also came across this interestingly broad definition by sculptor Richard Wilson “Any drawing that is done to explain something is a good drawing if it explains it well.”

Understanding my own lack of words about what I am trying to do with drawing and trying to get an understanding of the medium as a whole is a revelation and a challenge, and this understanding in itself allows me to start thinking about what to do next, do I want to learn more? Could I really choose not to? I think I will certainly need more space to write more.


Beyond the male script

I have been on holiday, I took a break from work and this blog during which I heard a brief article on BBC Radio 4 one morning about men and mental health and that’s the issue that has been on my mind above all during this time.

The feature was about how the UK Department of Health is failing to recognise men as a category of people with special needs. Here’s a synopsis of the bit of the article that really stood out for me:.

The common rules of masculinity:
1. Men should be fighters and winners.
2. A man should provide and protect.
3. Men should retain mastery and control.

These are principles identified by Martin Seager (Consultant Clinical Psychologist at South West Yorkshire NHS Foundation Trust) as part of ongoing research into the main strands of a “Male Script”, the elements that most cultures in the world use to ‘measure’ men.

The clarity of these usually unwritten rules really stayed with me. It is so striking to hear something which has been silently shaping your life your whole life long, like a set of tramlines that you keep getting stuck between but don’t know why or who put them there.

There must be an equivalent set of rules for women that are equally common, compelling, oppressive and universal and that women spend their lives trying to live up to, or trying to escape. I have yet to come across anything quite so succinct for men or women.

The struggle for change

When I was 16 I wrote a project about the Cuban revolution for my history ‘O’ level. Revolutions and liberation struggles have been the historical backdrop of my lifetime, from the Civil Rights movement in the US to the international Anti-Apartheid movement. A revolution that has taken place during my lifetime and that I have witnessed at closest proximity and is of most relevance to me is the development of feminism. The liberation of women has been hard fought and strongly resisted in workplaces, in government, in schools and on local councils and in every family and this has all happened during my lifetime.

I was there, if not exactly on the frontline, somewhere close by. This grass roots movement has caused such major changes in the society I live in that it’s been impossible to ignore. Like all revolutions at some point you have to state where you stand – are you with us or against us? Particularly in the context of family and relationships men have been called on to decide if they will support or oppose womens growth and liberation.

Gay liberation has followed a similar path in many ways, and a men’s (liberation) movement has been quietly evolving since the 1970’s.

Men do not generally figure as a subject that needs particular consideration. As a group we are seen broadly to be able to look after and represent ourselves and indeed as the historically dominant sex we can also be seen as part of an oppressive problem rather than a sector of society with particular needs that need special consideration. But the script I quote above shows how men are under pressure from their own and society’s expectations to perform and win under most circumstances and this puts enormous strain on people trying to live up to outdated or even impossible aspirations especially during times of economic difficulty.

Art reflects issues

I generally do not include my political/social ideas in my work in an explicit or didactic way. But these ideas do inform and underlie my work even though they are not often spelt out. I think that may be changing, as I become clearer about what I am trying to do as part of the learning process that this blog documents. I have managed to include reference to it in my latest Twitter profile and as I make it more explicit and clear in my thinking and writing I can see it becoming a clearer strand in my artworks.

Link to a comprehensive summary of why men should be studied in an article by Martin Seager:

3rd UK Conference for Men and Boys Thursday, 26 September 2013 – Sunday, 29 September 2013
Brighton, UK

International Men’s Day on Tuesday 19th November 2013 – a platform to help improve the lives of men and boys in the UK.


Post-conceptual craft post

In my introduction to the Restart blog I asked “Is ceramics a viable art medium? I think it is – will I be able to sustain that view?” Here are my current thoughts.

It is my understanding that any artist sets out the parameters of their work with their work. Cues in the work let the viewer know how it is to be understood through it’s context and content. The viewer has to be knowledgeable about art to understand this and to make any judgement about how successful the work is in the task it has set itself. There is nothing here that says ceramics or any other craft should be excluded.

Now I’m wondering why is this question important to me?
Is it possibly because we’re in the process of making the post-conceptual* era? As artists do we still feel that the concept should be the primary determining factor for deciding what medium and what imagery to use? This seems to be the way most high-profile artists are working if you look around galleries that show contemporary work, this is the dominant approach. I have the impression this is also the dominant thread in art schools too. Ideas should lead the way, the execution will follow the logic of the idea, the medium will be chosen at a secondary stage.

I’m just not sure I am this kind of artist even if I would like to be. When I was at art school in the early 70s conceptual art was on the rise and seemed very exciting and fresh. That’s probably why I spent three years on my degree course trying to be a conceptual/ performance artist. This experience was fairly frustrating and unrewarding so I could not sustain it as an approach. Now I think that being a media based (clay-dedicated perhaps) artist is much more appropriate for me, my skills in making and drawing are the driving reasons for my choosing a career in art and design. My admiration for certain conceptual artists no longer extends to thinking I should mimic them although I do thinks it’s important to understand their thinking. Powerful ideas well expressed in any medium are simply impressive. My task is to find ways of expressing my own ideas in my chosen materials and tap into my own artistic power.

The limited palette

If you follow conceptual logic to the letter, commitment to a particular medium is a mistake, something restrictive. If you don’t keep all options open so that your concepts can be truly agile in their mode of expression you are creating a restricted palette. Of course artists and designers often make use of a limited palette in a pro-active way in order to clear confusion that can result from an over-worked composition. Too many possibilities can block inventiveness so a limited palette, a decision to restrict the options available can clear the way forward. Is this why a pencil drawing is so often the starting point for an idea? Perhaps in future if anyone asks why I have persisted with ceramics I could explain that it’s my limited palette strategy.

When I started writing this I thought it was problematic to be working in this medium. Now I am beginning to consider that it actually seems like an advantage. I am not sure that ceramics is a miracle medium, but this is a sector where artists like Richard Slee and Grayson Perry have demonstrated how a method formerly seen as residing low down on the cultural scale can be re-invented and understood as art. Work made in any craft media could now be interpreted as art, craft or design depending on the makers intentions and success in conveying this.

There is still the major hurdle of how you market your work and established market patterns do not favour artists working in materials that have traditionally been the reserve of the craft sector but this could be changing. Breaking into the market is also a major challenge for any artist working in any medium.

*from Graham Crowley Precious things


Changing your mind

I changed my mind about my cast figures, I thought I would make an edition, all exactly the same, I had the figures cast in aluminium intending to attach them to a series of press-moulded ceramic bases and then I changed my mind. Now I am considering turning the figures into a series of ‘adventures’. The same cast figure in a series of vignettes, like a 3d strip cartoon. One of the pitfalls of embarking on a large project is that your ideas and understanding change during the making process. In effect you are learning as you work. Thus the original idea is altered, hopefully improved and refined by experience, inevitably your mind is changed.

Changing your mind is a peculiar phrase. It sounds like you took a mind altering drug and chemically diverted your brain when all you did was changed tack. Should I do this, or should I do that – it’s making my mind up time. Does it mean I am indecisive? Perhaps it means I am flexible -I adapt as I get new information like a flock of starlings changing direction, catching the evening light and changing colour as they gather for the daily roost under the pier at Brighton.

The creative cycle

When I was at art college I used to find it distressing that I couldn’t just produce ideas on demand as it appeared to me that all other students could – now I am sure this was an illusion.
Indecision or confusion now seems a familiar and integral part of the creative cycle. Now I think of it as a phase where it is necessary to be diffused or observant rather than expect yourself to be constantly generating ideas. That stage comes later, in it’s own good time usually. This makes it hard when you are working to project or application deadlines, but in general the concept of the creative cycle is re-assuring.

Changing your mind is integral to the creative process, perhaps it is the main ingredient. The over-arching theme of these blogs is learning. What is learning if not an attempt to change your mind by feeding it with nourishing new information? In fact now I reflect on it this whole blog is about changing my mind through learning. The process I embarked on when I went to my first Openair gathering was all about recognising that I needed to grow, to listen to other artists and curators and learn about their diverse practices in order to broaden my mind.

No joke

When I draughted my introduction to the restart blog I originally put it in a jocular tone as if I was somehow bound to entertain my readers. I asked my wife to review it and she soon put me straight. To summarise our conversation: There is no need to entertain in this context, either readers are interested or they are not, a few jokes are unlikely to hold them. In fact the light hearted tone came over as me not taking myself seriously.

I think I went down that route through a mistaken sense that it’s not enough to be straight-forward, somehow it’s necessary to spice things up for public consumption. But this a blog, a log of my experience and ideas as an artist, entertainment is not really required, the bottom line I suppose is that I manage to engage readers in some measure of shared experience.


Learning from RSI

I am dictating this as I recently developed serious hand and arm problems through RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury) which has resulted from 15 years of intense computer work. Like most artists I have to support my practice with other work. I do web design which requires lots of keyboard and mouse manipulation. Poor posture and over enthusiasm have ended up giving me aches and pains to deal with.

I have had to find alternative ways to write other than typing which is difficult for me at the moment. I have found an app that let’s me talk to it and it turns my spoken words into text. It does this brilliantly but with mixed accuracy, it’s inventive and like predictive texting it sometimes comes up with accidental genius.

An experience shared

When I mentioned RSI at a recent artists meeting I was interested to see how many shared this experience, out of a dozen people present three or four had endured it, some with more serious versions of it than mine. I looked RSI up online, it turns out that it represents a very wide spectrum of ailments so people get it in a different forms with different symptoms and different cures or treatments (where there are any). RSI has long been part of the working landscape and if you suffer from it you have to find ways to deal with it, although if you are lucky you may be able to get help with some of the things that are known to cause it.


The rather shocking thing about this is how stereotypically male I have been in response to it. It took me a long time before I got any help even though I had aches and pains which were gradually getting worse. Eventually it was my wife who prompted me to get treatment. This doesn’t reflect well on me, and it makes me wonder how bad things have to get before I act of my own accord and take action to maintain my own health. I am sure I could think of plenty of excuses for this (-too busy, -can’t afford osteopaths, -it might not be that serious in the end etc) but that’s a waste of energy so it’s time to review my attitude and look at an alternative and more effective strategy for getting healthy when things start to go wrong. Wait and see just won’t cut it.

Change is in the air

I think I have managed to start changing my working posture when I am at the keyboard with a lot of help from my osteopath. I have started to dictate my writing and I am told I could take this a lot further if I need to. But I suppose that’s the nub of the problem I don’t really want to make these changes, they have been imposed on me by adverse health and that’s why it’s taken me so long to react appropriately. At this point -although I am working on getting better I really don’t know how it will turn out. Illness is very threatening to the established pattern of my life and it could change it drastically in quite an unwelcome way.

It’s in the balance

So there is a lot at stake, I am highly motivated to recover and to practice better posture in future. If I am lucky this means that I need to learn to strike a better balance between the drive to get work done when I’m at the computer and being aware of my body posture. I will have to find a way to work that is more relaxed and that I can maintain. If I am not so lucky I will have to really think my life plan again. Until I wrote that I didn’t recognise that I have one but I of course I do and now I think about it, it’s quite complex and it’s based on a lot of delicately balanced pieces being in place such as a basically sound body. I really don’t want to be blown off course if I can help it.