One of my favourite words is splodge. I think splodging about is a highly under-rated activity. I’ve been doing lots of trying to focus on drawing in a ‘realistic’ manner lately – trying to master drawing well. (I sense this is going to be a lifelong pursuit! ) … But there comes a time when one has to splodge about, or at least I do!
I recently collected various cardboard boxes from the street and thought I’d paint them white to create some bigger surfaces to work on. While I was splodging on the paint, I was surprised at the interestingness of my train of thought. As my brain was distracted by the repetitive, unfussy task, I found my thoughts wandering in interesting ways. This I think is the value of splodging about.
I found myself intrigued by the many shades of white, the light, the grooves of the brushstrokes and admiring the organic non-uniform surface. I noticed how the corrugated cardboard puckered with the moisture of the paint, almost making the cardboard look like bubble wrap.
As I painted, I found myself wandering about what the boxes had contained on their journey to the shop where I found them. And how square and practical they were, designed to fit together and stack easily, to maximise transport efficiency. And it made me think of other containers I’ve noticed recently – all the Greek pots I was fascinated by in Paxos and the Roman amphorae I saw in the Almoina Archaelogical Centre in Valencia.
I’ve been back on the John Steinbeck after a recent trip to California. First up on my Steinbeck ‘to-read’ list was ‘The Winter of Our Discontent’ , a very readable tale of a man in a small town, with a wind of change in the air and some moral dilemmas to face.
I thought the passage below was fascinating. There’s a lot of talk today of people needing to meditate, practise mindfulness as if it were something modern. It seems to me Steinbeck’s protagonist Ethan Hawley is definitely describing something akin to meditation:
“It sounds uncomfortable and silly, sitting cross-legged in a niche like a blinking Buddha, but some way the stone fits me, or I fit. Maybe I’ve been going there so long that my behind has confirmed to the stones. As for its being silly, I don’t mind that. Sometimes it’s great fun to be silly, like children playing statues and dying of laughter. And sometimes being silly breaks the even pace and lets you get a new start. When I am troubled, I play a game of silly so that me dear will not catch trouble from me. She hasn’t found me out yet, of if she has, I’ll never know it. So many things I don’t know about my Mary, and among them, how much she knows about me. I don’t think she knows about the Place. How would she? I’ve never told anyone. It has no name in my mind except the Place – no ritual or formula or anything. It’s a spot in which to wonder about things. No man really knows about other human beings. The best he can do is to suppose that they are like himself. Now, sitting in the Place, out of the wind, seeing under the guardian lights the tide creep in, black from the dark sky, I wondered whether all men have a Place, or need a Place, or want one and have none. Sometimes I’ve seen a look in eyes, a frenzied animal look as of need for a quiet, secret place where soul-shivers can abate, where a man is one and can take stock of it. Of course I know the theories of back to the womb and the death-wish, and these may be true of some men, but I don’t think they are true of me, except as easy ways of saying something that isn’t easy. I call whatever happens in the Place ‘taking stock’. Some others might call it prayer, and maybe it would be the same thing. I don’t believe it’s thought. If I wanted to make a picture of it for myself, it would be a wet sheet turning and flapping in a lovely wind and drying and sweetening the white.”
And also interesting how he considers it not to be thinking.
Excerpt from The Winter of our Discontent, by John Steinbeck.
In my first couple of weeks in the studio, I’ve tried to go back to first principles and just focus on drawing. I have been reacquainting myself with properly looking at things – observing, seeing space and shape and form. To help with this, I’ve been following the exercises in Betty Edwards’ book, ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain’, a well known book in art education.
The leftside of our brain tends to be dominant, responsible for language, analysis, numbers and logic. However it is the rightside of the brain that dreams, understands metaphors and most importantly for drawing, perceives space and complex visual information. The book prescribes various exercises and tasks that the left side of the brain finds difficult, giving the right side of the brain a chance to kick into action.
Below are the results of some of my ‘blind contour drawing’. The idea is to trace the edges of a form in one continuous line, without looking at the page. The point isn’t that it looks ‘realistic’ but that the line is a record of one’s perception of the subject. The red, blue and black lines are three different attempts at a blind contour drawing of my hand
Moving on to more complex forms renders even less comprehendable lines, at least in my case (!) but interesting forms and marks, nonetheless. And a good exercise for me to test my mantra that at this point I care about just spending time drawing, and NOT the outcome
However I was amazed that then, when moving on to what Edwards calls ‘modified contour drawing’, allowing yourself occasional glances at the page, that a surprisingly pleasing, understandable form emerged.
I found it far easier to draw with a pen, rather than pencil. I found myself quite tense and pressing quite hard when drawing with a pencil, not very relaxing!
It’s normal to feel your whole arm move rather than just drawing from your wrist.
Setup your paper so there’s no temptation to peek! Edwards recommends drawing for c. 30mins without looking. In practice I found this hard, not because I was desperate to peek, but because I felt like I’d found my way round all the edges in around 15 mins. Perhaps not a ‘good’ thing to say, but an honest observation of my experience.
The blank page is well known for evoking feelings of fear as well as possibility. I’ve recently moved to a new city, with the aim of dedicating more of my time to making art, as a result I’ve experienced a lot of blank pages and spaces in the last two weeks! I thought I’d share a little of that experience.
‘Blanks’ I’ve recently encountered include this blog, various sketchbooks (for me there’s something significant about the first drawing in a new place) and a new studio space. I’ve mostly tried not to overthink things – to make a mark, any mark and go from there. I particularly like this quote from David Horvitz, an American artist, which reflects that same feeling.
I left my first blog post for posterity – I think it’s important to show the rough scribbles around the edges and that nothing starts as a fully formed thing. In my new studio space I was in such a rush to make the space mine, that I forgot to take a ‘before’ photo. Instead the first thing I did was blu-tack up a handful of pictures I’d brought with me – some my own work and some not. All just images I like a lot. And lastly I went along to a lifedrawing group on my third day in the city. Having two minutes to draw a naked man leaves no time for overthinking! Below you can see some of the images on my studio wall and a 15 minute sketch of said life model.
I think my rush to put up images is really a quest to surround myself with interesting source materials – jumping off points for my work. The things you can see in shot are:
Picture of Frida Kahlo, less for the artistic reference, but more as I had it up on my kitchen wall in London for a long time. Gives me a nice feeling of home.
Picture of man carrying a giant tube of paint. This image has tickled me for a long time. I only recently looked at it more closely and discovered it was Claes Oldenburg, some of whose work I recently saw in the Museum of Contemporary Art, MOCA in Los Angeles. Some amazing oversized papier maché pieces. Who doesn’t need a giant papier maché olive in their life?!
Some of my watercolours from a recent trip to Paxos. A reminder of my summer obsession with Greek pots.
Some photos from the North coast of Spain, the wild, rugged coast of Asturias. Taken with an old disposable camera
A vibrant colourful David Hockney landscape, ripped out of a magazine. Because you can never go wrong with a Hockney
A postcard of a screenprint I bought years ago at Somerset House, simply because I like the last few words: “One Step Was All I Had To Take ..” Thinking a bit more, I suppose I like them because of that sense of possibility, which relates nicely to this post about blank pages!
So with just a handful of bits of paper, I have lots of routes into new work. The blank page no longer looks so scary and instead more like a landscape of possibilities waiting to happen.
Like many people, I have a smartphone, which can be very useful. However there are also times when I think they are incredibly distracting and invade our attention and colonise our time. There are some quite scary studies which show simply the presence of your smartphone (even switched off), can reduce your cognitive ability!
With this in mind I set about making what I shall christen the ‘undistractor’! The undistractor is a lovely, tactile, organic shell, painted with something meaningful to you. Its function? Simply to obscure the distraction of your smartphone.
I’ve been amazed at how well the undistractor works! I painted my undistractors with some scenes from a recent trip to the lovely Greek island of Paxos. The undistractor not only hides the ugly, visually distracting smartphone, but replaces it, for me, with a strong personal image, that I associate with a place of calm. Double the power!
If you feel inspired to make your own undistractor, papier maché is incredibly easy to make – just mix 1 part flour with 1 part water, and dunk in some newspaper strips.