I lose faith in my drawings and they die. Would it be more accurate to say that I kill them or is it that they never quite manage to come alive? It’s probably a hopeless task to try and make drawings that ‘live’ but that is always what I hope for.
And so, I suppose, most of my drawings are failures. Each one is a different kind of failure. It is never the same but it is always heart breaking to spend so much time and effort and to have so little to show for it. Some people might say they all of these failed drawings were ‘finished’ several times over. Not for me they weren’t.
Here is a silverpoint drawing I’ve been working on for about eleven days over the course of about three weeks. I often work on drawings for much longer than that. This was/is number eleven of my series of ‘Displaced Portraits’. These are drawings based on people in photographs which I’ve found at different times in the same Margate secondhand shop. The photographs were taken in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. Number three of this series was selected for the Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize. See my previous posts for more about this series of drawings.
I’ve been working on a series of small silverpoint drawings called ‘Displaced Portraits’. The drawings are of people who were photographed in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s. All of the photographs share the fact that they were all found at different times in the same Margate second hand shop.
The drawings are worked on over the course of months. They are never straight forward copies of photographs. Each piece is repeatedly scratched-away and then redrawn. This process of loss and re-finding takes place over and over again. In each reworking something new comes into play. The process brings about moments of unpredictability.
I don’t quite know what it is that I’m trying to create or trying to see in these drawings. I know that I’m trying the understand these people’s faces but it’s not only that. I’m hoping to be surprised by what comes to the surface as I work on them. I can’t explain it but it is something which can only come through the act of repeated re-drawing and endless re-looking and re-imaging. The original photographs are the traces of tiny moments in time; my drawings are a kind of repeated meditation on those traces.
‘Displaced Portrait No:4 (man from Kiel)’ is based on a small photograph which has Kiel stamped on the reverse side. I know nothing more about this man. The focus of the drawing is the face. It’s a drawing which could have been finished several times over. I did believe it was finished months ago and I had put it away in a drawer in my studio and there it sat until I decided to work on it again. Now it is finished. Perhaps I should say that it is finished for now.
Last August I did a couple of drawings in the visitors’ comments book at Roslin Castle. I never know what to write in comments books. Sometimes we leave comments to say how much we appreciated something and sometimes it’s simply a way of saying: “I was here” or even “Here I am”.
My lovely friends Pete and Marla invited to stay with them on their holiday in Edinburgh last August. They had booked to stay in Roslin Castle (Yeah!). There are comments books there dating back to when the castle was first rented out as a Landmark Trust building. I found myself seeing dates and reflecting on where I was when others where leaving their mark in those books.
My inclination is the draw rather than write. I made a drawing of a wooden portrait bust in the sitting room. The bust is of a member of the family which owns the castle. It dates from the 1920s or early 1930s.
My drawing is a pencil drawing done on, not very good, paper (I know, a bad workman blames his tools). The paper is drawn into as much as it is drawn onto. You might be able to make out inscribed lines and small tears in the paper. There are passages (is that a good word?) where the paper is shiny with the graphite from repeated over-drawing and there are places where the drawing is hardly there at all. It is what it is and it is a record of me trying to see a face.
It is what it is and it’s waiting in that book for someone else to see it.
Here are a few pictures of the private view at the Royal Drawing School of the Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize exhibition. The exhibition has been at its present venue since the start of February but the private view was just last week. I’m glad I went to the private view and it was great to meet artists whose work I admire and who I’d only ever ‘met’ through the medium of say twitter or Instagram until now.
My piece in this show is a small silverpoint drawing which is one of an ongoing series of drawings called: ‘Displaced Portraits’. The drawings are of people seen in photographs taken in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s and found in a Margate second hand shop at different times. ‘Displaced Portrait no:3 (woman in carefully repaired image)’ is drawn from a photograph which had been torn in two and then so carefully repaired that you can’t see the damage at first glance.
The drawing is based on the photograph but it isn’t a straight forward copy. The piece has been repeatedly drawn, scratched-away and redrawn. These drawings are worked on over long periods of time and the process, of loss and re-finding, is unpredictable. The recurring focus is always the person I am trying to draw out of their snapshot image. There is no way of ever really knowing if I’m getting close but I hope the people I am trying to draw would see themselves in my drawings.
Drawing is always a medium trace. At it’s most fundamental level, a drawing is a surface with a mark on it indicating the passing presence of an though; it always says ‘someone was here’. The drawings are of people displaced from their place and moment. An image of their moment has found its way into my hands here in Margate in the early 21st century. Everything which lasts eventually becomes displaced.
Metalpoint drawings emphasise the quality of trace in the most beautiful way. A silverpoint line is the mark left when the metal is dragged across a prepared surface (imagine a key being dragged across an emulsion-painted wall and you get the rough idea). The mark is extremely subtle but it is also indelible. Silverpoint lines are extremely gentle mark; the line is not made any more emphatic by pressing harder and you are forced to work with the medium with its unique limitations and qualities. Drawing with metalpoint is an appropriate medium for my interest in making Art about memory and presence.
The exhibition continues at the Royal Drawing School until 21st February and then moves on to Drawing Projects in Trowbridge, near Salisbury.
See my post from 23rd August 2018 for a full view of my drawing.
One of my drawings is featured in a new book about metalpoint drawing titled: “SILVERPOINT AND METALPOINT DRAWING: A Complete Guide to the Medium” by Susan Schwalb and Tom Mazzullo (published by Routledge, IBSN 978-0-8153-6590). It’s just the one drawing, and there is just a brief mention of it, but it makes me happy to have it included in this excellent book. This book is the first complete guide to the medium and includes a history of the medium, chapters on materials and techniques and a section discussing examples of contemporary artists’ use of the metalpoint.
My drawing is one of a sequence of three based on a strip of found photo booth images of my mum. Photo booth portrait drawing 2, 2014-2016, silverpoint on gesso on board (21cm x 14.5cm) is one of an ongoing series of drawings which focus on otherwise unnoticed moments of life. These happen to be of my mum but others use photographs found in junk shops in Margate.
The pieces are repeatedly drawn, scratched-away and redrawn as a way to bring something unexpected into play in the drawings. They aren’t straight forward copies of pre-existing images. Through the repeated process of loss and the re-finding of the image I hope to draw out something which feels more real to me than a simple copy of an image. Drawings take time and the traces of that presence of the passing of time is as much the subject of drawing as the image I feel.
Silverpoint drawings are very obviously the physical traces of moments of touch. All hand-made drawings express qualities of trace, presence and time, but I think metalpoint marks bring these aspects of drawing even more to the fore than other drawing media. The touch of the metal on the prepared surface leaves an extremely subtle but indelible mark. It’s gentleness is one of the reasons I’ve become so interested in silverpoint drawing. The medium sits well with my interest in making art about memory and human presence and of our curious awareness of distances of time.
Beneath the portrait is a block of hand-written text. This text is made up of lines of remembered speech and family stories. As with the portrait drawing above it, it is repeatedly re-written (re-drawn) and each reiteration is slightly altered from the previous version. Certain fragments of sentences and words become more visible through the repeated retelling but always the stories are fragmentary: like memories.
If you’re interested in seeing my drawings for real you can one of my ‘Displaced Portraits’ in the Trinity Buoy Wharf Drawing Prize exhibtion which is presently on show at the Royal Drawing School in London. Also, I have drawing on display at the Sidney Cooper Gallery, Canterbury, which is being used within Sound Artist Emily Peasgood’s art installation, ‘Sidney Cooper’s Living Room’, part of her solo show called ‘Living Sound’.
When I first moved back to Margate I was in a habit of going up to London as often as possible to look around galleries, hunt down books and exhibition catalogues on Drawing, and to draw in museums. I had gained a place at the Wimbledon School of Art’s Drawing MA course but I couldn’t afford to attend and so I decided to spend as much time as I could afford focussed on Drawing (as if I were doing my Drawing MA anyway). Whenever I felt unsure about my Artwork I would make myself draw in museums. I would get the earliest cheap train and walk or cycle to various galleries and at the end the day I would draw in a museum until it closed and get a late train back to Margate. Drawing for the sake of drawing does me good.
Museums are places made for gawping at things; drawing, we might say, is a process of purposeful gawping. To draw something is to pay careful and affectionate attention to the presence of something outside of ourselves. We change our minds as we draw. We become open to the possibility that there are multiple ways of seeing. Drawings do not have to come to conclusions; they are finished when they say: see these traces, they came into being in the presence of something which wasn’t me but which I paid attention to through an act of drawing.
I recently went to the V&A on a Friday night after being at the London Art Fair. I nearly didn’t go because I was tired and had a lot of worries fogging my mind and making me miserable. But I’m glad I went and I’m glad I drew. I drew until museum was about to close. I drew a plaster cast of a portrait bust by the 15th century Italian sculptor Benedette da Maiano. This is the photograph I took of it on the late train back to Margate.
Drawing in museums can feel like a performance; you become aware of passers-by looking over your shoulder at your drawing. I don’t mind. If the drawing is at a good stage then sometimes people will make nice comments. No one commented this time around but I was aware of at least three photographers lurking about and taking perhaps a few too many pictures of me drawing. Who knows, maybe someone was taking pictures of them taking pictures of me drawing that copy of a Renaissance portrait sculpture, thought to be based on a life-mask, of someone who hasn’t been seen alive for nearly five hundred years.
So anyway, this drawing was done for the sake of drawing. It’s in a 21cm x 13cm Moleskine sketchbook and it will stay there along with other drawings of people, a couple of drawings of other portrait busts and some pages of hand-written notes. I wonder what will become of my sketchbooks and who will look at the drawings in them.