Category Archives: Part 4: Negative and Positive Space

Artist profiles: Dryden Goodwin

In the Guardian Guide to Drawing Goodwin says he believes “drawing is about how the mind processes what the eye sees”. This intrigued me as I think with my recent abstract pastels I find drawing to be about how the mind processes what the heart and mind feels. These two quotes about his work also stuck out:

“Over the time spent looking there’s a sort of fantastical element that enters in – an almost hallucinogenic thing where your sense of what you’re looking at changes”. To me this relates to flow.

“That this speculation is always fluid, that no one act of representation, no one point of description, can ever be finally resolved in time” (David Chandler, Plymouth University). This relates I believe to a large degree to his above and below drawings and red studies. These capture several moments which means you also view the drawings in a time lapse too so what he is trying to achieve is in unison with his method. I would like to know if he draws from photos or life to achieve this.

Although I don’t ‘like’ the drawings, I like the concept of exploring what is hidden or revealed between the two moments the drawings capture and that what the drawing is what is between the drawings. I see that as with Paul Noble the choice of style and medium perfectly suits what he is trying to say with his work.

At a personal level I find Goodwin’s drawings jarring. There’s something – almost a sense of disintegration – about them that makes me feel uncomfortable. This is a shame because I’m sure this is not what he intends having read other articles where he talks about the intimacy of the approach and his sometimes close relationship with his subjects.

As a beginner wrestling with even getting the technical basics right on top of telling my inner critic to take the high road, it feels I am some way off from knowing what is right for what I want to produce. I am however very grateful to my tutor for bringing this need to consider technique and medium in relation to subject to my attention.

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Does it matter what it means?

I visited the Whitechapel at the beginning of my course and did an experiment. I went into an exhibit and didn’t read up on what the artist concerned was trying to ‘say’ with her work. I made my own interpretation which, perhaps inevitably, was wrong. A question that has stuck with me is whether that detracts in anyway from my own enjoyment (it didn’t in that case) of the work and what the artist is trying to achieve (I’d say it does). In the commercial sense, as long as it is a positive reaction then does it matter?

I repeated a variation on this experiment on Facebook last week. I asked any friends who were willing to comment on what they saw and thought my Trip Tych three pastel drawings.

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As an example, this drawing to me was about parenthood and the risk it can go so wrong when a parent with an undeveloped sense of self sees a child as an extension of themselves on which they project all their hopes and fears, through which they live vicariously – the extreme of which is actually a disorder called narcissistic personality disorder. The comments I received from friends included:

  • Two strangers meeting for the first time
  • Reminds me of a flower in the rain on a summers day
  • Seedlings just starting to grow
  • Helpless
  • A woman’s belly and legs
  • Initially sunsets then the more I looked I saw flowers and fire, they’re very relaxing

Although some of the comments are kind of related to what I was thinking about when I drew this, none are spot on. Does it matter? I had some lovely compliments. It’s a bit like my reflections about there not being any new ideas. Does it matter? If I put them on Etsy or some other platform and they started selling like prints, or even if I drew for pleasure and didn’t attempt any commercial success, if what I had in mind is completely different to what people see then as long as either (a) they’re buying and/or (b) I’m enjoying myself and they’re enjoying looking at them then who cares? Their reaction is in no way less valid because they (to borrow from social constructivist theory) bring their own lens to what they see which is unique to them.

Perhaps this is the difference between artists who want to exhibit and say something about the world and hobbyists or those who just want to sell a few bits on craft websites. I don’t know. Would I enjoy it more if people did see what I was trying to say? Again I don’t know. When I think about the surrealist artists I love, they deliberately engaged in producing art the elite would not understand, with all the Freudian symbolism and focus on the sub conscious. It builds on the old question “but is it art?” to say “well if it is, why can there not be multiple possibilities of what xyz piece is about that are all valid”.

There’s no such thing as a new idea

At the beginning of my Foundation course I powered through some of the recommended reading. I find my own ideas come in thick and fast when I’m mentally riffing off what other people are doing. But what do you do if your idea has been ‘done’?

At some point in a gift set I was bought a little bottle of eye and skin firming creme. It is called something like Philosophy and ‘Hope in a bottle’. This struck me as at once absurd and accurate. I am completely immune to being told what to wear by the fashion industry and find following the herd mindless materialism. I rail against it. This silly little bottle of nonsense got me thinking about the ridiculous ways women are expected to primp, pluck and change themselves, particularly the current trend for contouring and strobing to change our face shapes. I fear for the often narcissistic, selfie-obsessed and often vapid world my daughter will grow up in, that prides extroversion and style over substance and introspection.

This gave me the idea of a collage that features words and pictures, like the bottle of hope, that comments on this. Like a medicine cabinet. I began collecting newspaper and magazine snippings and enlisted my Facebook friends in commenting on some of the the things they’d seen that they thought were absurd (anal bleaching – seriously??!).

Then it happened. In one of my recommended reading texts I came across Hirst’s medicine cabinet work. The wind was knocked of my sails. Then another time I was thinking about the popularity of data visualisation and had some ideas about how to use graph type imagery in drawings. I had several train journeys of manically writing down ideas and sketching out concepts which to me were too precious to put into my course sketchbook for fear of someone stealing my idea (not my tutor I might add!!) Then I came across Theaster Gates, started looking into his more recent work and – boom – he’s done it already.

I didn’t know what to do. Should I ignore this because I will have my own slant on things and there is no such thing as a new idea, or do I keep pressing on for my own unique space. After five months of pondering on this I’m still not sure how I feel so I’m posting this to get it out of my system and in the hope my tutor will have some thoughts on this.

Sketchbook: More abstract pastels

After my creative spurt last week I had a few days of feeling terrified I wouldn’t be able to do that again. Then on Saturday morning in that space between being awake and asleep I started to see – or rather feel – two colours, a kind of orange and purple, and had a strong feeling regarding some shapes and how I could represent on paper the feeling of how safe my husband makes me feel.

I got up and drew the picture below. Again using the A3 Bockingford watercolour paper my dad gave me and the Unison pastels my husband treated me to. I started with the sweeping shape, which to my mind partly was representing a curved spine, then worked the colours around it to represent emotions; the darker colours to the top right my uncertainty and fear, the warmer colours in the foreground the warmth of love and feeling safe.

At this point I paused because it felt like something was missing. I had deliberately created a sense of drawing the eye to the point above the base of the curve as that to me was an important point of intersection, between love and fear. I decided to add the orange dot as the focal point for this juncture for reasons I can’t really explain.

This drawing is not a landscape in the physical sense, although it looks like one. It continues on from my other pastel drawings which are about emotional landscapes, our interior spaces and what inhabits them. I am in love with the result at a very personal level because this very strongly feels ‘me’ and I have conveyed not only what I saw in my head but the incredible depth of emotion I wanted to get ‘out’ and onto paper. I asked my husband what he thought it was about and he said a journey. I suppose it is as our relationship is a journey and his presence is creating new emotional vistas.

on your sures

I have not consciously tried to emulate any artist when drawing these last four pastels pictures. This has been about me trying to draw emotions and exploring the funny new technique I’ve developed for applying pastels. Perhaps I find it so enjoyable as I can be freer, I’m less (almost to the point of not being) critical of myself because there is no ‘right’ in non-figurative work that inhabits the world of the emotion. I really enjoy looking into all of the artists my tutor recommends to me, but more often than not if they are not surrealist artists I don’t feel excited – although I do of course appreciate and admire – their work.

My husband commented there was something a bit Turner-esque about my recent pastel drawings. When I went to look at some of Turner’s paintings again I can kind of see what he means as there are shapes that look a little like clouds. I smiled when I came across this painting which I hadn’t seen before by Turner, Vermillion Towers, as the colours are complementary.

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Artist profiles: Paul Noble

My tutor suggested I look at Paul Noble (among others), specifically looking at how he uses technique in relation to subject matter. In this short Guardian interview from the series ‘Guide to Drawing’ he talks about using technical drawing with no perspective and  rarely less than a sharp 4H pencil to “shine the sharpest light on the things I depict”. I can see what he means with the cartographic sense you get from his drawings. Weirdly for a style that is so ‘black and white’ there is nothing straightforward about the surreal worlds he creates.

There is so much detail in Nobson Newton and perhaps that’s the point – that we can’t see what is going on in the world with a glance, there’s a huge amount going on, nothing is what it seems and we need to look in detail and think about what it all means. Also ironic as my art tutor at work commented recently that the amount of time people spend looking at single pieces in galleries is ever reducing. Criminal really, when you think about the hours that go in the works. The precision Paul Noble uses is incredible. There’s also quite a vintage tone to his work which I like given he’s commenting often on the new.

On the Tate website he says ‘My drawings begin with their title….What was writing on a page becomes a building or place’. At the beginning of the course I was prone to writing down concepts in my sketchbook to explore and develop ideas before I was ready to think about representing them visually. It’s heartening to hear someone else work in a similar fashion.

By coincidence I got a book on Hieronymous Bosch from the library recently and I can see a connect between the styles. I was amazed to read Paul Noble has been working on this drawing project for 16 years. Could I ever love an idea so much to work on it for so long.

The monumental scale obviously works for what he is trying to say. He knows what he wants to say though. I am starting to be drawn to what I want to explore and say as I am very interested in people’s inner emotional lives and how they are hidden or not, on the psychological pressures of modern life, on the capitalist obsession with extroversion. What medium is the best for this? What technique is best for this? I don’t yet know.

Sketchbook: My first serious attempt at abstract art

After experimenting last night, I decided to fill an A3 watercolour page with a wash using a few shades of pastel pigment picked up and applied with cotton wool. I applied the yellow and then a few shades of complementary purples and blue (see second drawing below). I was so pleased with the effect I spent some time staring at it and suddenly felt drawn to return to an idea I had in my first module of drawing a line that represents my relationship with my daughter. Except this time I was reflecting more broadly the nature of ego, identity, the hopes and fears that having children represent and the risk of projecting ourselves onto them or damaging them in some way. My mind then wandered to that first module and experiments with mark marking.

For reasons I do not entirely understand, and without really thinking too much, some ideas formed in my head of feelings I wanted to represent. I  gently used conte carre to create two lines, and then a gentle line flowing away from then. I went over what I see to represent two figures with water to darken the line. Finally I developed the cotton wool technique further and added the hot orange in the bottom right. I found this to be a deeply meaningful experience and was thrilled with the results as a representation of the mind, of hopes, fears, love, damage and everything that goes with familial relationships and the raising of children.

I wanted to continue the story so then moved onto the next drawing (see first drawing below). For me this needed to represent a stage before what I had just drawn, so I chose to separate the two figures with the warm orange to represent a divide, a thought, a hope, and the second figure bending away from that expectation and pressure.

By now I felt very absorbed and wanted to do the final stage in this to represent joy but also fear as a fragile being moves into the world and begins to find their own way – a child perhaps. I was certainly thinking of my daughter when I worked on this. I decided to reverse the colours as this is her own story, and have organic forms moving into a brighter sunset yellow to represent a dawn for her but a sunset for the parent – loss but in a positive way. Finally after pausing I added the final line in conte carre to represent the figure.

If I were to be harsh I’d say this is unlikely to score my points in high art. Who am I but a beginner using hackneyed colours to represent certain emotions with a crude technique. But if I put ego and what the external world values commercially or technically to one side and speak for me personally, then this is probably one of the most moving experiences I have had. When I laid the three drawings alongside I could see the story I wanted to convey,  I actually loved the result, and I feel there is more in this series I wanted to do to continue exploring the ideas I am thinking about at the moment.

I didn’t tell my husband what these drawings are about but asked him what he thought. He is aware I am reading about and thinking about these issues at the moment so perhaps was biased but he said he could see it was about relationships and in particular parenthood. I am going to ask a few friends who don’t know what I’m thinking about at the moment what they think this is about to see how they respond out of curiosity.

This was a strange mix of emotions – I would be interested to know if my tutor thinks this is normal – I felt very at peace afterwards but also very energised. This work suddenly means a lot to me and contains themes which I think I could spend a life time exploring, and with a technique and medium I really love. I wonder if it scales, so my next thought is to look at how I might work in larger format. This is something my tutor has encouraged and I haven’t felt strongly enough about any idea or confident enough with any media to try it yet but I feel driven to do this now.

When I got up this morning I could see even more things in the drawings that I hadn’t seen before. The figures are almost like needles and thread, like the patchwork of our lives that we weave. I have decided to title the three ‘Triptych’ because it both describes the fact it is three but the subject matter too:

“Despite its connection to an art format, the term is sometimes used more generally to connote anything with three parts, particularly if they are integrated into a single unit”. (Dictionary definition)

Sketchbook: pastel experiments 

I am always quite nervous of trying new techniques, and prefer to read about how to do them first before dabbling. I treated myself to ‘The Encyclopedia of Pastel Techniques: A Unique A-Z Directory of Pastel Painting Techniques Plus Guidance on How Best to Use Them’ so thought I would spend last night trying a few things out using soft pastels on watercolour paper, which I’m enjoying since my experiments on Saturday with my Venice abstract.

Here is pastel pigment picked up with cotton wool – something I’d never have thought of. I was immediately drawn to this and loved the effect this created as a wash.

Not one of my finest efforts but this is a very quick copy of a sketch from the book where you use pencil over pastel. Again not something I’d have thought of myself – how can someone so interested in creativity but so unadventurous! This has opened up all sorts of possibilities such as using charcoal in combination with pastel and pencil too.

Next was introducing water to pastels. This I don’t understand, aside from the fact in my first attempt at a wash below I just made a muddy mess. I get that pastels are pure pigment, the same pigment paint is made from, but if you want a wash then do a wash with watercolour or acrylic. I need to understand what the benefits are. My ham fisted approach probably didn’t help – a sign I need to practice wet washes more I suspect.

Finally I picked up some pigment dust with a wet brush and swished off a little cat. This idea appeals to me as I can see how you can re-use pigment from your pastel box or desk at the end of a session to create fun little pieces.