Friday, 29 August 2014

My Early Experiances of Learning to draw

My Early Experiences of Learning to Draw

Whilst researching the material I needed for my last post, which was about my meeting with Kate Bush, I had to dig up archives and pull out old folios. I have been meaning to look at these old drawings for a long time because they tell an interesting story that others may enjoy. Having got the old images out I made a selection to scan and file in date order. 

At school I did A level art.  On leaving university in 1973 I decided I wanted to be an artist.  Luckily  in those days students left university with no debts, but I was penniless and had to spend a year saving money before enrolling for open drawing and sculpture classes at Sir John Cass Polytechnic of Art and Design in Aldgate, London.  I was 22 years old.

I still have the drawings from my first classes, I think this is from my first day

1 October 1975

I remember pulling out the drawings at the end of the day and looking at them: I was sort of astounded by what I had done.  I was astounded because it seemed to me that I was looking at something that existed in my mind, a hidden self that I had had no knowledge of.   I also understood that all the art I had done at school was not art at all, on that day I realised I had completely misunderstood the meaning of the word art.  It was a feeling of euphoria that has never left me.

Art is innate in every one of us, but the skills needed for some forms of high artistic expression are not natural to our minds, many of the necessary skills can only be learnt by rewiring our brains.  For example an artistic skill that is not natural to us is piano playing.  No-one is born a pianist, but some of us wire our brains to translate their emotional experiences through their fingers and the piano. We can take up piano playing at any time in our lives, but if we want to be a concert pianist we need to start the rewiring of our brains when we are children, no concert pianist starts training aged 22. 

I started to learn to draw very late in life. As the first term progressed I learnt how poor my spacial drawing skills were.   If I wanted to study sculpture I needed to put space into my drawing.   My inability did not depress me, but I did realise that spacial skills are very difficult to develop and I had to abandon any notions that I was talented.  The drawing skills I needed for sculpture were going to be very hard for me to develop.

Drawing in art schools often involves students standing around a model who is trying not to move, an impossible task for the model.  Being in an art school environment I went along with this approach to drawing.  The drawings I did on my first day had been spontaneous and satisfying, but if I wanted to make sculpture my drawings had be about analysing figures in space. If you compare my first drawing with this one made 18 months later you will see how space had begun to enter my drawing.  But drawing like this is a more long winded mechanical process.

I made friends with a Japanese student who had a much better feel for space and sculpture than I did.  He talked about something he called structure, I did not understand what he meant.  I was forever asking if my drawings had structure, and he always smiled and said my drawings were structureless.  A sort of arms race began between myself and Yoshi whose drawing technique was always light years ahead of mine. 

I had heard that Jacob Epstein had said sculptors should take time everyday to draw from moving figures.  I was dissatisfied with my work from static models which to my mind are not art.   With this in mind I went to the Dance Centre to ask if I could draw the students.  They kindly let me in and this is what my first dance drawings looked like during the summer of  1976

Whilst I was sitting on the floor of the ballet studios for hours on end making pages and pages of drawings like the one above I was always self-consciously aware that I was dressed like a tramp and my drawings looked like a mass of nonsense.  To be amongst the most sleek and beautiful girls I had ever seen in my life was like being in paradise, but I imagined the angels around me were thinking I was a bit unhinged, this made me painfully shy.  I knew I was being tolerated and rarely did one of the beauties approach or talk to me.

I was working to a plan, one that was very difficult for outsiders to see.  I was trying to prime my mind to build up models of the human body.  Each line was countered by a balancing line, rhythms stimulated rhythmic responses.  My drawing became a waiting game, I was waiting for my mind to wire itself up.  After a while this began to happen, and as you can see in this image done a few months later the figures is now there.

If I added wash the image becomes easier to identify

A teacher suggested smudging pastel to gain the shape before I added lines.  This was a good idea.

the bodies did begin to develop into more complex descriptions of the dancers forms.  This drawing is from the end of 1976
I began to fuse the techniques I had been developing at dance classes with techniques for drawing static figures.  This is a  5 minute studio pose dated Feb 1977


Longer poses involved much more measuring and analysis, like this one dated 1977

Yoshi was still criticising me for my structural weakness.  He was right,  the drawing above may look as if it could be a sculpture, but when I tried to make a sculpture the results were always very weak.  My problem was that my interest was always sucked into the detail, for instance the above image is obsessed with the detail of the undulating surfaces of the skin, the inner structure is being sacrificed.

This is another short pose, this time without pastel

June 1978
The pastel technique were coming into the long drawings too.    This drawing was made in about 1980
By 1982 my work was looking accomplished, but I knew my apparent understanding of space and structure were fraudulent.  Each of the drawings below takes about an hour to do because they are dependent on mechanical measuring processes, careful outlines and the pastel to hold the drawings together.  In these drawings I am using the pastel to cheat my way through, and they are not coming freely from my inner mind.  The model is also having to sit in static poses for long periods.  The whole process is useful for learning, but to my mind anti art.

Another interesting technique  I developed was to cover the paper with graphite and then pick out the highlights with a rubber and darker areas and boundaries with a pencil.

 At this time my dance drawings looked like this

Early 1980s

These dance drawings occupy space and in this respect they achieve one of my targets, but the image is heavy and the expression I was searching to express in the drawing is absent.  They do not reflect my inner experience of what it feels like to be a young man surrounded by beautiful women who have trained their bodies to be as fit and elegant as racehorses.
By now the small savings I had started out with were finished.  Yoshi had returned to Japan and the Dance Centre had closed.  My enrapturing art studies had been dependent on working on my father's farm during holiday periods and the small savings I had supplemented my earnings with were now gone.  A dance teacher kindly gave me £200 for some drawings, and this kept me going for another month, but otherwise I was destitute.  (I sometimes think that £200 was the most important £200 of my life)  

I am not sure what would have happened if I had not been invited to help another artist sell his etchings at a new weekend craft market that had started in Covent Garden.  I took some of my etchings and miraculously sold some.  The following weekend I hired my own stall, the hiring fee was £4 and I made £7 which I used to buy art materials.  A new chapter started in my artistic life and "career".

If someone had asked me in 1982 "Julian, can you draw" my answer would have been "No".  I knew my approach had missed something important, I continued my studies for the next 30 years and if at any time you had asked me if I could draw my answer would always have been "No".  It took me another two decades to fathom out what was wrong, three decades later I am almost at a stage of saying "yes", but that is another story for another day.



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