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.



Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Kate Bush at the Dance Centre 1976 -7

Kate Bush at the Dance Centre 1976 -7 

Watching Newsnight this evening brought back memories of  1976-7.  This is how I remember those years!
In 1973 I finished my degree in Marine Biology which the tutors had charitably allowed me to pass.  The day I got the news that my academic career was over I made a bonfire of all my books (which were all unread) and a few weeks later I went to London to work as a security guard for about 70 - 90p an hour.  I worked 13 hours shifts, sometime 7 nights week.  After about a year I had saved, about £800 and, together with a £700 inheritance from my grandmother, I was rich enough to give up my job and start studying drawing full time. 

This is the drawing I made at my first life drawing class in 1975

An artist had told me that artists should draw moving figures everyday.  With this advice in mind I went to The Dance Centre in Covent Garden and asked the teachers to be allowed to draw their students.  They kindly allowed me in and after that I would go every day and draw from 10am in the morning until about 4.30, then I would rush off to open classes for drawing and sculpture at Sir John Cass in East Aldgate. 

One of the afternoon classes I used to attend every day was a freestyle contemporary dance class given by Robyn Kovak. One student who came every day had a very sensuous movement and all my attention became focused on trying to capture her movements.  Robyn noticed my attention and used to tell Kate Bush to dance in front on me.  

Tonight I went to find these drawings.  I have huge piles of drawings, so it was quite difficult to find material from so long ago, but I did find this one which is dated 14 Oct 76.  I am pretty certain it is Kate

After class I used to rush off to do more sculpture classes, and it seems Kate used to go to rehearse her music.  

Robyn must have quite liked me, I am not sure why, I was trying to live on a budget of 50p a day, I was very dirty and looked destitute, and my drawing was not accomplished.  One day she invite me and Kate to her flat to a small party.  After that Kate and I began to exchange a few words and I gave her some drawings.  

I think the last time I saw her was in December 1977.  We had coffee together and she told me her friends had gone wild over the drawings I had given her, so I gave her some more.  She told me about how she had been given money by EMI to study dancing and that she was about to release a record.  She promised to give me a copy after it came out

That Christmas I went to my parents farm to help them prune their blackcurrant bushes.  By the time I returned to London in January 1978  Kate had hit the number one spot in the charts. Of course we never met again. I was totally uninterested in pop music and unaware of her success, I think the first time I was aware of it was when my father told me about an exotic girl he had seen on the television.

This is a picture of me in 1978

I never did get my copy of her record.


Sunday, 24 August 2014

In Praise of Port Talbot


For many British people the August Bank Holiday weekend  comes as a last chance to get a few days in the sunshine before the Autumn weather sets in. The tourists who come across the Severn Bridge and stream along the M4 towards Pembrokeshire will know Port Talbot because it is the only place where they have to cut their speed to 50 MPH and the steel works are unmissable.  This is what they see from their car windows.

The steam and the industrial sprawl is mesmerising, especially when the fires from furnaces can be seen or when the factories belch sulphurous black clouds into the sky.  Port Talbot has a positive side, this will involve you turning off the motorway as you reach the steel works and heading up into the rolling wooded hills that surround this industrial wasteland.  Just two miles from the town are the secluded historic buildings, gardens and estate that was the home of the Talbots who built the Port in the 1830s and brought the railways and industry to the area in the 1850s.
As you arrive at the gates of Margam Park look to your right into the field where there is a herd of horned red-brown cattle with white stripes on their backs.  These impressive beasts are Glamorgan Cattle.

Glamorgan Cow with her Calf

Glamorgan cattle are believed to be directly descended from very ancient stock. In the late 1700s King George III, fondly known as "farmer George", is said to have kept similar cattle Windsor, but by the 1920s the breed was thought to have been extinguished and was only remembered from pictures, such as from this oil painting by William Shiels (1783–1857). 

Five Glamorgan Cattle by William Shiels

In 1979 a long forgotten herd was re-discovered in Sussex, and the entire stock was purchased and brought back to Margam park where they now reside.

When you enter the car park you will see two enormous pillars, these  hint at the grandeur that nestles behind the trees.  When I was there a family were using the pillars as goal posts.

Parking costs £4.50 but entrance is free.  This is what your first glimpse of Margam Park looks like

Your first View of Margam Park - the ruins are the remains of a Cistercian Abbey demolished in the 1530s

The Gothic arches in the foreground are remains from the Norman Cistercian Abbey that was built in the mid 12th Century and stood until its dissolution at the hands of Henry VIII in 1537. The remains of the Abbey are extensive, the ruined Chapter House (not shown) being of exceptional architectural quality.  The building further back is the longest and perhaps most beautiful Orangery in Britain  

On Bank Holiday Saturday, whilst I was drawing this scene, wedding guests began arriving.  They congregated in the sun at the doors of the Orangery

Guests in front of the Orangery- the little girl in white with flowers 
in her hair is Libby, daughter one of the bridesmaid's
The bride arrived in a gleaming white open topped classic car,

she looked as lovely as her name suggested. 

 Rose and her husband Ben posed in front of the Adam's style architecture of the Orangery.

Rose and Ben
Photos were taken with all the family.  This is the Brides mother, Mrs Higgins, who had an elaborate hat and rightly looked very proud.
Mrs Higgins, Rose's mother
Of course quite a crowd of onlookers gathered to watch the spectacle
Watching girl with a bicycle

These moments, which are often unaffected and tender, are always so enjoyable to draw.  

A tender moment between a mother and daughter
After the photographs had been taken the Bride and Groom lingered a while so as the last to enter the Orangery.  This my last view of Rose before she disappeared.

Rose about to enter the orangery after the photo session was over

The venue chosen for the reception could not be bettered: The Orangery at Margam (1783). It is much too difficult for me to draw, which is why I have to show you with a photograph

Margam Orangery 1783
The Adams style decorated front façade looks exotic with palm trees, 17th century fountains and  garden ornaments
Stone Urn in Front of Margam Orangery
The building at Margam are all made of warm coloured limestone.  Sadly nothing remains of the much earlier Margam House that was was built by the Mansel-Talbots after the dissolution of the monasteries.  I found this picture of what Margam House looked like before the Orangery was built.

Margam House which was demolished in 1993

The Talbots went on collecting rare plants and trees in the centuries after the Orangery was built.  They have left an arboretum around the orangery that includes mature cork oaks and about eight large tulip trees (Kew has only one) and many lovely trees that have branches that spread at ground level, that children can play amongst them.
Children playing amongst the sprawling branches of a Plain Tree
The Scots Pines are particularly elegant.

Scots Pine at

Just a little way down the path is an enclosed area for parents to bring their toddlers, it is called Fairy land and has piped nursery music miniature houses, a giant boot and play areas.

A toddler in fairyland at Margam Park
portrait of a toddler with pig tails

 a little boy with a ball

Walking back, this time behind the Orangery, we come across another jewel of  17-18th century architecture, this time it is a façade with statues depicting the four seasons which has been ascribed to Inigo Jones 

One of the four Seasons attributed to Inigo Jones
As we the leave the Orangery the land becomes steep and a wide path lined with rhododendrons, azaleas, acers and benches where young mothers can sit a while before taking their children up the hill. 

Looking up we see steps and one end of Margam Castle.   

Margam Castle
They say the style is Tudor Gothic.  The "Castle" is huge.  

In a courtyard behind the Castle is a gift shop and inexpensive cafe that serves ice cream, tea and chips.  It is favourite place  for me to stop and draw. 

Family Group at Margam Castle
 I was particularly pleased with this drawing of a little girl
Little Girl at Margam Castle

One child arrives with a balloon

 Girl with a Balloon

Leaving the Castle you have a choice, you can take long hikes into the wooded hills that surround the Park or walk across a huge flat expanse of grass (800 acres) with paths, lakes, trees, an adventure playgrounds, a children's zoo and herd of wild deer.  These is narrow gage railway that takes you round the park.  Today we are going to explore the parkland on foot. Walking towards the lake and looking back we can see the full extent of Margam Castle.

 Looking back at the full extent of Margam Castle.

Between 1890 - 1920 the "castle" was lived in by Miss Emily Charlotte Talbot who modernised and extended the house for her large house parties. She is largely responsible for the gardens as we know them today.  After her death the house stayed in the family for another twenty years, before being sold in 1942 to a local brewery.   Many of the treasures from the house are now displayed in our National galleries and museums.

In 1973 the estate was bought by Glamorgan County Council.  Disaster struck in 1977 when a fire gutted the interior of the Castle. Since the fire the roofs have been replaced and the rooms are slowly being renovated.  The interior includes a magnificent stone staircase which is used by film companies.  There is even a tardis for Dr Who which has been filmed here

Walking away from the castle we pass a lake where local people fish and play with model boats, and an adventure playground.   Looking towards the sea we can sea the fuming steel works below.  It actually looks beautiful

The Steel Works

Along the way are more beautiful tress to enjoy

 Beautiful trees to enjoy

and benches where people picnic and rest with their dogs

Resting with the dogs

 children scamper this way and that

Children scamper

whilst their mothers chat

A Mother

 with their children

The Conversation

At the end of the path is a farm zoo.  This farm zoo is one of the most spacious and interesting I have ever visited.   I was particularly taken by the many varieties of chicken.   

These furry birds are called Silkies

A Silky

Silkies came from the far east 200 years ago.  At the time a rumour went round that they were a cross between a chicken and rabbit. The breed are used to brood eggs of chickens, ducks and geese.

A Peking Bantam 

Another interesting breed are the Peking Bantams were presented to Queen Victoria after being looted from the collection of the Emperor of China during the opium wars (1860).  There are turkeys and mewing guinea fowl with blue faces and red combs

Guinea Fowl

and goats.  This one looked contented in an enclosure that included a brook and long grass with wild flowers.


and Jacobs sheep with curly horns

Jacobs Sheep with curly horns

and asses with crosses on their backs

 An Ass

and Shetland Ponies

 A Shetland Pony

At the end of the zoo are fibreglass models of Glamorgan Cows that children are allowed to play on. 

  Children on the back of a model cow

The railway cuts its way through the landscape 

 The Narrow Gage track

I take another route back to the car park.  At Margam Park one never knows what to expect next because the place is so full of surprises: In one secluded glade I discovered these large toadstool houses with grass roofs.

and the path back to the car park took me over along raised walkways over a woodland stream with logs carved into shapes of dragons..

When I reached the Car park the sun was losing its heat and in the dying light men were in their whites were playing cricket   Margam is too big a place to cover in one day and I had not drawn the local husky club who were out with their dogs or Go Ape which is area on the side of the hills where instructors swing visitors high in the Scots Pine forest with ropes and harnesses.  I did not even draw the deer that roam wild in the wide open spaces.  These things, and many more, I leave for you to discover when you decide to stop for a break at Port Talbot.

Links and Photos