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After the Hiatus

Well, there has been a bit of a gap, due to finishing, framing and hanging work. So now I’m  stepping back from trying to impress people and attempting to persuade them that I truly believe that what I make will give pleasure for years to come and is worth parting with hard-earned cash to acquire.


1st Dead Mole (delivered by cat) 19.6.93   Crayon & watercolour on paper   21x17cm

 Instead, for a week or so, I’m  going to think about drawing again- the engine that drives the painting; that reminds me of where I am; that lays down the moments, line by line. The activity of drawing never stops; it is as onerous and pleasurable, as well as necessary, as eating.


2nd Dead Mole (delivered by cat) 21.6.13   Pencil on paper   21x17cm

This blog was never intended as being all about me or my drawings, So- if anyone wishes to post their drawings, why they draw, what they think about the process and activity of drawing, I’d be more than happy. Drawing is one of those ur activities- I think the impulse to understand the world through graphic means is as powerful as through language.



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Successful Drawing Part 2

Succesful Drawing2

Note book page, ink & pencil, 17x22cm

Drawing & its Relationship with Language (continued)

Richard Gregory in his seminal “Eye & Brain” says “…visual & other perception is intelligent decision making from limited sensory evidence”. And goes on “We now think of the brain as representing (visual perception), rather as the symbols of language represent characteristics of things, although the shapes and sounds of of language are quite different from whatever is being represented. Language requires rules of grammar (syntax) and meanings of symbols (semantics). Both seem necessary for processes of vision: though its syntax and semantics are implicit, to be discovered by experiment.”

I like the “limited sensory evidence”. The human eye is not that great an information gatherer in comparison to some other species.  But what we do lack in optical quality we make up for in processing power.

If we accept that a baby, new born, is adrift in a sea of sensations, unmapped; that understanding only comes about by relating one visual sensation against another and that that can only take place within the context of the memory of all previous sensations; then we have to accept that visual perception can only take place within a framework, a system where sensation interacts with memory, with relationships,  with everything else in an individuals life.

This is where the visual, and more especially visual representation,  develops something akin to language. Representation can  be said to have a syntax: edge, centre, soft, sharp, strong, faint, pattern etc. And it is easy to see that visual representation can be a carrier for meaning in ways formal and symbolic.

But does the visual operate through  an actual “language”?

Language pre-supposes at least a two way exchange. Originally between child and carer; between child and other children and so on. Language starts with a social exchange and develops into enabling conciousness and thought- it could be said to exist on the surface of the mind, where the discrete individual interacts with others.

The visual, on the other hand, is initially private. Seeing is the processing of information going directly into the dark space of the brain. Although influenced by social interchange, one does not need anyone else to learn to see; this is achieved, as stated above, through experiment.

Gregory also says “Two and a half millennia ago Greek philosophers thought that light shoots out of the eyes, to touch objects as probing fingers”. Anyone who draws knows that there is a truth in this. We probe and test, try out and criticise the results of our inadequate foray into the outside world; then return with the knowledge gained to try again, this time to try better.

Language, as words, is great and I love all forms of writing, I love talking (too much). But I get weary of the ability it too often gives to dissemble, to evade and obscure. More than anything it’s disgust at the dishonest rubbish I talk sometimes.

This is where I find drawing so unique, so exciting. Despite visual representation being  a social act, the visual is nevertheless  secret, dark, unknown. This is where drawing becomes so important as ,despite (perhaps, because of) it’s inadequacies and stuttering inaccuracies, it manages to reveal so much about the mysterious inner workings of another’s being. And, honestly done, provides access to an experience of a world you’ve never seen yourself.


Giorgio Morandi Flowers, 1959, pencil & watercolour, 22x21cm


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Quietly Great

In a comment on the last post Chris Murray brought up the ghosts of Williams Etty & Orpen and it’s been bugging me to the point that I’ve not been able to write anything since. However  being bugged is good- it shifts the ice pack in my brain.

In the take it or leave it stakes I’m definitely for leaving Etty: slick, salacious and pornographic. But Orpen‘s a very different painter, objective, warm & humorous. Last year Tate Liverpool had a wonderful show of 20th Century drawing called Tracing the Century and, for me, one of the high spots was a group of anatomy teaching drawings by the man. They were assured, informative and, above all, impressive as large (big!) pieces of performative drawing.What’s more they felt utterly modern, of now as much as of the early 20th century.

Anatomical Study, Male Torso c.1906 by Sir William Orpen 1878-1931 William Orpen, Male figure, Chalk on paper, 112x80cm  1906

Orpen was a contemporary of William Nicholson (Ben’s more talented dad and a real favourite of mine),  and Henry Tonks.

Tonks was a remarkable character. Trained originally as a surgeon he taught painting at the Slade school between the late 1890’s and the outbreak of the first world war, when he returned to medicine. At the end of the war he produced a remarkable series of pastel drawings (in the Gillies Archive) of soldiers with facial injuries and the subsequent reconstruction.

tonks FoBHenry Tonks, Pastel drawings, c1918

There is no sense of subjectivism here; individualistic expression or lack of attention would not only be an insult but render the purpose of these drawings redundant. They are a very modern record of the results of modern industrialised warfare and are as fresh and as relevant to conflicts today as they were then.

Tonks went back to the Slade after the war and became professor of painting. He taught Stanley Spencer,  Gwen & Augustus John, David Bomberg and William Coldstream amongst many others.

Tonks, Nicholson and Orpen were people of their time, late Victorians and Edwardians, confident and certain in the idea of objectivity, that there is really only one true way of seeing the world.  At the same time they were aware of and being  influenced by the work of the French realists, the impressionists and Cezanne and others.

There was a quiet greatness about these painters but ( and this is where I become uncertain) I am not sure that it is possible to work in this way to the same effect today. All artists are made by their times and circumstances. A realist (such as  J-F Millet or Courbet) working in France in the mid 19thC would have had a whole range of ideological and social concerns driving their work; Edwardian painters in London would have had another set of social & economic influences.

Since then the main thrust of artistic discourse has been away from description and towards investigating how art interacts with ideas (doesn’t it always, anyway?): cubism, surrealism,  Duchamp; into the post World War 2 years, when the (expressionistic)USA played out its ideological opposition to the (stuffy & socialist realist) USSR in a series of individualistic gambits about “freedom”. I over simplify but, along with all that and the accompanying technological changes, it’s no wonder that the same drawing done in 1906 will have a totally different meaning to one done in 2013.

We live, so I’ve been told, in a plural culture where all artistic positions are relevant. That doesn’t mean anyone will take any notice, however, and it might seem that the only arbiter of worth is the market. But I do know that every time someone takes up a pencil with serious intent and concentration they will make a drawing which is of that specific moment and that particular place and has just as much chance of reaching out to another human conciousness as the drawings of Orpen & Tonks.

(I have just discovered how to do links- I do hope it adds something)


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The best drawing in the world


Sol LeWitt Ten Thousand Lines, 5″ long, Within a 7″ square  1971  Pencil on paper (28.5 x 28.5cm)

I saw this at an exhibition of Sol LeWitt’s drawings at Leeds city art gallery in 1991 and have been captivated by it ever since. I can’t get over how an artist can get so much information and reference within something so visually simple. In part it is a commentary on all drawing, the endless process of defining space by grubby marks on processed wood pulp. But there’s an image here, of a man sitting at a desk repeating the same action over and over, not as obsession but as an act of discipline. There’s reference to Malevich’s Black Square on a White Ground but this time alluding  to its own making. Or perhaps LeWitt’s drawing represents only itself, where Black Square was a image of spiritual truth. There is also something of action art, in our being presented with the result of a such an obviously long, repetitive and arduous process, but pared down, without the histrionics of the abstract expressionists.

I sometimes think of Sol LeWitt’s process as over clever and emotionally cold but I’m also surprised at how often I’m encouraged while drawing by the obstinacy of this piece  and I’m reminded of the physicality and materiality of all  actions.

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There is always too much information

I love a good aphorism, the quick hit of a haiku (I have a poor attention span and worse memory) and there are a couple that are constant companions whether in the studio or out drawing. Here’s one by Scots poet and artist Thomas A Clark:

“Nothing coincides with its representation/ Stop, look, wait”

And here’s one from William James, psychologist and brother of Henry: “The world comes at you as if fired from the barrel of a revolver”

These are both relevant to the process of drawing. Every time attention is paid to the world we are overwhelmed by sense data, an infinity of tiny differences.

It would be pointless to attempt to revisit the theories of how we might systematise  this hurricane of information, partly because it would take too long and partly because I cannot even pretend to know much about it.

Enough to say, in the present context, that the process of drawing is just one way of describing what we believe to perceive. And as such is only going to be partial and doomed to be always a fiction. So, should that fiction be judged on its elegance,  its conformity to commonly accepted standards of quality or skill? Or through a notion of authenticity, by manifesting an internal truthfulness?  That maintains something of the crude, stuttering honesty of the “real”?  I suppose what I am asking is – just what makes a good drawing? Is all representation inadequate in the presence of reality?


Walter Sickert (1860-1942) He Killed his Father in a Fight  Pencil, 24 x 30 cm, Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester This featured in the wonderful exhibition The Primacy of Drawing curated by Deanna Petherbridge, in 1991, when she was professor of drawing at the Royal College.There is a much larger and deeper study of drawing by her and of the same title, published by Yale in 2010

If anyone has any copyright problems with anything in this blog please get in touch

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Easter Day on Farnhill Moor

Another freezing day and too cold to do much considered drawing on top of a moor but I was thinking about what Chris Murray commented on a previous post: “the profound reverence of concentrated drawing”.


This is surely not the same as piety or holiness? Isn’t it more about allowing yourself to be  receptive and open to the world through drawing? Allowing the circumstances in which the drawing is made to determine the outcome, rather than some received or constructed notion of how you would like it to be or an exterior notion of what constitutes a “good” drawing?

Or am I just rehearsing a justification for bad drawing? I don’t know.

Not that any form is less valid than any other but this seems a very different approach to drawing that is intended for an audience or even for their approval; it is more in the nature of traces left by an event, as if the ‘me’ that made the drawing is no longer there. Which, in a sense, is true.


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A Drawing from Chris Murray!

At last! Some feedback.

I’m so pleased Chris Murray has sent one of his intensely observed and constructed dawings and I’ll leave it to speak for itself.

                                                                        OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And while we’re at it here’s another of his “A House Someplace” that I was given on my 60th birthday. It gives up its information in the same way that it was made: slowly and densely.


Chris Murray lives and works in North Yorkshire and produces, with real passion, objective paintings and drawings of great intensity.


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