Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Drawing - Rachel Whiteread

Tate Britain
September 8 2010 to January 16 2011

I am looking forward to this show of Rachel Whiteread’s drawings, which form a visual record of her life and also the thinking process behind her sculpture.

Internationally recognised for her sculpture made with a casting process that transforms domestic objects into something uncanny, drawing has always been central to her practice. She draws daily keeping what she calls a 'visual diary' of her creative process and like diary entries her drawings range from fleeting ideas to laboured reflections that echo the themes of absence and presence in her sculpture.

Her latest exhibition, 'Drawing', is a retrospective that seeks to illuminate the relationship between her rarely shown works on paper and her sculptures. Works such as House and Bath capture the traces of other people’s lives, while the traces of her own hand are reserved for her drawings.

Whiteread’s daily drawing practice started early in her career during a Berlin residency in 1992-1993 resulting in a museum exhibition. In this show the lightness of the paper drawings arranged on the walls contrasts with the gravitational pull of the plaster, rubber, and resin sculptures in the centre of the room. In the drawings Whiteread uses varnish, collage, correction fluid, and silver leaf allowing the paper to wrinkle so that the surface becomes three-dimensional. The imagery of domestic scenes communicate the decadence and decay wrought in the wake of Britain’s empire.

Covering her artistic career to date the exhibition is organized thematically according to Whiteread’s principal sculptural projects such as Floors, Beds and Mattresses, House, Holocaust Memorial, Water Tower, and Trafalgar Square Plinth.

Monday, 8 March 2010

What is drawing?

After being trained to use drawing in charcoal as a way to prepare my ideas for final paintings, one day I was sitting in my studio, working on a sketch and for some reason I was unsatisfied; the outlines were loose and the shading weak, so I started to work the drawing up. I wanted the blacks to be really black: dense and mysterious. I wanted the darks to contrast with the bright white of the paper and some details to be found with the mid-tone range. I went over and over each area until it satisfied me and I only stopped when the drawing could not be pushed any further.

It was during the 2nd year of a painting degree that I decided to stop painting and focus on refining my drawing technique. The decision to work in charcoal was led by the subject matter – at the time I was reading Feud’s essay on the Uncanny and I wanted to locate a house that was a dark and unhomely place. This led me to consider drawing as a primary activity and a stand-alone medium; the drawings I make are not the evidence of a preliminary stage that serves painting as a conceptual aid – they are finished works in their own right.

As thinking activity drawing can be considered private with the drawings held in sketchbooks only for the artist to see. As a primary activity drawing can also be public, as in the case of Michelangelo’s presentation drawings now on show at The Courthold in London. Michelangelo drew throughout his life but it was with this series of highly finished works, made at the height of his career, that he transformed drawing into an independent art form because they were made for their own sake and not as preparatory sketches for paintings.

My drawings are highly-finished and finely rendered using a labour intensive process of layering that carefully distributes deposits of charcoal onto the surface. Tonal value is achieved by controlling the extent to which the texture of the ground shows through the spread of black: in this sense we are presented with the materiality of the surface as much as the image. I chose charcoal because it permits a wide range of subtle shifts in tone and sharp contrast between dark and light, conveying a sense of ethereal, atmospheric mystery and a cinematic quality that references early black and white film.

During my masters I began to explore the difference between drawing and painting and the dialogues between the two in my own practice. I explored the definitions of drawing and painting and found my work to be sitting between the two.

Up to the 19th century the definition of drawing included watercolours. John Ruskin considered that the definition was in the support used and therefore a drawing was a work on paper. This meant that watercolour was considered to be a drawing. In particular Ruskin favoured the lightness of touch and unfinished quality of Turner. Here he was looking for marks laid down quickly and boldly as a final statement without being over-worked or modelled.

Walter Benjamin picked up on the idea of the unfinished as a characteristic of drawing when he considered the importance of the background. He defined a drawing as having no background – being left open so that the paper forms a metaphysical space. A painting therefore has an image that entirely covers the ground.

Today the distinction between drawing and painting tends to be a question of medium rather than support, so drawing is often considered to be dry and painting wet. But we are now in the age of postmodernism in which there is an anything goes philosophy with no definitive guidelines, for any form of art practice. This is reflected in the competition rules which define their own terms of what can be considered drawing. In the Jerwood Drawing prize it is up to the selectors to determine what can be accepted as drawing – animations have been accepted as drawings in the past.

Ways of Seeing: Learning to Draw

Drawing is now practised at PhD level as a form of non-verbal research as a way of understanding reality. This ties into the notion that drawing is a right-brained activity, which sits opposite the analytical left-brain activity of language.

I believe that drawing is an inherent characteristic within all human beings. The caves at Lascaux demonstrate that drawing happened as a natural response to human existence before language was developed. The ability to write also stems from the drawing function of the brain; therefore, I believe that we all have the ability to draw.

Learning to draw is about training the spatial activities of the right hand side of the brain so that we draw what we see, not the symbols the brain tells us we see. Children draw in terms of symbols; they draw a stylised version of a house or an animal from their memory because their brains tell them that they know what one looks like. Close observation of an object enables us to find the shapes of tone within the contours that enable an accurate rendering of what is in front of us.

However, once we have developed the skill of seeing we can decide to leave areas unfinished or open to add more interest so that the viewer does more work in the reading of the drawing. This is when we begin to notice the individual perception of the artist and the development of a personal style.

The Story of Agassiz
A student is eager to study with Agassiz and has travelled hundreds of miles in order to meet the man and asks if he might be taken on as a student. When he arrives he is not certain where to go and wanders around looking for someone to direct him. He eventually finds his way to Agassiz’s laboratory, but just as he arrives, he finds that Agassiz is leaving for some meetings.

The professor was cordial but regretted that it would be sometime before he could get back, perhaps more than two hours because he was having two meetings. He would be happy to talk with the young man on his return, if he wouldn’t mid waiting. Certainly not, the student replied, after all he had come so far already. Agassiz pointed to a fish on a platter in the laboratory. While I am gone, he said, spend your time drawing the fish.

Agassiz left and the young man began his drawing. He wanted to do a good job in order to impress the great man. After an hour his drawing was finished and it looked pretty good. He sat back to admire his own work. As he sat there, he looked at the drawing, and then at the fish, and then back at the drawing. He began seeing things that weren’t quite right. Quickly he began to correct his drawing. He wanted it to be finished when Agassiz returned, and it was nearly two hours since he left. When the corrections were done he sat down to wait and to again admire his work. Now it was much better. He looked at the drawing, and then at the fish, and back to the drawing. Again he noticed a few more things that weren’t the same. He began to erase again ad redraw.

Now he really had it! He had revised it twice, and it was obvious that the second revision had made a difference. He sat down again to admire his work, thankful that Agassiz had not yet returned. He looked at his drawing, quite proud of his work. He compared the fish again to the drawing. He congratulated himself because now it really was good. But as he kept looking he began again to see still more things that he missed He erased and redrew again. Again he sat down to wait, but every time that he thought that the drawing was finished, the same thing happened.

Many hours later Agassiz finally returned. He had been delayed, and he had forgotten about the student. He apologised for keeping him so long. The student told him how he had spent his time. Agassiz understood from this story that the young man had the ability to revise this first impression. The student had learned that the act of drawing had helped him to see, and that each seeing helped him to see further. On the strength of that story the young man was accepted by Agassiz and worked with him for many years.


Agassiz believed that drawing was an aid to observation. The story demonstrates both the difficulty of observation and the process through which each action helps us to see things that we hadn’t seen before. Learning to draw is about learning to see. Taking frequent breaks from drawing so that we can 'see' with 'fresh eyes' is important, when we are tired our ability to scan the object and drawing is impaired and mistakes in judgement are made.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Michelangelo's Presentation Drawings

In my last post I wrote about my view of drawing as a stand-alone art form that does not have to be in the service of painting or sculpture. The current exhibition of Michaelangelo's 'presentation' drawings now on at The Courtauld Gallery demonstrates that the idea of a highly finished drawing being a recognised art object started in the Renaissance.

Michelangelo’s Dream is a rare opportunity to see one of The Courtauld Gallery’s greatest treasures brought together for the first time with international loans to form a celebrated group of extraordinary ‘presentation’ drawings.

Described as one of the finest of all Renaissance drawings The Dream (Il Sogno) was one of a series Michelangelo made at the height of his career as gifts for Tommaso de’ Cavalieri, which includes the punishment of Tityus, The Fall of Phaeton, A Bacchanal of Children, and The Rape of Ganymede.

Michelangelo drew throughout his life but it was with this series of highly finished works, made at the height of his career, that he transformed drawing into an independent art form because they were made for their own sake and not as preparatory sketches for paintings.

They were publicly exhibited as finished works and in a letter to Michelangelo, Cavalieri wrote that they had been admired by ‘the Pope, Cardinal de’ Medici and everyone’. 'Truly miraculous,' wrote Vasari. 'Outstanding drawings the like of which has never been seen'.

They are now termed ‘presentation’ drawings because Michelangelo presented them, partly finished, to close friends for approval. Depending on how they were received they would be corrected and finished before being returned to the friend as a gift to demonstrate his artistic proficiency. So what were intended as private drawings have led a very public life to to the technical virtuosity of the execution.

In his first (1550 edition) of Michelangelo’s Life, Vasari noted the effect of chiaroscuro that he achieved by combining shadow and light until they merged into smoke ‘a uso di fumo’.

The show also includes Michelangelo’s drawings of Christ’s Resurrection, including the Saviour from the collection of Her Majesty The Queen. The show concludes with a small selection of works by contemporaries, such as Vasari and Dürer, who addressed similar themes of rebirth, dreaming and the nature of man.

Michelangelo’s Dream
18 Feb 10 - 16 May 10
The Courtauld Gallery
Somerset House, Strand London WC2R 0RN