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.

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