Drawn while listening to Radio 4 – so parts of this image evoke the Archers omnibus (hand) and other parts Desert Island Discs (background – Edna Adan Ismail is an amazing woman!). Though the new Philip Pullman book read by Simon Russell-Beale, which I listened to while drawing the main portrait, does not seem to have embedded itself in the drawing in the same way. Could that be because I was actually listening harder and looking harder so the two activities somehow stayed separate? Parallel processing…?
(Btw if you think I have a gloomy resting face, you can put that down to the constant stream of good reasons to be worried: climate crisis, NHS destruction, pointless Brexit blether, the orange one … but actually it’s just my concentrating face.)
I have a natural inclination to look for clarity in writing and ‘accurate’ observation in art – are these mistakes? Or lack of imagination?
I am only just beginning to realise that/how/why obscurity, abstraction (and invention?) are important too. The ‘clearer’ a statement, the more ‘true to reality’ an image seems to be, the easier it is to pass over them without engagement, to leap to a conclusion. You get it (label it) and move on. Been there, done that, bought the t-shirt.
But if you want to provoke a reader to think, not just to accept what you say uncritically, if you want the viewer to pay attention, to look hard, maybe obscurity, unclarity, is a good thing. Something that makes you ask ‘what’s going on here?’ Something that breaks the flow, stops the eye, makes you go back and look again, think again. (Is this why ‘decorative’ was a bit of a dirty word at art school and ‘nice’ or ‘lovely’ are damning with very faint praise, because a ‘nice’ thing won’t make us stop and think?)
It’s not just about tricks of the trade, speaking softly so people have to listen, manipulating an audience. If art is about the doing more than the product, this means that you have been provoked to thought yourself. The eye, the mind, that must be engaged and surprised is yours, the writer, the maker. And sometimes playing, not planning, is the best thing to do. Exploring, not arriving. Suspending judgement.
To assume that you can express a thought ‘clearly’, or a perception ‘accurately’ may be the basic error, to fall for Descartes’ myth of ‘clear and distinct ideas’.
The flowing line needs interruption, the glib, ‘self-evident’ thought needs examination. Facility à facile?
The unexpected, the unpredictable is what engages, what interests us.
Even when what you are trying to do is render how something really appears to you, you have to look beyond your assumptions, formulas, clichés, etc., because ‘truth is stranger than fiction’. Drawing what you see, not what you expect to see.
I’ve often been uncomfortable with the emphasis on ‘originality’ in art. It seems like a terrible burden to place on an artist or student – to do something no one’s ever done before. And doing something new for the sake of newness always seemed a mistake to me.
But if the unexpected, the surprising, is what engages us, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe being original is the point? Certainly, seeing something you’ve never seen before or meeting an idea that never occurred to you is part of what we value in art or writing.
But (another ‘but’) it’s that ‘for sake of’ that is the problem, I think. Making originality the goal is useless because it implies nothing positive. ‘Just don’t repeat.’ So do we have to have an encyclopaedic knowledge of art history before we begin, to make sure it hasn’t been done before?
We don’t want to be derivative, ideally; in that sense we want to be original, which means to think for ourselves, to address the world as we see it, and ask our own questions. Whether that results in something that other people would see as ‘new’ is a different matter (that’s probably part of what distinguishes the ‘great’ from the rest of us). In any case, what other people see as new depends on what they have seen before (just as whether an artist’s work is derivative depends partly on what they are familiar with – similarity to someone else’s work you’ve never seen can’t be derivative of that work).
Originality in the sense of ‘unlike what has gone before’ or ‘new to the world’ may matter to the well-informed receiver, but for the maker originality must about how they personally arrive at the work. They find something out by doing it. Copying is (usually) unoriginal, not because the result looks like the thing copied, but because the copier is letting the source do their thinking or looking. (A bad copy isn’t more original because it looks less like the source than a good one, though it may be more interesting to look at.)
Well, dear imaginary reader, you may be thinking ‘this is all so obvious – we’ve heard it all before!’ – but I feel as though I haven’t thought about these things before in quite this way, so that’ll have to do. Now here are a couple of drawings – enjoying pencil on paper.