Gardening Leave portraits— a journey

So here I am, literally knee-deep in drawings done while on “Gardening Leave” after taking redundancy. Most of them I’m too embarrassed to show, but there are a few that have a glimpse towards something I’d like to achieve one day. These serve as signs that it is all worthwhile and possible, encouraging me to continue.

A few weeks after finishing work as a designer at the British Museum, I enrolled in a drawing course — “One day, one pose” with Francis Hoyland at the Royal Drawing School. I first met Francis about ten years ago while doing a course and his teaching has always resonated with me. So, there I was, walking into the room set up with the model posed high on top of boxes and everyone looking up, concentrating on drawing — the “life” room, that I was familiar with from Art School years ago; and Francis, now 85, drawing too with so much fervour, talking through every mark with great passion and humour, just as excited by the process of drawing and sharing ideas as he was ten years ago.

And I too was inspired with ideas for my drawing. Using the golden ratio I had come to love from my experience as a graphic designer and hoping to capture something of the absurdity of the scene — with everyone looking up at the large figure on top of the boxes. But the drawing did not live up to my ideas or intentions. I appreciated it as a start, but I wanted a masterpiece, something that conveyed something worthwhile, that would resonate with people. I thought I had better ideas in my head than what I could convey on paper. And so it was with every drawing I did after that, always on the best watercolour paper — “this will be the one”, but it never was; or — sometimes I thought it was; I could see improvements, I had progressed, was starting to achieve more of what I wanted — but then as I progressed more, I would look back on previously admired drawings and be embarrassed by them. However, these incremental improvements kept me going, and the words of Francis “It’s a journey” — as well as the state of mind I entered when concentrating and enjoying drawing — which is really like a workout for the mind, using all faculties; reasoning and describing what I see, together with emotion (how I feel what I see). It was a space to think about life and people — away from computers and back to exercising the hands, the brain, something very human and beautiful.

What I didn’t realise was that these drawing sessions, for one day a week, would make me want to continue to draw — in the morning at a cafe, I would draw people coming in from the cold, waiting for their coffee. And then later at home rework these sketches and try to convey something more — what the person might have felt, coming in from the cold with scarf entwined in hair. I was always looking at the edges of my process — the marks on the back of the notebook page — exploring processes such as tracing my drawing, then the marks of the tracing becoming the drawing, always conscious of what might occur on the edges, the things you might throw away, that weren’t initially intended but are perhaps more interesting for some quality such as the fervour of marks made; or less self-concious, more subtle marks — often leading to the birth of an idea. As with design, I have always found the process becomes more creative and interesting when awareness is drawn to things often overlooked or happening on the edge of the process.

So I kept drawing, from sketches, self-portraits, my family. Always considering what I liked about the drawings — such as the figures in the background that were sketched out quickly, with less marks, faster, simpler, often more expressive and suggestive than some of the slow, considered marks of the life model. And I realised that I wanted to do this all day — even eating seemed a distraction, I wanted to continue the process and strive to improve and convey something worthwhile.

However, very few of these drawings I would want to show anyone. So here I am, literally knee-deep in drawings and there are maybe half a dozen that I think are any good, that achieved something worthwhile by either conveying an emotion or an idea. One of these, a tiny one I am placing on top of the pile, is what I consider the “treasure” — an impression of a face made from pressing another painting on a piece of paper — leaving a faint, beautiful mark, a subtle quality, that I nearly threw away (and probably did throw some similar ones away). Although not in itself the work of art I was hoping for, the idea and direction is there, made even more compelling by not really being able to photograph because it is so subtle and needs natural dancing light.

So this is the next step — a series of portraits using this technique, which may end in another pile of unsuccessful attempts, but I hope that out of them there is another treasure.

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