Sunday, 10 April 2011

inside drawing

It is a platitude in the teaching of drawing that the heart of the matter lies in the specific process of looking. A line, an area of tone, is not really important because it records what you have seen, but because of what it will lead you on to see. Following up its logic in order to check its accuracy, you find confirmation or denial in the object itself, or in your memory of it. Each confirmation or denial brings you closer to the object, until finally you are, as it were, inside it, the contours you have drawn no longer marking the edge of what you have seen, but the edge of what you have become. Perhaps that sounds needlessly metaphysical. Another way of putting it would be to say that each mark you make on the paper is a stepping stone from which you proceed to the next, until you have crossed your subject as though it were a river - have put it behind you.

John Berger, (1972:165) Selected Essays and Articles: The Look of Things, Harmondsworth, Penguin

I'm not sure I know completely what Berger is talking about here, but it's something about the experience of drawing, a state of being which is connected with drawing, which is not really anything to do with technical aspects or even finished products.

It's perhaps easy, when coming to drawing at the beginning, to focus on its external aspects. 'Have I got that proportion correct, is that tone lighter than that...', accompanied, of course, by the chattering critic 'Oh god, this is crap, this doesn't look at all like the thing, I'm no good at this'. This links to what I was thinking about some time ago in relation to skill. And even if you manage to resist too much of this external, product-focussing, for sure someone will come along eventually and reinforce it - 'Oh, that's such a great drawing... Mmmm, you haven't quite got that angle right...'

(For those of you who are critically trained academics, I'm not brainlessly pulling in the simplified binary of internal/external here as any kind of description of reality. But, as someone like Derrida pointed out in one of the original discussions of the problem of binaries, opposed concepts can do useful work in terms of providing a framework within which to examine something. So I'm going to run with this internal/external thing...)

Perhaps the way I'm thinking about being inside your object is a little different to what Berger is talking about. One of the things I've been thinking about for a long time is the connection between internal state and drawing. I've never managed to get any kind of drawing going when my day to day state of being was being busy, teaching, doing research, running about, having a packed timetable. I didn't really understand why this was, but it was just the way things were. By contrast, the drawing above appeared unbelievably effortlessly at the start of my six month teaching job in Northern India (early 1980s) after about a month. As something inside me began to quieten down (after some years of teaching 25 hours a  week, etc etc ), a new kind of responsiveness started to emerge, which, after a fairly short time, began to naturally express itself on paper.

Someone I mentioned this to recently suggested that it could also be the other way round - that if you just started the behaviour/practice (ie. the drawing), you could generate this kind of state. I think that's a very interesting idea. This same person mentioned once to a mutual friend that what she experienced when drawing was a kind of freedom (similar to what she experienced in meditation). Perhaps she's put her finger on what happened to me in North India, as a result of a combination of particular circumstances. But whereas my experience was the result of a long series of events, and tied to particular conditions, her approach suggests that we can actually create a different kind of internal experience through the very act of drawing itself....

As Berger says, the idea that learning to draw is not about learning drawing but is about learning to see is a kind of cliche in teaching drawing. But it's a cliche, perhaps, because it's somehow incredibly easy to forget this, or not really believe it, or otherwise become distracted by technical and practical and emotional issues associated with trying to draw.

And why is learning to see so important anyway? Not, I would suggest, simply because by learning to see we are able to make better drawings. No. Though having written that, I wonder if that is indeed what's often assumed. Whether the drawing creates the state, or the state creates the drawing, something begins to happen in this practice that is in a very real sense transformational in relation to a person's experience of the world.

This is an interesting thought in relation to what I was thinking about some time ago in relation to the culturally-assumed link between states of mental illness/emotional unease and 'creativity'. Perhaps so-called creative people aren't necessarily driven by mysterious demons or otherwise mystical or magical forces. Perhaps some of them have just discovered the transformational potential of creative activity, and are driven by the desire to explorere, taste more, of this extraordinary change of state?

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