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Frank Auerbach, Head of Julia 1960

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Oceanographic musings, 2012

Oceanographic Musings, 2012, mixed media on paper

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Every seventh wave, mixed media on paper 112x150cm

Sketchbook drawing on Pilot boat 2010

Keynote paper given by Janette Kerr at The Embodied Experience of Drawing; One-Day Symposium, Plymouth (Oct 2018):



I draw because: Consideration of the relationship between drawing and the phenomenological experience of place/landscape – both in terms of action and process, and the experience and relationship between maker and spectator.

16thC Michelangelo, a compulsive drawer, declared ‘Design, which by another name is called drawing … is the fount and body of painting and sculpture and architecture and of every other kind of painting and the root of all sciences’. Drawing, or ‘disegno’, carries intellectual weight as the medium in which an artist’s creative power is first expressed and thought processes developed. According to a Guardian article reviewing the 2010 exhibition Michelangelo's Dream at the Courtauld Gallery, one of the most common complaints made about today's artists is their inability to draw: ‘ question is more decisive, more majestically final, than: But can he/she draw?

As opposed to painting, ‘Drawing has never been deemed ‘dead’ … its relevancy and longevity …never questioned[1], yet 20thC art schools saw its demise as an essential part of the art student curriculum. Why? In Rock and Flesh, an argument for British Drawing, Peter Fuller suggests that from the 60’s onward drawing became drained of all sense of ‘sprit’[2], life drawing deserted as ‘an ideologically loaded tool for making students conform to a certain philosophy of art’, observation deemed no longer of interest to most students and tutors. I have felt utter frustration/fury about being told that drawing is not important, free hand drawing marginalised because there are new technologies to replace it (even architects now ‘draw’ with a mouse). The training (I know that’s not a sexy word) that drawing brings to other art forms is deemed irrelevant. Deanna Petherbridge, who has written so much about drawing, recently said we have become owned by technology, and this doesn’t allow for the actuality of the moment, that drawing is ‘an analytical and intelligent practice… when you discredit drawing, you discredit that ability’. I’m probably making sweeping statements here, but sounding off about this is probably why I am now standing up here.

Fortunately drawing seems to be back in vogue – witness the many symposiums about drawing. Life drawing, disentangled from its historical academic context, has been reinvigorated to be more about the individual, the vulnerable, exploration of both human form and the human condition. As Henry Moore put it: ‘You can’t understand life drawing without being emotionally involved … It really is a deep, long struggle to

understand oneself.’ Equally it is about eye-hand-head co-ordination, about muscle memory. Having spent years drawing I know automatically how to make a mark, how to press down, turn my hand, allow a line to drift across paper, and this spills into other things I do. Drawing now, as Emma Dexter puts it, ‘is by nature vibrant and experimental… never before has drawing as an art form been more dynamic’.  Actually drawing has always been dynamic, probably always pushed boundaries, although historically maybe not been exhibited and given attention in the way it now is. It’s also one traditional art form - something made with the hands - that retains an appeal to conceptual, digital, installation etc artists who have rejected painting as a burned out form with nowhere to go – an art form conceptual artists seem ready to entertain or re-encounter, and perhaps re-think in ways they seem less inclined to do with painting. Uncoupled from the painting/drawing relationship (where it’s usually assumed subservient), drawing becomes more interesting. It now encompasses far more than would have been envisaged as ‘drawing’ in the 18th/19thC, and I’m not going to waste time engaging in a discourse of distinction or definitions of whether drawings are made with a pencil on paper or otherwise. 

Petherbridge, comments: ‘In an age where painting aspires to the condition of drawing, that is, where spontaneity, fragmentation and immediacy are privileged, the designation drawing seems only a matter of degree…[3]. Drawing, like any other category of practice, changes its identity over time - its field of relations shifting. Drawing has roamed away from sketchbooks and paper onto walls, buildings, and across landscapes.  maybe it always has. There are cross-pollinations between drawing and sculpture, drawing and architecture, drawing and film, drawing and writing, drawing and walking.  And this is where I start getting twitchy (and just to be provocative), it seems everything and anything can now be defined as drawing. I am as guilty (maybe not the right word) as anyone… I’ve explored ‘drawing’ using a kite, cast boards into the sea to allow the movement of the waves to ‘draw’ on them… considered using GPS as a way of drawing… made long continuous drawings whilst walking across fields in the dark, but it’s always to paper and charcoal I always return.

We might spend a little time considering what is drawing? Drawing is ancient, expressive, rudimentary. Making lines seems central to the idea of drawing: as an activity – hand moving-eye flickering between subject and surface; as a way of exploring, a ‘search engine’ as Tania Kovak puts it, even when not sure what you’re looking for [4]; as a process of developing realizing ideas and thoughts, as a ‘playing around’ with materials, marks, gestures. Equally it’s a way of representing something…a finished work of art. 

Balanced equally between pure abstraction and representation – which is how I have always thought of my own work - ‘its virtue is its fluidity. A drawing can be highly controlled and delicate…, or it can be automatic, responding to irrational elements or chance encounters of materials’. Emma Dexter [5].  Matisse wrote: ‘My line drawing is the purest and most direct translation of my emotion[6].  Art historian Norman Bryson argues that drawing reveals an open time of becoming: ‘If painting presents Being, the drawn line presents Becoming’ [7]. You can see how it was made, and perhaps this makes for a more direct and intimate engagement as you can almost feel the artist moving the pencil across the paper and making the work. 


There’s honesty about a drawing – of making that mark – marks and tracks that can be traced and seen however much erasing and changing; you can see the journey the pressure of the hand has made. Frank Auerbach’s drawings are potent examples of this; his drawings built up in layers of papers, charcoal and chalk.











In some (e.g Head of Julia, 1960) the paper has been rubbed so much it’s completely given way and been patched, charcoal and graphite sunk in so far that the faint crisscrossing of erased lines is still visible, bringing a vibrant energy to his drawings. The rhythm of addition and subtraction constitutes a kind of breathing of drawing - the shifts and revisions, charcoal smudged over and re-drawn - a palimpsest of marks, registering the labour to reach a point. It shows mind and hand feeling their way across the paper,.. So too do they reflect time passing. 


Drawing is a time-related act; it takes time and it contains time; it’s a kind of slow filming, the layering of images and marks reflecting the process of time’. There’s a connection to the time of its making and perhaps to another imaginative space. I am aware that I draw in landscapes replete with history and memories, time past and present, events and people moving through, changes over geological time, forces of nature, glacially eroded topography, suggesting a mutability of place. Maybe we should consider drawing as a collaborative act – an engagement in a dialogue or interaction between place and artist?  I might ask what does my act of drawing bring to my understanding of this place I encounter? I already bring with me a body of knowledge … perhaps about what happened here, or how we are impacting upon the environment... but also a training, a knowledge of how to make marks, how to use materials…  so does this learning impact upon what and how I draw?  So we might then ask what does a drawing contain, and consider how it situates the viewer - does my drawing bring a different or further understanding of a place.  It certainly draws attention to it.  Perhaps another question is - when do I become the viewer?  

Why do I draw? I have spent years drawing; it has always been an essential part of my life. It has always been a way of beginning and an ending. Over the last twenty+ years I’ve drawn whilst travelling in cars, crouching on rocks by the sea. I’ve drawn clinging to the sides of a tiny ferry to Out Skerries, waves washing over the deck as we pitched and rolled in a force 8; sat in snow drawing while my fingers slowly freeze till I can’t feel them; been blown across the hills by gusts of wind, drenched by spray and sleet, and gone home with salt-encrusted hair and skin.















Drawings of the observed in the broadest sense of the word: I draw to fix a sense of that place in my head, responses made by continual obsessional scrutiny, but also from in-attention, from automatic, sometimes furious mark-making. My tutor once said to me in the middle of a life drawing session, if you draw that fast what are you going to do with the rest of your life? I do/have tried to draw slower, to put down ‘what is just there’…whatever that means... and impossible, the drawings produced seem bland – devoid of content. The same tutor also told me I draw like a navvy (I was quite pleased).

Drawing’s virtue is that it is unstable and fluid. Standing balanced between abstraction and representation, it can be highly controlled, delicate, replete with longing, with memories; it can be automatic, chaotic, a wild act, a response to chance encounters with materials and place. My response is affected by the place, the weather conditions – whether it’s raining, snowing, windy, still - how I sit, crouch, stand, whether it's comfortable, uncomfortable, whether I'm cold, hot, hungry, tired, agitated, whether there are people passing… looking, by what I'm drawing with, how I hold my charcoal, what I’m drawing on. There are only so many marks that can be made, or times it can rain… hail… snow, before the surface deteriorates, the drawing disappears. The drawing and redrawing, the erasure and rubbing out, belongs to the sea with its constant motion, light moving from bright to dark to bright. Made in situ, there’s a kind of performative aspect to my drawing – a performance going on between me and the sea and the weather, but it’s carried out in private - an audience is not required.

The attempt to put down what is ‘out there’ in this a vast fluid dynamic environment - shifting with every turn of my head and passing cloud, on a small intimate piece of paper - seems mad, doomed to fail. I felt this particularly when confronted with an immense glacier and landscape of ice and snow and mist and mountains, on a tall ship that was shifting and turning. With my hand poised above paper, the moment before I make a mark I occupy liminal position between place and mark, inner and outer. The drawings are not accurate topographical depictions, but more about reflecting movement through time - what is sensed (I can’t say even understood) rather than what is seen.


















Drawings made back in my studio may hint at or evoke a ‘physical reality’; equally they might be more about what I think I remember or imagine, (more about me), making it even more elusive or suggestive of its transitory nature - which perhaps is a more truer interpretation. And then as well as all this there is the aesthetic considerations of making a drawing that ‘works’ - as a piece of art. 

Of drawing and of not knowing…‘Whatever else it might be, drawing, in its moment of genesis, is contact… its origin lies not in vision and light, but in blindness and obscurity, although it has its own lucidity and wisdom..., of touching and being touched, a way of being-in-the-world and at the limit[8].

I love the feel of the charcoal pressing on to the paper, the smoothness and shininess of graphite, rubbing chalk into surface. I draw for the sheer joy of putting marks on paper- allowing the hand to make a line flow across the page: ‘the hand as an unruly, truant principle at work… not the mind’s docile slave …. It searches and experiments for its master’s benefit; it has all sorts of adventures; it tries its chance ’ [9]

Embedded in my sketchbooks is my engagement with and searching of the world. They’re working documents, soaked in sea, rained and hailed on, bit of debris stick to the pages, pages are rubbed and scrubbed, holes worn through, charcoal and chalk mixing with rain and water found in puddles, rock pools and streams. For me drawing is more than just looking… more about conversations – they’re amalgams of what I see, hear, feel; depositories for thoughts, frustration, exhilaration.... a way of fixing a sense of a ‘place’ in my head – a recording of the moment and experience of ‘being there’. When I’m out drawing there’s a kind of agitation a thrill that goes through me, or maybe it’s desperation to get something down on the paper.

For me drawing is a way of reflecting nature in a perpetual state of flux…  ‘a part of [my] own situated knowledge’, ... a part of [my] own geography’. Robin Jarvis writing about Romantic writing and pedestrian travel, refers to a ‘multiplicity of perspectives… which may not be concerned with conventional pictorial unity ’[10].  Drawing on a boat in the midst of a heaving sea and feeling sick, is a very different proposition to being on cliffs and rocks looking at the sea, even if it is blowing a gale. Surrounded by a living mass of water, the world tips, the horizon disappearing and reappearing, fear and exhilaration experienced. I move, look at what’s below me, across the water, think about stuff completely unrelated to my environment, feel spray hitting me, waves pushing the boat around; there’s this physical immersion in landscape, a resonance between an internalized world and an external one.  It all gets inside your head and spills out onto the page - the drawings move beyond the representational and passive recording of topographical features, becoming active engagements with landscape, intuitive responses reflecting energy and confusion, capturing a fleeting moment - the particular turquoise colour that suddenly appears. I can retrace the same path yet each drawing will be different.

Other things too affect my drawings: talking to fishermen and story-tellers, a month residency in Bergen with oceanographers looking at their drawings - oceanographic diagrams, algebraic formulae, wave trajectories, contours describing sea surfaces; my drawings incorporated theirs.
















Such research and interaction and experiences played a key role in making my large studio drawings of sea.  These encounters, this ‘deep research’, provide a kind of ‘polyvocal’ aspect to my work. In the course of making this drawing I realised that my attention had been drawn to the surface of the sea; there’s greater concern to describe the flow of waves against each other, a greater understanding.




















The drawings encompass all these connections - discussions with oceanographers, narratives and dynamism of the sea. Within such drawings lie a fusion of memory, impressions, narratives, imagination and knowledge. I too am embodied in these drawings.

[1] Emma Dexter,Vitamin D, New Perspectives in Drawing 2005, London & New York, Phaidon

[2] Rock and Flesh, an argument for British Drawing’, Peter Fuller, p12

[3] Deanna Petheridge The Primacy of Drawing, exhibition catalogue, 1991, p. 12.

[4] Tania Kovak, Drawing Water, p11

[5] Vitamin D, New Perspectives in Drawing 2005, London & New York, Phaidon, p 10

[6] Matisse: ‘Notes of a Painter on His Drawing,’ in MoA, p. 130

[7] ‘Norman Bryson: ‘A Walk for a Walk’s Sake,’ in de Zegher 2003) p. 149 - 150.

[8] Newman: ‘Sticking to the World: Drawing as Contact,’ Catherine de Zegher (ed.): Giuseppe Penone: The Imprint of Drawing / L’impronta del disegno, ex. cat. 2004, p.107.

[9] Henri Focillon: The Life of Forms in Art (1989), p. 180.

[10] Robin Jarvis, Romantic Writing and Pedestrian Travel, Macmillan Press, Basingstoke, 1997, p133

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Trip to Out Skerries, 2011

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