What’s the point of drawing?

Three of the artists with works in our New Perspectives exhibition took part in a panel discussion about the value of drawing. Held in the barn at Messums Wiltshire on November 16th the discussion was moderated by Anita Taylor, founder of the Drawing Project which weeks to develop and promote research initiatives in drawing including the Jerwood Drawing Prize.

First to speak was Daphne Todd, head of the Society of Portrait Painters and winner in 2010 of the BP portrait prize. Todd complained that many art students nowadays are taught to draw by copying photographs but as she put it, photographs are ‘small, flat and dead’ when compared with drawing from life. ‘When you are drawing from life you are using your whole self and your eyes are probing into space. The camera records things that you haven’t seen and that wasn’t part of your experience. There is real importance in clinging to the skills that sadly are not being taught, particularly in state colleges nowadays. The challenge is how to get the 3-D world onto a flat canvas. It’s important that we carry on connecting as human beings and carry on using our spirit and intelligence in terms if selecting what’s out there.’

Daphne then revealed that she had had an affair with the painter Euan Uglow, whose work is also in our exhibition and had modelled for him. ‘I think I learned more from watching Euan’s struggles with perception than I did from six years as an art student,’ she said. Daphne revealed that she ‘dives straight in’ without actually doing any preparatory drawings when making her paintings. She paints on multiple canvases ‘to show the bits I am concentrating on.’

Peter Brown or ‘Pete the Street’ as he is colloquially called on account of his penchant for painting en plein air with an easel in front of his subject said: ‘If I am trying to paint from photos then the initial passion is lost. I grew up in a house in the middle of a wood and spent all my childhood playing on my own. My winters were spent building a model railway, it’s important to learn how to play in order to draw. You have to learn how to motivate yourself. He added: ‘I grew up looking at books containing very cheesy illustrations of woodland scenes. They gave me confidence. You have to have the passion to make you want to do drawing and the confidence to do it. I love abstract art but it wasn’t for me. Drawing is mindfulness at its best; it is a wonderful way of spending time in the public domain – people talk to you.’

Saied Dai made an impassioned plea for drawing that started with saying; ‘Observation is central to
existence.’ ‘If you do not have observation you are not aware and without awareness you are not able to do anything at all’ he said. He continued; ‘I would contend that observation is central to virtually every aspect of thinking. Drawing is the benchmark of artistic tradition. In my experience, after 30 years of training, observation is very arduous. People say we don’t need it but observation feeds imagination. Whether you are figurative or non- figurative, drawing is one of the most profoundly engaging processes that uses all your cognitive faculties; intellectual and emotional. Identifying shapes, tones and colours is an acute way of learning about relationships. Figurative artists are dealing with the complex idea of representation to try and express psychological elements. The biggest tragedy in the loss of drawing is the loss of any kind of sustained feeling. The use of the mechanical and of photographs in art has taken the place of perception and seeing. But if art is merely a matter of recording, a photograph can do it very effectively. But figurative art is not about copying – the whole history of art could not have been done by copying. Drawing is the way that artists think. A drawing reveals how they are emotionally from moment to moment. It tells you about their past, their sensibility, proclivity and capacity for analysis, all of which are indicated in the way they express themselves. It tells you all of the past and is involved in predicting the future. No subject is more compelling than the human face, more paradoxical or more contradictory than human beings. A life room changed my life and changed others.’

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