I went along to Richard’s class with rather negative feelings. The numbers of students attending the class had dropped off to the stage where we had had to cancel a couple of classes and here we are with only three students out of a possible fifteen attending the class. Now these are grown ups and there is no three line whip to attend these classes. If they dont like the class they vote with their feet and quite right too. So I was feeling that somehow we had failed to sell the idea to them and a class and possibly Richard’s Tuesday night class could be something I could shut down. As I went over I was tired and was agitated that my daughter Jenny had not yet turned up as the class started at 6 oclock. I had wanted these classes to run partly for Jennys sake. My daughter is 10 and at that critical age when school children, because of the appalling quality of art education in our schools start to doubt their ability to draw. They have acquired powerful symbols within their little heads for just about every object in the world about them so that whenever confronted with a similar object and asked to draw it, their right brains serve up the appropriate symbol and say hey, you wanna chair to draw, heres a chair, draw that. Dont waste your time looking at that chair in front of you. This symbol is fine, this will do for a chair real good Because the left brain is so efficient at producing these symbols, symbols that are really visual images stored and gathered during the process of looking and drawing in early childhood, this symbol for most children serves and replaces the rather onerous task of looking at the world in front of them,and, convince the child that they could really only draw these childish images, and Jenny , bless her heart, was in exactly that situation of beginning to mistrust her own ability to see and draw what was in front of her. These Tuesday evening classes as a consequence were in many ways partly set up for her benefit. Here at least she would get a chance once a week to have some good teaching.
So, I was in even less good humour when she failed to turn up for the start of the class. At this point I was seething and grumbling to myself about how my better half, Carol, who has the responsibility of getting our kids from point A to point B reconciling cricket club with ballet lessons, with prep with bedtime, had never shown much enthusiasm for these art classes, especially when it involved her with an extra journey to and from our studios in the heart of Devon countryside. Especially as school, home and ballet lessons were all in totally different directions.
Rather glumly I sat down and fretted and fiddled around as Jenny more and more obviously was falling into the role of non attender. I expect shes got something much more interesting to do Richard murmured encouragingly. Anyway we all settled around a large table in the middle of which Richard had placed a rather battered cardboard cube. It was made from slightly corrugated cardboard which gave the surfaces of the cube a variance and the corners werent clean or crisp. they looked like they had been carefully, but not too carefully packed away, and suffered some of life’s scuffs and rubs. Apart from that it was a pretty boring brown cube about 6 inches in all directions. Aha I thought I d seen this before remembering early art school drawing exercises where simple geometric forms were placed in front of us to draw and paint for what seemed half a lifetime. Just to start off Richard said, id like you to draw this brown cardboard cube. Ive chosen it because its a very simple form and Id like you to just for the first five or ten minutes draw it using tone only. Now dont get too precious about it because this is just a loosening up exercise, but sketch this cube there as it sits in front of you and just look at it from the point of view of light and dark only. For those of you who are dropping in to the middle of this creative thinking class for the first time, the tonal value of any particular surface is the value of how light or how dark it may be
Now Richard had picked a particular form that had three visible surfaces that should be displaying three visible tonal values and by rights we should have been able to put those down without too much fuss. But boy did we struggle. Ok said Richard lets just do it again, use the same piece of paper but this time draw the cube about half the size of your previous drawing Why cant I use lines? Lou bleated. I find this tone stuff really difficult Well you can use lines Richard said obligingly But Im just trying to make it easier for you. You see lines dont really exist out there on the object in front of you. That box doesnt have a line around its edges. It doesnt really matter if your shading isnt dead perfect right up to the edge, you can scribble a bit and have some fun here So he enabled us to take the brakes off. Now we were all scribbling merrily, starting to look at the simple form in front of us. okay said Richard thats good. Now lets look at it slightly differently Stay on the same page, draw it again this time, dont use tone at all, just use line, use that terrible line that doesnt actually exist in real life and plot the edges of the object on your paper. In previous weeks we had been doing exercises of measuring and comparing proportions so this was something we were all used to ok said Richard,now lets put the tone in. If you now find that line is in the wrong place, dont worry about, leave it in, let the drawing build up, dont fuss with it. Concentrate more on the object in front of you than the drawing itself. Look at the shapes in front of you.
As I did this I was beginning to surrender to the act of drawing. Its not as physical as knocking down a wall or mowing the lawn but it does require work and it requires focus and a kind of inner calm that comes with letting go and, well just doing it, just drawing. I find myself not worrying about Jenny but just surrendering to the act of drawing. Not worrying about what this was for, or why, whether it was a good exercise or a bad exercise just doing it for the sheer hell of doing it, and ultimately doing it for the sheer enjoyment of doing it. But I wasnt quite there yet. OK said Richard weve done these three small loosening up drawings each taking a few minutes, keeping it loose and fairly free, getting used to the action of making marks on the paper, getting used to using our eyes, getting into looking at the light and the dark, looking at the shapes in front of us, looking at how these three or four planes relate to one another, how they go backwards and forwards in space. Youve worked with what is a relatively simple form that is right in front of you. Now I want you to do something else. I want you to imagine an object. Put something in your head that is an object, I would suggest, of comparatively simple form that is well known to you. Something you know and use every day. Put that object inside your head so you can see it in front of you. See it with your minds eye. Focus on it, close you eyes and focus on it. Youve got it in front of you, see it, turn it round, look at the surfaces, now using that same technique youve used for the cube, put what you can of it down on paper.
What shall I do? I thought. I know Ill draw a coffee mug, nice simple form, not too much…. . So I turned my page over and began literally feeling my way into a little doodle of a coffee cup. Rubbing lead on the paper, smearing it around with my finger, pulling out highlights with a rubber to get the clean shape of the inside of the mug, scribbling away , not really thinking about anything except the shape or form of that coffee cup.
Then Richard said something that cut through the calm silence of the drawing studio. He said ultimately, what we are after is an interesting drawing that should really be creative rather than descriptive. Now that simple statement jangled my values , but I was still in a pretty open frame of mind and I found my pencil scribbling and crashing around, so as I put my pencil down after a few minutes, I looked with some surprise at what had appeared on the page in front of me. As a drawing it wouldnt set the world on fire, but it wasnt a bad image and Id years ago given up caring what people thought about my drawing so it wasnt something I minded turning over and showing the other students. At the time I thought, youve got to be able to stand behind your drawing and say This drawing is really a work in progress just as I am here as a human being in progress, Im changing and moving around and getting better at some things and worse at others, but right now at this moment, this is what I can do. Youre just going to have to take it or leave it I didnt share it with them at the time, but I shall, I hope, remember to do so at some other time. For years Ive cringed behind my drawings, and i am not bad at this drawing lark, I have felt too personally attached, too close, too vulnerable and too exposed by what the drawing has said about be and my ability. Any criticism of any mark on that piece of paper would then have been a violation of me. Now I can say that Im not prepared to accept judgement of my drawings and of me in those terms. That you can do so if you want, but i am valuing them in the same way as Im valuing myself, as work in progress.
We held up our drawings and Richard made positive remarks about all of them and I was just beginning to settle down and enjoy the process of simply doing drawings. Though I draw, not every day, but most days,its always something in connection with my work so drawing has a very focused purpose for me. This was drawing for the sheer pleasure of drawing and I was beginning to to remember how it felt to just play around and let that creative space between my ears work to its best advantage. Its a kind of active passivity, one is calm and rested whilst in that zone and deeply focused on whatever it is you are doing. Time can pass you by, train crashes occur outside the window, Vulcan bombers fly overhead, nothing except the cry of an infant would pull you out of your reverie. If I ever did meditation, its what I understand meditation would be like, but with the benefit of actually doing something and having something more positive to show than a well polished karma. Its in this state that your right brain is being allowed to dominate. This is a non verbal zone. Quietness is a benefit though sometimes, music can play a great part in getting you into the zone, setting up rhythms and patterns, getting you activated tapping your feet, bouncing along, or quite simply being moved by a piece of exquisitely composed sound.
Once you know this space, this zone, once you can recognise it and see yourself actually doing it, then its possible to develop strategies to put yourself in the zone, to get back there. then you can start behaving like a professional artist, rather than waiting for The Muse to take you, you can turn it on at 9 oclock on a wet Wednesday morning, simply by going through your processes. The processes that you can use, sharpening pencils, making cups of coffee, sweeping the floor, these are a specific set of actions that have nothing whatsoever to do with any creative work, that you come through habit to use as a ritual, as a doorway into creative work. A friend of mine once called it othering, its anything other than what youve got to do. I make sure my studio floor is swept, bits of paper pertaining to money or invoices or bills or cheques are removed from sight, tidied up, make a cup of coffee, sharpen three pencils, put out a stock of erasers, technical pens, and whatever, and whatever other tools I can find that might be useful. All artists have some kind of ritual that they go through as a warming up exercise. A painter once told me that one of the most intimidating acts of his day was removing the caps off the tubes of paint before squeezing them out on the palette, his fingers would tremble with the effort required just to start. Writers and musicians have their own set of routines. Ernest Hemingway would leave a last paragraph untyped. Hed form it in his head, but leave it unwritten so he had something in the morning to clatter down on to the page and get him going. Its a bit like a long jumper would take a run at that sandpit, this paragraph got him airborne. So youve gone through your othering routine, sharpened three pencils, made a cup of coffee, put the radio on, turned the radio off, found some decent inspiring music, taken the telephone off the hook or put it on answer phone, isolated yourself into a creative calm zone and youre faced with that terrifying sheet of paper.
This is the killer. This is the piece of stuff that says to you Im virgin. You mustnt hurt me. Im perfect. Theres no way that you can ever do anything thats as half a beautiful as I am. Im pure and white and virginal. You are a clumsy sod who shouldnt be anywhere near anything so exquisite as me. We have a large black block of granite in our workshop. Thats a bit like that. Its a slab, maybe 2 foot square and 4 inches thick, with a surface that has been ground to a flatness measured in thousandths of an inch. This is a tool used for checking the flatness of other surfaces usually tools used within our workshop, but it is a thing of extreme beauty rather like that black monolith at the beginning of Stanley Kubricks 2001 The Space Odyssey. Well your white sheet of paper is a bit different because you can do something about that. That virginity can be taken. Just take a pencil and mark it. Violate it. Turn that white perfection into something more humane. Make a mark then rub it out. Now the paper is yours, now you have a space that you can work within.
It was at this point that Richard turned the whole session on its head. Right, what Id like you to draw he said, is this. He reached over into the middle of the table and picked up the brown cube that we had been labouring over for the past hour or so. As he picked it up, I saw that immediately it had weight, it slightly deformed in his hands, then he did something that quite surprised me, for he flipped open a lid and we saw that what we had there was very obviously a box, though Id not seen it as a box, Id only seen it as a cube to draw, as a rectangular geometrical form. It never occurred to me that this had some form of use, and its use was to hold what it was that we were going to draw. Like a magician he produced a perfect glass sphere, about 6 inches in diameter. A pale greenish glass, almost totally transparent with a highly polished surface. Richard carefully placed the glass sphere in the centre of the table. This was a witch ball, Id heard about them and remembered them from my childhood. My father used to collect witch balls and I remember going off with him in search of a specifically large green witch balls from local antique shops. I understand that they acquired their name from the practice of hanging these witch balls in the window in order to repel witches . Im reasonably certain my father wasnt concerned about preventing old ladies on broomsticks from flying through his windows, but more that he just enjoyed the pure effortless beauty of these green spheres. Here was Richard asking us all to draw one.
As we began looking at it, it came clear that this was an opportunity of drawing the entire room, not just the thing in front of us. The tall gothic windows of the church hall we were using as a studio were reflected around and inside this glass sphere. These windows, through which the evening light was now pouring were distorted by the surface of the sphere into something that resembled an image from a fish eye lens, bent and curved around the centre. There was a world within the sphere. We could see ourselves reflected. I began looking at the point at which my head was reflected as a tiny mark in the centre of the sphere and started drawing from that point outwards. Its a technique I learnt years ago, to try and pick the nearest part of an object, maybe a models knee or a corner thats near you and something in the middle, and work away from that point in all directions, adding on little bits as you go. Time shot past and this time the drawing exploded underneath me. I wasnt really conscious of making anything while I was doing it , just adding to, putting down marks that were appropriate, testing them, seeing if they were in the right place, seeing if i could fit a group of lines together that corresponded to something deep inside that globe, testing it out , moving away from them, coming back, areas of dark tone were put down, edges created, lines put down for guidance, shapes pulled out of nowhere. I was looking at that globe with an intensity that took over my whole being. I wasnt caring what the drawing was. I was merely caring whether my drawing was right. I gave up. I wanted it to feel like the shapes that the witch ball were reflecting, rather than being a photographic representation of the witch ball. It didnt matter to me if I was a bit off in my proportions here and there, as long as as a whole the thing hung together as an image that had something like that world inside that green sphere in front of me. This is a world that my daughter Jenny would have loved. Shed have created fairy palaces inside that ball. What you see and what you imagine quite often start off as the same thing. They may diverge as the drawing progresses, you may never quite realise what is in your heart, but I was slightly sad that Jenny hadnt the chance to see what I saw inside that green witch ball.
The class ended and we made our way out. I felt happy with the class and confident that Id find a way to carry it on, and the value of the class was confirmed to me as I drive home in the evening sunshine. I became aware that my power of perception had been enhanced. The colours of the sky, the setting sun, were that much more intense. I was able to see the blades of grass on the verges with an intense clarity that surprised me. It was like being on a mind enhancing drug. In fact, it was this realisation that convinced me that whatever I do I must retain and enhance these classes.
Next morning I blasted those students at the workshop that had failed to turn up. Yep, sure I realise that they are all very busy , and there is a lot of work to do and theres a lot of other things that could be done, and I respect them for making the choices that they have. But, having said that, I reminded them that no matter how good their workmanship,they were dependant upon their eyes to perceive and measure. Whilst some of them may not well be inspired to become creative craftsmen, even they are going to need a good pair of eyes to see a true curve when asked to produce it. I described our experiences and suggested that whatever theyve got to do, or whatever their pressures, no time could be better spent than that 2 hours on a Tuesday evening wrestling with a witch ball.