I have been out of action for a while – part of the process of “learning to see again” is to analyse how those that do this or had done this as a way of life see for themselves…
…your skill level on its own will only take you so far.
It is so important for me to strike a balance between doing it yourself and learning from others. There is a saying in professional tennis, I think John McEnroe said it – “you only learn by playing people that are better than you”. Art and design is no different in that respect for me. Unless you expose yourself to as many different styles and genres your skill level on its own will only take you so far.
So, on a Saturday afternoon I decided to jump on a bus and have a spin round the Cardiff National Museum and Gallery – I often go there but most recently it was as a casual punter that enjoys a bit of art. On this occasion it was different, I wanted to see drawings and good use of line and technique. I wasn’t even sure who I was going to see but I knew what I wanted. I must admit I was really excited – it was just like being a student again – I wanted soak up as much as I could.
I wanted to analyse examples of use of line and construction in particular of drawings. During my quest I stumbled on a small exhibition of Augustus John’s work. It was an interesting exciting exhibition – there was so much to take in but I had to stop myself and stick to what I came for – examples of line and tone – it showed a wide variety of his work throughout his long career and also examples of work in varying degrees of completion.
Immediacy and Certainty
For me the preparatory stage of an artist’s work is often more interesting than the completed outcome. What struck me about John’s work was the spontaneity of his drawings and paintings. Nothing was overworked – it had a freshness and an immediacy to it.
For example Pyramus John (1905 -13)
Pyramus John (1905-13), Oil on canvas on board
The painting encapsulates the immediacy and spontaneity of his brush work. There is just enough to suggest what he is describing in paint. The neck of the child is just one or two brush strokes – nothing more. The folds in the clothing and tonal variation are described with an un-fussy certainty. Again the arm of the chair is executed deftly – a few sure strokes illustrating the three-dimensional form and direction of light.
Nothing is overworked or wanting more.
Line and Tone
Agustus John – Nude, Chalk on Paper
Aside from his painting it is John’s drawings that particularly interested me. This nude above is a great example of his use of line and tone. The line has that same certainty and brevity that exists in his painting. Just enough but not too much. The nude displays excellent draftsmanship, for example proportion and distribution of weight.
If you trust the process you eventually arrive at your chosen destination. The outcome is also ‘honest’.
There is also evidence of experimentation and working out the form. Never rubbing out but working out and developing the form further – working through the problem. This gives it an added freshness and dynamism. Other key aspects of this drawing include the drawing of the hands – there is a clear structure – I suppose the main trick of drawing hands is to consider the negative space and for that matter when drawing any complex object. Also I find it easier to not think of it as the object you are trying to draw – such as hand because otherwise you preconceive what it should look like and in so doing you end up with at best a skewed approximation of what it is in front of you. Instead simply draw the shapes and importantly how the negative space interacts with those forms.
It is quite liberating to draw like that – concentrating on the negative space – because its a bit like being taken on a journey of which you are not sure where you will end up. If you trust the process you eventually arrive at your chosen destination. The outcome is also ‘honest’.
Portrait of a girl (Chalk on paper)
The Portrait of a girl (Chalk on paper) demonstrates how John applies line and tone together. The shading is all in the same direction and gradually built up to indicate darker shadow.
Pyramus as a baby
The pen and ink of Pyramus as a baby is also another good example of line and tone. Again the shading is always in the same direction according to the part of the body he is working on. Tone built up with more intense lines the darker it goes. Notice also the hands and feet – I discussed this earlier when examining his nude – what you have here again is something that is dynamic and that word again – honest.
Study of a boy reading, John’s Sketchbook
This example from his sketchbook is another great execution of line and the development of ideas.
Finally, the unfinished painting of a girl demonstrates why I prefer the preparatory stage of an artists work rather than the finished article. This example ties together his ability as a draftsman and a painter. What was also striking was his vocabulary; fresh, energetic but not rushed to the point of carelessness – just enough. This was visible in a brief sketch to a finished painting, Pyramus, 1913.