The aims of this project are to ‘explode notions of scale’ and ‘experiment with extreme changes of scale’ to achieve a powerful drawing which suggests a monumental landscape or architecture.
This made the consider how to create the impression of monumentality. How do we know the size and scale of an object in an image? I need to consider:
- context, ie size relative to reference objects
- level and scale of detail
- focus, depth of field
- perspective, size implied by converging lines
- solidity, implied mass
To work my way into the project, as suggested, I draw a small portion of a still life painting. I chose to work from a physical painting , rather than a photograph because photos have to be of very high quality to retain any information when blown up. I chose an area of a small watercolour still life of dried bean pods by a Russian artist Sergei Botnaryuk, which I own and so could observe as closely as I wished.
My drawing represents an area about 1cm by 1.5cm.
Analysing this in the context of the aims, I did not feel that I had achieved any sense of the monumental, partly because this is a quick sketch but also because I feel that to express monumentality requires a gathering together of mass and here the mass is dispersed. The stalks have an inherent twigginess and don’t look like massive tree trunks. Also, the view point in from face-on and size would be better implied by looking from beneath. To be monumental is to tower over.
Bearing this in mind, I considered objects for drawing. Had the season been different, I would have loved to have drawn seed pods. I do collect shells, flints, sea tumbled stones and bones for drawing. I gathered together a selection of shells and stones and placed them on a high shelf using a low stool to sketch from. I love sketching these objects which remind me of the places and outings when they were picked up. I experimented drawing groups or single items, more or less detail, but always cropping in hard.
Through this I was reminded of the works of Henry Moore (also a bone and stone collector). In this drawing from the Tate, he has drawn stones or rocks as ideas for sculpture. We really don’t know their size but I suspect they were quite small because I have collected similar stones from Dorset beaches where molluscs bore into the stone leaving those distinctive holes about 15mm across. In the upper drawings he has given the figurers and a stone monumental size by placing them in an imagined landscape. In all the studies, he has created mass by emphasising the solidity of the form through shading and its relationship with the ground. He has also dispensed with detail and texture. In this figure, he has again created mass through strong shadows and by placing the figure in the landscape. We know this figure is huge relative to the hills and clouds. In this drawing of Stonehenge, he has used perspective to show how huge these stones are.
In my small sketches, I found it more difficult to create monumentality with the shells, mostly, I think, because one knows how big shells are. I think to achieve the project aim, I need to zoom right into a shell and explore its structure and eliminating the overall outline. This put me in mind of O’Keefe’s studies of the structures of flowers where she eliminates context and focuses in on the ‘landscape’ of the flower’s interior.
This watercolour is featured in a very interesting video by the O’Keeffe Museum discussing her life and works. The subject of the painting is lost in the close examination of the form. Her soft colouring and delicate tonal transitions imply the subject, possibly a shell, possibly a flower, but it is still endowed with a sense of geological landscape. If I were to use a shell as my subject, I think I have to crop in really hard. I hadn’t, up to this point, considered flowers, but these are now added to my list of possible subjects, especially if they have a sculptural, solid pistil.
I continued exploring subjects but increasingly I found myself producing small studies rather than thumbnail sketches. I also moved into colour, initially for tone and to separate objects visually, but also as a self indulgence. During this week, I joined the study visit to see Hilma af Klint’s works at the Serpentine and came away determined to return to some watercolour painting after a break of five years (in fact since I started studying with OCA). I went back to thumbnails, finding the need to crop in and enlarge even more.
The first large scale drawing executed for this project is a tulip, chosen for its sculptural pistil. I have used an XL coloured graphite stick. I decided that I wanted to stick to a single colour and these sticks can be used very effectively on their edge for strong curvy lines of differing weight. Texture can also be developed with water, which was useful for the anthers. I have worked with soft and hard marks, removing graphite with a rubber and using a wet brush to harden and soften lines and planes. I have tried to make the pistil really big (redrawing it bigger several times) whilst including enough petal to give it context but also to give it something to dominate. I think that I should have made it even larger in the composition, but I have successfully created monumentality, although my handling of subtle tone is weak.
This is one of the first drawings where I have had to wear reading specs, taking them on and off as I drew. I have extreme sympathy with O’Keeffe and her failing eyesight towards the end of her life. Working on a subject so small and close is seriously wearing on the eyes.
I have decided to do a series of drawings, all the same size, exploring different objects at this extreme scale. I want to use different approaches for each dictated by the subject.
For the weathered, broken shell with its soft curves and little surface detail, I decided to use powdered charcoal rubbed over my support and removed with a cloth or putty rubber. The cloth was just the one I had wiped my hands on after spreading the charcoal and a bit of it was damp. No realising, I used the damp area to remove charcoal and it made lovely fluid marks very appropriate to the subject. Unfortunately, I subsequently found that I could not work into the areas further, so in places, my ability to manipulate the tone was completely compromised.
The area at the top of the shell is dreadful – I couldn’t manipulate the charcoal and I have been reduced to using white acrylic ink to regain highlights. I find this crude and would much preferred not to have had to use it.
Unlike the tulip, the shape of the shell means that I have had to consider what to do with the background. If I had cropped in enough to eliminate any background, I thought I would lose much of the interest in the object. I have placed the shell within a suggested landscape to create a false sense of scale. The shell feels enormous and sculptural, like some huge totem on a seashore. However, whilst the addition of water has created some interesting marks, I really don’t like the acrylic ink used to regain highlights. Working back into charcoal has produced some lovely velvety marks like a mezzotint print. The drawing reminds me of this sculpture by Henry Moore.
The smooth nature of this broken shell would lend itself well to a monoprint where the texture and shapes are drawn into a dark field using various implements. I rolled a flat plastic plate with black ink and worked into it with kitchen paper, cotton bods and a bamboo pen. Not mark can be removed (though it can to some extend be reworked) and it can be difficult to see your progress. I wnated to crop in even closer. My accuracy of drawing has gone way off here; it is difficult to make initial, decisive marks accurately so I must practice more. Fear and hesitation is fatal.
This method of monoprinting is capable of producing very subtle marks and contrast in tone. Although the spiral asymmetry of the shell has been fatally exaggerated, I do think that this approach, both in the medium and the composition, creates a sense of monumentality successfully.
Returning to the inspiration of O’Keeffe, I found a large, fat bud of rheum emerging by the pond, like a monstrous triffid. It is only about 4 inches high but about to become a sky-rocket. I want to try and extend my experience of working in colour, so I have attempted a pastel painting/drawing (never sure which is correct). I prepared my paper by painting with gesso to provide tooth and making a free underpainting of washes before developing the shapes in hard and then soft pastel. This was done partly from a photograph taken at ant level and partly from observation.
I don’t think that this is a very successful composition. I was so concentrating on scale and solidity that I did not consider carefully enough the balance of the darker shapes. The composition is very heavy towards the left, which was observationally true, but could have been portrayed better. I think the wash is successful as a background. I am mindful of the lessons of the previous project about considering the background and how to make it interesting. I was concerned that it would be too assertive but I think it adds a lot to the drawing and successfully gives the feeling of the dappled sun through the overhead trees.
I wanted to do some quick pieces to explore if monoprinting could be successfully used with other drawing media. I damped some Japanese paper by enfolding it in a damped newpaper. This is very thin, delicate paper which is extremely sensitive to marks on a plate and can be hand printed using a baren. I drew using artbars (a kind of soluble wax crayon) onto a slightly textured plastic sheet which was necessary to take and material off the stick. It was impossible to make marks of any subtlety and difficult to layer the colours or make them stick.
Marks need to be very simple and direct. Less is better than more. Little bits of crayon have scattered over the plate but this can add interest. I need to explore if it is possible to wipe away again and refine a line or tone. Because of the difficulty applying the wax, I lightly sprayed a plate with water and then applied the artbar. Now the colour turns to a creamy liqud. This can be laid down easier but the colour is as easily wiped away by the crayon as applied. Mark making is more difficult. Colour selection is also hard because the colours become much more vivid in action with water.
The experiment was repeated using Derwent water soluble XL charcoals. These are really chunky sticks which are very soft and very ‘broad brush’. This was extremely difficult to create any detail with but has created a lovely texture and the charcoal is imbedded in the paper completely fixed by the water. This might lend itself well to creating a subtle background or Chinese style simple representations. I must try this with ordinary charcoal.
My final experiment was drawing on a smooth plate using felt tip pens in a range of tones of grey and a water soluble Japanese brush pen for more calligraphic marks.
The damp soft paper has picked up the ink well but the brush pen ink has bled loosing the crispness and accuracy of the line. The felt tips are surprisingly subtle. The following images show details of the contrasting textures of each medium.
Each of these mediums have their own characteristic when monoprinted and this is often quite different to when they are applied directly to paper. In addition, printing creates a level of abstraction by being an extra remove from the original mark. This exercise shows that these marks have to describe the subject with great simplicity and accuracy to be successful. Whilst this was a bit of an indulgence in technique, I think it has created useful data for the future.
My final large scale. drawings are not as heavily cropped-in as my thumbnail sketches and I have slipped back out to a more conventional view. If I was mounting or framing these, I would crop the drawings. I think the drawing of the tulip centre is the most successful in terms of manipulating the scale but the charcoal drawing of the shell has more power due to the tonal qualities of the black charcoal. All three of the large drawings have an impact through size of support and scale of subject which is not evident in a small photograph on the screen.
This project has, yet again, been a revelation. I have always loved looking at objects closely via macro photography and using my microscope. However, this project has given this a new focus by concentrating on how the composition can alter or confuse the viewer’s perception of what is being observed. This is subject matter which I have always considered and drawn but this has given me a new compositional tool.