Parallel Project – A Family Photo

I have been considering lots of ways in which a presence which is also an absence might be represented or suggested.  Some of these are literal, with a figure broadly representing my father being left as a negative space in a drawing, or drawing into with an eraser, such as the lower two thumbnails here.


Other ideas have been less representational of a figure and more about holes in matter or space.

A study visit to Tate Modern this week to see the current  Rauschenbergh retrospective has coincided with considering his ‘Erased de Kooning’ which was included in the exhibition. I thought that it would be interesting to take this idea and move it into this project by erasing my father from a drawing. That is, I wanted to create a careful, possibly photorealistic, drawing of my father which would take time, care and attention to detail, and then erase it. The erasure should leave faint traces of the drawing and the drawing should include context highlighting the erasure.

I based the drawing on a family photograph, indeed the only photograph that exists showing Dad, Mum my sister and myself. It is a typical, poor quality, happy family snap, although my sister is looking mulish and clearly didn’t want to stand still.


I wanted the faces to be realistic, but was not concerned with details in clothing, shoes etc. I also decided that the background should be largely dispensed with, apart from some sense of ground to anchor the figures. Generally, I dislike working from photographs because of the poverty of information which even the best contains, and the flat results. However, it is important here that the drawing has the quality of a family snap.


Working things out in my sketchbook

I worked with a 2H pencil to achieve fine detail with a sharp point, and also to make an impression in the paper which would be left on erasure. The choice of medium was influenced by Peter Blake’s portrait drawings illustrating ‘Under Milk Wood’ which he discusses and shows examples of here. The faces are tightly controlled and the drawing becomes looser and more expressive as you look down the figures. Tone has been developed in the background to create an environment in which an erasure can exist.


A3, pencil on cartridge paper

The likenesses of my sister and myself came immediately but I found my parents’ faces very difficult, with the result that they are very over worked. This became an asset, however, when I erased my father, as a ghost of the eyes remains. In order to be more objective about their faces, I turned the drawing and photograph upside-down, which was a good aid to analysis of shapes. However, since this was drawn over many hours sitting at a table, as opposed to my usual practice of working quickly at an easel, I have distorted the perspective. I have noticed that this is an error I can easily make working on a horizontal rather than vertical plane.


family-detail-3-of-1 family-detail-2-of-1 family-detail-1-of-1


I have deliberately tried to work outside of my normal ‘comfort zone’ with this representational approach because I felt it was dictated by the concept.

The family group, with the obvious missing figure, has a poignancy, especially as there is a direct connection between the little girl and the space where someone should be. Although it is obvious from the nature of the group, who the missing figure is, it isn’t spelt out why they are missing and the other figures are all happily smiling. The more spontaneous, looser marks in the clothes and foreground have more energy and interest than the careful precise marks on the faces, but an exact, realistic representation of the characters is important to the concept. The high tone of the graphite lacks a visual impact of darker media producing a quiet, almost contemplative work.

One possible development of the piece would be to tear out the erased figure completely and then mount the drawing on a black support. This would, however, make it much more obviously referencing death. Another development might be to take a copy of the photograph and draw over it.


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