Initial Thoughts (Rethink) and Research
The passing of time is the theme throughout all the projects in this part of the Investigating Drawing course. The course asks us to consider our approach to the final assignment early and to make a drawing which is developed over a period of time. I chose to make an altered book which not only required elapsed time to make but which had memory, history and passing time at its centre. However, since then I have undertaken a project drawing 50 self portraits in fours hours, producing a video and an artist’s book of the process over time. Suddenly my idea of the altered book feels superficial and insufficiently embedded in the earlier projects of the course. I feel that the assignment should be a culmination of the projects, and that in deciding early on the assignment piece, I have not built on the learning through the projects.
The upshot of this thought process is that I want to continue with the self portrait challenge as proposed by Robert Kaupelis in ‘Experimental Drawing’ and draw a single self portrait over four hours. That may not seem a very long elapsed time but, in life drawing classes, I struggle with the longer poses and even 30 minute poses seem like a life time, resulting in fiddly overworking.
I am not sure what I expect of this drawing but I know that I don’t want it to be banal. I am not sure what my agenda should be, or even if it would be right to have an agenda for a self portrait. I have been looking at self portraits to inspire and inform my eye.
This famous self portrait by Auerbach shows tearing out of the support and replacing it and also laying down of charcoal and working back into it with an eraser. The charcoal has acquired the character of a wash and gives the drawing a subterranean feel. Auerbach and Kossof used to sit for each other and I thought it would be interesting to look at a Kossof self portrait. This charcoal drawing in the Tate has lots of mark making and character. He has retained line much more than Auerbach and the marks are harder, even aggressive; not softened into washes. Whilst Auerbach’s portrait feels rather tranquil and a bit remote, this is immediate and forceful.
Looking at these has reminded me of an artist I looked at in D1, Zoran Music. I find his work powerful and often painful. His self portraits, such as this painting or this self portrait, are wild, confused, obscured and unavoidably tragic. He was interred in Dachau as a spy and drew the horrors there until his liberation by the Americans. He abaces himself from his self portraits as if seeing a ghost.
I suddenly found myself with an uncommitted morning as so I went to the National Portrait Gallery to see what I might find there to feed into the process. I didn’t have time to join the queue for the Cezanne portraits and went to look at the general collections. I had forgotten how few contemporary works they have on permanent display. Looking at the early twentieth century works, I was struck by how dull and predictable nearly all of them are, especially compared with the few modern paintings such as this by Chris Ofili. As always, making a sketch of a work really made me look at it harder and appreciate its construction and composition.
The portrait is unusual and attention grabbing because of the long, thin format and the way in which he has placed his head at an angle across the frame. This reflects the fact that he has been looking past his easel to a mirror. The paint has been laid on in thick, gestural marks and then scratched back into.
Ofili’s thick paint is nothing in comparison with the amount of paint lathered on by Kossof in this self portrait. Kossof and Auerbach used to sit for each other and were close friends and fellow students of Bomberg. I think this portrait clearly shows his and Auerback’s influence on each other and Bomberg’s on them both.
The other work which interested me was this self portrait, by Kitaj. Again it uses a narrow frame with Kitaj’s head positioned right at the top, on a pillow, and that is all we can see of him. He has bedclothes tightly drawn up over his shoulders and these take up all the rest of the area apart from a solicitous arm bottom right. In his bed, with red, feverish eyes, we have to assume that he has been ill. The figures on the pillow fabric have come to monstrous life and are dancing about and off the pillow. Below the pillow, the bed is calm with soothing, green and blue flowers and that tender, caring arm. It is an intriguing painting. Subsequent research has shown me that the year of the painting, 1994, was a significant and painful one for Kitaj with his annihilation by London critics and the death of his wife (Adams, 2013).
It is interesting and informative to compare these paintings with a drawing (and then transferred into an etching) of Kitaj by Auerbach. The economy of the drawing is striking, especially compared to Kossof’s toffee thick paint. Using lines of two different tones allows him to build the image and suggest softer areas of shadow such as under the eye. I am not sure how this was achieved in an etching unless he combined two plates.
My set up for this portrait was the same as for the 48 because I wanted to build on that experience and the previous set up had exploited the directional light available to me for modelling the features. However, this time, I planned to work much larger at about A3. I used charcoal as this will allow me to work and rework the drawing, which is obviously going to happen extensively over that length of time.
Once again, I planned to video the process and condense the video down to minutes. This time I worked completely uninterrupted for a solid four hours and unfortunately my camera hit some unexpected limit and switched off after about 30 minutes, without my realising. The video is still interesting, as I watch myself redraw my eye over and again in the some place, and not the redraw the mouth when I have given myself far too long an upper lip!
I did pause a couple of times to take photographs.
One of the the fascinating things about a self portrait is that every little crease, scar or feature is examined and recorded in vicious detail. Having drawn them in, I then started to soften the hard lines. Normally, with lots of time I keep adding adding and adding, but here I wanted to strip back to a less detailed essence.
This process continued and the light also started to fail so that my face started to look as though it was emerging from the gloom.
I like the way the figure is starting to merge with the background but, in softening the features, some tension has gone out of the drawing. At this point I ripped it up, changed the angles and stuck it down to another support. Suddenly this has more impact and gives the suggestion of looking in the mirror. I had been struggling to see the same amount of my right eye consistently, so I decided to reflect this by offsetting it.
I then started working back into this new support. I love the way that the torn edges of the paper pick up the charcoal. A single, considering eye is now the centre of the whole drawing and everything else has been pushed into the background. It wasn’t conscious at the time, but I can see how looking at Chris Ofili’s self portrait has influenced me whilst the influence of Auerbach’s charcoal washes was conscious.
60cm x 60cm, charcoal
Adams T. 2013. RB Kitaj: an obsession with revenge. [ONLINE] Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/feb/10/rb-kitaj-obsessions-tate-war. [Accessed 7 November 2017].