Now that my wall painting ‘Myth: Balder and the Ice Stars’ is just about finished, I’ve had a little time to do some drawing. It’s quite startling how deeply I enjoy drawing, and what a relief it is to get back to it when I’ve been occupied with painting instead. If there were more hours in the day, I’d have a routine whereby drawing would be a part of things everyday. I must factor this in when I start working out my timetable post degree. Michelangelo apparently said to one of his pupils ‘Draw, Antonio, draw. And when you have finished, draw!’ I’m with you, sir.
I don’t know what it is about drawing that is so fascinating, but there’s definitely some magic there somewhere. The most evocative display of drawing magic I’ve ever seen was last year when the British Museum put on an exhibition called ‘Italian Renaissance Drawings’. I went down to London for the day specifically to see it, and I was amazed at the riches it contained. Many of the works I was already familiar with, but to see the original drawings was quite breathtaking. I made a new friend that day, an artist I hadn’t really looked at properly before, and that was Fra Filippo Lippi. Towards the end of the exhibition there was a small drawing called ‘A Standing Woman’, about 12 inches by 5, silverpoint with black chalk and lead white on a pinky/peachy ground. The delicacy of it is arresting, and it has a haunting quality that stays with me. I marvelled at the weight of the figure, the way it really felt that there was a real middle-aged body under the beautifully drawn folds of the cloak, the posture, the hands, and the wonderful attention to the face in such a small drawing. She was a simple woman pleading, undergoing suffering, without any kind of sentimentality. It was quite an experience to see it, and one I keep with me. It wasn’t the highly accomplished technique that made the impression. The woman was real, and I felt her presence. That’s how it seemed at the time. It made me wonder how could I possibly be so bowled over by that tiny work when I had already seen work by many other great masters? It could have been just another masterpiece amongst a crowd of others, but something about it pulled at me and made a deep impact5.
The very first experience I had of being overwhelmed by a drawing was nearly forty years ago when I saw the Leonardo cartoon at the National Gallery. I remember coming round the corner into a darkened area, to see this original work carefully lit in a space by itself. I was very conscious of the power of it, which amazed me because it was unfinished, and executed on what looked like sheets of brown paper, and yet to this day it remains a special encounter. There was something living about it.
For me it raises the whole question of the magic of drawing. Where does the magic come from? Is it what is drawn or how it is perceived? Is it in the hand of the artist or the eye of the beholder? How is it that a few simple lines can evoke so much emotion and take your breath away? And why does one particular grouping of lines stand out so much, when there are many others that are very similar but don’t achieve the same impact? Do other people feel the same as I do? Did they respond at a deep level as I did in front of ‘A Standing Woman’? Or the Leonardo? Or did these drawings have a resonance with me in particular? And how is it that the drawn line has so much power to it in the first place, even when it’s not used in a representative way? I’ll have to think about that in another post. However, I might have hit on it in a way by describing both drawings as being living things. I remember reading a book by Frank Stella called something like Working Practice (not sure I’ve got that right), and he makes the point that for the work to live, that is the most important thing. A piece can be as accomplished as you like, but if it is not living and breathing, it does not succeed. Maybe I was just acutely aware of those particular drawings being alive. They had the breath factor. So I remind myself, that must be the goal for my own drawing. To make drawings that have a life of their own, even though they are abstract and not representational, drawings that have the power to arrest the viewer (not necessarily every viewer, just one would do). Not much of a challenge then. What am I waiting for? ‘Draw, Antonio, draw. And when you have finished, draw!’