Drawing from London’s South Bank

I once spent a couple of evenings drawing the Houses of Parliament from the South Bank of the Thames somewhere in front of County Hall — not for any particular reason — I just happened to be there. It was September. There was enough good light. The air was still and warm. People were strolling leisurely along the prom and every now and then a couple would break away and have a nose over my shoulder at what I was doing.


This can be unnerving because to most of us, drawing rather like reading, is a private activity. We might choose to show someone the result, but like as not we’ll shove it in a folio and forget about it. But of course, drawing can be performance…


In 2008 the artist Michael Landy performed ‘Drawing’ where the acts of pencil sharpening, eyeballing subjects at close quarters, giving directions and so on were more significant than the final images. But like a lot of takes contemporary art has on life, it was a weird one. Still, as we’re all aware, in contemporary art weird is good. So that’s okay then!


[You can find a link to the Channel Tate site where there’s a clip of the performance, on the Links page at the end of this site.]


Straightforward observational drawing (if there is such a thing) in public can be awkward, and if you do it often enough, you develop a kind of useful sang-froid state of mind to cope. (Though perhaps at the risk of taking on the emotional and artistic receptivity of a plank!)


I decided to make a drawing of this great, pompous iced-cake of a building. Why? I don’t know. Probably because it was there. But then so were a great many other things — the caramel-covered cashew nut dropped on the pavement that I was trying to avoid stepping on, for one. But let’s not be disingenuous. That building commands attention. It stands as a symbol of British power and authority. An image of it sells brown sauce, for heaven’s sake! So, putting aside for a moment the question of whether there was any justifiable reason for a scribble of ‘this’ rather than ‘that’, I set to.


‘Draw what you see, not what you think you see’ Did your art teacher ever tell you that? Either way, it’s one of art’s many dictums — and actually not a bad one. There comes a point in a child’s development when she’s able to draw an object by looking at what’s in front of her, rather than by putting together symbols that stand in for things. So for instance, a hand that is drawn by a child actually looking at a hand will be very different from a hand drawn from imagination — which will be a kind of ‘pictogram’. (Depending on the age of the child, it might be a circle representing a palm with five spikes for fingers or a ‘bunch of five bananas’ but always five, because children know the truth.) Not that many children choose to draw from observation. It’s the kind of thing a pushy artistic parent might get them to try — I have.


I’m not saying that an observational drawing is better, or that it’s ‘pictogram-free’ in the way that a drawing made from imagination isn’t. I think that all drawings are loaded with personal ‘hand-writing’ if you like. They’re full of artifice — necessarily so. That’s what sets them apart from photographs (even if they’re photo-realistic). It’s also what makes drawings art — be they good or bad art. But for sure, the process of drawing by what you think you see, yields a very different result from that of looking carefully and often at a subject while making marks on paper.


To get back to the task in hand — drawing the ‘Houses of Parliament’ — stuffy, boring words on a page. Actually, I can’t think of a drearier, yawn-inducing thing when put in a phrase like that. And yet the scene, as I remember it, with its rich autumnal sky, great up-lit columns, indigo river jangling with reflected colour, was quite magical — lit like a Christmas tree and bursting with all the promise of the Capital at night. But how to make a drawing? Where to start? What would it be like? What should it be like?


‘Great iced-cake of a building’ — that phrase tells about my attitude towards Barry’s landmark. You’ve seen it a hundred times. I’d even drawn it on a primary school trip once, long, long ago. So I had my preconceptions — of an overly-elaborate, fussy structure, pretty well how I’d captured it in my ‘A Day Out in London’ book I’d made when I was eight years old. So what’s new?


‘You never really do see something until you draw it.’ That might be a cliché but in a sense it’s true. Here you are, looking across Westminster Bridge, faced by an overwhelming number of verticals and horizontals. There’s a pattern to be got down. What is almost a sense of panic sets in – there’s an accompanying feeling of sickliness almost – like when you’ve eaten too much chocolate! You start to ask yourself: how accurate do I want to be? If I want the number of windows to look about right, then I might as well make it right, in which case I have to count them. In other words, you feel differently than you would as a tourist, taking in the building casually at a glance while licking an ice-cream. You even appear differently, tapping each window with the tip of your index finger from across the river as you count off the columns.


Having been transfixed by the pattern, you look and you start to notice that parts that at first appeared to belong to the massive facade, actually recede — that they’re sides of a box rather than a part of its front! If that sounds like rather a clumsy observation — one that ought to have been apparent at the beginning, I can only suggest that it’s because we’re starting to look analytically for the first time. I notice the pattern first and then the overall form — in that order. Am I clumsy? Maybe, but I don’t think so. I guess it has more to do with the power that a pattern has on grabbing our attentions to the exclusion of everything else. (I’m sure Ernest Gombrich would have had something to say about it in his: ‘The Sense of Order’.)


[Having looked at Gombrich, I think the idea is that in normal perception — when not drawing, not analysing — we clock the whole form first. The pattern we take in rapidly as a repeating one — one that will deliver more on closer inspection but one that we don’t get wrapped up in — probably because of the risk of information overload! I guess that when we start to analyse, we lose sight of the overall form for a while. So we follow the stripes of the facade without even realizing we’ve turned a corner, say.]


In a way, pattern is what gives many an object its character. That’s probably why I drew it how I did when I was eight — like I’d notice a man with a chequered jacket or a woman with a spotty dress. Shape’s important too, yes. (I notice it’s a man and a woman.) But the building in a drawing of a gherkin-shaped building wouldn’t be of THE Gherkin building if it did not have the criss-cross patterning.



Observation is about proportion and getting things in the right places too. So let’s say that at some point you draw a rectangle and start to divide it into smaller rectangles. Then there’s the matter of perspective. Perhaps you adjust the proportions of the rectangles to account for this, making them smaller as they recede. You correct a mistake here and there with a bit of reasoning. Something like: ‘if the front of the building ended there, the tower above it would have to be further to the left. Something has to give. You’ve invested too much work in the facade, so you shift the tower — the lazy option! Or maybe you think: ‘if the facade was that wide, the whole lot ought to be taller than it is on the page’. So you fix that.


There are quite a few little ‘surprises’ along the way — mostly to do with depth and ambiguous-looking planes. For instance, roofs that slope in directions that are different from the way they first appear. Without even realising it, what’s happening while you’re doing all this is: you’re ‘Learning The Building’.


[All of what I’m saying here is unqualified, unsubstantiated, unscientific — so, merely speculative. But that’s fine — you don’t have to take my word for it. (I’ve reached a stage where I believe that a great deal of academic theory — particularly outside the fields of medicine, science and engineering, where theory that doesn’t stand up has consequences that are all too evident, sometimes disastrous — are no more creditable because they make claims supported by footnotes to other papers. I guess that if you dig long enough you can always find evidence to support any claim, no matter how absurd, and equally, if you dig long enough you’ll find something that you took as unshakeable just can’t be substantiated beyond all doubt. It’s just the way it is because that’s the way the world is. Surely, human knowledge isn’t one huge self-supporting edifice that will tumble down because one brick is found to be missing?


Also, there’s such as thing as a short cut. Particularly in the social sciences, a great deal of academic research seems to me to be done to reach conclusions that most people had already reached long ago without spending a penny finding them. You know they’ve reached those conclusions because they live by them — live as if they were true, that is.)]


Okay, so all I reckon is that if, at this point, you and the tourist were asked each to make drawings of the Houses of Parliament from memory then, other things being equal — such as eidetic (photographic) memory skills not being involved — yours would carry more detail and be the more accurate. Observational drawing helps you to remember. And: the more carefully you observe, the better you remember. Perhaps summed up as: ‘no pain, no gain’!


Still, is this the route to a drawing with artistic merit? Well, I guess there’s the thought at the back of your mind (or at least, there should be if you have a well-developed artistic sensibility) that you’re not drawing to improve your memory; you’re not dividing space as a mathematician or geometer might, nor even for the reasons an architect or draughtsman might if they were drawing it. What you’re trying to do is to make a drawing with atmosphere that captures something of the ‘here and now’ — perhaps something of the ‘magic’ that I tried to describe earlier. So now, all of those carefully placed lines and rectangles appear over-stated. What’s needed is obscurity, ambiguity, lack of clarity — all of those things that were present when you saw the building for the first time, in fact!


There’s a bit of a paradox: you had to look carefully to make a credible representation, but somehow to give a sense of time and place — a sense of reality, if you like — you need to get away from the analytical, the representational. Seems you need to ‘unlearn the building’ but somehow to keep your findings at the back of your mind! I guess at this point many an able artist might be crying out: ‘but you just don’t draw like that! You think of’ (say) ‘creating space’; (or something entirely different depending on how you draw things)! The truth is: there are all sorts of ways of drawing.


It’s tempting at this point to let the momentum of what’s been said so far, carry us along — to use the argument to extrapolate and say we ought to proceed in drawing that scene in ‘such and such’ a way. But that would be to make a mistake. The activity of drawing really has nothing to do with words — it’s an entirely different system of communication. To ‘talk a drawing’ (or a painting) really makes no sense. You draw and shut up — simple as that. That’s what makes it so enjoyable! But I don’t feel this is the end of the story.


In fact I very rarely draw buildings, and I really only mention it here because the ‘drawing as an aid to memory’ factor was so evident. I much prefer life drawing. And though there are similarities between drawing a person and a building in that both are structures, there are major differences not least of all that one is inanimate and the other living.


When I draw a person I often exaggerate certain parts — not in the way of making a caricature, which might (or might not) have an air of ‘the comical’ about it, but to bring in an element of strangeness, because reality is strange. In other words to use ‘strange’ within acceptable limits so that the image still falls in what I see as a fine art context. (At least, that’s the idea.)


I guess that if I drew buildings more often, I might do the same for those. It’s just that making a passable drawing of a complex building like the Houses of Parliament is such a tough call in the first place that to then start to exaggerate it at the outset is liking trying to run before you can walk. And yet in a way there is the feeling that it is right to say one’s approach to drawing ought to grow organically, that is: that a student (say) should be encouraged to develop their own take on the strangeness of reality from the outset, rather than adding it as an ‘extra layer’ to a straight objective approach at a later stage in their development (rather in the way that a piece of computer software can be used to warp a drawing, say).


And also, it seems right that an organic approach is necessarily bound up with the materials used and the muscle movements that are made to move those materials and make the marks. I’m sure this is right. It’s really about experimentation, exploration, discovery —  in short, about doing.


[I have a hunch (and it might already be well-researched or not, for all I know) that the graphic quality of a drawing — and even the fluid or otherwise drawing that underpins much painting (in the large scale works of, say, Matisse and Picasso, for example) owes much to kinesthesis. That’s to say: to the feeling of where one’s body is — and in particular, the movement of one’s joints through space that are employed in moving the drawing tool, which might be movements of the wrist, elbow, shoulder and, on a large scale right down to the pelvis, knees and ankles.]


But to get back to get back on track with respect to drawing a building… I suppose a good example of one artist’s work that has both this sense of place and structure but with the strangeness — the magic (as there sometimes is) of reality — is John Piper’s.


In British art, there evolved a visual language with a very strong identity, through the ‘contributions’ of William Blake, Samuel Palmer, Henry Moore, Eric Ravilious and Graham Sutherland to name but a few. The latter three are contemporary with John Piper. But in many of the paintings and drawings by these artist’s, you can see marks or a use of colour (or both) that is instantly identifiable as being of ‘English’ art. (I put English in inverted commas because, of course, the identity is ever-changing and so in a sense there is no one identity.) But the point is that John Piper’s work demonstrates that strangeness of time and place — of vision —within an identifiable fine art context. As I understand it, it was a vision that grew organically out of his earlier experiments with collaged abstractions inspired by continental art. And I have a feeling that abstraction is the key.


But then you might just as well look at Monet’s painting of the Thames Below Westminster Bridge — it doesn’t matter that it is a painting rather than a drawing. It’s simply the application of different materials to the same type of subject. Essentially, it too carries the strangeness of reality, the insubstantiality of the moment.


There are all sorts of drawing ‘systems’ and reasons for adopting them. Take a highly-analytical and communicative image such as an architect’s drawing where you’ll see plans and elevations of the building noted down with unambiguous clarity, such that someone could actually build it. You might be tempted to say: ‘but that has nothing to do with fine art’. (In fact the architect herself might be the very first to put as much distance between her own profession and that of the artist’s!) And yet aside from its communicative facility, the drawing will have a certain aesthetic value. I’m thinking really of a manual drawing — which I guess is rarely done these days. But there’s no reason why it might not also apply to a CAD.)There is such as thing as a beautiful architectural drawing, regardless of what the drawing is of — regardless of content. But the aesthetic will be working in a different way from how it does in the artist’s drawing of the same building, where form and content are inseparable, and where the image is a vision and where there might be the desire to convey not merely time, place and movement but something spiritual too.




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