Another good day with the very wonderful friday group – drawing in Mersea Island I was drawn to the most changing part of this old landscape, trying to record the clouds as they poured through the sky above. Paradoxical and impossible really, with charcoal – how can a linear media keep up with a subject that no only constantly changes but also has no meaningful edges ? In the end the students said the clouds ‘looked like boulders’ – which is one of those comments you really need to think about. So in the end I started looking at the crumbling cliffs – layers of beautiful red and yellow earth with a thin crust of life clinging on the top. I found an interesting artist blog, by Vivien Blackburn, which is collecting cloud and weather studies. So it’s not just me then .. which is a relief.
Looks like Bill Brody has started something with his blog about foveal vision.It’s really got me thinking because it’s counter-intuitive. Most of what we call looking actually takes place after we have looked.
The brain joins together all of those quick glances, those foveal spot-scans into a composite idea of what is there. Forget rectangular frames and bits of paper – our field of view is broadly circular. Forget trying to make a drawing from a single look or photograph. Also, because foveal sounds like a soya based meat substitute I’m going to call foveal looking spot vision and peripheral looking edge vision.
The edge is much more interesting than the spot.
I dropped this whole confusing thing into a studio session at Colchester yesterday and the students came up with some really interesting work ! Teaching is truly amazing when you see ideas get up on their own legs because they’ve been invited in by a group of students. I asked them to do a life drawing where they only look with the edge of their eyes. The model moved across their field of view but their spot vision stayed in the same place. The drawings were wonderful. I only realised how difficult it was when I tried to do one of my own - I noted two spots on an easel a metre and a half from the model and marked them on the paper, then kept my spot vision only on them to both look and draw. It’s virtually impossible ! I had to keep wrestling my spot vision away from the model and even more difficult away from the drawing of the model when I looked at the paper. Also it was impossible to respect the rectangle of paper or board, which is why I started drawing on the floor.
It’s quite good for teachers to be occasionally subjected to their own daft ideas.
I like the idea of a third kind of looking. I like the idea of thinking with the edges of our minds and finding treasure. So much more interesting than counting out the coins we already have.
Peripheries have always drawn me so it’s inevitable I should start drawing them too. I’m sure that’s why I went to Alaska, why Bill and I are going to the Western Isles, and why I want to go to Orkney. Peripheries don’t have to be far away either, I am always moved by the subtle tipping point where my own human made world crumbles and rots back into it’s earthy source. There is also something so poignant about those myriad unhomely places in the corners of the city where we pass by but cannot rest. Places on the edge of human comfort. As a kid I got in to trouble for writing “This is the outside world. Enter at your own risk” on our side gate. Our back fence had hole in it so I could see the ‘allotments’ – little cultivated strips left over from the war where people grew their own food because the submarines stopped us importing it. Somebody out there kept pigs and we had a pig swill bucket outside the kitchen. One day big diggers and lorries turned up and built a strange square concrete place with no windows and a big fence. I found out later it was a Regional Seat of Government, where the selected few would sit out the nuclear winter. Scared the crap out of me even before I knew what it was. That must be where my thing about concrete started. Making this blog is really helping me at the moment because my studio is full of building materials and I’m not getting any time to work in a sustained way. Scanning in bits from the sketchbook and thinking is a way of keeping in touch.
Bill Brody said something really interesting about making a landscape painting. He described two kinds of looking : with the edges of our eyes (peripheral vision), and with the centre of our gaze, which is called foveal vision.
I had to look that up too. But it’s self evident to anybody who spends time looking or drawing. The centre of your gaze is sharp and log-jammed with detail while the edges are only interested in big differences of form or light or movement. Centre vision evolved for hunting, edge vision is for detecting predators. I like to use both when I am drawing, screwing up my eyes so my centre vision goes fuzzy. My friend Nigel said something wonderful about assessing a painting when you go into the studio in the morning .. “You sneak up on it and look at it out of the corner of your eye”. Bill Brody was talking about how painting lets you direct the viewer’s gaze by modulating descriptive detail, colour and tonality. This connects with the Italian word caminare, walking. You can be walked through a picture by colour cues – brown = foreground, through green to blue = distance. Can do this with tonality as well.
To me this is exactly what the drawn gesture is, it’s a visual invitation to pay attention. I have the most trouble with the opposite though, with flat areas of tone. They often end up as just that, flat, laying over and obscuring the bones of the drawing. I REALLY want to get back into the studio .. I just need to get all the builders stuff out first (