An observational artist
Phase I: A simple life of seeing, and drawing
Observational drawing was how I started. I didn't know the way I was making art had a name, though, because I was very young.
In the beginning
My art‑making began as a child enthralled by nature, wanting to record my 'finds'. The treasures I happened upon could be flowers, moss encrusted twigs, leaves, a pine cone and acorns; feathers, stones and a dead bee; or the skull of some small creature. The list was endless.
The exercise then was about making a record, rather than art. I wanted my archive to be as accurate as I could make it. That's what observational drawing is all about.
What is observational drawing?
Observational drawing is a disciplined art. You could call it classical, academic or analytical. All of these terms describe this type of art.
Sometimes the word 'direct' is added to the front of it (Direct observational drawing), meaning drawing something seen, rather than made-up, or in a photograph. Copying photographs is not observational drawing.
When I was teaching in art school, it was called 'Visual Analysis', which is what the activity is all about. It's been a bedrock in high‑quality art schools for hundreds of years. Hence, it's classical art.
Put simply it's realism. The artist closely inspects the thing being drawn and records it accurately. They strive for complete correctness, so much so you could think of it as making a copy. The artist copies what they're seeing, no errors, no deviations, and minimal style flourishes.
These are drawings that look three-dimensional, show where the light is coming from, and what textures are present.
Are observed drawings photorealistic? I'd say they can get pretty close if that's the artist's aim. There are degrees of thoroughness, though.
Some observed drawings can be minimal, though a classically observed drawing is what's called 'tightly' rendered. That means every detail gets recorded.
My early approach to making art
My process was simple, especially as it was mostly still life. I'd set the subject up – usually on the kitchen table – and carefully describe what I saw using a graphite pencil on paper.
I learned through perseverance and intuition (no one else in my family is an artist). Lost and found edges came naturally as a result of observing them. My tone work remained crude until I went to art school, though.
I spent a lot of time measuring with my pencil. You may have seen artists do this. Their arm outstretched, with a pencil held firmly vertically or horizontally, their thumb marking some point on its length. Then they hold the pencil against their drawing.
It's the classical method of analysing what you see to determine proportions and dimensions. It helps fit your drawing on your sheet of paper too! Amateurs often seem to think it looks silly, and they avoid doing it.
At art school, I reached my peak in observational art. I become an expert in, and particular about, different hardnesses and makes of graphite pencils. My preferred range consisted of a 2H, HB, 2B, and 6B layered diligently on one drawing. I don't have the same patience today!
My subsequent illustration career depended on an ability to create these true and accurate representations.
An Artist with Style
Phase II: Observed, but changed art
The foundation of observational drawing, sharpened at art school, is present in my art today. I think it always will be, and that's fine.
The strong discipline with its structured methodology and obsession with measuring is part of my artistic DNA.
I paid my mortgage for many years, making illustrations that were representational, where artistic flourishes were frowned on. I was perfectly happy making this kind of art too. Had I thought about it, a future as a realist artist would have been my guess.
I'm not sure how or why making my art stopped being satisfying. I've a theory that involves a combination: the rise in availability of photography, and realist art becoming too easy.
The lost artist, the found path
When observational art became less satisfying, I struggled. Lots of sketchbooks got filled searching for the way forward during this time. Fair to say I felt lost.
Seeking a distraction from toing and froing over painting, I signed up for a printmaking evening class. It turned out to be the best thing I could have done.
Many printmaking techniques produce the best results when you don't try to represent precisely. Often, there's a great deal of simplification needed too. The art needs 'designing'.
There may be printmakers out there, who would disagree, but this was how it worked for me.
Printmaking, and especially lino, pushed me to change what I was doing. By this time, I'd worked with most art mediums. I'd still done what I'd always done though, just in a different medium. Printmaking required a broader change. It wasn't just another medium as it turned out.
How making my art changed
Making linocuts needed another stage in how I was creating art.
I'd sketch and paint outdoors in the landscape as I'd always done. My aim at this first step was the same too: observing and recording the scene accurately.
The change occurred back in my studio with all my reference material. Instead of starting on the finished art, I'd redraw, and redraw. That's a practical description of what I began doing.
What I was doing was developing a style without realising I was. Some artists talk about their artistic voice, meaning their style. It's not something you can force. It has to develop naturally.
What I was doing, was changing (meddling with) lines, shapes, the position and size of things. The art was now slightly different from what I'd seen. It was still observed but changed.
Adding this additional step to how I make my art is what defines this second phase of artistic development. I've now worked this way for just over ten years.
The extra step in making my art has served me well. It takes a bit longer to finish the artwork, but no matter, because the results have been worth it.
Making my art today
Updated: 8 October 2020
Phase III: Bringing the two together
So we're now in the present day and the third phase in my art‑making.
I've been pleased with how my linocuts have turned out, and I think they have a great deal of merit to them. Making lino prints fascinates me still, and I intend to continue.
It's now painting that begs a change in how I approach my art. So painting has come back in to focus. I'm excited because I think the two mediums are beginning to spark with each other.
That means I might just become a better artist tomorrow, and that's always my quest.
Trouble in the art works
The additional step I described under Phase II, does not work for my paintings. That's because meddling with more representational artwork is a nuanced thing to do.
The moment you're not observing anymore, you begin making‑up shapes, lines, colours and tones. That's ok for linocut landscapes, but I've found it's not ok for my painted scenery.
With linocuts, I'm designing – redesigning – the whole thing. With my paintings, I'm only meddling with certain aspects of them. There's a difference, and it's an important one.
Too much 'made‑up' stuff in a painting that's supposed to be representational quickly turns it into a comic book illustration. When that's not the result intended, it's not ok.
The other thing that happens is that you start having to fathom out how to reconstruct the scene. Inevitably, this ends up happening on the final canvas, I find.
Major experimentations or reworks of a big studio painting can rapidly spoil. One of the ways a painting spoils for example, is that oil paint becomes dull if overworked. Oil 'sinks' and requires a process called 'oiling-out' to revive it.
Reworking paintings at this stage is also tedious, disheartening and makes it easier to lose sight of what the art is about.
It becomes necessary to set aside the art to figure out what's happening, and what to do about it. A painting ends up taking years to complete rather than months. This protracted time in itself can sap the life from an artwork.
I've had at least two large works, and a few smaller ones, fail in this way that really shouldn't have – and they used up a lot of precious time in the process.
Resolving precisely how you're going to paint a final painting before you begin it, is generally best you see. (This doesn't apply so much to creating abstract art by the way)
It's taken me a long time to understand how the way I've been working doesn't work. But having identified it now, I'm in a grand place for solving it all. And I'm excited about it.
My artistic experiment
So my mission currently sounds simple enough. I'm now applying the extra step outdoors (en plein-air), instead of in the studio. It's an experiment at the moment.
I've no idea how things are going to turn out, whether I'll succeed or what new problems I'll encounter. That's as it should be, though, because the unknown is where good things can happen.
I'm not content to find a way of creating something and then repeat it forever, just in different colours. I'm forever on a quest to be a better artist, and there's always room to improve.