An observational artist
Phase I: A simple life of seeing, and drawing
My art‑making skills have evolved through three phases, so far. It's only with hindsight I see this, by the way.
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 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.
Observed art is always realistic (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 Artistic Style
Phase II: Observing, then reworking
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 making realist art becoming too easy for me.
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 new 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 in how I was making art 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 it. 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 and shapes, and the position and size of things. The art was now slightly different from what I'd looked at. 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
27 April 2021
Phase III: Bringing the two together
So we're now in the present day and the third phase in the development of my approach to art‑making.
My writing here becomes a bit unclear at times. That's because I'm still figuring it out myself!
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.
Returning to the issue of how I develop my paintings begs attention now, though. Painting has been left behind (as I explained above), but it's back in focus now.
I'm excited because the two mediums (painting and printmaking) are beginning to spark with each other.
All of this means I might become a better artist tomorrow, and that's always my quest.
Making an art of making art?
So I've previously added an extra step in how I create my art. I'll call it a 'reworking' step, where I take my observed sketches and meddle with them – rework them.
I'm now fathoming out exactly how this reworking activity applies – or doesn't – when making paintings.
Just to recap briefly here. I began my art career as a painter, though I was called an illustrator. My work was representational (realistic) rather than especially stylised.
Embracing printmaking, and specifically lino printing, turned out to be a move that's lifted my approach to my art to another level.
I've now established a way of making prints that's satisfying and has some worth in my view. My linocuts are well‑liked, so perhaps others agree. This is where I am now.
I was a painter before I was a printmaker. Painting has a hold on my heart I have no desire to prise off.
So having parked painting for longer than I ever intended, I've returned to it with a vengence. The question I'm trying to answer is: how does the new extra step in making my art apply when it's a painting, instead of a print?
Trouble in the artworks
I'm discovering there's a difference. My linocuts benefit from coming back to the studio to rework my highly observational sketches made on location. This fails with paintings.
I'm not sure why. My current theory is that linocuts are inherently more abstract. There's a lot of simplification and design involved in making successful linoprints.
There's two experiments I'm working in order to answer the question I've set myself. 1) Try making my paintings more like my linocuts, and 2) Try‑out a more subtle version of the reworking phase, whatever that means.
For the first experiment, I've a canvas on my easel as I write, that's an experiment in making my paintings more like my linocuts.
I'm really not sure I want to go down that road though. I like to paint because paint is so different to printmaking, and the sum of all the creative possibilities is huge.
Will I end up restricting my painting options if I make them look more like my prints? Will that bore me, or will it fail to be an interesting challenge beyond the first three paintings? I have a suspicion it will.
I make art precisely because it's hard and challenging. I lost interest in making realism art because it was too easy remember. Making photographically-real art has never appealed because it's relatively easy to do.
(Fans of photorealism art, should not be offended – it's wonderful art and I'm a big fan a leading artist in the field who lives on the Yorkshire coast. It just does not appeal to me for a number of reasons, that's just one of them. And note I used the word: 'relatively')
My artistic experiment
So my second experiment currently sounds simple enough. I'm now applying the extra step outdoors (en plein-air), instead of in the studio. That way I hope it'll be more subtle and also more effective.
I've no idea how things are going to turn out, whether I'll succeed or what new problems I'll encounter. Perhaps making my paitnings more like my prints will prove interesting and challenging in a sustaining way.
That's as it should be, though, because the unknown is where good things can happen.