Friday, 23 January 2009

Looking out

It’s cold – it’s really cold, and the idea of standing around outdoors drawing isn’t doing anything for me. So it’s warm in comparison with Alaska, but you get the idea. And daylight is short. Winter can have the same effect on drawings as it does on lawns: it gets so darn cold and dark it’s hard for anything to grow with vigour.

Unlike lawns, I’m able to head indoors. Cafes often have those long, high tables running alongside the windows that are probably designed to squeeze more sitting customers in, but which are, more importantly, ideal to draw from. The seats are usually so hard and uncomfortable it’s impossible to relax too much or doze off, so you have to draw. There’s enough room to spread out with your sketchbook and skinny espresso macchiato fiordilatte on the rocks with a green salad and not feel overlooked.

The choice of what you get to draw is limited by these cafes’ locations, but there are so many of them around London that this isn’t such a major problem. Cafes usually come first: I haven’t seen so many closing in the teeth of the recession. Several years ago the Victoria and Albert Museum marketed itself as “an ace cafe with quite a nice museum attached”. Look at any National Trust property and the cafe is a prerequisite, regardless of the hundreds of years of history, intrigue and turmoil that the building may have been witness to. Cake is king.

Things have been improving with pubs too. The dingy old boozers with frosted glass and bands of drunken, smoking dockers creating enough fug to make even the view across the table difficult to make out have largely given way, at the expense of a lot of character, it must be said, for smoke-free wining and dining opportunities with clear glass to the world outside. The idea being that people, especially women, are more likely to enter a pub if they can see into it before reaching the door. Good news for the artist looking for shelter from the cold, bad news if he/she has any predilection for drink at which point drawing will go out of the window.

At this point it becomes a case of either how fast you work or how well your drawing stands up to high levels of alcohol or overpriced caffeine. Working indoors comes at a price.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

At large

An age ago, when Zimbabwe still had a thriving tourist industry, and food, and a working currency, an economy, hospitals, schools, productive farms, a working population, and much more, we went there on holiday for a few weeks, and mostly did the kinds of things relatively rich western tourists do there: visit Victoria Falls, the Matopos and Hwange National Park. We spent hours out in the bush with a guide watching this parade of incredible wildlife go about its often bloodthirsty business.

Drawing wildlife has never really done it for me. Most of the animals one usually comes across in nature stay far away enough to make them turn into little more than ink blobs on the pages of my sketchbook. But in Zimbabwe we came so close to ridiculously huge animals - elephants, giraffes, buffalo, hippos, rhinos - often moving helpfully slowly, that they could register even on my A5 sketchbook.

I was reminded of this experience recently on a visit to Arundel Wetland Centre. There were no hippos showing their heads above the water, vultures circling over a kill, or giraffes heading down to the watering hole, but there was a great range of wildfowl, including sheldecks, shovelers, siskin, teal and snipe, not that I'd know what they'd look like without the swathes of information on hand in the visitor centre.

These birds couldn't possibly be recognised by the drawings I made of them through the windows of the cafe as we all sheltered from the cold. Most took somewhere between two or perhaps even three seconds to complete. There is a thin slice of time for the dark shape of the wildfowl on the bright, reflecting water to leave some mark on the retina before it is turned into lines on the paper. Look back and it's impossible to find the relevant duck among the throng milling about on the water. Markings, size, colour, bills, plumage and crests, all what differentiates one kind of bird from another, are turned into a few lines in a few seconds.

It's rarely successful, drawing like this. I can't imagine an ornithologist would be able to recognise any of these. Birds are rarely bird shape at first glance, to put it badly: they swim away from you so the shape of the head is lost, or hunt for food under the surface of the water, so that a simple silhouette becomes a kind of visual nonsense. There's time for something essential to be put down, but nothing more, not for me anyway. After making works about the inertia and solidity of architecture, there's something very enjoyable about this.