I’ve been going through a lot of old papers recently and today I came across a lot of artwork I produced in my teens. (Be forewarned, then, that what follows is simply a sampling of the artwork I encountered, and that, like most children’s artwork, it is unlikely to be of interest to anyone other than my Mum and me.)
For me, though, this was a really exciting discovery–it had been at least twenty years, maybe more, since I opened these sketchbooks and folders. In viewing the contents I found myself marveling–not at the work itself, but at how much time I devoted to making art, and in recalling the combination of freedom and discipline that constituted my art instruction.
The practice was to spend time, a long time, looking, really looking, and making marks on the page that were as authentic as possible to what you observed. That was it.
The objects we were encouraged to draw included: still life (the art room always had objects and plants in various shifting configurations for this purpose); the human body (we had life models who would pose for us at school, and we were also encouraged to draw ourselves); and landscape–in this case, the urban landscape of North London. I remember the many hours I spent, to my Mum’s slight concern, hanging around King’s Cross in the years when it was a pretty barren and seedy area in the midst of huge construction. My friends and I would take the bus from school and then park ourselves somewhere on the building site and spend hours making drawings of piles of rubble and half-demolished buildings.
We were also encouraged to spend time making sketches of art objects, whether images of artworks we found in books or objects in museums. Many times, we’d show up for art class and our wonderful teachers would encourage us to go and park ourselves at one of London’s museums all day and just draw for as long as we could. Those were well-spent hours.
at the British Museum
at the Victoria and Albert Museum
drawings from books
I took ballet classes very regularly throughout my childhood and teens. Although the sketches below were made from photos, I also remember observing some classes and making very quick sketches from life. Drawing dancers while they are moving is really really hard.
One day I want to write more extensively about the I think fairly unusual fact that in my mid teens (15, 16) I spent a lot of time making pictures of the naked human body, not least my own. We regularly had life models in our art classes at school. I drew myself naked all the time. I happily posed for my (female) friends in my art class. My friend from college, Sarah Jane, tells how, when she met me, she was startled by how much I seemed to like my own body–which I still do–even though it never did look in the least bit like the bodies of models I saw in magazines.
I think now that although at the time I happily embraced Sarah Jane’s notion that I just had a naturally “healthy” body-image, the truth is slightly stranger. For me, the combination of practicing ballet and painting made me regard my body almost as an abstract aesthetic object: a form that could be endlessly rearranged to make beautiful shapes.
I’m struck now by the fact that, in the third picture below, where I’m sitting cross-legged, my breasts look really uneven. Everyone’s bodies are, of course, asymmetrical; both my body and face are quite strikingly so and, while I’ve certainly felt self-conscious about this at times, I don’t think it ever occurred to me when I was making these drawings that what I was seeing was anything other than a pleasing combination of curve and line and light and shadow. Maybe that’s what comes from hours gazing at Grecian ruins in the British Museum.
The technique, by the way, in the brown-colored sketches before is one I only have ever used in secondary school. The head of the art department, Joe Kusner, had developed this technique: he would brush liquid potassium permanganate onto brown paper. We would then make sketches on the paper using charcoal and use lemon juice (which would bleach the potassium permanganate solution) to add light. I still really love the atmospheric effect it creates.
portraits and self-portraits
This is a watercolor I did of my Mum in Iona in 1994–so the summer I turned 20. I think it may have been the first time we went back to Iona after my Dad’s death.
I find both the self-portraits below quite strange, but I like them as a pair: one ethereal, one earthy, almost as if my face is made of clay. I think I was maybe 14 or 15 when I made both of these.
things from home
I still have the waistcoat from which these details are taken. I actually wore it at my father’s funeral, when I was 18. I probably bought it at Camden Lock market.
The two items below remind me so strongly of home. My parents were both devoted drinkers of Lapsang Souchong tea. Loose tea was kept in the Japanese-style caddy (made in Sweden)!
chocolate bar design project
For one of my GCSEs–the two-year courses that, in England at the time, you took between the ages of 14 and 16–I chose a graphic design course. It was probably my favorite course, besides English, and this project–designing a chocolate bar–was my absolute favorite. It involved a lot of “research” consisting of buying and consuming the full spectrum of chocolate bars available at the shop around the corner from my house. Honestly, what I love most about the image below is the border, of which I was especially proud. I drew it in black and white and made photocopies and hand colored each page individually using felt-tip pens, which I remember finding incredibly soothing.