Why building up a body of work can be a real art
Truth be told, I began writing for a living because I couldn't draw well enough, even though I was quite good at art and technical drawing at school.
Becoming a draughtsman seemed like the natural thing to do but the apprenticeship on offer, learning how to set out scaffolding plans for a construction company, paid a good deal less than the fiver a week I'd been earning doing odd jobs for the Jewish tailor at Tooting Broadway – including once running a bet for a bloke they later said was Roy James, the great train robbery wheel man (before he was the great train robbery wheel man of course).
Eventually I got the requisite number of O-levels to join the Ordnance Survey, but at a scale of 1:1250 my roadside lines were a bit wobbly and the darkroom was more interesting for pursuits beyond operating the epidioscope. As maps for the Land Registry division went, let's say my cartography was sometimes a little, well, creative?
A twin-pronged approach to the world of work, stringing words together and concocting commercial art was the result of hedging my college bets – graphic design in the daytime, technical writing at night. Eventually though, inventing off-the-wall LP covers to satisfy my tutors at the London College of Printing proved to be less than perfect preparation for satisfying the needs of real industry, so I left the field open to Peter Blake and sort of fell into full-time typing.
Now I've got a hankering for dabbling in pencil and paint again but I'm giving the art world fair warning because I haven't exactly started yet. However, encouraged by a wife with a passion for everything that might hang on the wall, be suspended from the ceiling or stand on the floor from Chedgey to Creed, Kiki to Kahlo, Darley to Degas and who threatens to become a bit of a Howard Hodgkin herself, I bought a sketchbook and bid for two easels on eBay.
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I hadn't visited an artists' supplies shop with intent since my dad, a talented amateur, led me round among the stretched canvases, multi- dimensioned Daler boards and lead tubes of Windsor & Newton in a little establishment at the foot of Wimbledon Hill half a century ago.
Recently, one opened in my home town. Being new, it doesn't yet smell of oozing oils, the paint tubes are plastic, acrylics are the pigments du jour and the teach yourself to be an artist books all carry health and safety warnings about inhaling solvents.
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It has a large and confusing choice of sketch books for pastels, watercolours, charcoal, pencil, gouache, you name it. There are some that have alternate lined and plain paper, presumably for journalist/artists to draw in and then write about what they've drawn. Or maybe for describing something in poetry or prose, then drawing it.
I spurned such a tempting but too easy compromise to ease me through the transition from the earthly world of writing that I currently inhabit to the rarified atmosphere to which, loaded brush clenched in teeth, I intend to ascend. Instead, I laid out six quid on a purists' stiff black jacketed job with elastic attached to keep the front cover closed, the inside pages flat and the contents away from prying eyes.
I had toyed with doing a David Hockney and playing at painting with my iPad but as my instrument of choice for inflicting everyday typing torture it was too close to home. Now my shiny black book's 60 creamy leaves, 120 pages, each six inches by nine, lay empty and awaiting my inspiration and those first tentative pencil marks that will steal their virginity.
Unable to bring myself to assail such a large open space, I carefully divided the first folio into four equal sections, each destined to bear an interpretation of the next landscape, still life or visage that fires me. In my fertile imagination it will eventually be like those similar books you see opened, seemingly at random, in a glass cabinet at the centre of the room during the latest blockbuster exhibition. The ones in which you might discerne faint facial studies for The Potato Eaters or the stirring of the horse's head for Guernica.
So far, I've filled three pages, each with four tiny drawings; even using only one side of each leaf, I've space for 228 more. I'm keen – one day last week I liked the landscape with such urgency that in the absence of my proper pad I took a ballpoint pen to the title page of the detective paperback that I'm reading between sketching – and obviously intend to be prolific. Such a late start to a new part-time career means I'll have to get a move on to create a worthwhile body of work.
The thing is, the 'worthwhile' bit is already beginning to bother me. Just those three pages into 60, two executed in blue biro, the pencil having shed its lead on page one, and I'm not exactly brimming with confidence. The Alpine vistas that so inspired Francis Bacon appear one dimensional in my little book and the annotations indicating eventual colouration have developed a somewhat repetitious theme. Grass green along the bottom, sky blue across the top, grey triangles in between. Maybe their titles will differentiate them, Alpine Study I, Alpine Study II, and so on if you get the picture; which you might not.