I’m not always as honest as I could be, or should be – not even to myself; and being dishonest, even just slightly, can get to be a habit. You can start out small, with something that’s just a bit of an exaggeration and then before you know it you’re saying something else that isn’t quite true, and after a while you stop noticing. It becomes part of the way you express yourself.
When I first went to art college way back in the 1970’s I could already draw because I’d been doing it all my life, and I practised enthusiastically while I studied illustration. I became pretty good at producing work that was convincing and good to look at. I confess that with the ignorance and arrogance of youth I was rather pleased with myself and my drawing skills. If I hadn’t changed courses, if I hadn’t abandoned what looked like a promising beginning and struck out into the unknown, things would have been different; but after a while I found myself on a different course in a different college and, as part of my first year in fine art, doing a three week life drawing course in a remote and isolated old building in London’s Surrey Docks (which was at that time an undeveloped wasteland). The tutor for this course was Harry Thubron, who I now know was one of the best drawing teachers of his time and who revolutionised art education in England (though at the time I had no idea who he was).
Harry and his wife Elma taught us together as a team, which was just as well because by this time in his life Harry’s health was deteriorating, his communication skills diminishing, but nevertheless he was still a forceful and intimidating presence. He shuffled about behind us watching as we drew, peering over our shoulders and seldom saying much, hunched inside an old overcoat and smelling strongly of garlic. Elma was the one who gave us directions and interpreted Harry’s occasional muttered remarks, but as a team the two of them were formidably effective as teachers, and I realise now, strangely compassionate. They knew what they were doing. Together they quickly and thoroughly disassembled all I thought I was good at and changed forever the way I thought about drawing.
It took a full week of pain and confusion before everything I thought I knew and was good at was pulled out from underneath me, and I understood for the first time that drawing is really not about making beautiful marks on paper, but about the process of understanding through looking and exploring. You draw from a place inside yourself that is not available to you when you think. (Harry was fond of saying ‘When you’re drawing, you should cut off the top of your head’, a startling remark interpreted for us by Elma in case we hadn’t grasped the meaning and might be even more worried than we already were). You learn to use your eyes and trust them, and stop concerning yourself about how things look on the paper in front of you. You look, and look, and while looking you try to register that understanding and draw as honestly as possible – on a sheet of white paper with a pencil, or a stick of charcoal, or – as we frequently did during those three weeks – with a bit of broken stick and black ink.
I don’t think I’ve ever been so uncomfortable and at times so totally lost and miserable as I was at the beginning of those three weeks of the spring term. It was February, dreary and cold, and as we were miles from anywhere in the bleak wastes of the abandoned docks there was no distraction and no escape. But little by little I began to understand that I was learning something more important than I’d ever learnt before, something that fundamentally changed the way I understood drawing. I’d been good at putting up a show that was not much more than smoke and mirrors; now I had to take a deep breath and start again.
You can’t unlearn something like this, and thankfully I never have, but you can still choose to ignore it. The difference is that ever since those weeks in the Surrey Docks I’ve never done a drawing without being aware of whether I’m being honest, or whether I’m winging it. And another thing – it’s a transferable skill; the same is just as true for writing, and even (gulp) speaking, and (even bigger gulp, and a sigh) – thinking. I know, if I just stop to be aware of it, whether I’m being honest or not – and then I have a choice.
Honest drawings are remarkable, powerful things. Through following Shari Blaukopf’s lovely blog The Sketchbook I recently discovered Richard Johnson and his work as reporter and illustrator for the Washington Post. (Eternal thanks to Shari for this introduction). His drawings, and his writing, overwhelm me; I spent three consecutive evenings looking at everything I could find, being moved and stirred and woken up, loving everything I saw and read. His are some of the most beautfully honest drawings I’ve ever seen, and they do more for me than any photograph can (many readers obviously feel the same; Richard responded to the following he had for his postings from Afghanistan with this piece written on his return). I also felt the urgent need to do more drawing myself (though however much I practise I’ll never be able to do drawings as good as these.)
Ultimately, there’s no satisfaction in being dishonest with yourself or anyone else. It leads irrevocably in the wrong direction, undermines you and feels shaky and shallow, whereas even the quickest sketch (drawn or written) feels satisfying and right if it’s honest. I still find it hard to do and mostly I fail, but at least I know when I’m doing it wrong and recognise the rare occasions when I’m doing it right; and when I find work like Richard Johnson’s I can enjoy it and celebrate it for the rare and wonderful thing that it is.