Am delighted I’ve been commissioned to do a panoramic drawing for someone else, of a landscape of their choice (which of course includes the Severn). The particular viewpoint is very poignant and personal to the commissioner, so I am presently thinking carefully about content and composition. Which took me to considering the process from beginning to end, and how that compares with other ways of working, such as video or printmaking. So here are my reflections. I currently use the river as my subject, so I can describe the thoughts, actions and resultant physical behaviours that are used to take what I see through to the output – the visual representation.
Keep in mind Paul Klee’s explanation of what an artist does – like a tree, the roots draw from the ground, from the place, and pass through the trunk-body and the mind, which then manifest into branches and leaves, what is seen on the surface. The artwork.
When I take a standard photo of a place I consciously frame the image, for balance, proportion, light & dark. Colour, at present, is not a priority for me, as I am intending to work with monochrome media, black and white, charcoal and chalk. A photo is a fast record, a moment, caught instantly. I stand still, the camera is still, the event is caught at speed. Snap.
When I take a panoramic photo, time and space are expanded. I need to map the framing carefully and consider what will appear at the sides, in the centre, what features of the scene are important to the story I wish to tell. How is the light performing? What is in the foreground? The distance? The format always brings new challenges, because the balance between foreground, mid-ground and distance are very different to those of a 4:3 ratio picture. The pictoral space has a different balance to it, the image requires the viewer to read from left to right, more like a book than a painting. The photographer has to do the same, moving from side to side slowly, steadily, and with constant awareness of time. For a panoramic, the camera also has to move, it is pivotal to the composition. I use my body as a tripod, allowing me to pivot steadily, scanning. I cross my legs to start with, then unravel as I pan. Time enters the equation, not in the same way as filming uses time, but within a tight, limited visual parameter. Doing vertical panoramic shots requires a different dance-action. One starts at one’s feet, then curves up and over, bending the body backwards, to capture the sky above and some of the opposite bank. Physically much harder to control.
When I video the river with a handheld camera (my phone or ipad), I’m inclined to use two particular approaches.
- David Lynch style – stand still, let the river perform in centre frame. I love this one for capturing the movement of the water as it builds when the bore passes through.
- Panning, often from left to right, in a similar way to doing the panoramic shots, slowly, slowly. Using handheld technology means zooming is a bit of a no-no, as I can’t control it well. I do have a video camera but have always enjoyed the spontaneity and fleet-footedness of digital devices.
For the panoramic drawings, the photographs are a resource. I sometimes manipulate them digitally a little, though I am a bit of a purist. Likewise, with filming, I’ll maybe do a bit of a tweaking, but I’m not big on filters or effects. One thing that has developed as I’ve been doing more and more panoramic drawings, all around one metre wide, is the white space, the void. Working with charcoal is, by its nature, a messy business, so it is key to retain a good range of tones, with black blacks and white whites. Emotionally and psychologically, the voids provide a visual remission for the viewer, drawing attention to the pictoral space, usually water or sky, and letting the eye rest from the intense interrogation, the reading, of the image. This provides a window into the viewers imagination, a space to fill with their own thoughts at the moment of viewing.
The drawing is never a direct copy of the photograph. Nor could I work from someone else’s photographs. They are a record of my being in a place, seeing it the way I see it, through my eyes. Each image is, for me, a body record of gazing and mapping, moving through that space, at that time. Their size is important, because scale provides a time for the viewer to look. To engage.
Which is why it is so interesting doing this commission. Because as the artist, I am keen to not force my own emotional investment in a place that holds power for the commissioner. I know the place a little, but am not as emotionally invested in it. I’m asking questions.
Maybe I’m overthinking this, but I thought I’d share that overthinking, as you may find it fascinating, as I do.
No pictures to share yet, but come back in a month or two.