86 bricks

A drawing made in April 2021

I’ve long harboured a desire to create a drawing that broke out of the four walls of a framed picture to become an environment in and of itself. When offered a large project space in my studio building for a month, it seemed this was the time to try.

I’ve been making drawings of the Arbroath Cliffs for years now. The density and variety of rock formations in such a small area is astounding; the meandering curves and pock-marked, pebble studded rock faces beg to be drawn. In prior drawings of this place I carefully select and compose a small area of rock and draw detail into every corner, taking care to be faithful to the image from which I’m working.

It has occurred to me that in working from one carefully distilled image to create another, I’m applying a process similar to photography. Once the drawing has begun the conclusion is more or less inevitable – there are no creative decisions to be made. When taking dozens of photographs of nature I’m writing my story about what a place looks and feels like, which may feel alien to what another sees, and will inevitably be a narrow representation of the place. What’s more, these photos are the only way I will experience this environment again in the future, assuming I don’t return.

In making this work, I want to lean into this idea of a drawing being my own, mutated version of what I remember. A day spent photographing the cliffs from every angle and at every distance provides me with a bank of images from which to construct my fiction.

I stretch a piece of canvas on the wall and begin drawing the first panel. By working in panels I can approach each drawing in isolation, creating a “brick” to be used in a growing structure and obscuring sight of the whole – at least at first. From the first panel, I carry a line off the edge of the canvas and on to a piece of paper, thus beginning the second panel. Above all I want this month to be an indulgent orgy of mark making, and by using graphite on both paper and canvas I allow myself greater variety of marks. What’s more, I’m hoping that the variety of surface will created a disjointedness that resists this drawing becoming a harmonious whole.

With each panel that is completed, the drawing begins to set it’s own boundaries. I know that I want to go up high – to my eyes the cliffs are a playground for scrambling and I want to feel that I can grab a boulder and hoist myself up into the drawing. As I further progress, the drawing comes up against the limitations of the environment in which it’s being made. Clearance for plug sockets and light switches must be made, and an arch forms over the doorway.

As my marks pour their way around the room, what is at first a wild and free-flowing flurry of activity slows – the drawing begins to dictate what it needs in order to feel like a natural environment. My instinct is to build each block up to the ceiling as far as it can go, forming a solid wall of impenetrable, fantastical peaks. However, the allure of my subject lies in it’s troughs as well as it’s peaks.

By the end, I’ve drawn around 90 panels to create a kaleidoscope of texture and form; flavours and features drawn from half a mile of coastline compressed into a 20m span. To a regular visitor of The Arbroath Cliffs, specific forms may be recognisable. When taken in isolation, many panels are unremarkable, even scrappy. However, in breaking with a habit of painstaking precision I’ve engaged with a subject far more than I have before. What’s more, I’ve finished a drawing energised and filled with life, rather than a bleary-eyed despondency. Isn’t that how nature is supposed to make you feel?

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