Learning to trace in 25 days
Thursday 6th February 2014 5:39pm
In December my wife suddenly turns to me and says 'do you want to abstain from alcohol in January and raise money for Mind?' I looked at her with my best Paddington stare as I processed the question. Of course, I could do such a thing, easily. In fact I was so certain that I could, the whole venture seemed, somewhat pointless - just a lot of trouble really. But it was apparent that it wouldn't cut the mustard to proclaim 'of course I could, there's no point in even considering it'. I knew I'd have to, if only to prove I'm not a dependent. So I said with a sigh "Oh, alright then".
Thus it was, I came to have a little more time on my hands. So throughout January 2014 I found my self spending a lot of time doodling on my iPhone with an App called Adobe Ideas. This app allows you to load a photograph as a base to draw against, which can later be removed. A tracing app in fact. I found myself learning to draw round things. I'm not actually very good at drawing as perhaps my very first sketch (shown here) will testify.
These early sketches are without question really very badly executed. This is pretty poor considering they're only tracings. I really am that bad at drawing. But they do have a certain charm and humour to them, so I persevered - secretly enjoying the enterprise even though it was kind of childish in its execution. I posted them up on my Facebook 'wall' and they attracted a steady stream of 'likes' - enough to spur me on (you should know, I never need very much encouragement to act childishly). By the fifth sketch I got 13 likes and 11 comments with people actually asking to be my next victim.
So I thought, perhaps there is some 'artistic merit' in exercising this simple mechanical skill. The thought sat uncomfortably with me - in the same way as I'm not too keen on taking photographs of graffiti. It seems like all you're doing is ripping off someone else's creative vision - unless you somehow bring something new to the story.
Joy & Donations
So the next thing I did was to post a status update offering to provide a sketch for anyone who felt like being visually insulted. That posting brought 24 willing victims forward with requests like:
Go on then. I'll be your next guinea pig (victim)
I do Ant. Need a laugh x
Do your worst mate.
but you gotta find a really bad picture of me..
My ego craves it.
memememememe!! I wanna HATE the results!!
oh yeah! She says nervously...
Make me hate myself.
I did as many of these as I possibly could, but there were so many of them coming at me so thick and so fast that I felt I was back in India surrounded by beggars smothering me in respect and honour. I had to close the offer, but still the requests kept coming. It got really quite intense. On the 7th of January alone I did 9 sketches (well tracings) of folk. And you know, they were actually improving.
On the 10th, 1/3rd of the way through the month I reminded everyone I was going dry and raising money for Mind. I repeated my offer to sketch folk, but this time in return for a donation. I raised well over £20 for Mind by doing not-totally-crap sketches of people. That's a good thing.
So while struggling philosophically with the idea there may (or may not) be any artistic merit in drawing round things dozens of people were queuing up for a turn, sharing good-willed banter and donating money to a worthy charity. That sealed it really, I was definitely learning something of worth and value here.
Juxtapositions and Transitionals
But as the skill improved the raw charm of the early pieces was certainly diminished, so I started to think about how I could make this mechanical skill of tracing a valid expressive form going forward. I think there's a few key approaches that mean a tracing canbe considered a valid new work, despite being inherently based on some pre-existing work. I.e.:
- by derivation; once the tracing is complete it can be adapted by adding entirely imaged components. In fact this is exactly what I did in my very first attempt ("Hello Humans"), by adding the body to the character on the right.
- by juxtaposing tracings of different things that cannot, or do not, occur together; the components of the resulting image are 'mere mechanical copies' of some other work but the overall piece is unquestionably a new message, story, artwork. The image of a spaceman (from a photo in the Science Museum) and post box (from a snap taking on route to work) is a striking example.
- by origination, creating the base image to be traced, specifically for the tracing not as a completed work in its own right, the tracing becomes the prima facie artwork. In the 'tube commute' example here the originating photograph was of poor quality and in itself intrinsically uninteresting. The tracing lends a quality of abstraction that helps cohere the composition. In essence, an image that works as a tracing but which does not work as a photograph.
- by control of detail; the conscious decisions of exactly which lines to put into the tracing and which to leave out. As the tracings become more and more detailed these decisions represent the 'zen' of the process and the tracer knows internally whether the result validly represents a genuinely new take on the artwork, or not.
So the process of tracing involves conscious compositional and narrative decisions, pure joy and unquestionable communication - all facets of successful artistic endeavour. Thus I was happy this childish skill is worth all of the effort it takes to execute and does represent a valid artistic endeavour. That's when I became obsessive in the execution.
Art & Obsession
I have long thought that good art involves deep obsession. For a time an artwork has to consume you with intense concentration to the exclusion of other concerns - be that an hour or a year. If the work fails to achieve that in the artist during execution, then what hope does it really have to engage anyone else? Certainly this belief is borne out in my later tracing works.
All these works have been produced by finger-tracing on a tiny iPhone screen. The concentration is somewhat excessive (note to reader, the iPad version of the app certainly makes life a lot easier).
To really exercise the mechanical skill, whilst working through the foregoing philosophical questions, I started working with highly complex multi-figure scenes, famous classical art works and finely detailed insects. All of this culminated in a sketch comprising 43 individual scenes:
Having produced this 'opus' in around 8 hours I sat back and considered the work of the past 25 days which amounted to just over 50 sketches - here's the full series: I firmly believe that I've learnt both a new skill and a new (to me) form of artistic expression in a little under a month. Proof perhaps that you can teach an old dog new tricks. For the last word on the 'validity' question, look-out for issue 9 of The Black Light Engine Room; not only is it a great poetry anthology magazine but this issue's covers are examples of my sketching. Which is nice.
Oh, and Dennis Just Dennis (Poet) is using one in his upcoming book. which is also nice. Very nice.
Oh, and with my team of fellow abstainers (Christine, Calm Carl and Sarah-Jane) we raised well over £600 for Mind. A good dry January.