PART 5: project 3 – A Finer Focus

In this project I was asked to select a subject which has a substantial number of detailed parts. “By making a drawing of your own which involves focused effort you’ll be in a position to reflect on how this affects your relationship with the subject and the process and what it communicates to the viewer.” (Course notes)

This project filled me with dread when I first read it. I have spent so much of my drawing life working with detailed observation, getting into the nooks and crannies of dark spaces and relishing tonal values. My initial thought was, Oh no, I can’t go back there! Interesting that it felt like ‘going back’ to somewhere I’d left!

However. the research areas were interesting and two artists broadened my concept of the project. The first was Gwen Hardie. Her subject matter of the surface of the skin didn’t appeal until I began studying her paintings. Her use of watercolour and the subtlety of the colours opened up a new view of a mental landscape. Her work is concerned with surface and it was interesting to note that, although detailed in the sense of looking at a tiny fragment, they were expansive and extraordinarily thought-provoking. The second artist was Julie Mehretu in Vitamin D, page 196.These paintings immediately appealed because of her line work but it was on the deeper level that I felt to relate to the work. Unlike Hardie who is interested in surface, Mehretu works with layers. Her paintings are very detailed and yet there is the element of abstraction which I was looking for. The work is asking questions and pushing the medium of drawing to new levels.

For this project I decided to explore the idea of ‘layers’.* My parallel project on abstraction is never far from my thinking when I’m working and so I wanted to use this project to push further into the work I’d been doing about movement of thought. The connection here is probably rather obscure but, bear with me, I hope it will become clearer.

The subject matter for my drawing was the skin surface of a nectarine and I focused in on an area no bigger than 4cm x 2cm. I framed this area with strips of card. I decided to use coloured pencils which is a medium I’m not familiar with, but I chose it particularly because it requires many layers to build up the right tones of colour.


*To explain further why I was exploring ‘layering’ in this work – my experimenting with ideas about movement of thought and time-lapse throughout this part of the course have led to digging deeper into levels of thinking. So much thinking happens at surface level and it seems to me that this relates to a lot of superficial movement and thinking.

So I used a small sheet of paper 22cm x 15 cm. Then I began to build up the layers. This was very slow and deliberate work. The first layers were about laying down surfaces of darker tones and trying to capture the tiny patterns which appear on the surface of the fruit. This was important basic work as I knew I would achieve the vibrant deep tones ultimately without these layers.

I have to admit to finding the work tedious and boring. My recent work has been so focused on ideas and listening for new ways of working, experimenting and gestural mark-making that this focus on detail proved difficult. Interestingly, I found that I began listening to music again as I worked. I had stopped doing this over the past weeks because I found the abstract work so mentally stimulating and incredibly focused that I couldn’t have anything else in my head. I worked with a magnifying glass so that the patterns on the surface were clearer.

However, as the layers built up and the intricate patterns and subtleties of colour emerged, I became immersed in it. It seemed that a different landscape was revealing itself as I moved through the layers and I began to ponder this as a truth about ‘thinking’. I found my relationship to the subject deepened as I became lost in the colours but at the same time I was struggling to connect with my response. The process had shown me things but the actual outcome seemed to lack meaning because I couldn’t find myself in it.

There is a colour variation here in the image from the original. The camera seems to have highlighted the blues.

My daily diary was on the table beside me and I was just impelled to pick up the pencils and the pastels and express what I really wanted to say about the subject…that the fruit was about sunshine and life, that it was delicious, that the colours picked me up and took me to another place, that life was about energy and colour …and so on! I had an overpowering need to be part of the subject and not just an observer.

So what are my conclusions here? I have learnt that ‘a finer focus’ is not necessarily about ‘looking’. For me, a finer focus means a deeper level of ‘listening’. This deeper level of listening has nothing to do with time – it can happen in a flash. It’s also not about greater emphasis on materiality but instead looking through the layers of materiality into a different reality and one which comes from one’s own responses. This work will be part of the parallel project.


About pbfarrar

I am an Australian living permanently in England. I have recently retired from the position of Principal of an independent school and have taken up the study of Fine Art with the OCA.
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