AD Magazine Interview for the NSEAD
Drawing is the beginning and end of my practice, whether working with pencil, charcoal or compressed charcoal on paper, or scraping a metal plate during printmaking. Using colour and painting have never interested me, although I love looking at paintings and am very interested in other painters’ work.
I wasn’t allowed to take an exam in art at secondary school as the teachers said I wasn’t accomplished enough. The art at school was very neat, graphic designs so I suppose they were right, I could never even now work in that way. Even though I didn’t do art at school I had always drawn. My Dad worked at a paper mill and brought lots of paper home, I copied from Disney books and comics so was always interested in observational work. I began to take art at sixth form college in Accrington and it was a revelation, we were introduced to art history and taught to be involved, the focus was on drawing as it was on the foundation course which was next door along the corridor.
I then went on to study for my BA Hons in Fine Art at Liverpool Polytechnic; I was mainly in the life room and would go outside to draw. I came from a very small cotton town, industrial, surrounded by dramatic landscape, but when I went to Liverpool I knew I would be an urban artist. I love the hustle and bustle of cities, the energy and movement and this has been my subject ever since. On Foundation I found a mentor in Robin Bownass and at Liverpool Mike Knowles. Although I went on to other colleges Mike’s influence has stayed with me. It was the encouraging of not just recording or being satisfied with observational work, it was the involving; ‘And – what’s next?’ How can you take this information and create something more personal and inventive? He always pushed us to question what we could learn from other artists.
I went on to take a Fine Art post-graduate at the Royal Academy Schools, London. We had to be in the life drawing room for a year but I didn’t like the set up there. It didn’t have the intensity of Liverpool; they were more concerned with the conventional accuracy of your picture, not its creativity, so as an alternative London itself became my sole subject.
Whilst I was at the RA, I started printmaking, primarily etching. I was asked to apply to the Royal College of Art and was accepted to do an MA in printmaking. I didn’t enjoy my time there; I felt out of my depth.
Over the past five or six years though I have begun etching again and am really enjoying it. I have started to play around with techniques, I love dry point and open biting aluminium and using chine colle. I’m not very interested in editions but like seeing how I can translate and develop my ideas in print in different ways.
My work for many years has been about the city, its people and architecture. I am lucky that in my teaching I cover those aspects. For over twenty years I have taught life drawing on the Royal Academy’s Outreach programme. We go into schools and colleges and do a one day life drawing workshop, for most students this is their first experience. We encourage students to be instinctive, inventive and adventurous in their drawings and it’s fantastic to see the confidence they and their drawings have at the end of the session in relation to the first tentative piece. I know talking about, demonstrating and assisting the students’ feeds into my own work, helping me with the challenges of figure work.
I also teach at the Royal Drawing School in Shoreditch, I take the Drawing Into Print and Challenging Interior courses. In the latter the focus is on architecture, in my sessions students have to do many sketches on the spot in such places as the V&A and Liverpool Street station and then produce a large drawing away from location in their own time. This mimics the way I work, so again it allows me to think about my own approach as I encourage the students in theirs. I enjoy seeing the various methods they adopt in relation to the specific demands of a location.
I have been aware for a while that a number of schools and students use my work as reference and in response to workshop requests I set up with my artist husband Paul Brandford, the website ‘we explore drawing’. We go into schools leading a number of workshops that encourage creativity, risk and exploration in drawing. Sometimes I work with younger students drawing and building cities, but mainly I teach an urban drawing day from14 year olds upwards, covering my own and other artists approach to working from the city, including imaginative exercises and work from photographs. The students are always intrigued at meeting artists whose work they have seen on the web or in books and again I gain from seeing the variety of ways the students respond to information about the city.
In my own work I aim to go beyond topography. Yes, hopefully the locations I work from are recognisable, but that it’s more an experience of being at that specific place. I work there over a long period of time, so it’s not just the recording of a short visit but more a history of events. I want to emphasise the energy and movement in the location, the people, traffic etc. I often work on the construction of new buildings; I like to see the change in cities, new architecture built next to old. In the construction of the Leadenhall (Cheesegrater) building in the City of London, I also drew buildings from at least five different decades in the environs interacting with it. London is a city of history, very different from drawing say in Dubai, where in large areas all the skyscrapers have sprung up together within a relatively short time in areas where there was nothing for them architecturally to relate to. Where ever I draw I enjoy the challenges of that particular area.
I make many pencil sketches on location, generally over a longish period of time. When I have a good amount I staple a large piece of paper, say 210 x 150cms on to the wall and begin trying to fit all the information together. Although I work from a specific location, sometimes I sketch from near, sometimes farther away, looking down on the scene or looking up, drawing from the middle or the sides, working on details or the whole thing. Certain differences in these works make the final piece feel a bit unsettled, all the pieces not fitting together exactly, comfortably. When more than three or four pieces of information are drawn on to the big paper that for me is when the interesting part of the project begins, the changes. All the different elements don’t quite work together, so I have to move them around, erase and modify them. I use either charcoal or more usually conte crayon as the marks can’t entirely be dismissed, there’s always an underlying history of where they have been that helps the movement, giving an energetic feel to the piece.
If possible I go out and do more sketches, being more specific about what I need. The drawing and taking apart of the work takes many weeks or months until it gets to a stage that I find provocative and to work on it anymore would mean it would become a different type of drawing.
I often work in series, making drawings from one particular area or subject, usually over a number of years, such as the Docklands, Grand Central station and the construction of the London 2012 Olympics. In this latter series I produced twelve large drawings from the very early beginnings of the stadium being built through to the Orbit and Stadium on the park during the Olympics. I very much enjoy recording a history of events as a whole story of one location unfolds, trying to capture that transformation and dynamism. In this set of works I saw my own work change as I became more familiar with the location.
Currently along with my usual large-scale drawings I am working on a project about the archaeology of the large sites I choose to draw in London. It’s taking my work along new, challenging routes and I also hope to make some animations soon. I am enjoying thinking about my work in a variety of ways, but they’re all just types of drawings – of course.