'What is there, not what you think is there...'
I have been drawing for as long as I can remember: first, simple stick figures, then more complex shapes meant to represent people and buildings and so on. But I was not particularly inspired to draw what I saw with my eyes - what ended up on the page was mainly drawn from my imagination, sparked into life by the the comics and books I read at a young age or later by the television programmes of the 1960s and 70s.
And that’s interesting, at least to me. At no point in my youth (that I can recall) did I turn to the world around me and say to myself ‘I want to draw that - that tree, or that house, or that person.’ I made juvenile attempts to draw my family, as I think most children do, but again the images were based on what I had in my head, rather than how someone ‘really’ looked in the physical world. American and British comics encouraged this line of development: the ‘human’ figures in them, and the kinds of action that they were involved in, were for the most part far from ‘realistic’. As a young self-taught artist, I wanted to copy the styles of drawing of various comic book illustrators like John Buscema, Jack Kirby and the like. Art lessons at school - where the emphasis was very much on drawing ‘what was there’ rather than images from the imagination - were mainly boring.
Drawing after drawing of this imaginary kind appeared on page after page throughout my teenage years. At one point, I remember fainting when I stood up after several hours of continuous drawing - I had forgotten to eat or even move during all that time. But the drawings were largely flat, brightly-coloured and purely fantastic. It wasn’t until the late 1970s or early 1980s that things began to change. I started to draw faces from magazines or little animals from photographs, and quickly realised that the hours of practice drawing shapes and imaginary figures had improved by hand-eye coordination enough to be able to replicate with reasonable accuracy what I saw. This was a big change: I was drawing something in front of my eyes, not behind them.
The slightly more realistic style of comic book Gene Colan captures this transition. He drew superheroes in colourful costumes, doing spectacular things, but there was a hint of reality about his faces and figures, a filmic quality. The faces I chose to draw were still largely from the entertainment world - actors, singers, film stars - but there was a definite shift towards accuracy rather than fantasy.
Then Life intervened and I hardly picked up a pencil at all for about twenty years. It was not until the late 1990s, sitting in boring meetings, that I began to doodle, letting my fingers do the thinking, coming up with patterns, designs, comical figures, nonsense. It was all fairly meaningless, but it did keep my fingers fit, if you see what I mean.
Coming back to drawing in 2017 was like finding out that I could still ride a bicycle after many years of neglect. This time, I paid attention to what was happening mentally while I drew, and saw for the first time the importance of replication. It might seem obvious, but the real trick to drawing recognisable faces or figures is copying what is there, not what you think is there. When drawing an eye, for example, there is a tendency in the mind to generalise, to draw ‘an eye’ rather than the eye one is looking at. The hand wants to deviate from the real face or photograph and draw lines, which are symbolic of what is there: two half circles with a small circle between them represents an ‘eye’.
But capturing a portrait with a sense of realism about it depends on bringing the hand into line with the eye: the eye commands, the fingers obey. One has to train the imagination and the mind out of the drawing. One draws shapes, shades, tints and blends, not lines and symbols.
Both styles have their place, but portraiture of a certain sort is not to do with line or symbol. Yes, of course there is a translation of the three dimensional figure or even the two-dimensional photograph into pencil shapes and shades, which are representations, not the thing itself - but the imagination is largely silenced. At first glance it might seem that the less imagination there is, the better this kind of portraiture works, but that is too general a definition of imagination. To create a portrait in this style, a different facet of the imagination is called upon, one which converts what the eye sees more directly into images on a page.
My book The G. P. Hudson Art Studio Collection contains a small selection of those images, some drawn in the late 70s and early 80s, most in 2017. I hope you enjoy them for what they are: still symbols, of course, marks on a page which collectively produce the illusion of reality, but, on a spectrum of representation.