I visited the Ashmolean in Oxford yesterday especially to see the Jenny Saville drawings which were showing alongside the ‘Titian to Canaletto, Drawing in Venice’ exhibition. Saville’s drawings were chosen in response to the Old Masters drawings. I could not see direct referential parallels to the 500-year-old drawings as Saville was still working within her own practice, depicting her signature subject matter of women including self-portraits as well as her latest subjects of her children and their friends. However, looking at both the Old Masters and Saville's works gave me a feeling of continuity of drawing techniques suggesting that despite the vast technological changes that have occurred across the intervening centuries the fundamentals of drawing remain relatively unchanged. Drawing continues to be a primal mark making technique depicting the world around us.
I am always pleased to see new works when I visit an exhibition and there were a number of 2015 drawings. Saville’s recent focus has been the overlapping of line and movement and the representation of the passage of time within one artwork by drawing and redrawing the same figure over and over on the same surface in slightly different positions. It’s a very interesting take on figurative drawing and I believe quite unique to her. Her large-scale charcoal or graphite on watercolour paper were exciting because she works in such a gestural way. What I liked about her drawings was the energy of her line, so expressive direct and bold. The graphite was almost oily as opposed to the dry charcoal and charcoal powder.
The life drawing experience I've had in the last few months led me to question how Saville could see the model whilst working on paper so large (which would be pinned to the wall to work on). But I believe she uses her original life drawing or photography as reference for these large scale drawings. This is a great insight to my own practice as I do all these life drawings and then nothing becomes of them, they stay in their original sketchbooks. I feel that Saville pushes life drawing to a more intellectual level inspiring me to continue with the practice because I have found myself sometimes questioning whether life drawing is more of a ‘Sunday painters’ type of activity rather than that of a full-time professional artist.
The more abstract drawings reminded me of American artist Cy Twombly. Saville has said in the past that she finds it difficult to do relevant figurative painting that isn't naff or cheesy and by looking at Twombly or de Kooning they teach her about the physical act of painting, about pace and tempo and using drips and marks in a way that isn't decorative and I can see both abstract painters influences in her mark making.
I enjoy drawing very much nowadays, whereas as a painter I used to shy away from drawing as it isn’t a kind medium. Every line is on display with all your mistakes and your successes. Seeing Saville's work on watercolour paper has inspired me to try that as a surface as I feel the paper will be strong enough to handle my gestural mark making. I also plan to experiment with a ground of acrylic paint on the watercolour paper prepared in advance of life drawing because I felt this added an expressive charge to some of Saville's drawings (see photo, top right).
Looking at the Old Masters drawings have inspired me to try brown ink. ‘Martyrdom of St Eurasia of Jaca’ by Giambottista Ttiepolo was a rather brilliant example of depicting shadow to create a drawing rather than line, it was made with beautiful brown ink washes. I may start to use washes with my pen and ink drawings to give them a bit more depth. I also plan to experiment with red chalk on my ink drawings as it seemed to create a different type of reality in a very simple way. Inspired by this, Saville very effectively used a vibrant red pastel in ‘Red Muse (Study)’ (see photo, bottom left) which created almost a velvet surface and it is something I am keen to try out myself.
Seeing Jenny Saville’s drawings really has fired up and inspired me to continue with life drawing and to experiment more with the medium. I have never enjoyed drawing with the traditional charcoal as I find the lines are too blurry and not graphic enough. The exhibition has encouraged me to continue my exploration of pencils and fine dip pen nibs.
I think sometimes we need to fight with history and tradition to work in mediums that we are comfortable in.
My shopping list after seeing this exhibition: Black-brown iron gall ink used by the Old Masters in their drawings, blotting paper, large sheets of watercolour paper