On Being Drawn Into A Classic

Yesterday, on Palm Sunday, I posted the 30th in a series of drawings entitled “A Portrait Of The Artist In A _____”.

Portrait Of The Artist In A Giotto (wearing specs, waving a palm frond).

Just for the record, most of the images have nothing to do with the Bible. To date, the artists I’ve used as inspiration have been:

  • Sickert1
  • Picasso
  • Millais
  • Velasquez
  • Toulouse-Lautrec
  • Modigliani
  • Rouault
  • Gainsborough
  • Repin
  • Fra Angelico
  • Vermeer
  • Blake
  • El Greco
  • Mughal miniature painters
  • Caravaggio
  • Cruikshank
  • Ancient Egyptian wall painters
  • Basquiat
  • The Charge Of The Light Brigade painter2
  • Steinberg
  • Vettriano
  • Cezanne
  • Manet
  • Lely
  • Greek vase artists
  • Giacometti
  • Socialist Realism painters
  • Friedrich
  • Chagall
  • Giotto (above) and
  • Matisse

People have started to say I should do a book of these images. About five people have said that so far. I’m delighted, but also wary of getting sucked into this being a Big Deal, when I’m still loving it entirely for its own sake.

I’m writing this post because I’ve been thinking a lot about what exactly is going on, in this drawing series, that I should be enjoying it so much. I don’t have all the answers (who does?) so I’ll come back to this in future posts.

One influence was a visit to the National Gallery’s medieval collection about a decade ago, maybe more. While I was there, I was amused to find several paintings of, typically, a biblical scene in which the painter had added his patron.

At the time, this struck me as tremendously egocentric on the part of the patron: “Look at me, kneeling beside Jesus on the cross!” And I drew a pencil sketch of one such painting, showing the patron in modern pinstripe suit, looking out at the viewer:

He looks a bit like George W Bush.

I’ve subsequently come to see things in a different light.

For a start, I now realise that the paintings were not (necessarily) created to be shown in a public space. They may well have been for private devotional purposes. Which is entirely the opposite of showing off.

I’ve also learned about the Jesuit tradition of imaginative prayer, in which the person praying projects him/herself into a biblical scene. I’ve tried this myself, and found it immensely – well, enjoyable isn’t quite the word, though it is enjoyable. It’s grounding. It’s vivid.

I have a visual imagination – not necessarily to the exclusion of other forms, but certainly it’s visual.

So, having changed my mind about the motives of the medieval patrons, I’m willing to believe that for me to draw myself into great artworks need not necessarily be regarded as grandiose. And I’ve really enjoyed doing it.

One thing I have discovered is that drawing these images has a kind of spiritual quality even when the artwork is not in any way religious. It’s hard to convey just how much I feel like I’m actually present in the scenes I have depicted. Because (to take the example above) I have to draw everybody else too, which means feeling the emotion they seem to be experiencing – in the apostles, above, something between wariness and outright hostility.

My friend Rob says what he likes about these drawings is that they make him look really hard again at the original. And to be honest, if that’s the limit of my achievement, I’m happy.


What next?

To learn more about whatever it is that I’m doing, I hope to speak to James Mayhew, the author and illustrator whose Katie book series for children frequently takes his protagonist into the artistic universe of the great artists of the past.

And I want to talk to James Martin SJ, a Jesuit author I like, whose latest book is about prayer.

(How interesting that they’re both called James M.)

Any other ideas you have, to enrich my understanding of what the heck I’m up to with all these drawings, would be greatly appreciated.

1 You can see the Sickert, Picasso, Millais, Velasquez, Toulouse-Lautrec and Modigliani

2 Actually, it’s not the Charge of the Light Brigade. It’s a picture of the Battle of Waterloo. Can’t recall the artist’s name.