Blog 10 – a censored show

 

Last spring I applied for a drawing project and exhibition in the UK – to draw again at Oxford’s famous John Radcliffe Hospital, and this time to show in their gallery as well. There was much positive correspondence,  and I got a grant from Tegnernes Fornening (the graphic artist’s association in Denmark) to frame and ship my drawings, and to cover a 5 weeks’ working stay.

I decided to exhibit childbirth and baby drawings,  my usual subjects.  Among those I framed were my best childbirth drawings.

Here are some of the drawings I framed: a series of 10 with a father supporting a mother through labour and birth, a drawing of a child waiting to “catch” her baby brother, and 3 from a series of a woman in labour – her face drawn during contractions and rest.

 

I  had however overlooked a note in the hospital gallery information slip: “the Gallery does not accept images containing nudity.”

After some letters to and fro, I realized they meant it – no nudes was the policy and that included birthing mothers and even newborns. The show was ready, and this meant changing and reframing the childbirth half almost entirely. Only clothed or discreetly sheet-covered mothers and diapered babied would be allowed.  Of the iffy copies I sent by email for approval, nearly all my most beautiful drawings were refused –  all these above. I was told definitively that “No women with their legs open giving birth, nowhere most of a female nude body is shown.” In fact: anything even nearing the vagina would not be acceptable.

 

Nudity? Childbirth?

Look back at the drawings. Is your perception of them changed? Unfortunately it has, for me. The drawings are repetitive, of movement, made at full speed. Each is contained and complete, all its lines are important and integral to the whole.  I have an intimate series of a mother’s face during labour, as she went through through strong contractions and intermittent rest. Looking at them again, I realized that several must be left out because of swift lines that some prying, nasty eyes with their own agenda had deliberately searched for and interpreted as prurient, salacious!

From this series, showing a mother’s face in labour, during contractions and rest: Of this series,  Only the first and second were accepted.

 

 

 

 

 

And the little Danish girl waiting excitedly to “catch” her baby brother – censored because of some abstract lines – the innocent subject of her attention. In  the top corner, the midwife’s words in Danish: “you’re ready to receive him, right?”

 

 

 

I came to Oxford and exhibited what I was allowed to. I had some idea of indignantly picketing the gallery, or publishing the “censored” drawings in the local press.  Almost I am sorry I didn´t. But there are other galleries – and maybe the chance to tell the story in a small, nicely produced illustrated catalog. Watch this page.

 

The next blog tells of my Oxford drawing experience, and why drawing on the neonatal wards is, for the very best of reasons, over forever.

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Drawing the smile – Blog 8

A mother ordered several drawings from photos taken in hospital of her stillborn son. The baby alone, with his four-year-old sister, her with the baby or with both children. She had chosen eight.

One she wanted was a “selfie” – the three of them lying close together in bed, with the baby in the centre. When I saw the photo, I was surprised:  it was too intimate and intense to hang on the wall, because of her expression. Here was the ultimate face of grief, of someone who has cried till no more tears are left. All the expressive muscles were neutral, as if erased. It is very seldom one sees this look, which is both beautiful and very private.

But she wanted it, and I made the drawing*.

with changes

THE FACE OF GRIEF

When I emailed her a copy for approval, her response was that she liked it very much, but – could I just draw her with a smile?

The mouth is the most difficult feature to draw; everyone can read the smallest of changes very closely and accurately. I was pretty much convinced that the change she wanted was beyond me – that any change of the mouth – widening it, altering the corners – would ruin the drawing. I wrote and told her I wasn’t sure I could do it, but that I would try it out on a copy, and send her that for approval or advice.

I printed a copy to work on. I knew already I would not touch the mouth. AlI I did was rub in 2 small shadows (indicating 2 faint depressions) one on each cheek, there were dimples appear on children’s faces when they smile or, on any face, a visible, passing shadow shifting upwards, caused by the contraction of the elevator muscles – the zygomaticus major  muscles where they insert into the skin. I also took a bit of chalk and covered a slight smudge under the left-hand corner of the lower lip.

face copy smile 2

CHANGED DRAWING

I dared not change the original drawing.

But she wanted a smile.

When you do a commission you have to please the client. And it was, after all, only a drawing from a photo.

When I sent her the altered copy, she agreed that this was exactly what she wanted -“Now I am smiling.”

In the original, I also erased 2 tiny lines between the eyebrows, so light they do not show on the copy – these lines of anxiety (minute contractions of the corrugators) are invariably read by everyone – giveaways in any face that smiles and does not quite mean it.

I am more and more convinced that there is no such thing as “intuition” involved when we see and respond  to another person’s face – what we sense about the person is visual (and to lesser extents audible/olfactory).  If we are uncomfortable there is some masking, some disharmony in the facial muscles – and, even when we are not conscious of it, we are all experts at picking it up. Our brains are programmed and trained in this incredibly complex task. A large portion of the visual cortex – the fusiform gyrus – is devoted to recognition and to reading expression.

This work  taught me that it is not the features themselves we are reading, when we look into another human face. Giacometti said the eye has no expression: “The eye is always cold and remote. It is the surroundings that determine the expression of the eye.” And the mouth on its own is not the source of the smile .

(*With her permission I have included the images:  the drawing of the face before I changed it, and then the drawing with the smile.)

Blog 5 On the Visual Field – about the peripheral exercises.

 

The Physical response

You’ve been  learning about the visual fileld and making some drawings of the edges of the field –Peripheral drawings. This last blog about the visual field is about that happens physically when you draw in this way

Some people end up feeling extremely tired,  others experience a kind of wooziness, even nausea. I feel heat at the outside edges of my eyes – the skin towards each temple. Photophobia – an adverse reaction to light – is noticed by many. In a room with neon lighting it’s specially difficult –– you are hyper-aware of reflections and glare. This may not be on the periphery, but it is a constant irritation. The plant begins to blur, or tremble – some people notice a white halo forming around it.

On the positive side, you may well become conscious of the immense depth, as well as the size, of the field – how far the cursor has to travel across and into a deep background to reach the peripheries. The room became like a huge, gray swimming pool – perhaps the way a very small child, if you sat her down at the door, would see it, and want to crawl out and explore it. If you’ve allowed yourself, you  can even go a step farther and draw the entire field in using this kind of seeing – you exerience what is called  ‘visual flooding’   and the results are wonderful.

CH2. p.44 student peripheral drawings

CH2.G1

 

 

 

 

 

 

These are student drawings.  Look too at these drawings by Rembrandt and Giacometti  – I am      convinced that they saw,  and drew, this way.

Giacometti space

Rembrandt sketch

 

 

 

This is because actual, physiological changes occur in your eyes when you use your peripheral vision. And when you get back into ordinary seeing mode, something else has happened that isn’t ordinary at all – there’s a very real intensification of depth vision or stereopsis.  For those who have depth vision and never, or hardly ever, use it, the aftermath of this exercise is a revelation. It is a new way of seeing the world.

Right after these exercises, get up and move around the room – or take a walk. You will find that everything stands out in space, as if furniture, people, trees were cut out of cardboard. This intensity of depth vision will last a while and gradually fade. 

The structure of the eye   CH2-F

The eye is a sphere. Light enters the pupil and strikes the retina, the layer of receptors at the back.

These cells, like the cells in the cortex  itself, are devoted to certain visual attributes and indifferent to others. At the back of the eye, the location of each cell is of prime importance – they form a kind of map of the visual field; it’s obvious that a cell would have to be in the direct path of light from a specific part of the field to be activated by it.

 

Rods and cones

The retinal cells are called rods and cones because of their shape, and have different functions. The cones are concentrated near the centre. Here the main focus of the light is concentrated. In normal vision, fully 80% of the visual brain busies itself with information from this area, which actually receives input from only 10% of the whole retina.

These 6 million cones are specialized for wavelengths that we see as colours – yellows nearest the centre, others spread across the retina and blues farthest out. The cones decrease in number the farther out they are located, and there are none at the peripheries.

The rods are much more numerous, numbering 120 million. The further from the centre, the more they gain the monopoly, and out towards the peripheries they take over completely.

What were you doing?

When you paid attention to the peripheries, you were activating the rods of your eyes. And if you felt physical discomfort in doing so, there were physical reasons.

Rods are not happy in bright light. They do best with twilight or a dimly-lit room, so it’s no wonder you felt irritated by the light when you drew. The rods are most comfortable with ‘gloom’- twilight, moonlight, half-darkened interiors. Blues and greens, detected farther away from the centre, tend to become more intense in the dusk. Rods are also slower to respond to bright light, and can easily get overloaded – this explains your photophobia. Rods are also slowest to recover from a flood of brilliance – going out into bright light ‘bleaches’ the world of colour and tone for a short time, and has to be adjusted to. The reverse is true when you set off at night into the woods and have to wait for your eyes ‘to get used to the dark’. The rods pick up the mist of steady background luminance. They like being taken for a walk along the river at dusk, when everything is in shades of gray. Maybe you didn’t notice the lack of colour as you drew – you were using black and gray on white anyway – but if you think back, you might realize that no, you didn’t notice any colour out there. There was none .Check it out if you like.

 

Place a bright-coloured object (say a red shirt) at right angles to a mirror Stand back so the shirt is in the centre of your visual field and the mirror (with the shirt in it) is at the periphery. Check out the peripheral shirt.

 

Those who claim to be able to see auras have probably trained themselves to deactivate their focus, and if the long rods of their eyes are particularly well-adapted, perhaps genetically predisposed, the central shimmering created by the unfocused cones can be perceived as colours. This kind of seeing has a moral association – it cannot choose and judge so it is more likely to avoid being distorted by personal preconceptions.

Simone Weil equated attention with prayer (attender means to wait in French). She wrote that it is ‘a special way of waiting upon truth, setting our hearts upon it, yet not allowing ourselves to go in search of it.’

What was going on?

By removing your attention from the focal point, you were de-activating the cones, denying them their customary top-dog position. You could not actively go in search of the periphery – that would have meant moving your eyes and would not work. So you set your heart upon it by paying attention – that special way of waiting upon truth.

When attention takes over, the chatter of the mind is stilled. Think back to your experience as you drew the peripheries, how the room became remarkably silent. You can also remember other experiences in your life, and in your art, when you have paid attention. The ability to step aside, to be empty, to disappear, is the essence of creativity.

In Castaneda’s Tales of Power the sorcerer told the apprentice to walk for hours in the chaparral, gazing before him with his peripheral vision, until the chatter in his mind was stilled.

When I read this, I wondered what would happen if one were to draw this way – the result was the peripheral drawiing exercises.

For more about vision, read  ‘The Creative Eye,’  the book these exercises are taken from.

 

 

The Visual Field 2: Continuing the exercise

This is the  3rd Blog  – drawing exercises found in my book The Creative Eye, and continues exercises about drawing the Visual Field.

Awareness of the Visual Shield

In the last exercise, you saw – and were aware of – the whole Visal Field. You found you were looking into a large amount of space with things in it, inside a kind of oval or sloppy circle. Beyond which, in every direction, there was nothing. 

Let your gaze rest

In this exercise, most people have trouble keeping their eyes (and the field) still. The field is your personal field and it won’t stay there like a mural on the wall while your eyes move around and focus on various parts of it. If your eyes move, the obedient field moves too. This is the first rule of the game: you have to let your gaze rest in one place.

Rest on what?

If you are in a life drawing class, it’s fun to have the model in the centre  of your visual field. After all, she is what you’re there to draw, so it’s natural to rest your eyes on her. At home, just choose something (so as not to keep referring to it as the object, I will call it the potted plant).

 Choose anything you like. It doesn’t matter what or even where it is – because as soon as you focus on it, it automatically locates itself in the middle of your visual field..

An adventure

This exercise is an adventure – using your eyes, physically, in a new way.

Whether you decide to draw or not isn’t the main issue. But the drawings, if you make them, will be beautiful and will be the witnesses to your having seen. The first exercise is the seeing.

Fix your gaze on the plant (or whatever you choose), and allow it to rest there. If you want, shut your eyes and then open them to rest on the plant.

And, very slowly, become aware of the field spreading out in all directions – right to the edges, the  peripheries. Explore them just as you did when your hands were out there appearing and disappearing. But this time don’t use your hands, use your attention. Your gaze is still resting on the plant. Your attention is on the peripheries, slowly moving around them till you have completed a whole circle.

 Try this until you are sure you can do it –  closing your eyes,  resting them, opening them – at rest, on the plant – and then, without shifting your gaze, becoming slowly aware of the whole field,, right out to the edges, or peripheries. How much, and how far out, can you be mindful of without moving your gaze from its resting-place?

Attention

It is actually possible  to look directly at one thing (potted plant) and pay attention to something else (periphery). This is called external fixation – your eyes are not directed there, yet your visual attention is.

The cursor

You aren’t ‘seeing’ any more than you ever did. Yet, without moving your eyes, you have allowed yourself to receive much more information.  You could compare the visual field to a computer screen:  while you look at the middle, the cursor of your attention can wander out to explore the edges.

Close your eyes

What is out there? At one point there is vision (something seen) and beyond it there is not. Is there a uniform blur and fadeout, or a sharpness, or a shimmering? Are some areas of the periphery different than others?

Again, go through the stages of this exercise. Remember that you are practicing a completely new way of seeing, and it may take several tries. The elementary rule is not to shift your gaze. If you do ‘lose it,’ close and reopen your eyes and begin again.  

 

OK,  let’s draw the peripheries.

Making drawings verifies this act of attention. The drawings declare: ‘This is what I have seen.’

You’ll need a few simple materials – a board, paper and some chalk or soft conté. Your field is large so the paper should be large too, at least A3 (9½ by 12 inches). Put it across your lap and a chair front of you. Across, because you have two eyes so your visual field is wider than it is high. Before you start, write on the top of the paper: ONLY PERIPHERIES.

Gaze exactly as before, but this time with the chalk ready in your hand. With eyes resting continually on the plant (and definitely not looking down at the page), draw only the peripheries.

drawingthe peripheries - exercise about the visual field.

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When you have followed the cursor of your attention all around the peripheries of your visual field, drawing as you go, then you can look down.  

It is fun to go into this exercise without any images to check out. This is your visual field, and only you know what you have seen.


Difficulties

Could you take this seriously? To draw peripheries only, not what you are looking at, doesn’t make sense. It is normal to be prejudiced in favour of your focal point, and only gradually, through two or three trials, to be able to redirect your attention outwards across the field.

More seriously, maybe you can’t quite believe you should keep your gaze at rest – you have to sneak a look at the sides of the room in order to get the details, reasoning that, if your head is fixed, your eyes are allowed to wander.

It’s hard too, at the start, not to be interested in your picture, and you may have kept breaking off your gaze to see what’s happening to the drawing. But this defeats the purpose of the experiment. Which is not the drawing per se, but the experience of a new way of looking at reality.

So-called “Blind drawing”

Drawing teachers have turned this kind of “blind drawing” – drawing with your eyes on what you’re looking at – into an exercise, but it has actually has been around for a long, long time. It is not extraordinary; it is the natural condition of attention. ‘What is this drawing? Rodin, as an old man, asked. ‘Not once…. did I shift my eyes from the model. Why? Because I wanted to be sure that nothing evaded my grasp.’

Drawing too much 

Maybe you drew too much. In spite of writing  ONLY PERIPHERIES you may have drawn a lot more Any whole object which you can name is not at the periphery. If you’ve done this right, your paper will be empty except at the edges.

Draw again and ask yourself, ‘What’s behind that? What’s farther out? What’s the very last bit of visual information I can see?’ This is where you should be drawing, away out at the very brink where everything disappears. 

The mystic Simone Weil spoke of attention as ‘suspending our thought, leaving it detached, empty…as a man on a mountain who, as he looks forward, sees also below him, without actually looking at them, a great many forests and plains.’

Think about this beautiful description of what it’s like to be attentive – can your vision be like this?

If you take you time and draw seriously, you will start to notice and experience strange, new things. Keep your drawings. On the next bog you will see other peripheral drawings made in this way. You willl learn about the physical changes that occur in the eye when we draw like this – and  much, much more.

Heather Spears blog – about drawing and the brain

The Creative Eye: drawing, vision and the brain is a book for everyone who loves drawing and loves to draw. Now I’ve decided to make a blog, mostly of the drawing (and seeing) exercises in the book and other books I am writing..

Click here to see the book:

The Creative Eye cover

The exercises are designed so you can do them at home – I imagine you sitting in a room, a room which became very real as I wrote – doing them as you go along. Some are purely visual; others require some simple drawing tools.

They can also be done in a class. And they are more than exercises – they are new ways of seeing which will from now on inform and enrich your art.

 

Above all this is about how and why. You’ll be exploring the act of sight – how you see the way you do – and what lies behind seeing: your visual brain.

 

It’s tremendously exciting to find out what is actually happening when we look at something, and when we attempt to draw what we see.  The new brain research can explain it.

 

Heather Spears teaching drawing

You will be  learning about the brain and what it is up to, and how it affects our ability to draw, for better and for worse – because it can be for worse – but we can also learn what  to do about this.

The book contains background as well – the words of great artists and poets, stories and examples from decades of teaching and drawing, information from the new research into the visual brain. In the blog, I will concentrate on the exercises, and show many student examples as well

Follow here for the first exercise.

I intend to blog about every 10 days. I don’t know how to market yet, but will learn. And will provide a place for comments too.    Thanks.

http://www.heatherspears.com                        E-mail me