The probity of drawing: 90% looking, 10% doing
One of Britain’s foremost landscape painters, Peter Prendergast’s work has recently been collated into a website. http://www.prendergast.co This site, managed by his family, gives an insight not only into the iconoclastic quarry paintings for which Prendergast is renowned, but also into previously-unseen work. OCA tutor Jane Parry reflects on the work of this consummate landscape artist while developing a website of his work.
In the immediate aftershock surrounding Peter’s untimely death in 2007, the studio was captured just as he left it. These images, taken by his daughter Daisy, along with sketchbooks, drawings and works on paper, serve as poignant insights into a lifetime’s preoccupation and a testament to Peter’s belief in the probity of drawing. As a former student of Peter’s, and later a colleague, it was a pleasure for me to be designing the site. I worked with images I hadn’t seen before, images taken from a large collection the family are still archiving. These included small paintings in vibrant oranges, saturated greens and blues. I found myself periodically venting my enthusiasm via Facebook while I put the pages together – I ♥ Colour!
Working on the website prompted a period of celebration of this work, and of reflection on the creative process. Peter’s paintings are a passionate expression of the changing nature of the landscape in which he lived – between the mountains and Irish sea. His old Deiniolen studio is surrounded by terraced quarries – a highly atmospheric Dr Who-esque terrain where the mountains have been gouged – literally turned inside-out – to reveal the slate within. The quarry is not grey at all, but shades of distinctive purples and greens. Those ‘in the know’ can tell which particular quarry any slate tile comes from. Peter’s headstone was hand-picked from a particular seam of green in the local slate quarry – the quarry which hangs in Tate Britain. (The Slate Quarry, Bethesda 1980-81)
Drawing was fundamental to Peter’s philosophy, both as an artist and as a teacher. He studied at the Slade in the 60s, then under the leadership of William Coldstream and came into contact with painters including Euan Uglow and Frank Auerbach. As a teacher, Peter’s belief in rigorous observational drawing prompted his students to work diligently for hours at a time in the Life room, painstakingly rendering the figure with Peter’s soft southwalian accent a constant extortion to ‘Look!’ Peter’s uncompromising approach instilled in his students the essential disciplines of life drawing; a focus on scale, perspective, structure, form and, most of all, Invention. We were encouraged not to ‘make-do’, never to let something pass that we knew fell below the mark. ‘Rub it Out!’ became the mantra: if it is not accurate, then remove it; change it; alter the outcome. Inventiveness was key – in how we rendered the space and made the mark.
In hindsight, it taught us to be our own critic; Peter required us to question elements we took at face value, to seek to move ‘beyond the obvious’, and beneath the superficial. At the time, of course, we groaned at having to rub out (again!) a hand (too small) a limb (too long) or any other area we had lovingly drawn for the past half hour, seduced by our own invention, not looking at the reality before us. ‘Drawing is 90% Looking, 10% doing’ – a constant reminder. It is a tough discipline to erase and re-work, in an attempt to honestly describe structure and form, to understand more about the subject you are drawing, without relying on a superficial facility. Perhaps it is now even tougher, with the contemporary emphasis on speed and immediacy. Discipline. Sounds very old-fashioned now. Our weekend homeworks were to spend 16 hours making a self-portrait. I was young. I took him at his word. I spent my Saturdays and Sundays doing just that; swaddled in layers of giant enveloping jumpers, trying to draw my serious 18-year-old self in a very cold welsh cottage. I looked a bit like Stanley Spencer.
Later, I worked alongside Peter and become a teacher in the Life Room myself. I found myself recanting parts of what he had taught, whilst trying to put my own slant on it. I found my own ‘voice’ through colour: extolling the need to put away the ‘peach/skintone’ acrylic and look deeper at those purple shadows under our eyes (my eyes, mainly; white northern European woman on cold November Tuesday morning) and greygreen casts across Jan’s figure. We looked at Lucien Freud, Jenny Saville and Maurice Cockrill taking our time in mixing colours that were true to what we saw. I took my turn at encouraging students to re-examine their work, to ‘really look’.
For students that are concerned with appearance, eager to ‘get it right’, it can be profoundly difficult to dramatically alter or erase parts of the work; to revisit areas that aren’t working – and find the reserves and confidence to re-examine their subject – to really look. As such, it is arguably one of the most important processes an artist learns –, and develops a creative facility for re-invention that would otherwise lie unchallenged.
As a lecturer, Peter influenced a generation of practitioners, including Darren Hughes, Eleri Jones, Iwan Gwyn Parry and many more working in alternative media. As part of the annual Peter Prendergast Drawing Prize this year Stefan Gant’s lecture explored contemporary drawing practice in a digital context. The website is up, it’s live, and it already has a remarkable amount of traffic – we’ve put the bandwidth up to 5000MB to accommodate it! It will be regularly updated by the family, so do check in to check out that colour….