between Brian Fay, Michael Geddis and Joanna Kidney, November – December 2020
A standard dynamic in drawing can be the making of marks onto a blank surface. What for each of you is different to this standard model in drawing over or on to the others work? And does it differ? What is at stake?
Joanna Kidney (JK)
JK At the start of a drawing which Michael has initiated and passed to me, I generally make my response in either the negative spaces or the openings in his forms. I tend not to work over his drawing at this early phase. With a similar approach to evolving one my own drawings, the additions I make either echo the existing pattern/shapes or introduce a varied range of marks. If what he has drawn is already a well formed structure, I can find it difficult to find a ‘way in’ to the drawing. My additions in these instances tend to arise from experimentation and chance.
At this early stage of the drawing, there is little at stake. Later on, when the drawing has grown and matured, there is obviously more to lose. For me, continuing to work instinctively at this later stage, though sometimes risky, is important in maintaining a dynamic quality to our drawings.
Michael Geddis (MG)
MG In my solo work, I never erase or rework marks made. When working with Joanna, I adopted this form of editing in order to assist with integrating our contributions into viable compositions. In our most recent work, by necessity, Joanna initiated all the drawings by laying down encaustic surfaces for me to inscribe marks into. At first glance, they often resembled slightly tinted and textured blank pages. However, after a bit of looking, I could usually discern (or perhaps imagine that I could discern) hints or fragments of forms and patterns in their subtle but interesting surfaces. This helpful prompt for my initial intuitive marks meant that I much preferred them to the totally sterile blank pages that we worked on earlier in the project.
I concur with Joanna’s comments about what is at stake but would tend to be more cautious with drawings nearing completion.
Could you talk about the need for and use of your taxonomy of drawings as you started to work collaboratively?
MG Joanna and I agreed that we’d take turns to answer first. As instigator of using a taxonomy, I’ll kick this one off. The taxonomy, based on key visual characteristics/attributes, enabled us to systematically sort and classify our initial output of over 200 small drawings. As a result of this analysis, we were able to develop an agreed list of generic descriptors relating to both successful and unsuccessful drawings. We also confirmed that the likelihood of ultimate success with a drawing did not depend on which artist started it.
Up until this point, our investigation into the process of jointly making intuitive drawings had been entirely open-ended. Whilst not intended to be totally prescriptive, the list of descriptors for successful drawings provided a useful framework to focus this activity.
Our descriptors for unsuccessful drawings were also a valuable tool. We used them to spot “dead ender” drawings that were likely to prove unsuccessful at an earlier stage in their development. This tactic allowed us to make much better us of our time.
JK Using taxonomy to define and categorise a body of works was a new and fascinating approach for me. Michael introduced it about 2 years into the project. We’d been intentionally communicating almost entirely through visual means until then, which had enabled us to assimilate each others visual vocabulary. The large number of drawings we made during this time were varied and experimental in content and process and the taxonomy was a brilliantly succinct approach in taking stock of them.
This was an important juncture in the collaboration- following initially getting to know each other’s language, we needed to interpret the resulting drawings. The findings of the taxonomy gave us direction for where we would take the project next.
In drawing scale is important as it has implications for gesture and marks, we can each arrive at a scale that relates to how we work informed by the specific of our bodies and/or for the rationale of the work. In the case of collaborative work how were the scales you work on arrived at? And what are the implications of these decisions for the drawings?
JK Our decisions about scale were informed by the artistic and practical needs of each stage of the collaboration. We chose to begin the project with small scale drawings on paper to allow us to be experimental with techniques and materials and to get to know each others language through making many drawings together. Also, we needed to be able to send the initial drawings to each other via the post.
After taking stock of the strengths and weaknesses of this series of drawings, it was a natural progression to move up in scale and so we began making larger drawings on paper. We took the same approach for the encaustic works (making a large number of 30cm x 30cm works before embarking on the 1m x 1m scale) and the concertina folded drawings (we tested two different approaches to making these on a small scale before making larger ones). Beginning small and working up in scale like this is probably a common approach to making a body of work.
The larger works developed over a longer period of time, involving more passes between us to conclude. This generated exciting results in terms of visual depth and a ‘combined complexity’. As our additions to each drawing were larger with the larger scale, erasure and subtraction became a vital tool for me in manipulating Michael’s defined structures and intricacy. With some of the larger drawings on paper, I struggled to maintain the animated quality I was after, as subtracting with graphite on paper is limited. I’ve worked with encaustic for many years and extensive subtraction (ie. scraping and incising) and manipulation forms a large part of how I engage with this medium. So responding to Michael’s additions in the large encaustic works was a more natural, fluid process for me.
MG The larger scale definitely supported more protracted and developed visual conversations. I also like the way that the larger drawings totally fill the visual field of viewers as they stand at a comfortable viewing distance. This effectively immerses them in our drawings and enhances their experience of the work.
Some of the later medium scale graphite pencil works on paper featured larger and looser gestural marks made by me (much to my surprise!). During the course of the project, under Joanna’s influence, my drawing became slightly less figurative and more abstract.
Such gestural marks were not possible with the larger encaustic panels because I was using surgical instruments (several sizes of both round and triangular surgical needles and needle holders) to incise my marks into their surfaces. These tools are designed for precision and do not lend themselves readily to making large sweeping marks.
Could you talk about the properties of chance and control in these collaborative works, they seem to be a constant in the series you have worked on. Do they differ from the same properties when they apply to your individual work?
MG My drawings all start the same way – I spend a lot of time visualising in fine detail what I will draw before I start drawing it. This is possibly a habit that I picked up when I was in veterinary practice and spent many hours visualising detailed anatomical structures before completing orthopaedic operations.
For me, these initial visualisations are entirely intuitive. Probably most of the visual associations and connections underpinning them are determined in an organised way albeit at a subconscious level of thinking. However, I feel that the imaginative spark of randomised choice also comes into play in conjuring up a drawing in my mind’s eye.
Once I start drawing, there is a high degree of control with little scope for chance happenings as I draw exactly what I have seen in my imagination. In the case of our collaborative work, each time I receive a drawing back with Joanna’s changes, I regard it as a completely new drawing and repeat the process of visualisation using it as a starting point.
JK Chance has always played a role in making my work. It ties in with possibility, discovery and the unknown. It’s instrumental in creating an animated and dynamic quality which is important to me. In the work I have been making with Michael, I’m continuing to nurture chance in a similar way.
I relate control to logic and consideration. I’m fascinated by the pendulum swinging between impulse and logic, improvisation and consideration during the process of making art. Michael’s controlled methodology was one of the foremost reasons I chose to work with him. I was interested in interacting with it and how might subsequently feed into my work and practice. When Michael passes me back one of our drawings, I need to get to know it afresh before I start working on it. This generally involves a more structured consideration than I’d usually have employed, especially coming towards the end of making our larger works. My additions generally work against the organised structure and defined forms characteristic of his additions. This tension between our differences energizes the drawings and is a key aspect of our collaboration.
The element of control has gently filtered into my practice over time. Consideration and logic are playing more of a role during the making of my current work and the taxonomic approach has loosely informed how I’m structuring this body of work.
When you use the concertina folded format there are different sequential elements and surfaces present when you draw, as it is not a single flat surface where an image is visible at all times. How did your approach to drawing alter when you used the this format?
MG We adopted two distinct approaches using the concertina format. In one, the entire concertina was visible to both of us all the time. In the other, the part of the concertina with drawing on it was obscured by a wrapping. In the latter case, the only prompt for each of us was a tiny piece of the most recent drawing that had continued slightly over the obscured folds onto the next blank visible surface.
With both approaches, I found drawing on the concertinas to be an artistically emancipating experience. I did not have to concern myself with leaving openings for Joanna within each section of my drawing. I also found it helpful to know that my drawing would not be subjected to subsequent modification or deletion. It was still very much a collaborative drawing process – probably the one that I enjoyed the most within the project.
I found the open-endedness of the concertinas that were produced with previous drawings mostly obscured to be quite stimulating and they certainly produced some interesting results. However, as I am probably a bit of purist when it comes to drawing, I really preferred the fully visible concertinas. I enjoyed producing a drawing that did not simply relate to Joanna’s last contribution but also all other preceding contributions. Viewing these from many angles when the concertina was set upright and became a three-dimensional sculptural object added to the challenge.
JK Yes, the process of making the folded concertina drawings together was completely different from making the 2 dimensional drawings together. Responding to the other’s addition on a separate, blank surface plus knowing it would not subsequently be altered gave rise to a more completely formed response drawing. For me, the format invited a greater degree of imagination and8 playfulness. There was an ease with making these drawings, akin to doodling.
With the concertinas which we kept wrapped whilst making, we were working largely from the memory of the hidden addition/s each of us had previously made. This memory speaks to the narrative and sequence which are integral to this format.
How important is the idea of layering and the palimpsest to the collaborative drawings?
JK With the exception of the concertina drawings, my contributions involve varying degrees of both adding to (on top of existing drawing or elsewhere on the page) and subtracting from the evolving drawing. So I’d say both the idea of layering and palimpsest are intrinsic to how we make drawings together.
Layering is integral particularly to the encaustic drawings, as they evolve through adding many layers of paint- with varying degrees of translucency and opacity- each holding parts of the drawing within. I use a lot of scraping with encaustic to erase, edit and make hidden marks and information visible again. The combination of layering and scraping creates an optical depth containing fragments, sometimes only faintly visible, of the drawing which relates to the idea of the palimpsest.
As with a palimpsest, I also radically erased or scraped away to start over with a number of our drawings which seemed to be at a dead end. It should be noted that Michael has remained extraordinarily tolerant of my brutal erasure and subtraction habits throughout the collaboration.
MG I am very drawn to the intriguing visual properties of drawings layered in translucent wax. I find the illusion of optical depth particularly fascinating and regard it as a very important attribute. I enjoyed experimenting with fineness and sharpness of line and colour perspective to optimise this illusion.
In the large encaustic drawings, successive layers of wax medium and drawings act like multiple geological strata by imparting a timeline and a sense of sequence. It is possible to peer deep into the translucent wax and find tiny “fossilised” fragments of forms that subsequently evolved into drawings that developed in the upper layers. The unique properties of translucent encaustic and Joanna’s accomplishment at manipulating it allowed us to develop highly complex multiple-layered drawings that would probably be unachievable (or undecipherable) using other mediums.