Sunday, 19 November 2017

Indian River

I have been spending the last few weekend mornings at the upper Ganges canal. There is a temple and small ghats where the delhi road crosses the 30 metre or so span of the river, just a short rickshaw ride from Modinagar. The ceremonial bathing happens early in the morning, we saw it once from a taxi, the crowd on the shore up to their waists in the milky water, floating torsos in the smoggy morning atmosphere. I have arrived most days after this ceremony. Priests are in a screened section of the ghats performing small rituals around a fire and scattered incense, flowers and silver bowls of food. Offerings drift by on the current, flotillas of orange marigolds amongst the ubiquitous plastic, crisp packets and polystyrene thali trays. Young boys wade waist deep against the strong undertow, trawling heavy weights somewhere down there through the aquatic soup of silt and debris. The weights are heavy magnets some from old speakers, cone still attached, used this way for collecting coins thrown to the sacred river. The boys return to check their haul on a scrappy spit off the ghats, which is also scattered with clay vessels and figurines. A man in a black shirt watches over the boys, taking anything they find.

I notice this hold on people another time, when drawing a place outside a temple where there is a loose gathering of street children, women and, mixed in with the elderly huddle, some Sahdus: religious ascetics who have renounced the worldly life. Several cars pull up in the time I am there, people get out and serve up dahl from takeaway containers and pedestrians too, hand out notes and coins as they leave the ghats. There is a man from the temple, whose orders these dependants obey. He is mid forties; tall, thin, wearing neatly cropped hair, crisp white pyjamas, a single dot of colour on his brow, always stands upright and straight although he clasps his hands so tightly when he talks that he makes them bent and twisted. Everyone in the ragged gathering does this man's bidding and he is their agent, seemingly ready to sell what ever he thinks they have to offer in service. In his presence is a young woman holding a new born who had previously been laughing at my drawing, at me, the children and all the jokes I will never understand. Now with this man, her natural laughter is replaced with a fake complicity as she is offered up to the rich westerner for sex. The holy man inserts his fore finger into the O of his pinched thumb and index to make clear his proposition.
Oblivious perhaps, to the future around them, the children at the top of the ghats are full of joy and excitement about being drawn. Occasionally they are scattered by a muttering old woman, a real character with a chunky stick and glasses pinched to the end of her nose, but always they sneak back giggling. The smallest one with the biggest grin will put both his thumbs up in a positive question directed at me; is it all clear? The grouch has fallen back to sleep. His quick wit beyond his age reminds me of F back at home; starting primary school, living care free in a present tense world explored with a sharp and enquiring mind. This grinning boy bare foot on the riverside, understands that same joyful existence. For this precious moment they are in common, a brief moment, their lives already moving on very different trajectories.

In uptown Modinagar, there is a small river so clogged with waste that much of it has silted up and overgrown. On the left of the road bridge there is a pipe big enough to crawl through, discharging black water with the stench of sewage. Just below is a floating mat of plastic waste stretching from bank to bank, backed up against the silted over riverbed. Upstream the damned water forms a pool; still and black in colour but cloudy like milk. The greasy surface reflects ochre and red, the reverent colours of a Hindu temple on the opposite bank. An unnatural iridescent sheen glistens purple along the shallow fringes. Swimming pigs bulldoze through the plastic raft, lost in a hearty enthusiasm for their work. Their dedication looks absurd, their movement jerky and possessed like puppetry, snout tossing shoes and tennis balls and plastic hats up from the discarded depths. Egrets balance on the hog's backs and a dancing procession of these avian stilt-walkers follows each ones wake, ready to pounce on smaller prey in a flurry. Yesterday, six boys put the egrets up in a cloud of white powder as they clambered onto the rotting mat. Reaching the waterline the boys stripped bare, sunk themselves in and began to rummage in the fowl water for any residue of value left discarded.

Trawling for coins

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Birds of Modinagar

Week 8 November
The infrared swirl straddles central India on the map, twisting through dark red and purple towards two black boils at its epicentre sitting over Delhi and including Modinagar. Through the window there is no visible sign of this storm, the air is deadly still, but the authorities advise people to stay indoors to avoid harm, schools are closed and events cancelled. Ministers in Delhi blame the silent storm on crops being burnt in neighbouring states, the same practice carried out for many thousands of years. Either way, the region is in a state of emergency; that deep red static tornado on the satellite map signifying air quality declares a reading of 999 micrograms of pollutant per cubic metre (the scale does not go above 999, true levels have at times reached 1300). This is toxic air that can clog arteries and cause premature death on a mass scale. To put it into perspective, London when it has broken the EU regulated maximum pollutant levels by several fold has never exceeded 200 micrograms per cubic metre. Outside the window each morning I can make out the metal work of the balcony and just beyond a slight silhouette of the huge ficus that normally dominates the view and that's it; total white out, Jack the ripper type smog. Stay indoors; I have often opened my bedroom door this week to find a hazy cloud hanging menacingly in the hall. I leave the compound, I need to explore, draw.

Sometimes I go out early, pass over the threshold cut out of the compound gate, salute the guard as I go and step into a world of saturated grey tones and wispy spectres. Car's horns blare as they emerge with a rush and disintegrate again into the mist. I move freely, my own whiteness bleached out in the smog makes me almost incognito; Westerners don't usually have reason to visit Modinagar, so our presence on the street always draws considerable attention. I enjoy these quiet mornings, lingering. By 7 o'clock the road is already clogging with vehicles, often stuck behind the lumbering carts off to Modi Mills, laden with sugar cane. This main street is the only route between Delhi and the city of Meerut. M5 level traffic skims fruit sellers and food stalls, and pedestrians and motor bikes all jostling for space on the narrow, ambiguous fringes squeezed between heavy traffic and the toxic verge of open drains that run beneath the houses. Down there, open flumes run purple black drain water, steam rising where domestic waste mingles with run off from the Sugar mill. A syrypy sweet mildew smell permeates the sharp tang of exhaust fumes and thickens the soup in my lungs.

When I first arrived here, I quickly accepted that I was not going to be making work about wildlife in this crowded concrete strip. It was a surprise then on one of these smoggy mornings, to find myself drawing several Indian Hornbills clearly outlined on the branches of a dead tree in Modi Mander park a few metres from the main street. They were directly overhead circled by the simple silhouettes of tropical foliage, spade shaped leaves that taper to a long crimped thread, long frond leaves and fine showers of bamboo all staggered into shades of mist. The heavy beaked, long tailed hornbills grounded at roost by the dense smog turned this corner of a polluted park into a jungle scene of my imagination.

On one of my free days this week, I walked to the fields around Junta. As if I were ten again, I took the long route balancing on leats and ducking behind bushes to avoid some children I knew would sweetly harass me to breaking point and ruin any chances of drawing. My aim was to reach the raised platform around a solitary banyan tree under which was a small domed shrine. When I got there I found a new field had been flooded that throughout the day, drew down more and more birds until the whole 200 metre square was jammed with avian activity. Numerous bright egrets sparkling in the wet mud, white against yellowing smog, black drongos with their long quilled tails quivering as they spin a flight back and forth from the bushes catching insects on the wing, a ridiculously heavy billed kingfisher loudly zigzags from perch to perch. Pond herons stalk more stealthily between the erratic dance of the egrets, yellow wagtails and other small passerines dip in and out the flooded furrows, two red naped ibis, unmistakable long curved bills, scream out their intended approach from the tip of a near by pylon. The Ibis arrive at the field edge wearily probing their way around the periphery, red wattles lapwing enter in force and more boldly. They are the first to be spooked though, taking flight occasionally, after some unknown threat sending the skittish egret up in a wheeling raucous flock along with other previously unseen sandpipers and a single dotterel. The stealthy, cryptic pond herons stay still as statues, cool and calm. I try to draw the whole scene but need to zoom in on the birds. I work in my sketchbook for a while using binoculars. Its nice to just relax and strangely for me use a pencil to work things out. I build up a few studies then draw an entire composition in front of me before return with watercolour, lightly moving around the picture as birds fall into position, reflections and light into place. The key is good composition and rhythmic brushstrokes. I think this approach will work for more complicated field paintings than I have been making.

Worn out on Friday I procrastinate about leaving the house, the street, the market, the mill, the back-roads, the fields; all are possibilities all relentless. I look out my window for the 100th time across the unkempt lawn, ficus rustling with the business of Macaques foraging, towards the red slabbed walls of anther crumbling wing of the house curving around a disjointed patio with its swimming pool centre piece, a foot of half silted turquoise grey water at the bottom. A dumpy silhouette on the corner of a rusted, twisted anti-macaque cage catches my eye, another on a vertical drainpipe; too small and upright to be the ubiquitous pigeon. A quick look through the binoculars confirms two Smyrna kingfisher, double the size of our European kingfisher, but the same iridescent blue blaze on its back, a rich chestnut brown head and flank and white breast. Its red bill is proportionately longer and much thicker, the upper mandible chevroned and lower one downwardly curved and heavy giving it a near shoe bill shaped appearance. The kingfisher remain for near enough two hours, allowing me to make several brush studies.

More recently, I have discovered a river uptown attracting birds for all the wrong reasons, as it runs black with raw sewage and clogged so completely with rubbish it turns to a mire where pigs wade accompanied by an egret entourage, black kites as well as the pond herons and other water birds I found previously in the fields. The main street crosses this swampy travesty, temples line its banks, and people live all around in the fowl stench. It's corrupted, fowled, distressing, wild, precious and sacred.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

IIFA Teaching Week 3 and 4: Figure in Space, Pattern and Colour

We started the week tutoring the painters. Our focus was to get the students concentrated on drawing space in proportion. Starting in the studio, we set up a simple subject of 2 pieces of A1 paper, one on the floor and one on the wall in the corner of the room for the students to draw. Before starting the students made schematic drawings of the room, the A1 sheets, themselves and the space between them and the paper. We had interesting results varying from areal views, maps and plans made of energetic lines of trajectory, which hopefully helped the class better understand the proportions of the space they were drawing. Drawing the paper in the room produced some good results, students enjoying it more than they expected, with some pleasing drawings that included the artist as well as subject and room. Next we introduced a model seated on the papers. Before making a sustained drawing we showed examples of artists drawing interior spaces such as Hockney and Martin Shortis, discussing, proportions, scale, composition techniques such as cropping, peripheral vision and foreground space for example. We then asked the students to make thumbnail sketches, encouraging them to move around to explore different compositions. This is something they very rarely do and we had noticed previously that they have had a tendency to launch into a large drawing starting with one detail and working outwards hoping for the best. Many of the thumbnails were more successful than the main drawings and some students used the session to make a whole series. Three students based their main drawing on a thumbnail composition and came up with interesting interpretations of the figure in space using imaginative view points, grounded figure, devices to lead the eye and sense of the artist's position in relation to figure. All strong compositions that considered the importance of tying the design to the edges of the page.

For the afternoon we hang A1 sheets around the campus which is built out of the old Modi cloth factory buildings. We pin the paper amongst the derelict cloth factory sheds, tumbled down chimneys uncoiling to the ground, down alleys stacked with old vents, in a boiler room, on the bonnet of a rusted old Buick and on the tarmac lane cracked and broken under the strain of weeds pushing up the soil. The students found a sheet to draw using it as a reference point for scale, proportion and composition to focus their landscapes and especially examine the breadth of space in their view points. They began with thumbnails and then more ambitious large charcoal drawings.

My favourite class so far was on Tuesday with foundation, section A. We had planned to work outside but the smog in the morning reduced visibility so much it would have been impossible. Instead we set up what we were going to do at one end of the classroom were there was a large wall sculpture of a tree filling the whole wall, a nice backdrop for our rather theatrical lesson. Our class was on figure in space, leading on from last weeks introduction to drawing the figure and would draw on classes I had learnt whilst training at Whitechapel with Becki. Arranging the class was a military operation with three tiers crammed into the small space, sitting on floor stools upturned as board rests, sitting on stools and standing at the back behind the wonderful sloped, teak stained Victorian type school desks filling the classroom. We gavr the class tiny A5 sheets, asking them to draw the class room, really explaining that they need to include walls on bothside, the floor, ceiling and foreground which is as important above us as below. We took this further explaining that those on the sides of the room would have to draw behind them to get the walls in. We did another small drawing asking them to this time put themselves/their position in the drawing so they were really exploring their entire field of view before starting with the main piece.

We stopped for a crit to look at the small drawings, which allowed us to see and discuss how differently we all perceive space, evident in the brilliant little felt tip drawings scattered at our feet in the middle of the circle. We then got into our huddle to look at images on my tablet, as I showed examples of different ways artists have interpreted space in art from Duccio and Massacio to Nadal Chand through to Hopper, Hockney, then Van Gogh, Bonnard and Tim Hyman drawings.
Before getting back to work we reiterated how important planning in this way is; many students helpfully shared their experiences of having to redraw the space several times after incorrectly estimating the proportions of the room. Using the small drawings as a guide, we asked the students to make larger drawings of the room and also introduced colours for them to use: two pastels one cold and one warm colour as well as a choice of black or white paper (this was to introduce a new element for variety but also were running out of materials after being so liberal in the first two weeks). After 5 minutes drawing the space we introduced a model. After 10 we moved the model to a different position in the room for the students to add to their drawing. We repeated this and as the model moved around more and more students were struggling to place the figure. To resolve this we extended their drawings by adding more paper, so the work got bigger and bigger. The scene became quite theatrical and it was exciting to see the strange drawings that were being produced, not least because of the mind bogglingly wonderful way some dealt with the space and all in striking colour tones.

We repeated the class for Section B&C, this time in the park but with less success due to various issues. Probably to do with the classes mood that day as well as the difference of being outside both for their ability to focus and also because the task was more difficult in an open space. A couple of student made some of the best drawings in this session however.

Matisse with Fashion Design and Textiles on Wednesday. Our first time with these groups and they were great, they also have by far the best studio; light, airy, open planned top floor with a glass exterior wall opening out onto a lawn terrace. We made a set for them with draped patterned fabric, rugs, flowers and fruit for them to draw from. We introduced Matisse to them for the first time ever and talked about using pattern shape and colour to draw something. We took this further discussing how the space in Matisse work is on one often flat plane, how this turns things into pattern and how we would like to challenge the class to do the same with the set in front of them. We worked on thumbnails and felt tips to begin with, which worked well. The sustained drawings were harder as there was a tendency to over work and fixate on detailed rendering of forms instead of simplifying and focusing on compositional edits/decisions, especially when we added a model.

We repeated this class with foundation on Tuesday 12 November. Rosy was back with us and since this was really her area she took the lead and the students produced some fantastic work. We had tweaked the class slightly so, for example,  we worked on coloured paper. This group seemed to take very naturally to the idea of making patterned, rhythmic colour compositions by flattening the space they were drawing. The work produced certainly showed inspiration from the Matisse and Vuillard work we looked at but also the patterns, design and feel of Indian miniature painting in some. 

For fashion this week we worked outdoors using ink, exploring pattern and mark-making again, leading on from the Matisse inspired class last week. We set up a scene against the large studio windows for a more sustained ink and brush drawing. Some of the work produced was very illustrative and really well thought out compositionally. Some used thick and thin lines with pattern and a variety of marks to create rhythm and balance in the work. Others used the single black tone and white of the paper to capture a sense of light and dark in and out the room. We moved on to colour using oil pastels on colour paper with ink. This introduced using limited colour with black and also new texture and mark making combining wet and dry materials and resist marks.

for painting we had prepared a lesson on sketchbook work. Making sketchbooks and working on the busy streets to gather source material for a studio drawing/painting later on. Due to various other commitments most of the class were absent so we postponed and instead went on a sketch crawl with the four students present. We explored a very interesting area around the school, which is the opposite end to where we live and definitely more down town. From blacksmith families in their tents on the roadside to the blue black toxic river damned with rubbish where pigs and egrets feast, this is a rough, gritty sometimes repulsive but vibrant place to explore and draw.

Monday, 6 November 2017

Rural Modinagar

03 November 2017

Modinagar has grown up spreading along the length of the Meerut highway. A short walk North away from the road leads into quieter, domestic streets, mothers and sisters in doorways, children on bikes, cakes of cow dung drying on thresholds ready to fuel the cooking fire. A little further on, the houses stop as abruptly as they began along the crush of the highway and are replaced by fields. The road begins to meander, bullet carts slow their pace right down, creaking in time to the sway of the buffalo's hips.

The fields of double overhead high sugar cane are ready to be harvested, other fields already bare are ploughed ready for planting wheat. Some are furrowed dusty brown, others recently irrigated are rich with clots of purple black earth. This patchwork of colour is neatly stitched together by a web of leats designed for running water from a well prominent in the distant flat landscape. The narrow raised banks of the leats also carry people through the countryside from field to field, balancing on the crumbly soil like tightrope walkers.

Off the road I come across a field of sugar cane being harvested by six or seven women (they come and go). They are stripping the leaves and bundling them up, these are carried away where I think they are used as fodder for livestock. I sit on the verge drawing until one comes over and we communicate through mime, she is warning me of snakes so I move to the ploughed field where she says I'll be safe. Turning to move I see a 2 metre snakeskin shed in the ditch amongst the scratchy dry foliage. After I finish my drawing, I meet Ashok whose family owns the farmland I am on and we eat the sugar cane given to me by one of the workers. This cane field is 100 hectares he tells me and that it is normal for farms to be 1000 ha or more in India. They will of harvested this field in ten days.

I walk along the leats where I find a spot that seems to overlook the decide between industrial town and country. A family gathers brush wood, expertly transporting it along the narrow leat paths. The father squats and watches me paint form start to finish in complete silence. Later I head back to the road where a man is flooding his field from the leats. Metallic grey water calmly fills the ploughed furrows advancing towards where I stand pushing ahead of it a tide of white cattle egret, greedily feeding on fleeing insects. A drongo perches on the wires above with kingfisher and the egret are around my feet. I am joined by a large group of children, the only drawback to this peaceful location being the constant entertainment and fascination I provide to the residents. Meet S and finish the day drinking chai with his family in a beautiful farmhouse.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Teaching Week 1

Friday 27th Icebreaker with Foundation: Drawing Portraits

Teaching at International Institute of Fine Art (IIFA)

Monday 30th: Painters
2nd and 3rd Years

Intro to Figure Drawing
Drawing figure as whole (moving away from head to toe outline). Discussed this in relation to weight and posture, looking at Goya drawings. Rembrandt ink drawings in discussion of economy of line. Practically encouraged students to look at connections or 'invisible lines and angles' though the body to rapidly find the form. Doing this while emphasising weight and effect of gravity with importance of grounding the figure. Using charcoal for many different marks (not heavy outline).

Tonal Drawing. Used lighted brick to introduce drawing without lines; looking for contrasting tones, edges not lines. 30 minutes drawing figure, naturally began to include interior in drawings.
Figure in Space. Drawing the room - then introduced model. Discussed e.g. plains of figure matching room, space in extreme foreground in one students work (who had added page) created sense of sharing the space (words used: intimate, artist's view point) (re. Tim Hyman).

Afternoon. Working on single large drawing outside. Chose backdrop at end of road, old factory gates overgrown weeds and rusted up truck. Asked students to think about including whole space in drawing (using thumb nails to plan - seemed not to have done before) . Introduced figures one at a time in different areas of scene. Often extended pages. Encouraging to loosen drawing, rework drawing, use mark making and more tonal variation, think about spaces - calm/busy and breadth of vision i.e. peripheral.

Tuesday 31st: Foundation
Groups B&C in Morning. Group A in Afternoon

Introduction to Figure Drawing
Similar introduction as Monday class, followed by longer tonal drawing. This done by covering model with sheet to give basic shape defined tonally. Sheet removed and students tasked to render their figure over tonal figure.

Wednesday 1st: Applied Arts
2nd and 3rd year

Character Portraits
Class set up in circle, students take turns to model two at a time in centre. Using ink and brush on an A1 sheet divided into 16 A5 sections for each portrait. Focusing on ways of drawing, use of media, marks, design and composition as means of visually communicating a message about the sitter i.e. personality, character. Once students got the hang of this, we introduced a charades type exercise where each sitter chose a piece of paper with a characteristic written on it which the students then had to communicate through their drawing. Each time we discussed the characteristic, asking for words to describe it and then a Hindi translation, sometimes encouraging the students to direct the pose in an appropriate way. Final exercise was a full figure drawing based on an event chosen at random, introducing students to using the space around the figure to build atmosphere.