John William Peel grew up in High Wycombe, England, during the 1960s & 70s before travelling to North America. Dissatisfied with the influence that post-modernist thought had on the creation of Art, he re-examined his connection to the figure and the infinite ways it can be depicted or interpreted.
His love of line in particular, and all that can be accomplished with this simple tool, play a large part in many of his works.
Mastery of Line & Figurative Explorations
Sometimes I think about that whole “butterfly effect” with respect to my own Artistic development. Which influences nudged me in the direction I’m facing now and why I find some things more fascinating than others. I don’t believe I consciously brought about my fascination with what you can do with line but I’m pretty sure I can isolate a couple of important contributing factors.
When I first started drawing and studying human anatomy I knew it was task that would require a great deal of repetition, cross-training, exercises, and study. Besides drawing from life, copying old masters, studying and reading up on my favourite Artists, and theory; I would also do these warm-up exercises where I drew my hands or other figures in one single continuous line. Just my hand alone, now that I think about it, I would have drawn well over 10,000 times since I started doing this exercise – but I’m going on a tangent now.
These line drawing exercises were started around the same time I was delving deeper into Van Gogh’s works, especially his drawings. I was fascinated by how much information he could get across with just a few strokes of his brush or pen. With these drawings in mind I would look through other work which fascinated me at the time in the collections of Picasso and Matisse. Each had their own completely different direction of course, but they all shared the same “element” in that it was the clever manipulation of line which brought life to their ideas.
I began connecting many other things to this process and would interpret it in my work. For example, I would read “The Book of Five Rings” by the Samurai Musashi Miyamoto and take the words describing swordplay and calligraphy to be related directly to the lines I’m describing on the page. Like the strokes of a sword in battle victory can be had with one bold stroke or it can be had through many, many cuts. These approaches to drawing branched out into the different styles that you’ll see in my portfolio.
There are a few categories of line drawings.
There is the literal or figurative interpretation where I take a single continuous and uninterrupted line and in one stroke use it to describe the figure that I’m drawing. I aim to get the pose, attitude, and personality of the subject and these works tend to be very representational. I enjoy looking at the human form and this is sort of a straightforward way for me to pay homage to it.
I also like to take the line “for a walk” so to speak. A stream of consciousness that may or may not be related to what concerns I’m having that day. Again – this will be completed in one shot usually but this time the path of the line meanders and crosses over itself when it wants to. The end results often have somewhat of a childish feel to them.
On occasion I will use tightly woven line to block out negative space and illuminate the blank space around it. At this point it might still only “technically” be line in that it travels in that way (but it’s being used as a method of shading or blocking). At this point I feel my interest in this is only in passing, and only because I’m envisioning the drawing as laid out yarn or something. A solid figure suggested which can then be so quickly undone and then fashioned into something else totally anew.
Other than the drawings and paintings using line (the style I’m most frequently asked about it seems!) I have a love for studying the human figure overall. There are a number of works just dedicated to exploring people, and in some ways these “traditional” figurative studies in acrylic or watercolour. For a while I wasn’t sure if I was a figurative painter as it was a study I started my journey with on the way to “becoming” an Artist, but I fell in love with everything about us – and for too many reasons to illuminate here.
Regarding the study of the human figure I would like to add some thoughts about that as it seems for some Art students that it’s “old hat” or not necessary. I would argue that regardless of what you’re trying to accomplish as an Artist, learning to draw the human figure is as important as it ever was.
I remember reading something about an aspiring young painter asking the advice of a well-known landscape master. He was inquiring as to how one would become a master landscape-painter. The answer, of course, was that “First you must learn to draw the human body”.
I’m not so sure about the origins of this story and it may in fact be apocryphal, but if someone who was only interested in painting landscapes wanted to give a good answer in how to become a better landscape painter – that would still be at the top of the list of good answers. This is because there are a myriad of things accomplished through the study of the human body through analysis and life drawing etc. The main reasons are:
- Improving visual judgment.
- Understanding physical manifestations of psychological/spiritual etc phenomena.
- Understanding of humanity’s relationship to their surroundings by introspection.
The first one is probably the most common answer given when Art students ask why they’re learning about drawing the human body. The skill and judgement required to be able to draw the human body will serve you well; almost regardless of subject matter. A combination of being intimately familiar with the subject (we sense subtle differences in subjects we’re familiar with) and the variety available within that category (just think of the differences between all ages, weights, genders, and abilities) make learning the human form one of the greatest tests. It’s a common refrain that once you can draw the human body, you can draw anything.
Honing these skills doesn’t just improve the mechanical ability to translate what you see or think to paper or canvas, it fosters the habit of digging deeper into a subject to be able to see it clearly.
The process of learning the form isn’t just a case of drawing from life and copying the old masters (although these exercises are important), you also study the skeletal and muscular systems underneath. You learn that surface features change and take shape based on what is going beneath the surface; and as years of practice build up your ability to connect these things to visualize future movements and compositions improves. Without consciously addressing the fact that to see something clearly means to see it at varying depths and dimensions, you make this exercise a part of your daily existence until it becomes second nature. You understand that seeing isn’t just about looking at what is in front of you.
“At fifty everyone has the face they deserve” – George Orwell
Everyone you will ever meet in your life has a story, and there will be parts of their story that will resonate with you on some level. The experiences we build up in life take their toll on our bodies in both subtle and obvious ways. Everything from laugh lines to changes in posture tells us not just about the physical form standing in front of us, but their history and stories they have to share. As you become more familiar with how the human body works, your ability to sense what some of these differences mean will grow. These attributes don’t just help you become a better figurative painter, they help you understand how the invisible can influence the visible.
On a side note this skill isn’t just helpful in Art, it’s helpful in all other walks of life.
The third is less obvious, but very important nonetheless.
There are more boring landscapes than there are those worth painting. There are probably more bad combinations of abstract shapes than good ones. What is it about an aesthetically pleasing landscape, or abstraction, that makes them such? Art isn’t arbitrary (although it can sometimes give off that impression), and for the most part there is some thread that connects it to other people and their experiences. Even the most modern or esoteric works have a grounding in concepts important in one form or other to other people besides the Artist. And even though the variation within human cultures and lives is infinite, we share so much across all boundaries that if something is “human” it can find a way to “talk” to the viewer. (as an aside, here is a link on more than 200 cultural universals. Practices and ideas that have been found in every culture around the world ever studied: http://joelvelasco.net/teaching/2890/brownlisthumanuniversals.pdf )
The intimate relationship you develop with your subjects eventually lead to a deeper understanding of what it is to be human – and hence your ability to relate whatever you create will not only be refined; it will surface on its own whenever you bring a work to life.
I would also like to add a fourth reason – it is the most interesting subject of all for an artist to paint. There are more than seven billion separate universes floating around on this planet, each with its own frontiers and each with its own dimensions. Although I wouldn’t argue the subjectivity of this plea, I will only say that you do not need to gaze outwards to see a limitless frontier for exploration.