One day I’d like to be one of those distant relatives with eyebrow-rasingly dubious claims to Scottishness who insists, nonetheless, on turning up to weddings in celtic regalia, fully kilted out and ostentatiously besporraned to the polite embarassment of all and sundry. But for now, I tend only to use my surprising and strange one-quarter Scottishness merely as an excuse to get something going for Burns Night every year. This is an invitation card I designed for a gathering this year - I didn’t really use it in the end, but it’s quite nice I guess. I planned, ages and ages ago, to design a set of gift cards using fragments from Robert Burns poems - I didn’t, sadly, but at least there’s this.
This is a messy and not entirely good drawing I made a while back. I copied all the images from a big book of classic Life Magazine photographs and built the whole thing up by adding bits and pieces every time I found a photo I liked and thought would be good to draw.
Some books wot I’ve read in recent times:
- The Loss of El Dorado - V.S. Naipaul
- Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky - Patrick Hamilton
- Autobiography - Morrissey
- Jazz - Toni Morrison
- Love Stories - Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
- The Grid Book - Hannah B. Higgins
- Maija Isola - Various
- The Bloody Chamber - Angela Carter
NO MAPS FOR THESE TERRITORIES
Native Marshall Islanders have used stick charts for navigation for hundreds of years. These carefully assembled wooden frames do not represent landmasses, but instead map the complex interconnected patterns of ocean swells created as waves bounce back and forth between a cluster of tiny islands scattered across several hundred miles of remote pacific sea. Pilots would memorise these complex charts and navigate the seemingly empty waters by crouching down and sensing the way the waves ebbed and pitched against their canoes.
We usually think of maps as explanations. They are tools we can use to make sense of things, and as such they are supposed to be self-evident. The world maps made by famous Renaissance-era cartographers like Mercator are so sweeping and broad in what they show; so obvious in their intent that we have no trouble linking them back to the world we can touch and see. In fact, Mercator’s map was designed to plot to the Earth’s sphere onto the page in such a way that any continuous bearing could be drawn as a simple straight line.
So, what about those Marshallese charts? They are so esoteric in their design and purpose that to most of us they barely look like maps at all. Despite that there is undeniable sense of precision, purpose and internal harmony built into these objects, and it’s this that I like about them. I don’t know what these maps mean, but there’s a sense of somethingness in them which makes them mesmeric, like a code waiting to be deciphered.
And try this: 19th century explorers returned from an expedition to Greenland with a collection of highly accurate three-dimensional wooden maps of a specific part of the Greenlandic coastline. They are the only known examples of this kind of object, and they were all made by one man, an Inuit native. Why do they exist, and do they have use? Were they widespread at one time, or are they just the product of an individual who found it entertaining to make a study of the world around him in his own idiosyncratic way? A map that no one can read is a true conquest of the useless, but in its uselessness there is beauty.
NB. The stick chart shown at the top of this post is in the collection of the British Museum.
For me, Quentin Blake is the definitive illustrator of children’s books. His famously scribbly and unrestrained style is so reminiscent of the way children draw that it seems to gleefully embody the very idea of being a kid. And yet for all the messiness and unruliness of Blake’s work, his childish style is hardly simple or unpractised. When I saw an exhibition of his work earlier this year, I was surprised to see the range of tools and implements he used in his drawings. One of the display cases showed dozens of unusual nibbed contraptions, ranging from traditional dipping pens to home made tools fashioned from feathers or bamboo sticks, each carefully crafted to create a different weight and style of line.
In a Radio 4 interview, Blake explains that he likes to use rigid writing nibs in his pens instead of suppler drawing nibs. This, I think, is the source of the famous jaggedness in his pictures. A drawing nib glides comfortably in any direction, but a writing nib grips the paper and coaxes the hand into sinuous calligraphic curves with every stroke. When Blake pushes against the flow the pen scratches and sputters, making wonderfully expressive lines which rebel against the measured marks the writing nib is designed for.
Blake’s fascination with the connection between writing and drawing is apparent throughout this interview, and it’s no coincidence that his graphic work often features his own handwritten text (as above). The connection runs deep enough for Blake to use the notion of handwriting to explain the development of his famous drawing style. He points out that everybody writes differently, adding that there is something unique and innate about our handwriting, and we express this uniqueness without really meaning to. For Blake, drawing is the same, and the strange graphological phenomenon we like to call “style” is as much discovered as invented. You could say that Blake’s way of drawing is a signature style, quite literally. Last year I bought a signed copy of one of his books and I was thrilled to see that he really does write just as he draws. The signature on the page is an unmistakable spidery trace as unique as a fingerprint and instantly recognisable as his.
NB. I wish I could cite the radio programme which features the interview with Blake; I heard it almost a year ago and I can’t remember much about it beyond what I’ve referred to here!
WERNER WERNER EVERYWHERE
Werner Herzog is one of cinema’s great all-rounders; a dazzlingly imaginative and deeply funny man with an enviable talent for both drama and documentary. His feature films are famous for their chaotic production and wild ambition, and for the performances of Klaus Kinski, the volcanic actor who starred in five of his films. Yet for all the brilliance of these dramas, it’s Herzog’s documentaries that I really love.
His subjects range from the cattle auctioneers of Pennsylvania (How Much Wood Would a Woodchuck Chuck?, 1976) to the wastelands of the Antarctic desert (Encounters at the End of the World, 2007), and his strongest trait throughout is his irrepressible curiosity no matter how strange the topic or location. It’s impossible to listen to an interview with Herzog without admiring the sheer broadness of his imagination. He can versify on anything, speaking with a kind of mad eloquence, gleefully jumping from Wagner to Wrestlemania at a moment’s notice, and treating each subject with the same wonderfully revealing scrutiny. He finds ideas in everything, and his documentaries are endlessly questioning and uniquely insightful as a result. For me it is this steady curiosity that defines Herzog, balances out the flamboyance of his dramas, and reminds us that he is not just a memorable teller of stories, but a great thinker and a wonderful finder of meanings too.
His most accessible documentary, Grizzly Man (2005), is an account of environmentalist Timothy Treadwell’s attempts to live with wild Alaskan bears, told using Treadwell’s own video diaries. The story itself is extraordinary, but Herzog goes further. He is fascinated by Treadwell’s relationship with nature and wildness, a relationship that seems to mirror his own compulsion towards exotic and inhospitable environments in his dramas. Herzog is like a detective, gathering his clues though encounters with Treadwell’s friends and relatives and assembling them through his steady voice-over narration into something which is not so much the story of a man, but an essay on the relationship between civilisation and wildness, or the utter indifference of nature to humanity. The remarkable Wings of Hope (2000) does something similar through its account of scientist Juliane Koepke’s voyage to safety as the sole survivor a plane crash above the Amazon jungle. Herzog was nearly a passenger on Koepke’s flight, and in recounting her struggle through the jungle he finds an explanation for his own perseverance through appallingly tough film productions amidst the same environments. For Herzog, some people are driven by a kind of madness which compels them to affirm their humanity by defying nature and subjecting it to their will.
I think these documentaries, in their obsession with the untamed wildness of nature, are the perfect counterpoint to features like Aguirre: the Wrath of God, and Fitzcarraldo. The dramas are all spectacle and violence amidst the harshness of the jungle, but the documentaries are the essays and the workings-out, the indispensable bits of argument that give these stories their full meaning and potency.
Sketch in pen and marker from some time ago. That striated block fill effect is something which I’m only able to get with a marker pen which is just starting to run out of ink - quite tricky to get a constant supply of nearly-spent pens to use for this!
Ever the luddite, I eventually bought a smartphone only a couple of months ago. One of the unexpected joys of this new toy (notwithstanding a significant lessening of my tendency to get lost) is its camera, which I’ve had a lot of fun with in recent weeks. I’ve done very little photography at all in the last few months - the fancy DSLR I saved for for months was disappointing, ugly and horrible to use, but my phone camera is a joy simply because I expected almost nothing from it. It’s the digital equivalent of a disposable camera I suppose; it’s fun, expendable and easily pocketable - but I really wish someone would make a phone camera with manual shutter and aperture control!