Thursday, 21 June 2007

Drawing a blank

I’m standing with my sketchbook on College Green opposite the Houses of Parliament, finding out that making Big Ben look believable is every bit as difficult for me as drawing someone’s portrait, when a police officer suddenly bears down on me. He asks, in a rather polite, apologetic way, if he can see what I am doing. Pleased to get any interest in my work, I show him the half finished drawing, and then the rest of the contents of the sketchbook. I don’t care who it is – if they ask, they can see it. He’s rather complimentary. “Ooh,” he says. “Are you professional then?”

What he was worried about, along with the other police behind the concrete barricades around the government buildings, was that I might have been undertaking “hostile surveillance”. I don’t know what such a drawing may look like, but it only took a brief glance for him to be convinced these weren’t hostile. “I don’t want you to think I’m accusing you of being a terrorist,” he says, as he leaves. “I don’t want you to think I am one,” I answer. We both return to our jobs.

With an art fair looming I had to get some new work done, and a spell in Guantanamo Bay was the last thing I needed. I had a bit of time to make some new work, but it wasn’t so straightforward. The things that looked so perfect to draw when I couldn’t — because I had a hungry five-year-old in tow or the car was parked next to an overdue parking meter — had suddenly become impossible to get to grips with. The 30-second drawings I usually manage to do in my small sketchbook seem full of vitality compared with the first few laboured efforts I churn out when I have two whole days before me to make something.

Take my visit to Paddington station earlier that same day. Usually, when passing through it in a rush before or after a train journey, it had always seemed so full of things to interest me: the soaring arches, the rhythmical columns, the energy and noise, the scale of the place. When confronted with the time to get some of this into a drawing, nothing seemed to work. Nothing seemed quite the right view, or the right format, nothing seemed to capture those things I enjoy so much about it. I walked around the concourse for about 20 minutes drawing a blank, watching the day ticking away.

Upstairs, though, there was a cafe with a table that had a view down one of the long arched aisles of the station that looked ideal to draw. By the time I had queued to buy a coffee it had become occupied. In the time it took for them to leave, and for me to take their place, I’d finished a few small drawings of things I wouldn’t have tackled otherwise and the views that had seemed so impossible before had become that much more doable. Cafes really are the great source of inspiration for me. Making a drawing at a table somehow takes the tension out of having to make a good piece of work.

But, ubiquitous as cafes may seem, they aren’t next to everything you may want to draw, and the contrasting demands of capturing the stationary architecture above and the very mobile elements of passengers and trains below took their toll. From near the clock on platform one I had nearly finished one drawing when a train arrived, obstructing half the view I had included. When it left, after its disembarked passengers had been replaced by those heading out of London, it revealed another train on the platform immediately behind it, so the obstructed view remained.

Twenty minutes later, and seeing yet more of the day slipping away, I consulted the timetables of arrivals and departures to find that there was a four-minute slot about half an hour later that would present me with the scene I had started and so nearly finished. The clock ticked around, and with Swiss efficiency the trains departed, like stage curtains, to reveal the view, leaving me to scrabble to finish the drawing. It is only a train arriving at the same platform two minutes early to re-obscure the view that spoiled things. I made up the rest of the drawing. The imagination is a wonderful thing.