The brush is for saving things from chaos.” Shitao, 17th century

Ink drawing at its best demands both clarity and economy akin in many ways to Haiku poetry. Like Haiku the artist must absorb and edit visual impressions of natural phenomena as they are responded to emotionally. However, I am not talking about some kind of self-indulgent angst whereby the art becomes solely a vehicle for the subjective emotions of a tortured soul. Rather, I am thinking of an expressionism that is objective in motivation with the heart and eye grounded in the dignity and wonder of matter (and the joy of space): the artist’s gaze “interrogating” what’s outside of him as John Berger put it.

Rhythms - Kilcreggan
Rhythms – Kilcreggan

This is the kind of art we discover in Blair Thomson’s brush and ink drawings. Although he oil paints largely from memory (using sketches) within his studio, his ink studies are invariably executed en plain air; full on responses to the motifs he sets his eye upon. These are trees, hills, clouds and when they are man-made objects such as piers or Japanese temples, it is because he feels their closeness to nature seeing the organic patterns within them. What is so obvious from his recent series of ink drawings executed in Japan during April 2007 is his affinity with the essence of the man-made motifs he records. This is also true of his landscapes drawings at the Cairngorms and Abernethy Forest which he does annually, each June. But there is one difference between the landscape work and the Temple work. In the landscapes his eye endeavors to penetrate the visible surface of the myriad phenomena, seeking out an overall harmony, trying to record aesthetic principles that unite all things: this pushes his sense of design towards a universal. When rendering the wonder of Japanese Temples on the other hand, we find his eye clearly differentiates the “parts” (yet without losing the visual harmony): his eye and hand becomes more patient because the sheer intricacy of the pagoda’s structure demands it. He has to slow down the eye and hand to record the rigidly controlled lines seen in the complicated system of brackets, especially in the eaves and roof.

I’ve learned a lot about Japanese monastic architecture just by looking at these exquisite drawings. It struck me how varied they really are in style and mood. Sometimes they look sombre (even monotonous) with their heavy forms. But at other times they appear light and almost playful in their treatment of detail. Our eye dances along open colonnades that lead to enchanting halls which make up splendid wings to the body of the monasteries and can appear unexpected and beautiful. However, the stacked pagodas that rhythmically thrust upward remain a favourite subject with Thomson due to their simple but powerful elegance: but not all the buildings have elegance! Blair is only too aware that some of these buildings relate to past military dictatorships (the Shoguns) and therefore, finds the elegance stripped away for a fortress-like severity.

traces of time 22
traces of time 22

Of course, the dynamic energy of such severe architecture may also relate to the Japanese love of Zen which loathes ostentation, preferring simplicity. Whatever the spiritual relationships, Thomson’s art revels in the shapes of open porches, overhanging eaves, sweeping roofs, gateways, patterns of pillars, stones and tiles. He particularly delights in the positive-negative shapes these elements create throughout, highlighted especially in the contrast between deep shadow and strong sunlight.

The vocabulary of ink perfectly suits his artistic aims as he responds to the interplay of dark and light. Using a Japanese brush (Fude) to apply undiluted sumi ink, his incredible sense of touch obtains different qualities of line, all varied according to his perception of what is before him; the fluidity of the medium renders the graceful curves to perfection. There is nevertheless, a restrained elegance in his line work that fits the refined simplicity of the buildings, even the ones of grandiose proportions. The speed does not result however, in a lack of firmness in his lines.

The assurance of his hand makes his marks immediately linked to calligraphy. It is clear to anyone who has followed his career so far, that Thomson has continued to grow more interested in calligraphic brushwork with a studied display of the various strokes. Yet, unlike the vigorous expressionism seen in his decaying boats and rotting piers the expressionism here is tightly controlled by a western sensibility evident in the accuracy of the two-point perspective where a sense of two vanishing points is clearly given (this is where he parts company from oriental depictions of temples). In order to achieve the strong sense of perspective the outlines are rendered with firm, decisive strokes clearly delineating the architectural elements. These strokes can be delicate as well as broad describing the rich detail of what he sees: nevertheless, in all this there is an economy of means that only a gifted draughtsman can achieve after long hours of practice.

The juxtaposition of black ink and white paper results in a marvel of light and shadow, of sunshine and space – the blacks receding, the whites projecting. But the deep black patterned marks give the whole image exciting accents above and beyond mere description. The sheer intensity of the rhythm of the brush strokes is enhanced throughout because he achieves such variety within a basic language. Just look at the flicks, daubs and strokes to see the boundless invention as he searches and probes the brush and paper’s potential. His hand can make sweeping curves then shift to angular, sharper lines – some loose, others strong and sure. Similar yet all different!

The surrounding foliage has a freer look to it, the black ink scuffed and mottled to create the textured mass of the trees. Clearly he is dragging a dry brush, often twisting it, that has already unloaded most of its ink in the line work: through this technique he achieves atmospheric half-tones with no need to dilute with water. I like how this textured quality always acts as a foil to the clearer linear patterns in his drawing.

The over all feeling of these temple drawings is one of direct revelation of the thing depicted. Yet it’s obvious his drawing is never about an exact portrayal in a purely naturalistic, photographic sense. The creative act of making marks is charged with artistic feeling, the objective reality acting as raw material for aesthetic transformation. So there is this tension in Thomson’s aesthetic, between a state of mind and an exact likeness of the physical world. But like all great draughtsmen all distinctions between the conceptual and empirical become irrelevant dissolved in the creative act itself.

The Japanese master Shitao summed up the process beautifully: “Painting is the result of the receptivity of ink: the ink is open to the brush: the brush is open to the hand: the hand is open to the heart: all this in the same way as the sky engenders what the earth produces: everything is the result of receptivity.”

And just as apt is what the German statesman Adenauer said, only for another context: “One must see the complicated things in simple terms, if one wishes to go into depth.”

Copyright © 2007 Alan Wilson

traces of time 8
traces of time 8