19th May 2020: Fruitful Digressions – wandering around in knots

Today did not go as planned. I had a schedule of work – to write up my journal notes from last week, do a few hours of drawing and a few hours of reading. After writing up my notes from last weeks seminar, I moved onto my sketchbook, intending to make some drawings from the photographs are taken on my walks.

I realise that, as I am working from photo prints, I needed to make some viewfinders to get the proportions correct. I started by drawing a grid onto transparency film using a sharpie. I noted that the feel of drawing onto transparencies was smooth, but not as smooth as drawing onto the iPad screen.

A quick aside: I purchased an iPad and Apple Pencil last week and I’ve been using it to make notes and try drawing on – I was going to write a separate entry reflecting on my experience of drawing on it versus on physical paper, but these reflections have ended up being expressed here.

What I do like is the flexibility of drawing and making notes on the iPad. I’ve been using a note taking app called GoodNotes which has made my handwriting searchable and a drawing app called Concepts, which has an infinite canvas to work on. Firstly, after a bit of practice, writing using the stylus an iPad started to feel quite natural. True, the smooth surface and lack of friction between the writing implement and the ‘page’ did feel a little alien at first, but the pressure and tilt ability of the Apple Pencil is really quite natural, my handwriting renders flawlessly! The main advantage is the ability to ‘drop in’ content such as photos and text which I can then draw on – I found myself automatically reaching for the tablet for making working notes! Today I made a page, writing my reflections on my studio processes as it happened, dropping in the photos and marking them up pretty much as things happened – it’s giving me a really useful record of my thinking process and I think it’s rather visually interesting: I tend to scribble notes in small blocks and draw connections between them (a bit like extended mind maps) I find it a useful and natural way to trace the flow of my thinking and process.

“Live” notes on studio practice (written using Concepts app on iPad)

Anyway, I noted that the sharpie lines drawn on the transparency were too thick to be a useful viewfinder for the photos I was working with (7″ by 5″ prints of a cherry blossom). However, I did like the stark black lines on the film and it’s something I will definitely use in future drawings – it might also be a good way to translate my sketches into embroidery patterns (could I prick & pounce the acetates?)

As I had digital versions of the photos, I thought I might try the drawing viewfinder grid on the iPad. This took quite some time, perhaps I need to be more familiar with the tools? But, I found a preferred a physical viewfinder and photograph – physical ‘presence’ feels more ‘natural’ to work from for making physical drawings

I need to think about my language for the delineation of ‘physical’ and ‘digital’ drawings… The terms ‘physical’ and ‘digital’ feel clunky, like the digital doesn’t exist and it clearly does (I’m looking at it!). Other than the smoothness of the glass surface, it’s still bares the mark my hand, it’s still a physical thing, even if it lacks a material presence… perhaps I’m thinking of the physical and digital as a spectrum, not a binary? And if I am thinking about handmade things as a traces of movement, that conceptual difference (binary vs. spectrum) disappears completely – the only difference is the medium that bares the marks and the tools used to make them. Let’s think about the medium, the differences between drawing on paper versus a tablet. There is something in the physicality of paper and pigment – perhaps it’s just a matter of familiarity? Or perhaps it’s the ‘happy accidents’ it leads to, such as using the transparencies to create a viewfinder and realising, though it fails in its intention in this case, I have discovered a new potential set of surfaces and marks. Perhaps there is too much control with the tablet, no space for the accident, you can ‘undo’ what you are not happy with, something I suppose you can potentially do with a physical drawing but it’s more difficult and often leaves a trace. Or perhaps it’s the lack of texture on a tablet, it does a fair job of simulating different brushes and pens, but I like to layer up my drawings, often using different surfaces, and I’ve not found that to be captured on the tablet – even if I printed out on separate sheets it would be flat.

I don’t think I’m making a particular judgement here, to be perfectly honest, there are things I like about both physical and digital drawing and, as I’m getting more comfortable with the tablet I find myself working with it more and more. Both are able to record my marks, both have traces of my hand, and I can switch between them – I can scan my physical drawings, making them digital, as I can print out my digital drawings, making them physical. And it’s making me think about the nature of both, there is a line of thought emerging here… it will be interesting to follow it as I continue to work.

But back to the viewfinders.

Having decided the transparency lines were too thick and the digital grid to be uncomfortable (thinking about it, I think the problem is actually a practical one of trying to draw from the screen, the tablet itself gets in the way and I feel spilling paint on it plus there is something awkward about the adjustable scale (being able to zoom in and out)), I decided to make a viewfinder for card and thread. The first thought that occurred to me was that I don’t actually remember ever learning to do this – I don’t know when I learnt to make these cotton string tools. And it occurred to me, again, about the hidden labour of creative processes and about the whole range of subsidiary skills you learn over the years, including making your own tools.

As I started making a viewfinder, I found myself noting down each stage of the process – I think maybe I was trying to articulate something about the ‘intuitive’ making of a thing, as I said, I can’t remember learning to do this.

As I was piercing the card ready to run the thread through, something occurred to me about how card is a very different material to fabric – the fact I have to make the holes before I run the thread through – and I wondered if this might be a way to record the thread paths of the Blackwork patterns? Card being a stiff material, it might enable the viewing of front and back of the embroidery to be clearer. There is also something in the switch from fabric to paper as a surface that speaks to an idea of drawing with thread and it might also be an interesting way to think about the void spaces in the original embroideries.

I decided that, instead of working with shorter lengths of thread meaning multiple start and stop points that could potentially come loose, I would thread up this viewfinder with one exceptionally long length of thread. I would never work with a thread of this length in embroidery (or general sewing) – the usual length of thread I work with is the span of my forearm, longer lengths get tangled and twisted into knots and can be difficult to work out, slowing the speed of sewing and risking potential damage to the piece. And tangle and twist it did. I worked at a very slow rate, watching each loop pull through the hole and trying to loosen any caught loops before they caught another and tightened into a knot. And something unexpected emerged – in the slowness of the pull, the loops were moving in a really quite beautiful way, seeming almost alive as they shrunk tighter before disappearing through the hole.

So I set up my camera and shot a few videos of them. Watching back the close-up video footage, these small ‘video sketches’ managed to capture something fundamental about the nature of thread as material and how it moves when tension is applied. Knots are just loops of thread that catch each other, creating tangles – something I knew intuitively but really can appreciate when close up and slowed down. Some of these videos includes moments when my fingers have to interrupt to untangle the threads. My hand actions are tentative, untangling knots is a delicate action – you have to softly pick at it to loosen the loops…

And I began to think about threads and paths and wandering (I’m still reading Ingold’s Being Alive) and it occurred to me that a knot is a wandering thread is getting lost – and to retrace the steps you have to act slowly and gently.

And that is what I ended up doing today, wandering and getting lost. But in that process and by doing things slowly, I seemed to find more interesting things then if I had simply stuck to my plan. Perhaps a plan is just like having a destination, and if you just travel there directly, you missed the things that can be found by wondering slowly? I don’t think that’s to say there should be no destination, no aim – I think that setting out without a destination in mind, well that would be directionless! It seems the difference between wandering and travelling is more nuanced, perhaps we should wander always keeping the destination in mind, wander without it and you might just get lost… though perhaps there’s something in wandering without purpose….?

Hmmm… a trailing thought – I’m going for a walk!

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