Essay Series

Casting About: Re-researching Through Drawing Practice – Christie Brown

This essay was written by Christie Brown, artist and Emerita Professor of Ceramics at the University of Westminster, London.

In his in depth analysis entitled Drawing by the critic Philip Rawson, he states:  “We all feel the urge to transform fugitive subjective experiences of what we are, into concrete, external symbols…..Drawing can effect this transformation with the most modest resources but with great conviction.”[1]. Drawing teaches us a level of observation and visual awareness that contributes to our engagement with the world around us. As a figurative artist, with an interest in narrative and story-telling, I am increasingly examining my three-dimensional work through the framework of drawing, both as a source of reference and as a resolved mode of expression. I’m focussing on the role drawing has played in the making of my ceramic sculpture and examining how I can develop this element of my practice to a level where it carries the same degree of expression and narrative as my three-dimensional work.

The post of Professor of Ceramics at the University of Westminster involved me in the culture of research, a vital and rewarding requirement for academic artists working within a funding framework that supports our development. In this context, Research Fellow Clare Twomey and I developed the Ceramics Research Centre-UK and were at the forefront of the project Ceramics in the Expanded Field, which has been successful in generating new dialogues in the discipline. I have framed my career as an artist and a maker of ceramics through the structure of this academic context over the last two decades. It’s not always been an easy path. Although the research culture requires one to consider questions and issues around one’s artwork and the context in which it is situated, as well as the methods one uses, all of which can very easily be applied to art practice, the wordiness of, for example, an Arts and Humanities Research Council grant application can sometimes be challenging. Therefore on leaving the academy I find myself casting about in many ways, re-establishing my art practice with a more intuitive and responsive approach and letting it take me down different roads without constraints. Not that the academy has not been fruitful. Quite the opposite. Many years ago it obliged me to recognise and articulate the importance of, for example, archaeology in my work. It has supported my projects with museums such as the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology and the Freud Museum, and assisted myself and other CRC-UK members in international residencies and ceramic conferences, which have expanded the context in which we work and widened the network in which Westminster’s research centre operated. And so I am at a cross roads where I am re-addressing what it is I want to say through art, how it can be explored without academia to contextualise it and what relevance it has at all in these troubled times.

This essay is based on the annual CoCA lecture given in November 2016 at York Art Gallery, in which I reflected on my ceramic career through the framework of drawing. In this overview I was reminded of a memorable David Smith quote with which I used to challenge some of my students, when confronted by the fear of the blank white sheet and a general reluctance to draw. “I draw a great deal, because sculpture is such hard work and if I put in ten or eleven hours a day or more at hard labour, you know, the sort of dirty work of my profession, I like to take a bath and change my clothes and spend the rest of the day drawing.” [2] I rarely work as hard as that, but Smith’s level of commitment stayed in my mind. I acknowledge a fear of the white blank sheet, which is why for many years I attended life classes where exercises of speed and material are encouraged as a way of limbering up and the emphasis is on looking and learning to see, rather than producing excellent finished drawings. Life drawing for a figurative artist feels like practising scales for a pianist, and over many years of regularly drawing the figure from life I have come to understand much of the complexity of the human form. And I regret that this practice has been deeply unfashionable in art schools in recent years, because it’s a sound and basic introduction to form, whether you are a maker of figurative work, a potter or an abstract sculptor.

In my early career, life drawing had a very direct relationship with the decorative and lyrical flat figures made in the 1980s, a celebration of bodily sensuality and idealisation, where references included classical sculpture, photography and contemporary advertising. When the work began to reflect darker and less lyrical concerns, (referencing archaeology, grave goods, site specificity) the drawing was less directly related, but it was always in the background as a continued source of reference. While sketchbooks contained reference images, design doodles, quick visual and technical notes, the larger drawings done in the life room were consigned to the plan chest and have remained there for many years, until recently.

In exhibitions, it is invariably drawing that appeals rather than painting. While there is a sensual materiality to the process of applying paint and other mediums to canvas or board, a drawing gives one the experience of the hand of the artist making the mark on the paper, an immediacy that shows the viewer their thinking, their observation and process. I felt this impact in an exhibition of portraits by Hans Holbein many years ago, which conveyed a sense of not only the artist at work, but also the living-breathing Elizabethan sitter present in the room. The drawn image offers this sense of process, a hint of the unfinished, and a level of energy, which is both poignant and satisfying.  The allure of mark making is as every bit physical and tactile as making objects in clay. The act of drawing requires deep visual concentration, a balance of control and abandon, a bit of courage, a love of material substance and for me a subject matter that reflects narrative. US artist Kiki Smith clearly expresses the relationship between drawing and making when she says: “Drawing is something where you have a really direct relationship with the material, with the paper and pencil…so you make a mark and then you make another mark, whereas with a lot of my sculpture, I have a concept and then its labour. With drawing you’re in the present. In drawing you take the physical energy out of your body and put it directly onto the page.” [3]

And in Making Drawings, Philip Rawson examines this transfer of energy: “The marks made by the medium held in the hand are traces of movement. A stroke, even a dot, takes time to make, and so shows the spectator it’s beginning and end. Herein lies the vital unique quality of drawing… its expression of time and movement…we need to experience the qualities of movement through analogy, as echoes of our own organisms.” [4] 

Rawson also links this projection back to childhood drawings. “Drawing fulfils an important role in forming each child’s personality. As they make marks, improvising images and scenes, children are exploring their worlds and just as important their own feelings. … they project out onto the surface images from inside themselves made up from memories.” [5]

And Natasha Mayo, in her illuminating essay for the Drawing Inspirations exhibition in Cardiff last year,likens our grown-up testing out of the world through drawing to early childhood exploration of identity through tangible evidence. [6]

Showing drawings alongside sculptural ceramics requires a context that is sympathetic to this mix of mediums. For example in my 2006 exhibition Collective Traces; A Response to the Petrie Museum, at the Institute of Archaeology in London [7], I was able to exhibit drawings alongside the ceramic seated figures and their amulets partly because I held the curatorial responsibility for the exhibition, but also because the museum context holds no hierarchy in terms of art practices.

In the work I made for the group exhibition, Marking the Line in 2013 at the Sir John Soane’s Museum [8], drawing was integral to the finished works, a series of portrait busts of the Soane family and their dog, as a way of commemorating a very divided family. Entitled A Thwarted Dynasty, I made a commemorative bust for each family member, based on the one of Soane by Francis Chantry and drawings of each family member, copied from original portraits, were then fired onto the finished glazed faces.

In Ambika’s Dream in 2014 studies from the London Zoo assisted in providing information towards the large drawing which formed an integral part of the installation in which child figures walk towards the animal world of the zoo, not a natural environment, but one much loved by a sick child as her favourite destination. Her father Lord Paul helped support the University of Westminster’s gallery Ambika P3 in her honour, and I responded to that sad tale of loss and memorial in my installation.[9]

Recently I have been inspired to foreground the drawings more and exhibit them alongside the 3D work, and this raises questions about the connection between the objects I make and the narratives that I feel might emerge in the drawings.

In 2016, I was faced with the freedom to allow new ideas to form without the need to fully define what it is I was doing. Encouraged by exhibition opportunities and a summer workshop at the Drawing Room in London, the desire to develop drawings as finished works was a challenging beginning, exploring a practice that has been around for as many years as my ceramics, but has not often seen the light of day. Prompted by a studio move two years ago I began to root through the plan chest, revisiting many of my life drawings and using them to create collages, so that they became more than figure studies; they began to take on a narrative of their own.


Collage is an interesting form of 2D practice, a juxtaposition of a range of images, which challenge the rules of scale and proportion and our perception of space and perspective, to suggest an imaginative context where free association and disruption of expectation can occur. At the same time I was also using several plaster moulds of past works to create 3D collaged figures from sections that had not been originally intended to connect. For the exhibition at Arthouse1 in Bermondsey, I produced several new works using this archive of moulds, to create a hybrid bunch of portraits, which collectively went by the title Rara Avis, “a kind of person or thing rarely encountered.” [10], exhibiting these alongside the collaged drawings. A potentially interesting relationship began to emerge between the 2D and 3D work.  I felt that both forms of collage went some way to capturing an expression of otherness, especially in regard to the human-animal hybrid figures.

In the brochure that accompanied Rara Avis, writer and curatorTessa Peters succinctly explains how the animal can represent the true expression of the other, through references to French philosophers Helene Cixous and Jacques Derrida and their relationships with their own cats and dogs. In the past the human animal relationship seems to have had more integrity; the human hunted and deified the animal with greater respect. In the modern world we are prone to exploit and sentimentalise our animals, to colonise them through our projections, whereas Derrida considers the animal to be the true other, in that it does not seek to colonise us in the same way. Peters quotes Derrida: “It is we human beings who think we have the right to know, to observe the world and to define it, but when it returns our gaze (as his cat does), we are suddenly plunged into another irreducible world,” and he advocates a kind of “animal thinking” that encourages us to look at the world from a different viewpoint that is not exclusively human. [11]

But the life drawing collages are only a starting point. Drawing anything from life can give us an embodied knowledge of the form, absorbed through the repeated task of observation and attentive looking, and it supplies the artist with more information than the swift action of photography. I draw figures and objects which directly relate to my 3D practice, but what I search for now in my drawings, as well as a coherent and recognisable style, is clarification about content, content that is more than reference. What for example is the moment in any given narrative that informs the content of a drawing?

The Drawing Room 2016 Summer School, run by Jack Southern, co-author of Drawing Projects [12], included well-established visiting artists Emma Stibbons, Dryden Goodwin and Charles Avery, a contrasting trio in terms of techniques and approach.  Avery encouraged us to find ways of drawing from the imagination via a range of exercises. He has created an imaginary world known as The Islanders  [13], which brings together his interest in drawing, writing and philosophy.  His ability to produce rich and varied episodes from the world he has created is very inspiring. Whereas drawings are often seen as the preparatory stage and shown in a major exhibition as an informative side line, artists like Avery have foregrounded this medium as one of equal significance alongside their sculpture. Through drawing he has constructed worlds where narratives can grow and he demonstrates a way to bring both drawn images and sculpture together in a strong relationship. And so in the search for content, I am seeking out other artists and writers, who have used and commented on drawing as a vital part of art practice.

For example Barbara Hepworth’s hospital drawings resonate strongly, as she studies what she defines as a  “group of people working harmoniously for a given purpose”  in the operating theatre [14], where medical staff share a sense of communal co-operation towards a skilled procedure and intention.  Hepworth found this hugely inspirational in regard to her search for the basic principles and underlying structures of things within her abstract sculpture. In these drawings there is an atmospheric mix of stance, hard delineated edges around eyes and hands and the soft masses of the draped body that is reminiscent of the great narrative frescos of Giotto or Lorenzetti. The style and narrative content of Paula Rego’s pastels also hold a special resonance.  Rego uses narrative from a range of sources to illustrate her themes, often focussing on stories that illustrate the struggle inherent in the lives of women, especially those from her relatively conservative home country of Portugal.  In her studio she often builds large-scale three dimensional settings to work from, which can include life-size figures, drapery and furniture as well as her live models. She relies on the analogies these powerful pictures evoke in us to convey her ideas.

And analogy, claims Philip Rawson, is how the viewer relates to drawings, via a memory bank of imagery that we store throughout our lives. “To create, to respond and to understand drawing we depend on one great and fundamental faculty of the human mind, …analogy. It seems that as we live our lives a continuous activity of scanning and matching what we have seen goes on in our minds. When we encounter one phenomenon our mind scans and matches it rhythmically with others we remember and know” [15]. When we look at a work of art he claims we are in a special reflective state of mind where this inner fund of forms and imagery is available to us, and he goes on to say: “We can enter that realm of our inner responses to which the drawing refers us. We are free to match its forms by analogy with the contents of our memory fund; and when this realm of inner response is activated and linked up a special kind of reflective consciousness is generated within us.” [16]

In the potter Kyra Cane’s well illustrated book, Making and Drawing, she examines the many ways in which craft makers use drawings: as a private pursuit; a way of examining the world, its people, places, objects; a preparation for making; as reference, planning and design or decoration; a vehicle for thought; examining ideas and concepts; reflecting on finished works.  Drawing, Cane rightly claims, develops integrity. It  “makes tangible the capacity to evaluate, reflect and comprehend subject matter.” [17]

While concurring with these definitions and understanding all the ways in which we use drawings, I advocate another role as the final object, no longer the side line or preparatory stage, but something that is out there in the world communicating narratives that stand alongside sculpture. Using a range of drawing processes to work out the many directions this development can take is a complex process, while searching for style and content that has consistency and integrity. Through narrative and storytelling we connect with the past and drawing enables us to capture this movement in time, to suggest what has just happened and what may be about to happen, a fragment of a story, which is all we can ever really know, but one that can enrich our experience of the present.


[1] Philip Rawson, Drawing, Oxford University Press 1969.

[2] David Smith, interview with David Sylvester. From David Smith, Sculpture and Drawings, Ed Jorn Merkel, Prestel-Verlag, Munich, 1986.

[3] Kiki Smith, source unknown.

[4] Philip Rawson, The Art of Drawing, Prentice-Hall 1987.

[5] Ibid

[6] Natasha Mayo, Drawings Inspirations exhibition catalogue, Craft in the Bay, Cardiff 2016

[7] Collective Traces; A Response to the Petrie Museum, at the Institute of Archaeology, London 2006.

[8] Marking the Line: Ceramics and Architecture at the Sir John Soane’s Museum, London 2013.

[9] Ambika’s Dreamat, Ceramics In the Expanded Field exhibition, Ambika P3, University of Westminster, London 2014.

[10] Concise Oxford English Dictionary, 9th Edition 1995

[11] Jaques Derrida, The animal that I am. Quoted by Tessa Peters in Rara Avis exhibition catalogue essay, Arthouse 1, London 2016.

[12] Drawing Projects  by Mick Maslen and Jack Southern, Black Dog Publishing 1999.

[13] Charles Avery.

[14] Nathaniel Hepburn, Barbara Hepworth, The Hospital Drawings,  Tate Publishing 2012

[15] Philip Rawson, Seeing Through Drawing, BBC Books 1979

[16] Ibid

[17] Kyra Cane, Making and Drawing, Bloomsbury 2012