Last Wednesday I gave a very short talk at the launch of a completed mural that we – Jugglers – had facilitated with a team of aboriginal young people from a local Brisbane high school and various other community groups, funded by Brisbane City Council. In reflecting on the process and end product, I talked about art – public installations or our own studio practice – as mark making and story telling where space and spirituality emerge. As William Kentridge says so succinctly [see below] we do art because we need to make marks. “Drawing isn’t a decision, it is a need.” If he is right then Kentridge’s position has implications for a whole range of cultural and societal paradigms and behaviours. The marks tell the story and the story are the marks. When we take time to be with the drawing process and the final drawing we begin a journey into a new space and we begin an inquiry into meaning. The need to make marks can be argued to be the primal search for meaning making and spiritual inquiry.When we are satisfied with what we have put down on a piece of paper then for that moment we have made sense of some of our inquiries. The young people, artists, youth workers, social workers and all of us made a bit more sense of our place in Keperra* through the need to put down marks on paper and finally, on a wall in the park. *Keperra = The Aboriginal term for “Kipper” (a young tribe member who has reached initiation age)
When I went to art school, the idea was that if you were going to be an artist, you had to paint with oil paints on canvas. I discovered I was very bad at that, so it was an enormous relief to discover that there already existed a strong tradition of drawing as a primary medium of art-making.
A lot of artists in South Africa did drawing because it was cheap. You could find a scrap of paper and a ball-point pen or a piece of charcoal and you could be an artist. You didn’t need an easel and stretchers and canvas and turpentine and expensive oil paint.
For me, it was also very important that drawing was a monochromatic medium – that colour was not an essential part of it. When I worked with colour, I was always stuck with the question, “does this look nice?”, and that’s a terrible basis on which to be an artist. Since then, I’ve learned to paint, and in fact I could be quite a good Sunday painter. But it’s not a medium in which I think, and the vital thing about drawing for me is that it is a medium in which one can think.
Drawing is a non-verbal thinking process. One of the things about charcoal drawing is that it is instantly alterable – you can change it as quickly as you can think. One wipe of a cloth and the image disappears or is smudged and you can rethink it. The flexibility of drawing is important. There’s an immediacy of drawing, of thinking in drawing, which is vital for me.
During my studies, I was looking at a lot of the German expressionists and at early Russian films. I was looking at those branches of modernism that didn’t leave figuration. For me, abstraction was like colour: when I tried to work in complete abstraction, I had no idea what I was doing, why I should make one mark and not another. Now, in fact, a number of my drawings end up as non-recognisable smudges on paper – but they’ve had a route to get there that started with a connection to a representation of the external world.
I produce many different kinds of drawings. Some are just drawings. Others are done in the service of something else, to be animated, used for a film, opera or a piece of theatre, where the demands of the nature of the transformation might be given by the libretto or by the music.
I work closely with different kinds of references. I have a collection of images and things to which I refer throughout my working process. I find my visual imagination is always less interesting than those things I’ve discovered in looking at the specifics of details. If one can hold on to the specific, it almost always is more interesting.
Take the drawing of an old typewriter, for example. One has a universal image of what an old typewriter looks like in one’s head, so there is an image of it, but it will be bland and inaccurate. There are details of the different kinds of carriage returns, or different kinds of moulding of the black surface of the typewriter around the space bar, which are always more interesting than I could imagine.
The specifics of a particular image or context, even if people don’t know that context, somehow give an authority to the rendering of it, whether it’s in a text or an artwork. One doesn’t have to have been in Dublin to be able to form a picture of Dublin in Joyce’s Ulysses. When reading the book, you may form a false image of Dublin – very different to what someone who lives in Dublin might think of the city – but the specifics of the local references are somehow the clues that one needs to build this city.
For me, the drawing is the process of arriving at this image. This process is usually very fast to begin with. I work with charcoal and charcoal dust, and within the first minute, the large expanse of white paper can be turned into a dirty grey. I’ll put lines across it, finding vague geographies of where things will go, and then the process of drawing is the remaining hours or days it takes to work through the drawing. The art is to try to finish at the same speed you begin with – to not let the drawing become more and more cramped, to try to keep a looseness and an open-endedness right to the end.
Often, the finished drawing is different from what I had in my head when I started off, and the better ones are those that don’t look anything like I thought they would. The ideas are not the driving force in drawing, nor is meaning. The need to make an image is the driving force. It isn’t like a writer who has a story they have to tell, and so they write a novel. It isn’t as if I have an image the world has to see. Rather I have a need to be making marks on paper. Drawing isn’t a decision, it is a need.
• William Kentridge is in the group show, Medals of Dishonour, at the British Museum, London, until 27 September. He is represented byMarian Goodman, New York