On Observational Drawing While Looking Only At The Subject

Posted in Writing by robbiekarmel on October 15, 2012

The following is a rough edit of some ideas I have been thinking through while working and reading various books and articles that relate to what I am currently working on.


On Observational Drawing While Looking Only At The Subject

How do I decide when a drawing is finished if I am not looking at the drawing itself? There are instances where I stop when I feel I have mapped the whole of the subject onto the paper— though I often continue beyond this point, as it seems somewhat arbitrary to stop at this point without the visual feedback of the drawing.

Blind drawing redirects the feedback from the familiar visual to become unfamiliar— at least, in the realm of drawing— haptic, physically mimetic and memory based. The awareness of existing lines is notional rather than actual, the position of existing lines in not exact, it is not updated constantly by visual assessment, only remembered as a past movement. The drawing becomes an open-ended window into a potentially infinite process. Process that could extend infinitely into the past and future.

If the drawer is observing the work as it emerges each new mark is created in reference to both the subject and the current state of the drawing, as the building develops and more lines— more information— are laid down, the more each new mark will be influenced by what has preceded it. This feedback— this self-awareness, will escalate over the emergence of the drawing, the further the drawing proceeds the greater the influence of the existing drawing and the less the influence of the observed subject. The gestalt is planned, rather than serendipitous as it is in blind drawing— the convergence of lines into recognizable codifications is orchestrated and updated rather than procedurally emergent. Blind drawing relies on the chaotic gestalt rather than the planned and adaptive series of marks. When drawing while looking at the emergent drawing each additional mark is a smaller and smaller percentage of the whole— the first line is 100% of the drawing, the second line is 50%, etc. The mimetic representation is planned, controlled and constantly readjusted. In contrast, blind drawing does none of this visually.

When drawing blind each mark is simultaneously a whole drawing and a component of the drawing. Each line is it’s own drawing. Without visual reference the hand and mind must rely on kinetic memory. Often each line or mark is placed with direct reference to the previous line, as a chain, reference to the drawing as a whole is through this series of links. Slight miscalculations in each movement and re-locating of the drawing tool build up over the process of laying down marks. A slight variation in position early on will escalate over time, building up with each successive variation, resulting in a drawing that is not necessarily coherent.

This allocation of placement for line can be seriously thrown off balance should the subject be in flux— moving or changing. If the subject is not static, then what are the options of the drawer? Choose an arbitrary ‘anchor’? Select a landmark —such as an eye or a lip, a point static relative to the subject— as the center point of the drawing, building the structure around this imaginary and kinetically remembered point? Does the drawer select a static point external to the subject? Does the drawer move fluidly between the memory of what has been placed where on the paper and the shifting possibilities and potential of the subject? Each of these variables will have a substantial impact on the readability of the drawing.

What of repeated lines? Examining a contour and tracing it, then again and again. Each time aware of previous movements but unable to map directly onto them due to a lack of visual guidance. An exploration and extrapolation of possible readings and representations, unfolding a miniscule fraction of the infinite potentials, independently observed yet collected after the fact and displayed en mass. This is information that is simultaneously defining the subject and contradicting its own definitions. There are six left eyes— they are all truly drawn from sincere observations of the subjects left eye— yet none of them are the true eye.

The drawing, the final product, is the detritus of an action— a record of the process of seeing and drawing. It is as much a drawing of the process of observational drawing as it is a drawing of the subject.

The Haptic Sense

Posted in Writing by robbiekarmel on August 2, 2012

The following piece of writing is an abridged and edited section of  notes I have been keeping while reading Brian Massumi’s book Parables for the Virtual.

The senses bleed into one another, they rely on one another for context, for reference, for grounding. The relative surface of an ever-undulating ocean. Anchor the viewpoint to a singular point— moving and not moving. The haptic is one such meeting. The touch of the eye. Past experiences of the simultaneous affect of vision and touch giving rise to the sense of texture and feel through looking. When looking at an object we run the eye’s fingers across the surface, we feel without touching.

This haptic sense allows us to caress the subject with the minds fingers and move the actual, physical, bodily fingers— hand and pencil— in unison with the minds touch. Drawing by imaginary— or virtual— hands moving and leading the actual hands. This shifts in and out of prominence, silhouette is predominantly vision proper, while shifting towards form, surface and texture becomes more haptic. Weight and form— haptic. Hair, flesh, lips, skin, we experience these haptically. Proprioception takes hold. The hand knows where it is while the eyes feel the subject.

The haptic is touching light. In drawing with black and white pencils on mid-tone paper I am haptically probing where the light and shade fall— touching light as if it were physical. Haptic caress of the most basic visual sensation— brightness. These drawings refer directly to Renaissance drawings such as those of Albrecht Durer— particularly works like The Praying Hands (1508).

It operates in reverse. Or rather, it is an open conversation, to happen in one direction means it is happening in both directions. If we run our fingers through hair we ‘know’ its sight. What we touch we picture in the minds eye.

When drawing the other we record the affect they are having on us. Our senses reaching out to them and their projections impressing on our senses. A two-way field. The hands of our eyes grope and fondle, probe surfaces, palpate bone, flesh and muscle. Through vision we register haptic sense, memory, proprioception. The eyes are complex and multisensory as are all senses, there are no clear boundaries. The boundaries between senses are as firm as the boundaries of the skin. An illusion of scale, of resolution.  A series of leakier and leakier boxes (see below).

When drawing the self with a mirror any physical movement is amplified— two fold. Both the perspective and the subject shift with any movement, sometimes sympathetic to what the drawer is doing, sometimes not.

In regards to haptic sense, the effect is two fold during self-portraiture, especially that involving the mirror— rather than video or photograph. The eyes see and feel the texture of the surface, while simultaneously— because of the internal, conversationally circular nature of the process— the tactile surface of the face empathetically registers the probing tip of the pencil and the touch of the eye. The mirror folds not just light— the folding of light results in folding of perception. All of the senses activated by looking are folded back to themselves, registering themselves and one another.

The ‘external shell’ is porous. Perceived only as an ‘airtight’ container at the resolution of the eye, filtered through the understanding or identity of self, body, inner and outer. They are not ‘holes from outer to inner’ they are a part of the topological form of the person.

“The membrane isn’t closed. It folds in at the mouth, ears, nostrils, eyes, anus, urethra, vagina, and pores. The mouth connects though the stomach and intestines to fold back out the anus. This is one leaky “box.” It’s closer to a Klein bottle: a two dimensional topological figure. Even the skin isn’t really three-dimensional. It just acts as if it were. It creates a three-dimensional closure effect by regulating movements into and out of the space-filling fractal it twistedly envelops. Biologically, it’s all an act, a complex nutritive, excretive act: circus of the body. We do not live in Euclidian space. We live between dimensions.”

— p203, Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual.

We see and draw the illusion of the shell. The furthest external in low resolution.  Where does a cloud end? Where does the coast end and the ocean begin? These infinitely complex fractal forms are as skin. Surface area is an illusion, it is infinite. Folded and recursive, turning in on itself, meeting up again, a sponge of sponges of sponges. It is sponges all the way down.

Mediation and The Interrupted Mark

Posted in Writing by robbiekarmel on March 14, 2012

For a while I have had an interest in the directness and indirectness available to drawing. In the making of the mark, the making of the image and the communication of concept there are many points for possible interruption or filtering. In attempts to increase the tension in a work I often deliberately create obstacles for myself. I have been attempting to make work that is as direct as possible as far as the physicality of mark goes, however recently I realized that even though I feel that working with pencil on paper was incredibly direct that it’s possible to make entire drawings without ever actually touching the paper. The pencil, the instrument of creation, mediates the whole work. As an extension of this I have attempted to draw with the pencil at the end of a 2-meter pole.  Of course, the empathetic nature of the pencil isn’t entirely due to the immediate physicality of the medium, there is also the fact that any viewer will have experienced mark making with a pencil and is able to identify with the actions and time it requires to make the work. As such I wish for the viewer to also identify with the obstacles, or at least be aware that there was something obstructing the mark making, be it physical or notional.

In working from projection the mediation involved in drawing from observation is modified by the mediation of the camera, the computer, and the projector. Where previously the mind had to flatten the image, create the illusion of body, substance and shape, now the camera does the work. This allows for a more directly mimetic drawing. It can also provide a strict structure for less conventional mark making techniques. If the object is there for the drawing to hang on, and the object has been paid down in such a direct and solid means as projection, then the act of drawing itself may become much more instrumental than by other means of representative drawing.

In the past artists have thoroughly engaged space, movement, drawing and the body with incredibly physical works they are generally abstract works. Paint, graphite or charcoal is dragged, drawn and splattered around the space with direct and bodily physical force (such as Otto Zitko, Cy Twombly,  Gabriella Mangano and Silvana Mangano).  While I find this work incredibly compelling, I wish to also engage more traditional drawing conventions and techniques. I still wish to hang the drawing on the subject.

In drawing with both hands, symmetrically and simultaneously, I intend to create one drawing directly referring to the projection and one drawing mediated by my kinesthetic and tactile awareness rather than by sight. The traced drawing will always be mediated by my interpretation of the image, the means in which I chose to copy or represent the image, and the photograph and the projection itself. Each ‘lens’ separates the image from the subject by another degree, particularly the use of a camera and a projector, as the initial photograph, the computer, the projector, the eye, the mind, and the hand are all interrupting the mimicry of the subject. I believe that this is analogous of the way in which we communicate in contemporary culture, a metaphor— albeit a clumsy one. In contemporary culture all information and communication is heavily mediated, not necessarily maliciously or even intentionally. In the extreme and most ubiquitous example huge amounts of information delivery and personal interaction take place as mediated by the Internet or mobile phone etc. However even something that could be considered more communal and immediate such as a live concert is heavily mediated. Like drawing the simple act of drawing a bow across strings means that the initial emotional expressions of the musician is mediated through mind, hand and bow, then again by the interaction of the strings and the bow. Beyond this the acoustics and the ambient air will again mediate the sound before reaching the listeners eardrum, where again, the sound goes through a series of transformations before the listener finally registers it as a sound, then they must interpret that sound into an emotional reaction. This is the simplest example— such transferences become much less direct should electric amplification be involved, transforming sound into signal and back again.



Line and Text

Posted in PICA, Writing by robbiekarmel on March 2, 2012

These were drawn using the projection process I used in the previous post, I should have some videos up tomorrow.

I have also been writing a lot during the residency, I plan on starting to post some of what I’ve been writing. At the moment a lot of what I’ve written lacks structure and needs a good edit. I have writen a short piece for the upcoming Fine Lines exhibition:


In using line I am searching for an empathetic mark. Making marks with pencils or other objects is one of the oldest and most primal forms of expression and communication. It is also something that almost everyone will do from very early on in their lives.

Drawing gives an incredibly intimate and immediate record of the movement, speed, and pressure of the hand and body. It is not a purely cerebral or visual act; the eyes, mind and hand all work in unison to create a drawing. It is a process that may rely heavily on kinesthetic awareness or tactility. Drawing can be an incredibly physical process, and the physical activity is often evident in the outcome.

Lines build up on surfaces over time, chronology can be read from layers of marks, carrying with then the speed at which they were made, the time span of the drawing and the energy of the drawer. A drawing is a record of its own making, describing the movements of the creator as if it were a choreographic record. This can also engage with the viewer empathetically, their memory and understanding of mark making, even if rudimentary or unconscious, should allow them to understand and even feel the actions of the maker.

Line, while an incredibly simple tool, has an incredibly rich and broad visual language. Marks can be used to describe silhouette, contour, surface, light and shade. A single line from a 2B pencil may describe the silhouette of a nose and lip, the shade above the chin, the contour of a cheek and end as the heavy and gestural description of a hair. Such lines can often form complex and seemingly chaotic passages, intersecting and changing over the surface of the paper, while still ultimately forming a coherent representation of the subject.

Marks and lines have the capacity to engage viewers on much more than just a visual level— extending to memory, tactility, kinesthetic awareness and spatial awareness.

New Year

Posted in Weekly Project, Writing by robbiekarmel on January 1, 2012

At the beginning of 2011 I decided to try and post a series of images or videos as an ongoing online exhibition every week. I fell just short at 50 out of 52, but as a project to get myself producing work and developing as many new ideas as possible I am very happy with the outcome.

This year I am very excited to have been accepted into both a three month residency at the Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts and a Masters degree in research at the College of Fine Art in Sydney. I will be heading to Perth on the 20th of January and will be further developing ideas I was working with while drawing the severed heads series. I will then head over to Sydney to begin my Masters degree in the second semester.

I’ll keep putting work up as I make it this year and will be documenting the work I make during my residency in Perth.

Also, I’d like to thank everyone for looking at the work I’ve been putting up, being interested, posting comments and coming to exhibitions!


A few weeks ago Reuben Ingall and Evan Dorrian played an improvised set on the roof of the New Acton Apartments and I was there to record it:

[vimeo http:// w=640&h=480]

The Unknown

Posted in Writing by robbiekarmel on June 30, 2011

Recently I decided to paint and draw the skull as an extension of my desire to use meaningless or incidental subjects in my work. My reasoning was that the skull is so iconic, so heavily used, and so pervasive in modern and contemporary art and culture that it no longer holds any individual or unique meaning for the viewer or artist. It is so heavily loaded with meaning and symbolism that I felt it had become kitsch and overloaded, reaching a point of saturation rendering it effectively meaningless.

Coincidentally I have recently been reading Art and Death by Chris Townsend.  What I have found most interesting about this is not the symbolic significance of the skull but the similarities between my approach to subject matter in general and some of the theories on other artists’ approach to the subject of death. I have written before about the difficulties I have in choosing subjects and communicating in general and believe that there are parallels in the ways I am struggling with representation and the ways in which others engage with representing death.

In Art and Death it is suggested that death is unknowable as it can never be experienced directly, only witnessed. Because death is unknowable it is therefore impossible to represent. So all attempts of representations of death are in fact representations of the elements surrounding death; grief, loss, physical absence or decay et cetera. Going by this theory the concept of death is then communicated not directly, but through absence; by describing all that surrounds it.

What surprises me is how effective this means of communication is. Perhaps because death is as unfamiliar to the viewer as the artist it is the absence of understanding that is being communicated. Because both parties can identify the peripherals of death a common experience and language can be drawn on to engage on a subject that neither party can know directly.

I feel that this means of representation and communication, talking about everything except for the subject, is analogous to my means of communication in regards to other subjects. I often feel it is impossible to know or truly represent the subject, and that any representation will address the peripheral more directly than the subject itself and that the act of communication itself outweighs the content.


Posted in Writing by robbiekarmel on June 4, 2011

Last week I briefly mentioned that I attempt to overload my brain while making work. To do this I use techniques such as blind drawing, drawing with both hands at the same time, drawing two different subjects simultaneously, drawing in three dimensional space and using mediums I am not familiar or comfortable with. I do this for a few reasons. Firstly, it serves to maintain a level of adversity in the work; as long as I am working against something it drives me to continue to create, so in setting up my own impossible tasks I can create an artificial imperative. Secondly, it is a means to press my brain into operating in new ways, performing tasks that it hasn’t previously performed. This, I feel, is where the shamanistic element of my practice comes to the forefront. I find that in repeatedly performing tasks that my brain is not familiar with, or even necessarily capable of doing, can effectively take up my entire concentration. I find prolonged intense concentration on the act of drawing can very occasionally result in a meditative state, but more frequently I succumb to wandering concentration and lack of focus. Another element of performing these impossible tasks over and over again is that after many attempts I find I can begin to achieve what I had previously intended to be unachievable. I learn how to draw with two hands, or I find myself considering more how to draw in three dimensions, or finding it much easier to blindly map three dimensions onto a two dimensional surface. Through applying myself I am able to teach my brain and hands complicated new tasks.

This deliberate challenging and training of my actions and thinking is what I consider to be the shamanistic aspect of my drawing practice. It expands both my experiences and thought processes and in doing so allows me to view the external world with new means of observation, which I can then apply to finding new ways to challenge myself and make work. I would consider this pursuit to be a contemporary parallel to traditional shamanism; rather than trying to communicate with the otherworldly I am trying to expose myself to new means of communication, thinking and observing.

The problem with this view of shamanistic practice is that traditionally, or at least, to my notion, shamans provide a service to their community. Something I feel I do not achieve. I feel so incredibly overwhelmed by the idea of trying to challenge or engage with contemporary culture that I retreat into introspectiveness or, more commonly, nothingness in my subjects. As much as I would like this atrophied expression to communicate through omission and allusion I do not believe it is capable of that level of sub-textual communication. I do not believe that in pointing out that I find myself unable to engage with certain subjects that I successfully communicate my reasons for not engaging with them. I feel that from here there are a few things that could happen; I can find a way to overcome this debilitation and begin to engage with new subjects and actively communicate with the audience; or, and I fear this is more likely, I can continue to retreat into making work that engages with nothingness for fear of failing in any other more meaningful pursuit. Thirdly, there is a possibility that I will be able to harness this means of expression, turn the act of communication, rather than the subject, into the active element of my work.

Writing, Drawing, the Subject, Communication and Representation

Posted in Writing by robbiekarmel on May 26, 2011

I’m planning to expand this website to include more than my weekly project, starting with some writing.

A few weeks ago Yolande Norris wrote this piece after visiting me at my studio. It has been great to see some of my ideas that had previously been fairly abstract and amorphous filtered through conversation and someone else’s understanding into something more coherent. We discussed the act of drawing, why and how I draw, why I make art at all and the difficulties and hurdles involved in maintaining a practice.

Since then I’ve been thinking a lot about my work and process and feel like I should begin to document not only the work but the accompanying thought processes as well. Hopefully this will allow me to understand my own processes more, give viewers an insight into the work and perhaps give future work more focus. What follows is my first attempt to order some of the ideas and theories I’ve been thinking about recently. This week it’s about the difficulties I find in making art and selecting a subject, in the future I hope to write about my processes, influences, ideas I don’t have the resources to implement and anything else I happen to be thinking about in relation to art.

Thanks for reading, any feedback or questions would be most welcome.

On Drawing, the Subject, Communication and Representation

What I find I have grappled with the most has been the question of why I create work and the act of creating the work. Primarily I consider art making, and in particular drawing, a form of communication. Yet when I am compelled to draw or am forcing myself to generate work and do not wish to communicate anything I find myself at a mental standstill. I wish to draw but do not wish to communicate; I am petrified of selecting any subject that may be construed by the viewer as something symbolic or an object with personal significance. Thus I often retreat into the mundane or incidental, that is, anything immediately at hand. I find, however, that even if I have attempted to choose a subject with no inherent meaning one can always be found or applied by myself or the viewer. It is impossible to find a neutral or unloaded subject.

In selecting such irrelevant subjects I also find that the work become about everything but the subject. It become about the act of drawing. It becomes about all of the subjects I avoid or am not willing to address; physical objects I avoid drawing for fear of associations they may have; emotional or personal subjects I avoid because I feel they are too kitsch, hackneyed or do not wish to address directly through my work; and ultimately the overwhelming nature of everything but the mundane subjects in which I have sought refuge.

In an attempt to counter any meaning attached to the subject I try and make the means of communication more interesting than what is being represented. This often takes the form of imposing rules and strategies upon myself while making work. Working in this way serves me in a second and possibly more important manner as well: imposing rules upon myself gives the working process structure and imperative, making it possible for me to attempt to overcome the difficulties I have in initiating and maintaining the process of producing work.

I feel that in focusing intensely on the act of making work rather than focusing on the subject, materials, accuracy of the depiction, aesthetic value of the work or the glamour of the finished piece I am in a position where what I am attempting to communicate is that act of making itself. It is also an attempt to analyse, document and ultimately communicate the act of communication, or representing the act of representation.

For me the most interesting element of using visual devices such as drawing or painting to represent a subject is the way we can translate a three dimensional space or object onto a two dimensional surface, and that a viewer may be able to look at the depiction and decipher the series of marks and understand what has been represented. Even more interesting is that often the artwork will bear such little resemblance to the original object.

Take for example the drawings of a cowboy boot I did a few months ago. These were done blindfolded entirely by touch, so using my sense of spatial awareness I translated a three dimensional object into a two dimensional representation of the object. The end product, the drawing, bears little to no relationship to the subject. It is constructed from different materials and it has none of the colour, form, depth or any other characteristics of the boot. I would even go as far to say that I have done a poor and messy job communicating these qualities as I could not see the image I was drawing and had no interest in accurately depicting the boot or capturing an ‘essence’. Yet despite all this the viewer can still discern that it is a drawing of a cowboy boot.

During this process I was much more concerned with the act of drawing; translating the touching an object, tracing the surface through three dimensional space, and attempting to kinesthetically translate that act onto a two dimensional surface. I have set myself an impossible task with no intention to succeed, and it is the record of the action that I wish to represent and communicate.

The question remains as to whether I have been successful in my attempts to communicate the act of attempting to communicate, or if I have simply represented a cowboy boot in an intensely laborious and inefficient manner. But given my practice seems to have become primarily concerned with difficulty and adversity it would mean I was doing something wrong if I were to succeed at everything on the first attempt.