Unplanned not Random


When a pianist sits at a piano, one of the first decisions is whether to read music from a score (or recite it), or to improvise something. It’s the same with painting: you can paint what you see (or remember), or you can just see what you paint.

The first lines of an improvised sketch are like those first thoughts in the morning (informed by unremembered dreams, returning from landscapes of lightning illumination populated by the living and the dead): unplanned but not random – mysteriously informed.



Yet those lines are still waking thoughts and so they have to adhere to certain grammatical/semantic rules. Even the first few lines of this sketch (before the crouching figure, and even the corner he crouches in, existed) were determined to some extent by aesthetic judgement, such that I sometimes erased lines that weren’t quite ‘right’.

The purpose of writing this is to make things clearer, so let’s try to define what those early aesthetic judgements involved.

I think it comes down to a series of focal points (often not actually appearing in the drawing, but off-stage as it were, and determining the angles of lines) that act as centres of gravity for lines, angles and curves suggesting further geometric shapes (with their own centres and relative gravities etc etc).  So it might be, for example, that a small section of a curve, if completed, would form a circle whose centre would also be the point at which two unconnected lines in other parts of the design would intersect were they to be extended. This is not consciously thought through or measured though, and as you can see in the image above, the curves are complex curves, not circles, so the establishment of focal points is a much more complex business. Impossible, you might say, but it is actually quite natural and the human does this kind of thing all the time as we move through space and play sports etc (think of the calculations involved in catching a ball travelling on a foreshortened arc directly towards you as you estimate trajectory and speed in an instant). In fact every time an artist sketches a tree, for example, these same very intricate assessments of length, angle and curve are being made unconsciously with reference to a perspectival point for a highly complex three dimensional form (a tree is neither composed of perfect circles, nor neat geometric figures, but it has its rules: its centres of gravity, its dividing boughs, branches and twigs, its counterpoised and diminishing weights, all of which must be pictured in three dimensions from one viewpoint).

So for me at least, a pleasing abstract design is pleasing because it has its own set of internal rules (however difficult to identify, or clearly discern even), like an abstraction of natural/architectural forms in space (this is obvious from the simpler features of the design such as the suggestion of a three dimensional ‘room’ or ‘stage’ with high windows, arched doors and sunlight streaming in). It is most certainly not a random aesthetic then, and I have no interest in the truly random.

Where the balance is interrupted or transgressed with a particular line or curve, it is only because the jarring effect is a temporary phenomenon, like a stretch of chromaticism within a piece of a certain key; or a brief modulation into a different but related key. In musical terms then, this is still tonal harmony, as opposed to anything as problematic as ‘serialism’. But that does not mean it is in anyway limited (far from it): you still have to decide where these centres of gravity are and how you are going to allude to them with your lines or strokes. This is the heart of the matter and it resists explanation. The best I can come up with is to say that it’s gestural, like asking a specific question without words to someone you know well by moving your hand through a certain arc and gaining a certain quality of eye contact. Needless to say, it’s not foolproof and often goes misunderstood or ignored, but when connection is made it can be a magical transference of meaning.

Once you’ve got the kettle on and you’re spooning out the coffee, those initial thoughts on the edge of your bed have been succeeded by more mundane concerns. The waking mind’s main job (for most, but not all, of us) is to deal with reality. Likewise, the abstract, improvised sketch has a tendency to coalesce into recognizable forms. So I found a figure had materialized – a figure which I now realize to be the personification of my mind’s eye as it engaged in the creative process I have just described.


In other parts of the design too, the lines began to suggest forms, but not just any forms – forms interpreted and therefore depending on the painter’s personality, memories, concerns and interests. Thus it is that an impish insectoid seems to have stepped out of Heironymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights and entered at the bottom left of the picture; the spiteful visage of a television dictator in the top right hand corner of the picture; the hint of a reptilian form springing towards the inchoate object of meditation for the crouching figure in the corner; an engine, a propellor, and a curved wing reminiscent of Leonardo’s drawings of his flying machine.


Then came the figure of a sleeping woman. But this was consciously added. It had not emerged from the initial lines. I was doing something different now. I had moved into the realm of figurative depiction – I had begun to upset the integrity of the original impulse as my focus turned to narrative (this is what happens when we leave the abstract and enter the figurative: time sneaks in, events, stories, lives). In fact, it made me realize that all three human figures were mere distractions from the more abstract elements.

No problem. That could be rectified. Paint. Another layer with its own rules of tonal harmony: colour.





But as the paint went down, I still felt troubled – constrained by the ghostly presence of figurative forms. Yes, there may have been a subconscious or therapeutic need in their expression, but they were thematically weak, cliched (the tortured artist blah blah blah). So I got bored. I stopped painting.  Oppressed by the tedious self-centredness of artistic endeavour.

Anyway, thinking along these lines for a while I realised the answer was staring me in the face. As a single father of an eight-year old, me and my kid spend a lot of time together. It suddenly struck me that her pictures lack exactly the thing I wanted my picture to be rid of: self-consciousness. It’s still figurative, but without a developed technique it’s enough for her to simply signify something and to exude a feeling through simple lines and colours (she did this drawing when she was about 6 or 7 at school and we can’t remember now if it was ‘Kiraz’ the street cat, or ‘Haku’ her first pet cat).


Her drawings have a naivete not so far from the power of the abstract (as does much folk and primitive art) – at any rate it struck me as the perfect foil for my design. This got me painting again and allowed me to concentrate on the realm of colour (there’s a whole science there too of course, but suffice it to say that I spent long periods looking at the picture after it was ‘finished’ and then changing certain panels of colour or altering their tones every day or so for a couple of weeks, until it was ‘done with’. Naturally, Serra’s cat and flowers came to have a crucial gravitational pull of their own on the whole colour scheme!)





And that’s the story of this painting by me and my daughter (thanks Serra!).






  1. This is such a wonderful description of a / the creative process, an extension of ‘taking a line for a walk.’. And as a classical musician I got the analogy you mention straight away. I miss the initial figure you drew (yes, very reminiscent of Leonardo) but also love the finished work with its Mondrian-like compartmentalisation incorporating the cat grouping. So delightful that you chronicled this process from beginning to end (if ‘end’ it is).


    • Most kind of you. Thanks for your time and thoughtful feedback. Much appreciated. Yes there is something undeniable about the power of music so it’s part of all my artistic aspirations. The original drawing still has its virtual life of course, as a photograph here and elsewhere on the internet: the afterlife we can all believe in 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Please log in using one of these methods to post your comment:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s