Technical Notes on the Drawings
I needed a technical exercise to ramp up my drawing skills with complicated shapes. One day I noticed that my bra, which I’d dropped mindlessly on a table, might be a perfect subject- a curvy loopy thing that would be instructive and fun. Almost immediately I realized it was actually going to be very difficult, and possibly not fun at all, but it was also irresistibly challenging.
I made sketches, took pictures, and spent time simply observing. Joanna Field, in her book On Not Being Able to Paint1, wrote about how objects seem to change when we observe them for any length of time. You’ve probably noticed this if you draw. As I watched, shadows lightened, relationships altered, hidden details appeared. In the end, my manifestations of the bra on paper narrate my changing perceptions of it while I was drawing. They embody perceptual impermanence. That is a fun toy to play with.
For example, during lengthy drawing sessions my perception of edges began to change. I got increasingly interested in how form ends and space begins. Edges began to appear somewhat arbitrary. Objects have edges, of course, but a lit edge can vanish into bright sun and a dark edge into surrounding shadow. In art we talk about hard and soft edges, and the more I stared at my bra the softer its edges appeared where it rounded into or away from the light. Sometimes I couldn’t see exactly where the bra ended, and the background began. This felt like a discovery.
For a while I focused on how to make the form fade into the background, into emptiness. Then I realized this prioritized the form, whereas I was certain that the emptiness around it gave the form much of its energy and deserved more of my attention. Perhaps the more compelling issue, I thought, was how to make emptiness coalesce into form. It wasn’t just a notion of negative space but of accepting an equivalence between form and emptiness, that the space was as much painted or drawn as the form. The form seemed to need the emptiness as a substrate to emerge from. And each configuration of form altered the quality of the emptiness around it. The two were continuous, inseparable.
The issue with edges pushed drawing my bra into a metaphysical phase. The Buddhist Heart Sutra states that “Whatever is form is emptiness, whatever is emptiness is form.” Buddhism interprets form, including both things and ideas, as impermanent, fluid constructions. By extension, the way we perceive forms is a product of our own inconstant minds; as our minds change, we see things differently. So, the concept of impermanence casts emptiness as a sort of pool of infinite possibility that forms rise out of. Where there is nothing, there is the potential for something. Blank paper seems apt here. In drawing, we’re always pulling something out of nothing. As our perceptions change, we understand and execute that task differently. We get better, try new things, backslide on a bad day, but always we maintain pursuit of the magical transfer of perception to paper.
Impermanence is a very freeing concept. Things could start to improve at any moment. We’re not stuck. I didn’t know how to make the drawings when I started, but I was pretty sure the solutions were out there if I was willing to poke around in the dark for a while. Admittedly, there were a lot of failures early on and I threw out a lot of paper.
I finally got it. I learned to use these pencils, on this surface, to manifest this subject. I also learned to stop fretting over how long it all took and when I would ever finish. Time, I discovered, was just another medium. If I let myself enter fully into drawing, I found I used exactly the right amount of time for the problem I was solving, no more and no less. A minute might pass, or maybe an hour, and I couldn’t tell the difference and I didn’t care. I relaxed. This is when it got fun again.
One day I realized it was over. The psychic gateway had closed, the sublimation had reversed itself. My bra had nothing more to tell me, so I put it back in my drawer. One day it will wear out and I’ll throw it away. The takeaway, the important thing about the project was not the bra. It was to stay open. You just never know who your messenger is going to be.
—JLW, May 2022
1 Field, Joanna. On Not Being Able to Paint. Los Angeles: J.P. Tarcher, Inc., 1957.