Thursday, 10 May 2012

"I Wish I'd Done This..."

Here is one of my favourite images from Ronald Searle's Big Fat Cat Book.

The book as a whole is a wonderful piece of art-detailed, funny and full of variety. This is one of the images that, in my opinion, has more imaginative depth. The viewer can speculate as to what the story behind it is, in contrast to one of the simpler illustrations, such as this one, which is more of a shallow visual metaphor:
Ever since I first started being interested in art, detail has been one of the most attractive factors in drawings/paintings. During my A levels my art teacher fondly referred to my friend and me as the 'inky girls', when we were obsessed with using inks and brusho dyes, strongly influenced by artists such as Searle and Ralph Steadman. They share a quality in their work where their technical ability is enhanced by the expressive, often explosive, use of ink. 
I like the way Searle has juxtaposed the detailed, fine lines of the cat figures with the blotchy, unpredictable use of colours bleeding into water on the paper in the background. It's very atmospheric, and quite dynamic looking- the blurr in the scenery appears like bad weather, like the cats are caught in blustery rain. Whereas the cats, perfectly formed in intricate, clearly penned detail, appear still- the clear focal point. The crow is also a very ominous presence. Is he sharing our eyes on the cats? Is he a threat to them? 
The humour of the image comes from the cats seeming oblivious to their surroundings (and possible plight). The male cat is far more interested in his partner and her assets. She appears dazed, possibly zoning out of the situation- maybe she's fed up of the attention, or just so accustomed to being groped.
I also think the subtlety of the mark-making for the trees helps to really set off the image, with a perfect mixture of varied line widths and heaviness. The faded lines of the trees in the background suggest a lot of depth-the cats are sitting deep in the woods. 
This use of paler detail in the background reminds me of how we were advised to do our drawings when we went out to sketch landscapes back in my foundation year with ink and hand-crafted tools. Searle is employing traditional artists' knowledge to great effect here.
Although not as vibrant as some of Searle's illustrations, the hues used here are a great combination; the limey green, fading to yellow complements the purpley grey-brown background, separating the sky from the land.
I suppose what I'm trying to get across is that I admire how Searle has managed to get everything just right in this picture. He harnesses the skills of his art education, like great traditional painters have done before him, but applies them to his own, very individual, rebellious-looking style. Although it may appear as though this image was created swiftly and sketchily (which is a big part of its visual appeal), he is so skilled that he manages to consider a great many subtle technical aspects that make the image...almost impressive. 
Looking up at the image again as I write, I've noticed the composition of the image. It is in-keeping with the rules of the golden ratio, as shown in the following diagram of the 'Fibonacci Spiral'
The cats are placed in what would be the central point of the spiral, and our eyes are guided to them by the horizon line and the vertical lines of the trees, especially the ones in the foreground which act like curtains, framing their position. Again, simple technical knowledge that has given the image impact that it otherwise may have lacked.
Personally, this image, and all of Searle's work just makes me wish I had continued to use inks more. In fact, I am tempted to use the free time I'll have over the summer to experiment with them. I miss the way their unpredictability can create 'happy accidents', considering how the way I usually work at the moment is less free, more structured and careful. But I can't hope to ever compete with someone as skilled as Searle. The  sensitivity and confidence of the marks he makes is something I can never achieve; he just seems to know exactly where to place every little detail to make the image complete, at the same time as having the spontaneous quality that comes with the use of ink.
Just wow, Mr Searle!

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