John Cowen

Artist & designer

Blog

Wave

28 May 2020

Wave

I always like the idea of writing about my artworks - but when I do try, the reality is that I never really know what to say. It’s often difficult to talk about a specific work because what I might have to say could be so easily applied to all of my recent work.

However, I do find myself with a lot to say about this specific piece. As yet untitled - but not officially titled ‘untitled’ - if you know what I mean.

It began as a drawing I was expecting to fail.

For you looking at it now, at a relatively small size on a computer screen - it might not look all that different from my other city drawings. But in the flesh there are some seemingly small but, for me, significant differences.

In all my previous drawings I have used a 0.1mm nib pen - which gives a light, fragile, line. It allows me to build up a drawing of such fine marks that from a distance of a metre or two - the drawing is abstracted to an organic shape. Only up close does the patterns of road and building emerge. And this duality between man made and organic has been core to my work and interest in the Anthropocene.

Much as I really like this technique and the results - it has the big drawback of making the work very slow to produce. Hundreds of hours sometimes. I wanted to find ways of working faster.

So for this drawing I used a thicker pen nib. The marks physically couldn’t be as small, which meant I needed less to cover the same area of paper and the whole drawing came together quicker. And here is the trade off. Yes the drawings can be made more quickly - but because the mark is stronger - the city pattern is always more obvious and isn’t seen as an organic entity as much. It’s still important for me though that the intrinsic, symbiotic, relationship between the natural (organic) and man made (represented by the city) is represented.

One reason I’ve been resistant to making the drawings this way is for exactly this reason - I didn’t want to lose the fragility of line or the beautiful textures created. However, I also felt a need to be able to produce bigger works in a reasonably sensible time period. Bigger artwork is not necessarily better - but there are certain contexts where larger works are needed to fill a space. And I wanted to open up the range of locations I might be able to exhibit in.

So I began this piece not having too much expectation of how successful it would be. The aesthetic of the thicker line was more successful than I expected. It doesn’t look clumsy as I feared it might. But the line is stronger. It is more solid, more confident. The lines of the city are more immediately apparent and I realised as I worked that I needed the shape of the city to have a more central role in the themes I am trying to express.


The drawing evolved in three distinct phases for me. The first is the sweeping shape running the full length of the paper. The top edge is clearly reminiscent of a river. I also tried to give some sense of its shape being that of a wave. In my mind drawing attention to the fragility of cities against rising sea levels and more severe storms caused by climate breakdown.

This shape on its own didn’t work. It felt too simplistic and graphical. It looked decorative, but didn’t give me a feeling of wanting to further engage with it. Too one dimensional perhaps.

The second section formed at the top of the drawing. It has a more distinct, contrasting, form to the sweeping wave form below. It’s a clear curating of shapes that I have consciously stayed away from on previous drawings. The shape at the top of the drawing is hard edged. It depicts a city that has been engineered and imposed itself over any natural geographies in its path.

These two shapes play off one another and I think encourage greater engagement of thought about balance between the natural and man made and the fragility of that relationship.

I wanted one more thing in the work though. I want it to be impactful and make a clear statement even if seen from a distance.

The red line has a fragility that references the marks in other drawings. But more than that it looks like a slash, a wound or a crossing out. All of which I feel are appropriate to the core themes of the work. It disrupts the simple aesthetic of the drawing. It adds an interesting conceptual layer to the work. It also gives it the visual impact I wanted.

This style change does lose some of the subtle rhythms of the very dense, delicate, lines - and I have no intention of stopping doing these more painstaking drawings. But this alternative approach is many times faster and allows me to think about producing works at a greater size. And while size isn’t everything - I do think the subject matter that interests me: the Anthropocene and the devastating impacts mankind is having on the planet - which in turn is being thrown back to disrupt our own lives, deserves to be shown on a large scale.


With this drawing and a couple of other works recently completed that are incorporating other working styles - I’m feeling really motivated and excited about the direction of my work right now. The visual language is expanding quite significantly, but very much focussed and integral to a clear theme. To find out more about my work please do sign up below for my mailing list.

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