Recently, I participated in a four week online e-course taught by Pauline Agnew called Pathways to Abstraction. I took it, not because I wanted to learn abstraction per se (having already worked abstractly for some years), but to kick-start me back into my painting.

Some might consider paying good money for a course just to get my backside into gear might be a bit extreme. But, actually I knew that by investing my well earned bucks, I’d knuckle down and commit to it. After all, who wants to waste money? Certainly not me! Also, I knew that I’d gain a lot through the interaction with my fellow course participants – that I’d be part of a supportive community.

But one thing I wasn’t prepared for was that even though this course was ultimately about moving into painting, my biggest take away from it was the drawing component. And, this is where I need to fess up. At art school, I never really got into drawing. Yes, I learned how to draw figures and faces but, for the most part, I avoided it like the plague. My tutors were constantly at me to make up my drawing hours, but I figured that drawing was the very poor second cousin to painting and I dug my toes in.

So, when I discovered that there was a week’s worth of drawing in this course I was, to be honest, a bit peeved. Thankfully, that didn’t last long.

We started with a simple enough exercise – line drawing to music. I figured I’d go nice and sedate, so I put on some Mozart. Big mistake. The drawing was insipid and boring. I decided a change of tempo was in order. It was time to play Pharrell Williams’ ‘Happy’ song.


And, what a difference! This time my drawing was full of vibrancy and energy (as was I!). And, possibly for the first time ever, I realised just how much I enjoyed the direct engagement between my hand (and the charcoal as an extension of it) and the paper. It felt like my body, rather than my mind, was in charge and it occurred to me that I had never experienced such a visceral experience when drawing before. Nor, I confess, when painting. I was intrigued…

Up next, we had to do a line drawing based upon a visual stimulation. It was suggested we use some fabric as a starting point for our drawings, after which we were encouraged to ad-lib. I bunched up a bit of satin fabric I had lying around and used the resulting shapes to inspire this next drawing.


Another thoroughly enjoyable exercise, and one that confirmed that I do best by working, initially at least, from observation. I’m not one of these people who can conjure up something from their mind. I’ve always been stimulated by what I see, and when it comes to abstraction, I prefer to work from a visual reference – it allows me to create an initial structural platform, upon which I can more freely ad lib. It’s amazing though, how often I’ve beaten myself up for not being imaginative enough. Somehow I felt that, as an abstract artist, I should be able to invoke some awe-inspiring image from the deep recesses of my mind. This exercise helped me to finally put that one to rest.

We then moved onto combining drawing with collage. Initially not that excited about the idea, I soon got into the groove. No longer feeling tentative about using charcoal, I started having some real fun with it, vigorously scrubbing it into the paper like there was no tomorrow, obliterating parts of the collage and rubbing back to expose them again. It was remarkably therapeutic!


It was so much fun that I elected to do another one. This time, I went for a more organic composition and again, I went to town with the charcoal, really exploring the depths you can achieve with the velvety soft medium. At one stage the image was virtually all black, so I used an eraser to rub back into some areas to expose the paper again. I loved the results – deep, dark and mysterious.


While these drawing exercises were designed to help move us into abstract painting, I consider the lessons I learned during the drawing week to be the most valuable. I discovered the pure joy that comes when you are directly interacting with the surface you’re working on, the immediacy and honesty of the marks demanding your full attention.

It leaves me pondering whether it’s possible to convey this same level of energy and freedom of expression in painting. I guess that is now my challenge. Of one thing I’m convinced, and that is that I absolutely must continue to draw. It will serve to remind me that what I’m striving for in my creative practice is to keep it real.


“Drawing is the artist’s most direct and spontaneous expression… it reveals, better than does painting, his true personality.”
Edgar Degas